Archive for the 'reading process' Category

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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02
Nov
14

Elementary: a realm apart

I worked as a learning partner with a freshman student on Thursday and Friday as we read “The Red-Headed League”, a Sherlock Holmes story by A. C. Doyle. Although I had read the short story numerous times, this was my first time reading and hearing it read aloud most of the way through. One paragraph especially stood out.

Watson’s narrator writes about feeling mystified at the ease with which Holmes sees clearly, in the midst of the “confusing” and “grotesque” details of the case.

I equated Dr. Watson’s wonderment at Holmes’s mastery to the way students are mystified at our expert interpretive “performances” of English classroom texts. They likely see as magical our detection of hidden symbolism, analysis of setting, understanding of internalized conflicts. The apprentice James Watson stands in awe of the Master Sherlock Holmes, whose idiosyncratic reading of persons, situation, and detail is phenomenal, unattainable.

Even Holmes would have him believe that if Watson only becomes an astute observer he, too, will perpetrate astonishing feats of detection.

We ELA teachers fall into the trap of suggesting that a few meager degrees on an Expert-Novice continuum separate the gurus from the gurees. Is it really true that by demystifying the reading process

IMG_1720.JPG we equip readers to perform readings such as we arrive at after years of literature study, curiosity, and attention to fine detail?

Holmes cites ridiculously minute bits of data, such as awareness of the pigmentation of Chinese tattoos. to support his reasoning. No strategy other than obsessive observation might offer Watson a hope of rivaling his friend’s competency for crime detection and problem-solving; Holmes’s wide experience provides him rare entree to the gathering of such trivial data. Which of us, finding herself on a visit to China, would consume the hours in making a study of variations among local tattoos?

Watson tells us “I was always oppressed with a sense of my own stupidity” in his dealings with the Master.

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These Sidney Paget illustrations from the original Strand Magazine facsimile reveal Sherlock doing the thinking and work as Watson tags along. His disciple, James, feels as inadequate to the task as Jesus’ disciples must have felt when the Master sent them out in pairs to practice. Similarly mystified, when encountering stubborn demons, they marvel at Christ’s ability. They admit, as Watson must, that their teacher is in a realm apart.

If there is any place our students have an advantage over us at their age, it is in their insatiable curiosity: such curiosity drives Holmes to fasten upon minutiae, and presumably prompts Watson to write memoirs about his master teacher.

Since 2001 when I attended an AP Institute and first understood the importance of student questions, through recent years when Judith Langer in her description of Envisionment Learning suggests “asking relevant questions” as a class goal, and The Right Question website, Essential Questions, and Socratic seminar questions (and Victor Mueller’s prepared follow-up questions), I have explored the ways students come to appreciate their own questioning role as necessary to learning and problem-solving. When they do the work of asking better questions, they feed natural curiosity and train it expand into all areas of lilfe, like a Halloween night horror movie creature, The Blob, which takes over the whole town.

Mysteries and horror are not that far removed. Holmes borders on the monstrous–isolated, obsessive, so calculating he can appear inhuman. Elana Gomel points out that the cool, unemotional criminal Stapleton from Hound of the Baskervilles is a mirror of Holmes, to whose “cold, precise” mind “emotion” is “abhorrent” (“A Scandal in Bohemia”, quoted in “Bloodscripts: Writing the Violent Subject”). Gomel stresses that the reader of mysteries feels comforted by them, for readers desire to know that the world and other people make sense.

It is a wild stretch of imagination for a non reader to believe how much pleasure in a lifetime may be derived from the inky marks on a virtual or paper page. How much more imagination and faith is required to trust that a full length work provides even more pleasure!

In order to read the world and other people, experience and observation certainly help, but a sense of initial curiosity and deep wonder are readily available to a learner at any age.

I fear, however, that curiosity slips noiselessly away some time during late adolescence. What can we do to foster curiosity?

At Utah’s first #EdCamp last month I attended a session on Curiosity, which made me more keenly aware of its silent departure from the purple room of pedagogy. We participants were like party goers on the eve of Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”, dancing from room to symbolic room pretending that education can thrive even while a plague of indifference gathers its army at the castle doors.

I found curiosity alive and well this week as my 10th grade students led 2nd graders through the editing process on a collaborative story.

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Wonder is not gone. Children can be inspired by teens; teens can be reminded of their impulsively curious younger selves; and we their experienced, obsessive, compulsively curious teachers can model a reading life; we must not tyrannize nor oppress them with a sense of their own stupidity. Rather, we might show them how their own sense of curiosity can lead to hypotheses, solutions, and deep and satisfying reading experiences. They, like us, are only trying to make sense of the complex text of the world and its people.

26
May
14

unfinished business

This has never happened before.

With at most two class meeting left at the end of the year, I have failed to reach the destinations I had assumed we desired.

There is one act of The Tempest yet be read.

There are two chapters of Tale of Two Cities still ahead.

The group action and product for a collaborative inquiry has yet to be created, though it is under way.

On the list of “completed” I am happy to say that small group book clubs and research studies did not suffer. I subordinated my own “coverage of content” goals to student goals such as the book clubs, and curating To-Read lists on Goodreads for their summer reading.

They also worked with younger students to teach them how to get onto Edmodo, and how to dance Jane Austen -style (both 21st Century skills!).

This group chose to read Pride and Prejudice, research dancing and etiquette, and teach peers and younger students to dance.

This group chose to read Pride and Prejudice, research dancing and etiquette, and teach peers and younger students to dance.

They provided me with useful feedback and their own reflections about small group and individual learning as readers, writers, and researchers; they offered suggestions for whole class book studies for themselves and future students.

I have not ever faced so blatantly the absence of alignment between my unit calendar and the actual daily learning processes that occur. I attribute the finish–like the Preakness, where my students are California Chrome and I am the pack spread out behind; or the Giro d’Italia, where they are riders out front, and I am the peleton who waits too long to put on the speed and overtake them before the finish–I attribute the finish to the surrender of control that necessarily accompanies the sharing of authority in my classroom. As I try to respond to their pacing, their needs, I adjust the pacing and mini-lessons that I had planned, adding writing conferences to generate encouraging feedback and removing burdensome requirements.

But the subtraction of certain work means re-prioritizing goals, so that I must ask myself “How important is it for their learning?”

For example, I always told them “Tale of Two Cities [whole class novel] is the dress rehearsal; your book club is the opening night.”

Diigo screen for research group

Diigo screen for research group

 

Coming into the home stretch at the end of May, we have all run the race. Our students, us; there is plenty of unfinished business on either side. I have a heap of partially operational websites and apps to either dismantle or rebuild as models of student portfolios, class blogs, glogs, and research tools.

Google Site

Google Site

But for now, I have left it all behind at the paddock.

I have to get out of the old mindset, in which I was in competition with myself against last year’s number of units, with students over whose goals merit priority treatment, or with a Platonic ideal of interpretive community. In the new mindset, my students are in the game, and I am their coach, not their opponent; their goals and my goals merge end evolve over time, but flex more by student progress achieved (Past Performances) than by distance remaining to the final furlong, toward unrealistic expectations.

What I see as unfinished business is actually an opportunity for me to practice a flexible mindset and join my students in the Winners’ Circle.

04
Nov
13

Melodious Monday

A good Monday – (Thankfully!) – It began in second period with our Romeo and Juliet introduction to the rhythm of the sonnet which for the first time I equated to “the old soft-shoe” [“Tea for Two”]. Everyone had a hat, and choreographed her/his own Chorus Line-style moves (arms straight out; foot-kicks). Then we got down to business with a quick-write.

Later, in third period, American Lit, my Grapes of Wrath Unit really took off (the Joads are at the government camp) as “families” comprised of 2-3 smaller reading groups met and began discussing human rights. Fur flew further than off a jack-rabbit crossin’ Route 66. Then, to complete our block period, students modeled a democratic process in decision-making about how to establish criteria for journal entries. They have selected themes and essential questions pertaining to the American Dream and Order vs. Chaos, and I was somewhat surprised at how effectively today’s all-class meeting was facilitated, and at the high standards students seemed to aim at, desiring both autonomy and skills that will help them prepare for college. Good job, AmLit!

Finally, my Pride and Prejudice sophomore class split into two groups last week, based on personal preference as to pace, and today met and demonstrated almost total engagement as they shared journal entries, collaborated on vocabulary words they selected from the reading, responded to the prior reading and worked to set future goals. It is about the first time I have seen students reach for my new dictionary and thesaurus on their own. Great things are happening 🙂

28
Apr
13

Learning the unfamiliar

April 26
We are just 4 days away from the final drafts being turned in on the Unfamiliar Genre Project (UGP). So far the first draft results have been impressive because I see student creativity, student interest, student risk, and students reporting on their own learning, as well as supplying evidence of it. I also see unexpected yet welcome connections to free choice reading and democratic learning. [My student writer plans to have his father read and respond to his autobiographical piece, a choice inspired by his free reading. Last week he showed me his new Nook]

20130428-064933.jpg At the moment, I am thinking of my own learning, especially in light of this new genre I am studying–the unfamiliar genre paper itself (Writing Outside Your Comfort Zone, Fleischer and Andrew-Vaughn). If not a paradox, then perhaps at least a Mobius strip, that a new school report involving an unlimited possibility of genres in itself becomes a genre: not unlike the way found poetry becomes a genre of poetry.
So among kinds of writing classed as academic, the Unfamiliar Genre Report is a Report, constructed as it is out of letters, a research journal, experimental writing and early drafts in the student ‘s chosen genre, the final draft of the imitation itself, comments received from 3 readers, a proposal, and an annotated bibliography. Because I am looking for a series of components in this report genre, I could myself construct a How-To-Book for it, just as I and the students have done in our personal genres for this project, and the above pieces would be named in it, with the identifying features of each listed on facing pages, the “craft” and “content” of each enumerated generally first, and then by genre-specific samples we view, and finally describing the way each of our own imitations fulfills or deviates from these expectations, as Fleischer and Andrew-Vaughn suggest.IMG_0522 Continue reading ‘Learning the unfamiliar’




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