Help, I’m Drowning!

Photo by Tanya Little

Is there a contradiction between inviting students to find their voices, and scripting their responses?

I have been stumbling lately over a two-pronged approach to teaching students to be better readers. On one hand, allow them a choice of books to read 50% of the time, help find books they will connect with, and do less damage with the ones we do study as a class by analyzing less; and fewer teacher-selected elements to focus on will allow more reading flow as readers move through the longer classic works. On the other hand, guide and monitor their responses, teach specific reading strategies, assess frequently and minutely for understandings, while encouraging conversational risk-taking and acceptance of diverse and multiple interpretations.
Yes, there must be a canon, but it can change for each teacher.
Yes, there can be reading for enjoyment, but only because it is what “real readers do.”

Has Louise Rosenblatt’s hope — that reading a work for the pleasure it produces should precede any reading for “practical” reasons – been lost?
I suspect we high school teachers fear that young readers can no longer enjoy (are incapable of doing so) a work of imaginative literature more complex that The Cat in the Hat. Or are we afraid they will no longer enjoy such work? In an effort to assuage our collective guilt for allowing some students to get through our classrooms with a less thorough appreciation for the finer works, we have attempted a right-hand left-hand approach to literature instruction. While we tell students to read books for pleasure, we also steal the pleasure that comes with knowing you can read a moderately challenging book on your own, and have fun coming together to talk about it.

I am wondering if the scaffolding ideas suggested by some of the well-intentioned editors and authors who advocate a reader-response, student-centered, shared authority classroom go far enough toward allowing students to accept responsibility for their reading successes and failures. One recently published exercise (worksheet), designed to elicit student thinking about a specific character in literature, still pre-supposed that there were certain things a reader must consider if she or he is to extract all the meat from the shell, so to speak. I am not sure if I object on the basis of teachers feeding the students ideas, supplying hints to answers that ought to be on the page (which closes dialogue rather than opening it), or because the critical thinking called for was not clearly shown to be related to the student’s “lived-through experience” of the literature (Rosenblatt’s term, used by some of these same teachers). Its strength was that it offered the student writer a choice of character to write about; its weakness was that it prescribed what to include about the character.

The dual role of a teacher in a democratic classroom must balance between co-learner and co-leader.
I think my questions are about the authenticity of the writing task itself, and whether the task is more closely aligned with James Britton’s exploratory writing or writing to “get things done”. I am also concerned that the writing we ask students to do as they move through a text subverts the opportunity for a truly independent initial response and replaces the early esthetic readings (and its accompanying inferences and interpretations) with efferent reading: reading with a purpose designated by the teacher.
I want to practice ways of helping guide students into enjoyment and appreciation, without robbing them of the right to a primary response to the text (Pradl, Knowledge in the Making). While I have seen some very effective ideas for easing students into a difficult but rewarding text, too many rely on a set of activities designed by the teacher on the basis of his own diagnosis and decision-making about student readiness. Prior to any student encounter with the text, they tend to ask: “What can I do to make the text more relevant to my students?”
They should be asking: “Students, those of you who sensed there was something here that you could relate to – can you share it with the group?”
When we as co-learners in a discussion group admit our difficulties as well as share the meanings we have been building for ourselves as we have read, we become engaged with each other over problems and their solutions. In the model I am seeing too often, the leader pre-selects a problem readers are likely to encounter, then solves the problem for others, preparing to share it directly in the form of a mini-lesson, anticipatory set, worksheet, or essential question which may close rather than open dialogue.

Ways I see that we as teachers-leaders can turn discussion focus toward our class goals:

“We don’t have the writer here, but we do have the writer’s language.”

“What is it about you as a reader that causes you to make that prediction?”

“You made an interesting point. Can you relate that to what has been said earlier?”

Comments above help to facilitate productive dialogue. They keep it moving forward, not only piggybacking on previous contributions to the discussion, by pushing outward from a center. We are permitted ethically to do this because of our experience as readers or facilitators; yet we have not stolen the opportunity for the students themselves to initiate dialogue topics.

The sentences above help direct the conversation to be more pointed, more focused, sharper. These terms are related to vision, I notice: maybe a good series of comments will help us to see in the same way that a photographer can direct our attention by composition of a shot: selecting what is seen in the foreground, background, and middle ground. She arranges the objects in view so that their relationships are seen in the most interesting way, depending on contrasts, fine distinctions, detail, and point of view. Once we have learned how to see, we can look at anything – the subject matter is significant, but we apply similar viewing strategies no matter what the subject of the photograph.
Similarly, once we establish a way of having a conversation about reading, writing, and a text, participants will help each other to see more clearly, and to consider the perspectives of other readers and writers.

The statements above explicitly direct conversation by pointing back to the text, by asking someone to make his thinking “visible” to us, and by asking a speaker to describe relationships between ideas. They help bring the conversation back to common territory, letting all of us hear how what is being said connects to what we are reading or what has been said previously.

Some of the worksheets I see created by current teachers in the publications are in danger of drowning out student voice. If student experience (Rosenblatt’s “lived-through experience of a text) is key to enjoyment, understanding, and appreciation of literature, then a diary entry focusing on character may not work. Specifically, one teacher created a scaffolding activity which asked a student to write a diary entry from a character’s point of view (yes, I have done this), but the prompt was leading. First, student had to choose from two main characters in a Shakespeare play; second, the student had to get inside the emotions and thoughts of the character. Because Shakespeare makes these implicit already in the speeches of the characters, the assignment could amount to decoding his writing – in essence, paraphrasing. But the task was designed as an end product, one which pulls together all the thoughts of the student, class discussions, analysis of language, and the lived-through experience of the student as a reader.
In such as product, one expects a high level of critical thinking, which cannot be accessed by an invitation to paraphrase. Such a prompt needs to be clear about the ways its product must remain true to meaning that the student has constructed, how flexibly it allows for student interpretation of the play itself, where student creativity will be rewarded and where responsibility to the transaction between reader and text is demanded. Furthermore, who will evaluate whether the product is evidence of reading or of writing?

I would like to hear from other frustrated but excited teachers who are working with the same problem: student ownership of the reading/writing process from beginning to end.




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