Sunday, Aug. 2, 2009 | The neat rows of desks have disappeared from Carol Ann Vorce’s classroom at Montgomery Middle School, replaced with clusters where students can talk. Textbooks sat idle on the shelf and worksheets were nowhere to be seen on a recent Thursday.
The changes are all a part of a different way Vorce is doing things this year. Instead of beginning with the textbook that day, she asked the preteens in her Otay Mesa classroom to draw a monster — anything but a familiar monster from the cartoons they all know — and to then describe it in writing with as much detail as they could muster. In one corner of the room, 7th grader Marcos Melendrez made a quick sketch, then carefully wrote a paragraph about a “big scary monster” with “two hairy eyes.”
“How big is big? How scary is scary? What’s scary to you might not be scary to me,” Vorce told Melendrez, as she scanned over his paper. She urged him to choose his words carefully and think about how someone else would interpret them. “Go back and add details.”
Lessons like this are a new brand of classwork for Vorce and her students, spurred on by a pilot program across Sweetwater Union High School District aimed at teaching children to think critically about texts and the way they are written, instead of to just understand and love literature. It’s called the rhetorical approach, and it requires students to analyze arguments and craft their own to persuade others — the types of skills the students will need in college, the workplace and as citizens.
Melendrez turned back to his paper, scrutinizing the words. The classmates would later swap their writings with each other, and each would try to recreate the other’s monster based only on the written descriptions. “It’s kind of difficult to explain the monster,” he told a visitor. “You have to add what you think about it — what you see.”
Professors at nearby universities who back the program say it will create college students who are better at dissecting and debunking claims, rather than simply talking or writing about how a novel makes them feel. It means using more nonfiction and fewer novels, more student debates and fewer lectures. English classes have traditionally focused on literature and its themes; the rhetorical approach is meant to prepare teens for taking apart a newspaper editorial or deconstructing the prose of Darwin or Marx. While it focuses more heavily on nonfiction, it can also be used for fiction.