Author Archives: agleason

Processing the Microteach

I was unreasonably nervous for the microteach–and it was one of those anxious days when I couldn’t talk myself down. I, still, don’t know why I was nervous. I had a plan, I knew what I was doing, I knew it would be fine. But for some reason, the idea of doing what I do almost every day in front of a group of peers, rather than students, made me nuts. Anyway, once I got up there, I felt at home in my teaching “personality” (that’s what I call it, but what I mean is that it feels like when I’m teaching I’m a slightly different version of myself–an actress in a lot of ways) and got through the lesson as planned. It always strikes me how comfortable I feel in front of students–it makes me feel like I’m pursuing the right career.

Things I thought went well: I felt like students, despite the fact that the text was difficult, were still interested in figuring it out. That was helpful to know. I was concerned that the text was difficult and interesting only to me–and that the interest in the piece wouldn’t transfer to students. I was pleased that people seemed invested in trying to figure out what was going on in the story, in trying to solve the puzzle. I also think teaching the lesson in real-time was helpful for me to gauge how much time I could spend on that chart activity (I could probably spend a few more minutes on it).

Things I wish had gone better/ things I second-guessed afterwards: I wondered if I should have students acknowledge their confusion about the piece in a more concrete way (by rating it, or by doing a short free-write about it, etc). Honestly, part of the reason I didn’t do that in my microteach was because I felt like it was something all of us probably considered using, and I didn’t want to bore people with the same activities other teachers might introduce. I do think it would help students figure out where they stand with the piece at the beginning of the lesson though, and I think it might be a good way for us to start the “this thing is really hard” conversation. Also, in listening to myself teach, I used the words “kind of” like 50 times. Clearly I need to be more mindful of that.

Overall, the experience was helpful, for sure. Also, now I have a full lesson on “San Francisco” planned and tested for next semester!

Applying the Concentric Circles Idea

Sample’s series of posts are timely for me: I feel connected to the example of designing a new Lit Course, not because I often have the feeling, but because I am now, for the first time, designing my 201 Lit Course at GMU.  I’ve been struggling with just the notion Sample points to: the question of developing a reading list based on what I think the kids should read, versus the idea of organizing the texts around the concepts I’d like the students to learn.

I do think this backwards scaffolding is a good idea: I do it in my comp classes and have found it a really successful way of not only organizing my course, but of explaining and demonstrating to students how these skills transcend the classroom. But my struggle with designing this 201 Literature Survey, is that I’ve only taken survey courses what work to cover, rather than uncover—courses that focus on the texts, rather than the concepts (this is true both at the undergrad, and at the graduate level).  So bear with me while I think aloud. I’m going to try and, right now, backwards scaffold  (using the concentric circle idea presented in Sample’s post, along with some implicit consideration of Fink’s ideas) my 201 course.

I’m going to start with the institutional expectations. Mason sets forth these guidelines:

Literature courses must meet at least three of the five following outcomes.

1. Students will be able to read for comprehension, detail, and nuance.

2. Identify the specific literary qualities of language as employed in the texts they read.

3. Analyze the ways specific literary devices contribute to the meaning of a text.

4. Identify and evaluate the contribution of the social, political, historical, and cultural contexts in which a literary text is produced.

  1. (<– can’t get rid of that) 5. Evaluate a critical argument in others’ writing as well as one’s own.”

So if I had to categorize these prescribed learning goals into the 3 concentric circles Wiggins and McTighe present (“worth being familiar with,” “important to know and do,” and “enduring understanding”), I’d put reading with comprehension, detail and nuance at the “enduring understanding” level, and I’d also group “ways literary devices contribute to the meaning of the text” in that category. In terms of “important to know and do,” I’d like to see them “identify and evaluate the contribution of the…contexts in which a literary text is produced.” Finally, in the “worth being familiar with” I’d put the “identify specific literary qualities of language…” piece. Still though, there are more things I’d like them to accomplish: I’d like them to get a taste of what contemporary, classic, and experimental fiction, nonfiction, and poetry look like. I’d like them to think about the medium of the novel, the short story, the poem, the essay, and how those things reach different parts of the human experience than other interesting mediums (movies, tv, stage drama, video games, visual art, etc).

I guess I’m kind of thinking aloud here—and I know quite a few of these goals can be folded together and accomplished as such. I do think, that in writing all of this down, I have a clearer idea of what I think is important in the study of literature.  But this exercise does little to help me refine my reading list. Any number of books could achieve these goals, depending on how I teach them, right? Isn’t this idea of backwards scaffolding more about the exercises we do in class than the texts I choose?

So back to the original plan? Find a set of texts that are contemporary/canonized/anti-canonical/interesting/that I like and go from there? I feel like I’m back at square one!


Tracing Activity Processing + Nat Turner on the 2nd Read

First, I want to do some quick processing of the tracing activity we did in class last week. Then, I’ll get to my second reading of Nat Turner and how it differed from the first.


I think, in theory at least, the tracing activity is really cool. Forces students to slow down, think carefully about what they’re looking at, maybe observe things about the page or illustration they hadn’t noticed previously. But for me (and I’m not sure if it was the page I chose), it didn’t work. I got so focused on the tracing (YES! A TIME FOR ME TO DO SOMETHING THAT DOESN’T NECESSARILY REQUIRE THINKING!), that I really didn’t end up making any observations about the way the page was illustrated. Instead, I spent time thinking about how I could make the page more beautiful—shading the corners of each box neatly, blurring the edges with my fingers.


I think where this activity became interesting for me as a teacher was in the textual intervention part. Again, the page I chose might not have been the best—the text I ended up adding to the page did little to further my understanding of the novel. My annotations merely reflected what I’d already observed about the page. But for some reason, even though it didn’t work for me in the student’s chair, I’d still consider using it in my classroom. I often argue with myself about stuff like this, about what’s good in theory and what’s good in practice. It’s a fine line, as we all know, in the classroom. And in the college classroom, the best intentions don’t get you far (your freshman don’t care if it was great in theory, it should interest them and further their knowledge now, so that they can get on with their lives and feel as though they’ve learned something). But still, I’m intrigued by the premise, and wonder if my experience says less about the activity itself, and more about my inability to choose a useful page or my interest in zoning out. What would happen if we directed groups of students to trace particular pages? Then compare annotations? Might that deepen the discussion in a different way? We saw this a bit in our own classroom, when more than one student annotated the same page…


In terms of my second NT reading, I started thinking quite a bit about how this thing is put together artistically.  I’m interested in the fact that Baker includes blocks of source material, along side this image-narrative, and that he never really changes that model. I can imagine some of the source material spread out along pages, and wonder why he chose to keep the source material together. My theories: he wants to emphasize that the material is a primary source (rather than his own text), he wants the source material to have its own space (un-interrupted by images, or other artistic interpretations), the source material together in one block slows the reader, asking them to dwell on the page.


The other major take-away from my second read is the difference in illustrations from page to page. Some illustrations have a sketch feel, while others seem more polished, almost water-colored, and hyper-detailed. I can’t figure out if there’s a pattern (sketched pictures show up in certain scenarios, and more detailed images show up in others?) or not, but it is definitely something I paid attention to this time, that I hadn’t considered in my first go-round, perhaps BECAUSE of the tracing activity we completed in class?

Graphic Novels as a Model for Literary Interpretation

For me, reading Nat Turner was a bit like reading in Spanish: I know how to do it in the back of my mind, but it took me several pages to get used to the new language, and even after I did, I still struggled to understand some passages. Part of this is logistical: for the first few pages, actually, I tested the theory of reading all the way across the two pages, then down, unsure of which was the correct way to read the book. But the other part of the challenge to read this text is in the artful, nuanced illustrations Baker employs.

There were pages where I stared at the pictures for minutes, unsure of what was happening. The image on pg 198 is a good example. Are they dissecting him? Are they casting him in something? Are they sawing him in half (not sure why that would happen…easier disposal of the body?). Either way, as I looked at the image, I went through the same process I go through when reading a work of literature: asking myself why I see the image one way, and what evidence I have in front of me to suggest that the image is of a dissection rather than an embalming. There are other places where this happened for me, too: pg 175, for example, and I watched myself “reading” these images in much the same way I would read a work of classical literature: mining for the things I understand, being patient with the things I don’t, re reading in between, and waiting for things to come together in the end.

After reading this text, I think the graphic novel (especially an artful one like this) offers an opportunity to walk students through the process of interpretation without intimidating them with words. They can (hopefully) see when they look at the images, and can trust that what they see is real. By giving students a graphic novel to interpret I think we give them an opportunity to trust their instincts as a see-er, or as a consumer of visual information. In leveraging this confidence we just might be able to help kids move towards interpreting sentences rather than images—using the same processes and strategies they used in their own visual interpretations.  It’ll encourage them to practice writing in this context, meet that “burden of proof” when it comes to interpretation, too…#Excited!

Making My Classroom “Pleasantly Frustrating”

Gee’s thesis about video games being useful models for how children and adults can be faced with challenge and still, miraculously, stay interested in the game—is interesting. I admit that I was skeptical of Gee’s thesis, at first, and that throughout the text, he did convince me that video games are, in fact, good models for how to teach a learner how to “read,” interpret, and problem solve in a variety of situations (like pick up little pieces of a space suit from another planet, etc). But, I’m not sure how I can connect this to my classroom.

I agree, as Gee mentions that we should spend some time studying how game-makers create self-contained little learning worlds. We should spend time thinking about how they make decisions about the pre-level tutorials, and the in-game help pages. We should figure out the recipe they use to ensure that they achieve just the right amount of challenge (read: frustration), while still giving the player hope that they’ll succeed eventually. And of course, I agree, that these are all conditions that I would ideally like to reproduce in my literature classroom. But how?

I can see myself assigning students homework that involves them going home to play a videogame, then writing meta-cognitively about how they approached the game (with what attitude, what kinds of tools, what levels of expectations, excitement, frustration, etc). I could see, then, asking them to complete a similar kind of assignment for a short, challenging, text. Then, I suppose, I could bring that conversation deeper, asking students to identify what it is about difficult reading that is somehow more frustrating than a difficult game, or vise versa. In this way, I could initiate a conversation about the idea of difficulty, and about what we can expect to not understand as readers, and how we can transfer the patience (or at least willingness to try it again) we seem to use with video games, to reading a text.

I can also see using the idea of the video game tutorial, to talk about the “how to” of reading. What questions to ask yourself if you’re confused. What strategies to use when you don’t understand a passage. Etc. Which buttons to press when you want to use the bow and arrow instead of the shot gun. I might also use this opportunity to talk about how a text teaches us to read itself, and how we find those clues.

So, I see the video game comparison as an apt analogy, and I see Gee’s point, that the conditions game-makers create in video games make for really efficient, active learning Of course, I’ll try to reproduce those conditions as best as I can in my own classroom, scaffolding the reading, starting in Level 1. I just wish Gee had given me some concrete suggestions of how I might make my Literature classroom work like a challenging video game level—that is, “pleasantly frustrating.”


Reading (s)logs

Blau’s frank discussion of the reading “logs” (I’ll probably also call them “journals” throughout the post) was particularly useful for me as I have the same hesitations he does: I think some students see the logs as “busy work” or don’t do the reading and thus can’t do the logs (and then lose points twice over), plus I know that assigning logs means a lot more work for me come mid-semester and finals, etc. But Blau makes some convincing arguments for why they are still useful—mostly, that I should try it sometime.

It’s funny, though, because recently I was taking an MFA class that required me to use a reading log. The professor introduced the log as something to do in tandem with our reading, and he explained that he would collect the logs at some point in the semester. The accountability was there. Still, even though I knew we’d be held accountable, I half-assed it. I filled the log with random quotes, doodles, notes from class, etc. Why? Because, like Blau’s students, I saw the log as busy work. I do this in my head, I thought, why should I write it down? Furthermore, recording entries in the log interrupted my reading process—something I had very little patience for.

So with my own shortcomings in mind, I thought about how I could reframe this for my own students. If I were to introduce reading logs to my class in the way that he does (which, by the way, the examples/controlled practice he suggests seem particularly smart), I might also make some suggestions, or elicit some suggestions from students, about how to actually make the reading log fit relatively painlessly into a reading process. Logistically. I’m talking about when to stop and write (after each chapter? After a period of sustained reading? Before you begin reading and again afterwards? After a certain number of pages, etc?). For me, it’s the skill (or maybe the discipline) of interrupting the joy of reading to record my thoughts, that makes me wary of the reading log. And maybe, even though they can’t articulate it, that’s how our students feel. And maybe, with Blau’s introduction to the log and some logistical support about how to actually make a reading log work, they’d get a thing or two out of the exercise.

Reading (and re-reading)

I find that Sheridan Blau has a lot to offer in his text, but I’m particularly interested in the exercise he develops to encourage re-reading. It’s funny, his suggestion is so simple (almost obvious) but from where I stand, the exercise acknowledges quite a few common reading problems/misconceptions, and asks students to challenge them.


The Think-Aloud exercise really helped me to see how essential re-reading is for expert readers. Jen, Ben, and Chris re-read sections of “Dirge” several times, asking questions and seeking interpretations from each other throughout their readings. And I think Blau has it right when he explains that while many students have heard about the idea of re-reading—or at least have been encouraged to try it—few seem to have reached a place in their learning where they’re self-motivated to try the strategy on their own (44).


This all ties back to Salvatori and Donahue’s conception of difficulty: that students can sometimes see a challenging task as indicative of their own knowledge or learning deficits. But it seems to me that even just taking students through the exercise Blau suggests (where they read the poem three times, rating their understanding and taking guided notes all along), could help novice readers experience success with the re-reading technique, and might even help students feel less frustrated with what they see as their own short comings when they approach a text that appears challenging. I also like Blau’s suggestion of having students work in groups of three for this exercise, as it seems that small groups are a place where students can admit they don’t understand something, and can get similar feedback from other students. It’s kind of a norming session, a place where students have an opportunity to see that re-reading a text is not indicative of a cognitive lapse or failure, but is instead an integral part of the reading and interpretation process! I also love the idea of rating “understanding” as the process goes on, then having a discussion about what those numbers mean, and how “understanding” can be “knowing” less (knowing you don’t know means you’re a bit a head of thinking you know when you don’t, right?)


The exercise begins to pick away at some of students’ previous conceptions about re-reading, and may help them experience success as re-readers, which is about all we can expect to do in a class period. But I think this idea that expert readers, like expert writers, can complete the reading or writing process “in one effortless draft without struggle and without frustration” is, as Blau suggests, a conception that is truly deeply ingrained in our students (31). In class last week I gave the example of a student who wrote in his paper “you won’t understand this, Professor Gleason, because I bet writing 6 pages for you is a breeze…” and I’ve been chewing on this idea since I read his draft, wondering how I can illustrate to students that for me, the reading and writing process is still difficult. It’s still frustrating. It still (often) makes me want to quit. I’ve showed them early drafts of my own work, and have pointed to difficult passages in our readings and readily admitted that I don’t get it, or that I need their help or background knowledge to understand what’s going on. But still, I get that sentence in a student’s paper!


So I recently tried to set up this analogy: that reading and writing are similar to athletics, or to being a professional musician. Students readily acknowledged that for athletes, a game or match is still difficult (although they make it look easy). And that for professional musicians, playing a difficult passage perfectly would still take hours, if not days or weeks, of focused practice, to master. I tried to explain that writing and reading are much the same. I guess we’ll see, over time, if the analogy works, but I plan on coming back to it, and I also plan on using Blau’s re-reading exercise early and often when I start teaching lit next semester.


Apprenticeship and Intrinsic Motivation

I am drawn to the idea of the cognitive apprenticeship, mostly because of the accuracy, the tightness, of the concept. As Collins et al explains, “apprenticeship” implies a work relationship between a novice and an expert, in which the novice watches the expert model certain tasks, then, with practice, the expert “fades” and the novice takes responsibility for the task in its entirety. This seems a perfect word for what we hope our students can accomplish in our classrooms. We hope, for example, that while they might need us early in the semester, that by the end of the semester they have the tools not only to exercise the skill (like writing, or reading) but to employ that skill in other disciplines. That they’ve acquired some domain knowledge and heuristic and control strategies and that they’re at least on their way to thinking about how their learning process happened.

While the rest of the article seemed obvious to me (even the part I’m going to discuss next), it still got me thinking. I have this problem in my Comp 101 class this semester: the community just doesn’t want to build. This is the first time I’ve instructed a class that is this slow to engage, and I think (as Collins et al. attest), that the lack of community seriously affects the learning environment. And I get it—as a student, it’s frustrating to attend a class that doesn’t seem to work socially. But as an instructor, I’m struggling. They say, “it can’t be forced,” and I agree.  Despite my best efforts (fun group work, early community building exercises, and a few class laughs) I can’t seem to get them to stay engaged or interested—in the material, or in each other. I was left, after reading the article, thinking about how much we, as instructors, can do right, yet how quickly and easily a botched learning environment can make our efforts seem to go wrong. Am I sounding jaded? I have a hard time NOT taking a class’s disinterest personally!

I guess what I’m looking for here, is a few amen’s and a couple of thoughts about how to conquer this one. While the article provides a (stilted) example of how to lead students through a discussion, the answers in the example come readily (and with some strange southern twang), and in my troublesome section, even when I call on students, answers are short, disinterested, and sometimes don’t suggest that the student has actually read the material. I almost wonder if I haven’t spent enough time thinking about the intrinsic motivations of this PARTICULAR group: the fact that maybe these students aren’t engaged because they don’t see a clear purpose outside of the more lofty goals of “learn to write,” “get a good grade,” “be clear communicator at future job” etc. While we’ve talked about the practicality (dare I say pleasure?!) of being a good writer/reader, and most of the class activities we do are focused on real-world writing/reading and furthermore ask students to think about their cache of already-learned and well-used writing/reading skills as they might apply to the classroom, I almost feel like I’m not speaking their language. That these purposes I’ve identified aren’t the ones that motivate them. So where to? What does motivate people to read or write well?

Alicia Gleason: Blog Week 2

I’m moved by the connection between Bean’s “Teaching Students to Read…” and Salvatori and Donahue’s “The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty.” In my classroom, students often regard a difficult passage, assignment, or question, as a kind of institutional hazing effort rather than an earnest learning opportunity. The morning after a difficult reading task, when I solicit reactions from the group, I often get responses like: “Why would you give us such a hard article?” OR “This didn’t make any sense.” OR “I couldn’t get past the first two pages.”  Part of this struggle to work with difficult texts is, as Bean mentions in Engaging Ideas, that our students are highly efficient, and seek economy during study time (“how little can I read and still get an A?”). But I also agree with the idea that Bean and Salvatori/Donahue assert, which is that many novice readers see struggle as a marker of their own incompetence rather than a normal obstacle in any reader’s process.

As a Comp 101 instructor, I’m very interested in the way my students read. Not just because good readers make good writers, but because many of the texts I assign in the class require “deep reading,” or ask students to think about how the text is constructed, rather than merely what it says (Bean, 163). I introduce “Reading Like A Writer,” (a really accessible article by Mike Bunn) early in the semester. I often assign “Says/Does” charts and “Reverse Outlines” to help students ask questions or think about the structure of an article as they read. I often have students profile the audience, or describe the rhetorical context of the piece to place it in the larger conversation. I regularly model the use of graphic organizers as a way of reflecting on texts. I also often talk about my own process as a reader.  But something I don’t do (yet) is talk to students about what difficulty should mean in a college course. Salvatori and Donahue cite the example of Kim Woomer’s conclusions about difficulty, and watch her work to understand that difficulty is an obstacle rather than a road block (4). This is something I’ll ask my students to think about as we begin reading more difficult texts—in Composition, and in my future Literature courses. Why is reading sometimes difficult? What would make it easier? Is it necessarily supposed to be easy? What can I do to help? Challenging some of these preconceptions may help students get on board with a difficult text, and may simultaneously help them feel comfortable (instead of incompetent) as novice readers.

I should mention that I STILL shy away from difficult passages (I struggled through Pope’s “Textual Intervention” for this week, and I’m never amused when an MFA prof puts a text like “Ulysses” on the syllabus—and allots a week to read it). I see this as normal. But something I do worry about is how to help readers who develop something akin to Shulman’s fantasia? That is, readers who, in an attempt to “translate [meanings] into ideas that they are comfortable with,” end up misinterpreting a text’s goal, or on the more basic level, a text’s information (165). It’s these students I struggle most to redirect. It feels as though I correct their misinterpretations in class, but don’t push them to determine why/how they came to their incorrect conclusions in the first place. This is absolutely something I plan to spend more time thinking about as I move towards teaching Literature next fall.