On Teaching Exploration: The Pigeon Paper

June 15, 2016 § 25 Comments


by Jan Priddy

z pigeons.jpg

(c) 2016 photo by Dinty W.Moore

In my college writing class I assign “The Pigeon Paper.” This is a short expository essay written to address a one-word topic—write about “squash” or write about “salt”—a paper completed in ten days. The first year it was about pigeons—hence the name. We began the assignment by brainstorming what we knew individually about pigeons and considering different structures for an expository paper (comparison, chronology, description); overnight each of us researched and the next day we brought in research and each proposed three potential topics and approaches; then we had a few days to complete a draft for peer editing in class, and a final draft of the paper was handed in the following day.

Long before I began teaching, I had faith both in assignments and research. I believe writing creates learning, because it forces us to examine our knowledge in the face of evidence in black and white. What we force ourselves to investigate with an open mind often leads to surprise. I like surprises.

That first year, three students proposed papers titled “Rats with Wings.” This despite the fact that the only wild pigeons my students ever saw were not park pigeons at all, but a completely different species, the native band-tailed pigeon (Patagioenas fasciata). On the edge of the Pacific Ocean, many of my students will tell you without hesitation that they hate seagulls, and they can even explain why, though no one I know would deliberately hurt one. It is a local attitude with somewhat more justification than their attitude about park pigeons. My students all claimed to hate pigeons without thinking and all of them laughed at the rats title, perhaps because “rats with wings” was the only metaphor they knew of that applied to pigeons. We are all held prisoner by our assumptions.

A generation ago in a course titled “Plant Taxonomy of Western Washington,” my lab partner bent over specimens, scalpel poised like a paintbrush. He sliced flowers perfectly in half for me when it was my turn to peer through the microscope. I counted stamens and ova. As I drew diagrams and searched for proper names in the text, I did not notice silence until it was broken. Someone, also hunched over high black counters and flower parts, asked the air, “What sets human beings apart from the lower animals?”

The conversation began: “Tools,” an answer from across the room. I did not look up from my scope. “Aren’t we the only species that makes and uses tools?”

There was gentle debate. My lab partner handed me a new slide. I could see only my own eyelashes at first. Are humans the only tool-users? We decided not, since Goodall documented chimpanzees fishing for termites. Crows and elephants. Then what makes us special?

“Playing,” I heard my partner assert. “Man is the only animal that plays.”

I looked up from the sexual organs of plants and smiled. I thought, He’s wrong, though I was not the first to say it.

“My dog plays with me,” said another Botany major.

“Cats and a feather,” said another.

But my partner argued with pets. “They are domestic animals, tainted by association.”

“Fawns,” someone offered.

“Adolescent lions,” suggested someone else.

I was paging through the text. The slide showed a familiar sample. I must know it.

“Juveniles.” He shook his head.

otter

(c) 2010 photo by Dinty W. Moore

“Adult otters swim purely for fun,” I said, at last. I put my hand across the page I was looking for, and I looked my partner in the eye.

And then others spoke in a rush: “Porpoises leap in the wakes of ships. . . . Squirrels play tag in trees. . . . Foxes pounce on dandelions.”

His forehead puckered, scalpel painting the air. “Really?”

My own students quickly discovered that there is more to pigeons than what they have gleaned from television shows or the movies. Pigeons have won military honors, have served diverse roles as pets, entertainers, food, and carriers. As children’s book characters. The stuff of legend. It always goes that way. The opening between what they think they know and what they discover once they explore an ordinary word is a space aching to be filled.

Each year the triggering word is different. One year the pigeon paper was about “paper”, and someone discovered the meaning of a “white paper” and another found paper made from elephant poo. (It does not smell.) Research leads from the obvious to the obscure. Such writing about animals, places, and other subjects often results in surprising discoveries.

While searching for the scientific names of flowers, a generation ago, we all learned something about the nature of life in the world. This year, the “pigeon paper” was about trees. Student essays covered topics from a tree-bark bread recipe and the history of wooden golf clubs to forests rescued in Princess Mononoke and interpretations of The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. The most practical goal of this paper is to practice APA form and expository structures. Along the way, we find out about ourselves—pure glory.

Under my microscope: a five part flower, many stamens, fleshy calyx-tube. Family Rosaceae, genus Rosa, species multiflora, precisely like the illustration in my text—a local wildflower I saw each day.

A metaphor perhaps? Maybe it is our use of metaphor.
__

Jan Priddy lives in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon, where she completed an MFA at Pacific University. Her work has earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, and Pushcart nomination. Her most recent publication is “White Noise” in the anthology, What Does It Mean to Be White in America? She is fond of pigeons.

§ 25 Responses to On Teaching Exploration: The Pigeon Paper

  • Jan Priddy says:

    I took “Plant Taxonomy of Western Washington,” a 300-level class designed for majors, at the University of Washington from Dr. Walker, probably in 1974. After my experience in Elementary Botany, I would have taken any class he offered. We gathered hundred of specimens and he was a wonderful professor. I nearly changed majors.

  • aereilly says:

    I love this. The project, this essay, the metaphor. Lovely.

    • Jan Priddy says:

      Thank you! Sometimes students work collaboratively at the end to create a single essay incorporating passages from each. We did the with “paper” for example, and that was a fun activity. If there is a strong editor in the class, that person may be given the task of melding the insights and information into a coherent whole.

  • Jack says:

    Reblogged this on Wyrdwend and commented:
    In homeschooling my children I always did three things: used original source materials (no textbooks, if we studied optics then I had them read the works of Newton, not textbooks on Newton or textbooks on optics), insisted they do labs (practical, experimental, scientific, artistic, etc.) once a week on most subjects, and I assured I spent one a day a week with them (usually a Friday) exploring, on field trips, doing field research, etc.

    These things go back to my own early education, or I picked them up in college.

    Actually I first developed the habit of reading original sources in middle and high school and in my advanced science classes and for the papers I wrote for various colleges when in middle and high school. Use of textbooks in middle and high schools for college papers was wholly insufficient. But in college I disavowed textbooks completely. For instance after my freshman year in college I eschewed textbooks and stopped reading them altogether and instead just started reading only original sources. Things like original sources, experimentation, learning foreign languages, exploration, etc. have been invaluable in improving the quality of my children’s education and in improving the quality of my own education.

    And if there is one thing every individual needs it is a high quality education.

  • Jack says:

    In homeschooling my children I always did three things: used original source materials (no textbooks, if we studied optics then I had them read the works of Newton, not textbooks on Newton or textbooks on optics), insisted they do labs (practical, experimental, scientific, artistic, etc.) once a week on most subjects, and I assured I spent one a day a week with them (usually a Friday) exploring, on field trips, doing field research, etc.

    These things go back to my own early education, or I picked them up in college.

    Actually I first developed the habit of reading original sources in middle and high school and in my advanced science classes and for the papers I wrote for various colleges when in middle and high school. Use of textbooks in middle and high schools for college papers was wholly insufficient. But in college I disavowed textbooks completely. For instance after my freshman year in college I eschewed textbooks and stopped reading them altogether and instead just started reading only original sources. Things like original sources, experimentation, learning foreign languages, exploration, etc. have been invaluable in improving the quality of my children’s education and in improving the quality of my own education.

    And if there is one thing every individual needs it is a high quality education.

    I liked this post.

  • John P. says:

    I lovelovelove this assignment. I’ve been thinking about a new way to approach descriptive writing with my freshmen and I think I might steal this process, even if we don’t necessarily make it about pigeons.

    • Jan Priddy says:

      Thanks, John! I have had much success, regardless of the triggering word. I generally ask students to suggest possible words for the next year. It was shared to be shared.

  • Fascinating post. I love the process. Much more nuanced than scientific equals REAL.

  • I love the idea, your prompts. I wonder if your use of the word “expository essays” indicates these are composition classes? I can see this teaching freshmen, say, much about writing and thinking—so many great implications embedded here. Would using it in a cnf class differ? Incline some toward the more personal? Harm part of the lesson here of having to research an aspect? Or hold them to it?

    • Jan Priddy says:

      Yes, I use this in the second of two writing classes taught as a dual credit class (I recently retired from teaching full time). Writing 122 is generally a college freshman class and intended to focus on argumentation, but since my students have already been writing researched persuasive essays of 5-10 pages in MLA form, academic writing has been on their plate for two years. Therefore, I use the second term of the college class to branch out and introduce APA form. We do continue to write persuasive essays, of course, but also look again at analysis, comparison, and exposition. One goal is to approach subjects and assignments from different angle, another is to articulate our personal writing process and become quicker.

      That is a very intriguing idea to use it in a creative nonfiction class—I had not thought of that but I would very much enjoy that opportunity. I have an idea about essay-as-sonnet, perhaps there is a way to connect the Pigeon Paper to the personal . . . if it works out, I will share. Thank you!

  • jasmeetsahi says:

    What an exquisite essay. My first read of the day, and praising myself to be doing it. Thank you Jane. Im a keen essayist (still in the works) and essays like this show me how I can apply the form to exchanges and events of daily life and see the extraordinary (and often, true) in the ordinary.

  • jasmeetsahi says:

    Reblogged this on jasmeetsahi and commented:
    Jane Priddy writes about the joys of discovering oneself and the things we believe to be true change after investigation.
    “… writing creates learning, because it forces us to examine our knowledge in the face of evidence in black and white. …Research leads from the obvious to the obscure.”

  • jasmeetsahi says:

    Ah! Sorry, Jan. I’ll do that.

  • Jane Andrews says:

    Hey, I give this kind of assignment, too. I’ve had students write amazing papers about “Fire” “Eggs” and “Teeth.”

  • Reblogged this on Philosofishal and commented:
    Learning, writing, birds, otters, details, and soul.

  • Matt says:

    That’s actually true, I feel like I have a negative association with pigeons without any real reason. I just never thought of it somehow.

  • […] On Teaching Exploration: The Pigeon Paper by Jan Priddy via @brevitymag […]

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