Selecting a Non-Standard Text for English Language Arts Classes

Introduction

The new English curriculum being implemented in British Columbia, in its broad approach to learning, allows teachers to become more experimental in their teaching methods and materials. Teachers can use whichever texts they desire in order to reach the prescribed learning standards for each grade level. Many English Language Arts classes have challenged the notion of “text” prior to this curriculum, already; even when I was in high school, I can recall my Language Arts teachers using videos, songs, and advertisements as well as the more standard novels, plays, and poetry. And, even though I am a huge fan of the “typical” texts that one might look at in an English class, I have always found it refreshing to depart from the norm. Why limit yourself to written text when there is a whole world out there to interpret and learn from? In this post, I will clarify what I mean by “text” and discuss the process of selecting a text for the new English Language Arts curriculum, looking at Learning Standards, Learning Domains, and different classroom contexts. Finally, I will justify my own text selection, Dungeons and Dragons, as having a place in English Language Arts classrooms.

 

What is a “text”?

If you were randomly asked to name a text, you would most likely name the title of a work that falls under the standard definition of the term, which is this:

“The wording of anything written or printed; the structure formed by the words in their order; the very words, phrases, and sentences as written.” (“text”, Oxford English Dictionary).

The Oxford English Dictionary (O.E.D.) simply identifies text as something that is written, and therefore encompasses the novels, plays, and poetry that are so common in English classrooms. What if we were to play with this definition, though? Suppose a text was understood on broader terms, such as “something that is read,” shifting the focus from what it is to how we interact with it. Rather than simply relating to writing, the verb “to read” is defined by the O.E.D. as “to consider, interpret, [or] discern.” Text, then, could be understood as “something that is considered, interpreted, or discerned.” When we use a definition like this, shifting focus from what a text looks like to how we interact with it, the options for textual study become endless. The new B.C. English Curriculum takes a similarly broad approach to text, defining it as “all forms of oral, written, visual, and digital communication.”

 

Selecting an Alternative Text: the Whats, Whys, and Hows

Firstly, I want to be clear: I find nothing inherently wrong with using standard forms of text in high school classrooms, and I plan to use several of them; however, I do see something wrong with refusing to use new forms of text simply to avoid stepping outside of what is comfortable. If we expect our students to move beyond their comfort zones as they are learning, we, as teachers, should be willing to do the same.

Educational Psychology shows us that students will be more likely to retain information that they experience, and the more “codes” the information is presented in (for example, combining a visual code with an auditory one, and so on), the higher that likelihood of retention becomes. Research also tells us that student engagement increases when teaching resources are varied. It would seem apt, then, to vary the kinds of text types we ask students to analyze in the English Language Arts classroom, departing from a 100% written text-based model. Further than this, I argue that by pushing the boundaries of what we consider as text, we can more effectively teach our students. Below, I will summarize a few textual and educational theories before talking about them in relation to the new English curriculum and briefly explaining how I have used these theories to identify an “alternative” text that I hope to use in my own classroom one day.

In Louise Rosenblatt’s 1988 transactional theory of reading and writing, Rosenblatt argues that reading is not merely a passive activity but that it involves a transaction between text and reader; when a reader becomes involved with a text, he or she “composes” an “interpreted meaning” (Rosenblatt 2): “Every reading act is an event, a transaction involving a particular reader and a particular configuration of marks on a page,[1] and occurring at a particular time in a particular context” (4). Readers bring their own experiences to a text and form meaning based on several factors that are external to the text itself. Therefore, shifting the context of reading will shift a reader’s interpretation of the text.

This notion of transaction between reader and text becomes even more salient when considering Linda Hutcheon’s work Theory of Adaptation, in which she argues that there are three different modes of engagement with text: Telling, Showing, and Interacting.[2] The first mode, Telling, involves reading the written word (e.g. novels, poems, etc.). The Showing mode involves a viewer who watches and hears a text (e.g. viewing a play, watching a film, etc.). Finally, the Interacting mode involves the actual physical participation of the reader; he or she must be involved in the text in a corporeal way (e.g. games, fieldtrips, etc.).[3] Related to the above is Bloom’s taxonomy, which divides learning into three separate domains: cognitive (i.e. content knowledge and intellect), affective (i.e. attitude and emotions), and psychomotor (i.e. physical movement and motor skills).[4]

If one considers these different types of engagement and different domains of learning, one can begin to see where a “typical” English classroom may have some gaps for its students. Specifically, English classes tend to miss the Interactive mode of engagement and the psychomotor domain of learning, too often asking students to read written texts while sitting in desks. More innovative teachers may arrange for students to attend a play, or even act one out as a class, allowing their students to engage with a text physically; however, these experiences seem to be in the minority.

One challenge that teachers may encounter in the next few years is that certain competencies in the new English Language Arts curriculum simply cannot be reached with traditional, written texts. For the purpose of this blog post, I will refer specifically at the English 12 documents; however, my comments here should be applicable to the 10-12 draft English curricula. Written texts cannot teach about oral storytelling and cannot teach about things like multimodal texts, two competencies that feature in the new curriculum. Furthermore, learning contexts are playing heavily into today’s classrooms, with personalized learning being a necessary strategy in order to accommodate diverse learners, learning exceptionalities, and students’ interests. Written texts may not be the best medium to engage with the highest amount of students.

 

My Chosen Text: Dungeons & Dragons

250px-dice_28typical_role_playing_game_dice29

Image from “Dungeons & Dragons” Wikipedia page

Based on these gaps in engagement levels and curricular standards, the text type I have chosen to explore this term is Dungeons and Dragons. An alternative text that addresses the psychomotor domain and interactive mode of engagement seems a necessary inclusion, and the benefits of bringing something like Dungeons and Dragons into an English classroom are numerous. Dungeons & Dragons is a tabletop roleplaying game in which players become characters and work together (or against each other) to accomplish particular missions in a fantasy world. Characters develop as the game goes on, and outcomes of their decisions are determined by rolling dice. Firstly, even the official D&D website acknowledges the story-based nature of the game, stating, “The core of D&D is storytelling. You and your friends tell a story together, guiding your heroes through quests for treasure, battles with deadly foes, daring rescues, courtly intrigue, and much more.” Every storyline is narrated by a Dungeon Master, and each is unique because of the spur-of-the-moment decisions and dice rolls.

Using Dungeons & Dragons (or games like it) as a text in English challenges students to reconsider what “text” is, directly supporting the competency “Recognize an increasing range of text structures and how they contribute to meaning.” Using an alternative text like this shows the multimodality of stories and gets students to think about how stories may exist in different contexts and for different audiences. Because the story evolves in real time and plot develops as a direct result of students’ decisions, the game can support competencies that have to do with personal connections to text. Interpersonal skills like communication, support, and understanding are put at the forefront of roleplaying games: students will be forced to develop oral language skills and be able to respectfully communicate with one another. They can physically enact characters and engage with plot in an interactive way, supporting experiential learning and understanding text from the inside (rather than as a passive observer). And, perhaps most obviously, using a text that incorporates gameplay encourages students to enjoy stories.

I have included three charts (Learning Domains, Text Features, and Course Content) to outline some of the many, many affordances that Dungeons & Dragons could have in an English Language Arts classroom.

 

LEARNING DOMAINS: AFFORDANCES OF DUNGEONS & DRAGONS:
COGNITIVE -construction of plot

-creation of characters

-integration of some math (numbers on dice)

-accessible to diverse learners (not all written)

-metacognitive process of seeing a story being created in real time

-problem solving

AFFECTIVE -personal investment in characters

-real feeling of risk, loss, thrill

-reacting to events

-can take on emotions & attitude of character (& experiment feeling emotions they may not normally feel)

PSYCHOMOTOR -rolling of dice (to simulate risk)

-speaking aloud

-students acting in character to their comfort level

-navigating challenges of the storyline

-seeing other students acting as characters

 

TEXT FEATURES: AFFORDANCES OF DUNGEONS & DRAGONS:
CONTENT -quest can be personalized to a particular topic

-character development

-plot development

-process of playing the game addresses several competencies (see “Course Content” chart below)

 

FORMAT -oral language

-character charts

-handbook

-different roles (Dungeon Master, player characters, non-player characters)

UTILITY -accessibility of format

-franchise has multiple means of engagement (game, novels, video games, podcasts, articles, videos)

-character charts (graphic organizer for character creation)

STYLE -engaging storylines

-level can be adjusted to the specific learners

-communication and cooperation between players

 

COURSE CONTENT: AFFORDANCES OF DUNGEONS & DRAGONS:
“BIG IDEAS” “The exploration of text and story deepens our understanding of diverse, complex ideas about identity, others, and the world”

-“People understand text differently depending on their worldviews and perspectives”

LEARNING STANDARDS/ CURRICULAR COMPETENCIES -“Read for enjoyment”

-“Recognize and appreciate … oral tradition”

-“Apply appropriate strategies in a variety of contexts to comprehend … texts”

-“Recognize and appreciate how various forms, structures, and features of texts reflect a variety of purposes, audiences, and messages”

-“Recognize how language constructs personal, social, and cultural identity”

-“Construct meaningful personal connections between self, text, and world”

-“Respond to text in personal, creative, and critical ways”

-“Recognize an increasing range of text structures and how they contribute to meaning”

-“Demonstrate speaking and listening skills”

-“Respectfully exchange ideas and viewpoints from diverse perspectives to build shared understanding and extend meaning”

-“Presentation techniques”; “Oral language strategies”

-“Elements of … texts”

CORE (CROSS-CURRICULAR) COMPETENCIES -Communication

-Creative Thinking

-Critical Thinking

-Positive Personal Identity

-Personal Awareness and Responsibility

 

Conclusion

Many of the goals of English Language Arts classes could arguably be reached without turning to a single piece of writing; however, the reverse cannot be true. We are living in a time where the curricular standards for English Language Arts have somewhat outgrown written texts. Because of learning standards that tie to things like oral storytelling and multimodal literacies, teachers must be ready to bring alternative text types into their classes. While I have focused on Dungeons and Dragons in this post, other interactive text types (such as Murder Mysteries, Choose Your Own Adventures, Video Games, etc.) may fulfill similar learning standards.

 

[1] Here, Rosenblatt speaks specifically about written forms of text.

[2] http://www.imageandnarrative.be/inarchive/house_text_museum/peeters.htm

[3] http://adaptations.wikia.com/wiki/Linda_Hutcheon,_A_Theory_of_Adaptation_(2006)

[4] http://serc.carleton.edu/introgeo/assessment/domains.html

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