Facilitators and Teachers

I had the privilege of participating in a workshop with Sheridan Blau this past summer with the Northern Virginia Writing Project.  We looked at a poem and completed the noticing and interpreting protocol Blau describes in chapter 2.  The workshop went so well that I went ahead and led a similar one with the English department at my school.  Leading the workshop was a particularly affirming experience.  It feels good to facilitate when every single person in the room is engaged and invested in the literary analysis work at hand.

I keep those experiences with me when I work with a room full of people who are not English teachers, and try to give my students room to make meaning while providing a little more structure to help them practice listening to each other.

To make my classroom more like Blau’s, I also try to invest students in the work.  One way I did this last semester is by having classes take a vote on which short story we would read next. Here’s a funny coincidence: after reading short descriptions of several texts, the almost unanimous decision was that we would read “Sonny’s Blues.”  The content of the story: estranged brothers, Harlem, and drug use, sounded exciting to my students.  When we started to read it, they were disappointed.

I think Wilner has it backwards when she says “The students wanted to turn this intimate, emotionally gripping, narratively complex story into an illustration of ‘just say no'” (12).  Like Wilner says, the narrative is complicated, and an oversimplified interpretation often means that students are too confused to glean the necessary evidence from the text to support a claim.  Instead they use information that they already know on the topic (Sonny’s Blues is about drugs, we should just say no to those).  This is a coping strategy, not an indication of a student’s values.

Before I taught “Sonny’s Blues,” I had to ask myself: what does the author do to create meaning? And what must a reader do to get meaning? Wilner clearly knows the answer to the first question.  She describes “the dramatic change in the narrator, a change crucial to the theme of the story and powerfully portrayed through the first-person narrative consciousness. Rich and deep, the story is eloquently told through carefully orchestrated flashbacks” (12).  Wilner was surprised though, when her students said that Sonny was the character who changed the most.  This is a predictable misconception.  The narrator doesn’t have a name.  The title of the story is Sonny’s Blues.  My students and I spent a few classes on the possibilities of first person narration.  We also made a giant timeline of events on the wall because the story’s extended flashbacks are super confusing.

It seems like both Wilner and Blau give their students a lot of space to struggle with a text.  I think this makes sense with some texts but not necessarily with others.  When a text is as complex as Sonny’s Blues, I find myself acting as a capital T Teacher rather than a workshop facilitator.