23
Jun
16

from “how do you know?” to “let’s find out.”

I became an English teacher because of Kaye Clohset.

It was 1977. We were reading Jane Eyre in my tenth grade accelerated class, and Miss Clohset made the claim that the lightning-struck tree was a symbol for the love between Rochester and Jane.

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“How do you know?”, I asked with a raised hand.

Ever since that day I have been seeking the best answer to my own question.

My quest involves numerous strands, such as the art of interpretation, analytic reading, historical-biographical criticism, the canon, student-led inquiry, authority in the classroom, and literary period. It also wonders, along with my 15-year-old self, how much an author “hides” things in a text to be discovered, and when analyzing a book moves from an appealing activity that enhances enjoyment to a monotonous speculation that detracts from the pleasure of reading.

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This week, as I read Claire Harman’s compelling biography of Charlotte Bronte, “A Fiery Heart”, I am transported to the Brussels and England we visited last summer, and back in time to my introduction to Bronte that sophomore year. However Miss Clohset answered my question that day, I determined as a teacher that I would try to equip students to address such questions openly, whether they openly resist a particular reading of a classic passage, or hope to demystify the reading process of an experienced reader.

I can trace my interest not only in reading instruction, but also in composition theory and the teaching of writing to those early high school days, when we might have been asked to demonstrate in an essay test that a recurring theme or symbol had value, though we students didn’t actually do the work of digging through an assortment of selected passages, drawing our own conclusions about them, and forming an original controlling question or thesis.

I have stepped further and further away from making pronouncements about literature in my teacher role, and closer to encouraging exploration and discovery in student reading and writing.

I also experiment with how best to answer student questions, like my own how do you know? Here is a range of potential comebacks

“Does anyone see it differently?”

“Great question. Who else is wondering the same thing?”

“Hmm. Let me turn to the page and see what Bronte writes…”

“I haven’t been honest with you. I read ahead last night and in a later chapter she says …”

There is any number of teacher moves that might occur here, from modeling my own thinking through a “think aloud”, to inviting a student to moderate a discussion/debate on the topic, where students could pair off and prepare interpretations of the tree, backing them up with textual evidence. At some point a determination must be made about whether this question is worth pursuing for its own sake, or whether we need more students to generate more questions and begin a classwide investigation. Conversely, I may offer extra credit (or excuse a future assignment) for looking up some critical commentary, either online or in a resource I have in the room.

These split second decisions make teaching a thrilling adventure for me, especially as the direction the class takes after such a moment can influence careers, with students seeing themselves as confident and resistant readers and writers in an interpretive community. image

I fast forward to today. I have been reading Robert Cormier’s Tunes for Bears To Dance to. It would make a great pairing with The Diary of Anne Frank as an 8th grade book, raising questions as it does about anti-semitism, hate crime, individual conscience, and what makes people feel powerful when they can get weaker people to carry out their hostile actions. The teacher’s gift and art is the ability to extend an invitation to students themselves to raise their questions, as well as to recognize an author’s questions and decide which ones are worth investigating through discussion, writing, research, and further reading. Whether dealing with a classic book or contemporary work; middle grade, YA, or general readership, good writing triggers a questioning and teaching urge–I can’t avoid imagining how I would use it in the classroom.

The counter-narrative here is my high school English teacher’s own strong role in pushing me toward this career long inquiry. Without her firm convictions about that tree, I would not have resisted her reading and become suspicious of critical interpretation. On one hand I desire to let young readers explore multiple points of view, yet on the other I need to offer clear well-argued solutions to literary problems that have already been worked out. It is a bit like playing chess in the summer: I set up the board with a chess problem from a 20th century game in my handbook, Logical Chess, and play along with the historical combatants in the hope of acquiring a more strategic mind myself. I hope students will practice new strategies in order to grow and advance.

Thanks to those teacher we have had who prompted us, in their own particular ways, to pursue our own questions, careers, and passions. Wherever you are, Kaye, I want you to know that your class made a difference in my life.

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Images: top to bottom – http://pin.it/N7iL4sL posted by Megan Murphy

cover art for Charlotte Bronte biography by Claire Harman, 2016 Borzoi Books.

NYT review: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/20/books/review/charlotte-bronte-a-fiery-heart-by-claire-harman.html?smprod=nytcore-ipad&smid=nytcore-ipad-share

Leonard Nimoy, Star Trek TV series, Paramount.

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