Teaching Oral Literature and Poetry

Today I am deeply grateful to Peace Corps and to Indangaburezi College of Education for making it possible for me to be here, working with dozens of caring, enthusiastic teachers.

Friday evening, Saturday 8 am to 9 pm, and Sunday morning my 40 students and I met for the first time, and become deeply involved in experiencing, understanding, and sharing Oral Literature, and Poetry.  We had our rough spots.  We smiled and tried again, and soon we were functioning as usual, blending two distinct approaches to classroom life. I structured every-student-response activities. I asked students to move in small groups between chart papers with questions posted on the walls. I directed questions to individuals by choosing from cards with the students’ names. As we investigated each learner’s name I insisted that students not call out answers but instead show a number of syllables with their fingers.  I would not proceed until all the learners were responding.  When I asked questions I sometimes counted the hands of those prepared to answer, and encouraged and waited for others to be ready with a response. The students expected a lecture.  We did fine, in fits and starts, with some, to me, unexpected outcomes.  Who knew that proverbs are entirely opaque when they cross a boundary between cultures?  I set them aside to plan a different approach.  It was fine.

Day 2: Guess what? Proverbs are handy fodder for teaching the distinction between the topic of a text and its theme.  “Two heads are better than one.” This proverb was the first one that made sense to the students from the outset.  What’s the subject? It’s heads. What’s the central universal truth or value? We had several wordings, many students had ways of capturing the theme.  Great!  Here’s a proverb that presented an enormous challenge: the pen is mightier than the sword.  Skepticism, outright disbelief.  “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.” Doesn’t make sense.  Okay we’re working on this.  “You can’t tell a book by its cover.” Yes! This one led to high engagement and student satisfaction that they comprehend the meaning of “theme”.

We also worked with the grading rubrics for oral work and for written work, practiced three approaches to literature analysis (this topic comes from the Ministry of Education and is a challenge for my students): reader-response, psycho-analytic, and Marxist.  We’ll have two more approaches next weekend. We distinguished legends from folktales from myths with storytelling on my side and from students Rwandan examples for me to look up: King Ruganzu, and Nguada.  There will be more on these characters later, friends.

One highlight of our weekend was watching attendance rise from 5 at the start of the first class to 19 at its close and eventually to 38 of the 40 by Sunday.  Students’ first oral assignment was due Saturday; they took home the picture books to prepare.  Students arrived in a slow progression Saturday but I began with those present. One by one the first individuals read a few pages to the group and I corrected some vowel sounds.  We made a chart of the name sound of the letter (letter a says its name in ape, letter e says its name in me, letter i says its name in I, letter o says its name in go, letter u says its name in use) and the special sounds of the letters, the a in apple, the e in met, the i in sit, the o in top, the u in cup.  We practiced, we conversed about the stories. When more students arrived we made groups of four with each student reading the first three pages of their book and asking 3 questions of their group.  We had content to cover and alternated between read-aloud stories and background on types and functions of oral literature.

Overnight, Saturday night I planned a lesson segment on the good questions that had been asked and the great questions.  The good ones were asking for the title or author, the great ones asked for the tone or mood at the beginning or end of the piece, the motivation of a character, a retelling of a segment of the story, and a personal response to the text. I thanked the students by name as I read out the great questions I had heard the day before. From this list the students figured out the characteristics of the great questions and committed to writing great questions for the next two oral performances.   There was another segment on vowel sounds since so few students had been present for the original segment on phonics. This also made the feedback notes comprehensible to the students who hadn’t been present at the outset.

We closed the weekend with my assignment demonstration performance for the second unit.  I used Teddy Roosevelt’s “man in the arena” speech (shortened) to show again the into-through-beyond approach to literature. I clarified the context and essential vocabulary, set questions for students to be able to answer after hearing the text, and followed up the presentation by asking students to list things the speaker can do to help the listeners understand.  This list is our self-coaching list as students prepare this week for their speeches or songs next weekend.

Each student received a (shortened) speech and a song as possible content for their second oral performances.  The students can give their friends the material they will not be using, and with luck we will hear each piece a maximum of twice.  Those two presentations will be presented back to back, to give the listeners a chance to understand more the second time.

Can I say that the students’ enthusiasm for the materials were the frosting on the delicious weekend? I passed out the speeches saying who wants Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, Paul Kagame (President of Rwanda), Martin Luther King, John F Kennedy, Marian Wright Edelman, Steve Jobs, Princess Diana, Paul Keating, Gandhi, William Wilberforce, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Charlie Chaplin, Barack Obama, King George 1939, Thabo Mbeki, Julia Gillard, Wangari Maathai, Michelle Obama, Elie Wiesel …

Apologies for not adding pictures this time.  It is not particularly friendly to take pictures of folks in earliest friendship.  It puts an “other” lens on the relationship, and that’s not a part of why I’m here.   Later, there will be pictures from our classroom, when it’s appropriate.

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3 Responses to Teaching Oral Literature and Poetry

  1. Kristen Norton says:

    Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!!

  2. pkeig says:

    Thank you, Kristen. I look forward to your fb posts. You have a gift of capturing moments.

  3. Pat,

    I’ll write you an email….I am thrilled by your work and your writing. Linda

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