Getting the Crickets to Talk about Reading

While I greatly enjoyed Blau’s stylistic decision to present transcripts of simulated classroom discussion, I found myself swooning over the productive and high-quality conversation Blau’s “T” was able to elicit from the various “S” participants in his mock lessons.  Certainly, Blau presents “T” as an effective—I’d say, “expert”—and engaging instructor who probably has already done the work to earn his students’ respect, and I can learn a lot from reading T’s script.  But I could use more advice about how to get the crickets in the classroom to stop chirping and start talking.  This semester in particular, I have a group of students I’m really struggling to graduate from blank-faced stares to spoken engagement—especially if what I’m trying to engage is discourse about a text.

Blau’s conception of the literary workshop gave me an awful lot to think about regarding the way I incorporate nonfiction readings in the composition course I teach here at GMU.  Blau’s insight in his introduction that what students often lack as readers is a sense of responsibility for what they are reading, knowing the teacher will do the job of “telling” (2), reminded me of an article I read in ENGH 615, about being aware of the balance between “overteaching” and “underteaching.”  I don’t want to leave student conversation about a text entirely unguided, but I also don’t want to tell them what to think about it, either.  I find this to be a challenging balance to strike, and conclude from these readings that I should do more with group work when it comes to reading, in the same way that I use group work as an approach to teaching writing.

When I assign a text, I usually require that students post a short, one to two paragraph reading reflection to our class wiki.  I can tell from what they write that they are doing the reading, and they write really insightful, thoughtful things.  But I cannot get them to share any of those things in class without resorting to cold-calling.  And even though I’ve been doing it all semester, they still stare at me like deer in headlights each time I call on someone to share what they wrote.  Because this is college, I’m not sure what to make of it: on the one hand, I do think it’s my responsibility to cold-call students who don’t seem engaged, or who just seem shy and in need of that invitation.  On the other hand, though, this is college—these kids are paying for the course, and at some point it’s their responsibility to put into it what they expect to get out of it (and I do believe the students who are voluntarily active participants get more out of it than the silent sulkers).

So, Blau’s exploration of the value of re-reading and his assessment that students not only don’t do this but also don’t know it’s something they should do seems like something I could model in my own classroom.  I hope it will shake things up.  I’m planning to project his Thoreau sentence on the board at the start of class tomorrow and try out his timed reading exercise.  We’ll see what happens.

Another takeaway for me is that maybe I should stop and comment on the crickets, the deer in headlights, when they occur.  Make a metacognitive moment out of it.  Present an imagining of a person’s thought process in response to a question I’ve posed, and encourage students to do more thinking out loud in response to my questions than feeling the need to present resolved answers.  I thought I was already achieving this by just saying, “There is no wrong answer to this question, I just wonder what you are thinking,” but maybe I should go even further than that to achieve an environment in my classroom that welcomes a metacognitive and heuristic approach to class discussion.  If I praise the confusion more, maybe—point out that, as Blau suggests, their confusion is a sign of their thinking and engagement (41)—this will boost enough confidences to get some metacognitive thinking about thinking voiced aloud more often by more students.

Just as I want students to feel responsible for what they read, I also want them to feel responsible for the class conversations we have.  For example, recently my students had to do a piece of in-class writing that we used to facilitate an activity.  At the end, students wanted to know if I would collect the writing samples, if they would get “points” for doing it.  I was surprised by the question because the value in the writing sample was contained in the value of the class activity, which I thought had gone really well.  Does my students’ fixation on “points earned” mean I’m doing something wrong in my syllabus, or that they aren’t getting enough value out of class activities?

Finally, I found Blau’s point that modern readers might be even better suited to understand a text than its original audience (10) to be in contrast with Bean’s suggestion that limited cultural knowledge can hinder a student’s reading experience.  Recently, my students read an article that I thought did a brilliant job of putting a complex scientific idea into layman’s terms, and this was something I wanted us to look at together to examine how the writer did that.  My students, however, claimed the article was incomprehensible and that they couldn’t understand it.  This made me concerned, as Bean suggested, that maybe basic astrophysics was beyond their grasp.  On the other end of the spectrum, I had one student suggest that the writer didn’t know what he was talking about and had gotten the physics all wrong.  To me, the article was perfectly clear and per my limited understanding of astrophysics (which, to my credit, I did take two quarters of in college) seemed accurate.  Flustered and doubting my wisdom in assigning the article, we moved on from our conversation about it to something else I had prepared.  But now, I wish I’d had Blau to turn to instead of Bean.  I wish I’d had Blau’s idea to do recursive reading and metacognitive exercises and that we’d pursued understanding of the article instead of setting it aside.