starting a new course: IBD Language and Literature

English language dictionaries and references - photo © John Keogh on Flickr -
noncommercial use permitted with attribution
A little background: I teach Language A English in the IB Diploma, and this year the language courses have all been overhauled. One of the changes is to add a Language and Literature class to the Language A group which has been restricted to an intensive literature-only course. I taught AP Language and Composition in California and really loved it, and so I was happy to see that all of the students taking English A this year opted for the Language and Literature course. 

What do I like about the new course?
  • Students work with language as a more abstract concept, looking at how it works in various social and media contexts. 
  • The idea of a text gets expanded. Yes, we still do traditional literature, but we also look at advertising, letters, journalism, blog posts, SMS messages, film, audio texts and anything else we can find. 
  • Students apply analytical skills to all of these texts. While literary analysis is interesting and a valuable intellectual exercise, analysis of mass media texts is absolutely relevant and necessary for students to develop strong media literacy skills.
  • The Language and Literature course requires the production of other texts besides just essays. Students will be free to choose the text type they feel is appropriate to respond to a text.
  • When looking at literature, we still do the formalist textual analysis that was the focus of the Literature course, but we also do literature in cultual context, applying some critical theory to the reading, including reader response. The idea that I will ask my students to analyze their own construction of the text is exciting.
But enthusiasm for something new is not the same as being ready to do something new. Back in May, several teachers on Twitter set up a wiki and a diigo group. The wiki hasn't really been used, but a few of us have been using the diigo bookmarks. I set my Google reader to aggregate keyword searches -- 'language identity', 'changes English language,' 'political language' -- and found a few interesting resources that way, although a lot more chaff than wheat. One was set to 'political correctness,' a topic I'll cover later, and I got loads of nonsense, but one very thoughtful blog post which I'll use.

So how to start the class? I had this great idea of having them look at a website critical of the IB, like Truth About IB, and analyze the language use. However, the language on these sites was not rational or effective enough to work with. So instead I used an article about responses to accusations against the IB programme. We looked at the expectations of a newspaper article -- objectivity and distance -- but the students were quick to pick up on the bias for the IB and the portrayal of the legislators as a bit nutty. They were able to spot the significance of the headline phrase 'conspiracy theories', and I introduced connotation as a topic; they could see how the emotional language in the quotes stood out in the neutral language of the article, and I gave them the language of slant and bias. We looked at the structure of the piece, how we start with a giggling girl, go to irrational-sounding and ungrammatical legislators, ending with a concise pro-IB statement. It allowed me to emphasize the interaction between purpose, audience and genre/context.

I was pleased with how the activity went. It allowed me to model the analysis that will be a core of the class with student input and observation. But it also set the basic format of class operation: that we will examine texts as a class, using them as a basis for looking at how we use language and uncovering, as it were, the meaning behind the language.

In the week since then, we have started our first unit, looking at Language and Identity. We've looked at the English as the official language movement in the US, British annoyance about Americanisms, and the relationship between social classreceived prononciation and accent.

The first written assignment is some notes on the purpose and elements of a spoken advertisement for a speech improvement course. So far the conversations and quick responses have been rich and creative, and now we need to move toward thoughtful and detailed as well.