Teaching Ethical Responsibility through Literature and Writing Standards
Who is Responsible?
It all started on an airplane. While traveling with my family to Las Vegas I pulled out my latest issue of English Journal, strapped on my seatbelt, and settled into my flotation device. Upon first glance at the cover I realized that all of the articles being advertised seemed to have something to do with ethics. I immediately unsettled myself to reach under the seat in front of me to pull an ink pen from my purse. Resettled, I began to eagerly peruse the contents, thumbing through the entire magazine twice, then choosing an article with which to start. I started reading and immediately began to underline important parts, things that I wanted to remember and possibly use. Before too long I'd underlined most of the article! It was at this point that I reached into the seat pocket ahead of me in which I had stashed my legal pad in case I wanted to work on any ideas for the new school year. And work I did.
Thus began the theme for all of my English classes for the 2011-12 school year. It was perfect. For quite a while now I felt as if my students needed to have a better connection to community -- their city and their school communities. I also believed that there needed to be more positivity in their lives. More and more often I heard them leveling negative comments at one another, friends and foes alike. I knew that these kids were better than that, but many of them were learning this negativity from social media, television, on the streets, and yes, I'm sorry to say, even in their homes. By the time I returned home with my family from Las Vegas, I had an entire Ethical Responsibility Program planned, and the first several weeks of lesson plans for all of the high school English classes, as well as a college dual credit Rhetoric and Composition course.
While I do not want to bore you with an entire year's worth of lesson plans, I would like to provide you with some of the lessons I developed which aided in reading comprehension and writing skills. I will also present my overall Ethical Responsibility Program which not only helped to create a dialog, but also provided a way for my students to come up with their own ideas of demonstrating ethical and moral values.
Literature and Writing Go Hand in Hand
Probably the best way to begin is to present a list of samples for just one of the grades that I teach, complete with samples of the writing assignments. Keep in mind that not all writing assignments have to be several pages, or even a page for that matter. Use a variety so that you will be able to look for specific responses to the assignments, and the kids won't get bored. While you don't want everything to be a list or a notecard, writing is writing and every type of writing has its own set of goals.
English 9 (Freshman English):
Sample texts include: The Odyssey, Romeo and Juliet, Night, Of Mice and Men, "The Lady or The Tiger," and "The Gift of The Magi." Each of these works offers some moral or ethical dilemma, or choice. Quite often it is a question of loyalty, integrity, honesty, respect, teamwork (the good of the group), good versus evil, etc.
Sample writings could include:
1. Prior to beginning the The Odyssey, have a discussion about ethical considerations. Then give students 5 - 7 minutes to complete an "exit ticket" on an index card, responding to the following in 3 - 5 sentences: Do you think it is important to be loyal to a loved one even if you are somehow separated from that person for an extended period of time? Explain your answer. At the end of class students will hand you their exit tickets as they leave the room. After reviewing the tickets to see if they meet the goals you've established for writing 3-5 complete sentences, use the tickets to share with the class the next day. This will start a dialog about the importance of loyalty in a relationship. This assignment introduces and hejps to define ethical responsibility, and allows the teacher to give an overvuiew of the reading to come which will help to interest the students in what they are about to read.
2. There is nothing wrong with the questions provided at the end of the sections in the textbook. However, don't rely only on those; throw in some of your own from time to time. Have students respond to them in various ways such as through literature circles, partner work, or perhaps even in a debate situation. In each situation students will still need to create a written piece based on criteria from you. This works to keep students focused on the reading, while still working on their writing skills. Look for opportunities during discussion to bring in the ethical responsibility aspect, and ask them to look for opportunities as well.
3. Journal entries can provide a lot of insight into what a student is and isn't getting from the reading. This will give you an opportunity, provided you stay on top of it, to privately respond to the student, or perhaps find a way to reteach a concept or a section if you see that too many students don't understand. Journal entries also provide an excellent opportunity for students to use literary terms and story vocabulary to demonstrate their knowledge of the literary piece. Another way to use the journals is to give the students an ethical/moral quote and ask them to tell how it relates to the reading. You might even ask them how an ethical dilemma faced by Odysseus relates to them in their life today. This assignment speaks to their literacy and writing skills, especially being able to analyze the situation and express themselves appropriately. It also gives them an opportunity to privately discuss an ethical dilemma they have faced.
4. An excellent culminating activity for The Odyssey is a theme park. I found an idea for this online seven years ago, but felt I needed to greatly adapt it to meet my particular needs. I sort the students into four to five groups and give each group a section of the theme park (related to a section of the story) to plan and build. Each area needs to have rides, games, a restaurant/ cafe/concession, a show, and grounds to include paths/walkways, restrooms, bushes, and trash cans. (Some of my students have even made "trash" for the cans.) The paths need to be able to meet, coming into and leaving each section, which means that the "grounds keepers" for all sections need to meet and plan how their areas will connect. There also need to be signs with a slogan, as well as a flag for each section. This is a huge undertaking that usually requires two - three weeks and a lot of out-of-class commitment. This activity not only gives the kids a creative outlet, it also provides a chance to demonstrate teamwork and commitment. If there are problems it provides a chance to work through them, showing their ability to persevere for the good of the group.
Writing occurs in a variety of ways:
A. Throughout the entire process group members are keeping private journals about what is working, who is working or not, brainstorming sessions, etc. That part is very informal.
B. Then there are the slogans that the groups will write for their areas -- showing creativity (i.e. "Cylops Courtyard: We're Watching You.")
C. The restaurants/cafes/concessions need menus that give unique names to the venue and the foods (i.e. Calypso's Cod Shack might offer Siren's Song Sweet Potato Fries). I've had many groups who designed beautiful menus for their sit-down restaurants that they handed in to me as they presented their part of the park. This allows the students to be creative while still demonstrating the ability to write for different purposes, using a variety of tools, and being a loyal team member. (One such menu was so professionally created that I actually wished I could eat there.)
D. Individual rides and games could have directions that need to be written clearly, or cleverly. A student in one group posted a sign meant for me since I'm only 5' tall. Showing a height mark it read, "You must be this tall to ride. This means you, Mrs. Bryan."
E. The entire group should work together to develop the overall written plan, under the guidance of the area manager. This should be neatly printed or typed, and handed in the day of the presentations.
Let's Not Forget Those Speaking Skills
Let's face it, some students just detest speaking in front of the group. However, state and common core standards require it. What makes it easier in this circumstance is that each student should have been active on their own area of a section of the park, and therefore he or she should feel a bit more relaxed about telling the class and the teacher about that particular area. Additionally, the entire class should be standing around their piece which gives an aire of informality. Simple speaking requirements may include using proper grammar and good posture, speaking clearly, and using 2 - 3 gestures. This is an excellent way to "break the ice" into future, more formal speaking assignments.
Everything Worthwhile Costs Something...
...and in this case it is the amount of supplies to put the entire thing together. Cardboard can be found easily enough by the teacher if you plan ahead. It takes a LOT of cardboard for the students to put together the base of their areas. Add to that a plethora of materials to build Ferris Wheels, Tunnels of Love, Bungee Jumps, restaurants, trash cans, ring tosses, and the like. I can honestly say that I have spent a fortune each year on construction paper, pipe cleaners (plain and bushy), foam core, glue sticks, glue guns, tape, craft sticks, toothpicks, stickers, styrofoam, etc., etc., etc., (And I do mean etc.!) You will find that some students bring in their own materials, including younger siblings' toy soldiers, dinosaurs, small dolls, vehicles, and race car tracks to use as props.
As a teacher I have found that it is well worth the expense if my students are learning about literature, writing, public speaking, and teamwork. The best part is that they usually don't even realize that they are learning!