Category Archives: Week 2 – Difficulty

“In short…”

My first blog… I think. I think this is where I am supposed to post it!  (NOPE!  This is my second attempt to post…. I’ll get the hang of this by next week!)

I started my course reading this week with ”Textual Intervention, Critical and Creative Strategies for Lit Studies” by Rob Pope, which is about teaching literature through several different lenses of literary theory. What was most interesting about this is that Pope never actually mentions that his methods of reading (or interacting with) a text are actually literary theories. But they most certainly are! Over the course of discussing his examples, Pope addressed feminist theory, reader response, formalism, historical, biographical, even a little psychoanalytic. As a high school English teacher, I teach a hefty unit on literary criticism and theory and felt encouraged by his suggestions for approaching the difficult task. It can be daunting when faced by a room of 25+ juniors to show the benefits of reading texts in a new way. I appreciate that he describes the reader’s criticism of a text as ”a dramatic monologue” where choices are made to affect one’s interpretation (Pope 21). Each reader will dramatize literature in a slightly different way, but it’s necessary to see those differences in order to hone in on the author’s base-text.
I then read “How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School.” This article discussed how experts grapple with content in comparison to how novices engage with the same content. What I found most interesting here was the author’s point about students developing “adaptive expertise” (50). The author suggests that students, like experts, should be metacognitive about their learning. It is ideal that students should first try to master the content and, second, reflect on how they got there, but in the fast-paced world of public high schools, there is very little breathing room between one state benchmark and the next. A line in this article angered me. It said, “In short, students need to develop the ability to teach themselves”(50). How can this be “in short”? I feel this is a gross exaggeration of how teachers can foster metacognitive skills in students. It is only through consistent practice at reflecting—in writing, in dialogue, in practice—that a student can learn to value the act of reflection and then to internalize it and teach himself. It’s not so simple that a student can “in short” learn to teach himself. While that line ruffled my feathers, I do agree with the author’s overall premise that students need to learn the “expert-level” skills of noticing, organizing, representing, and interpreting content in order to develop understanding of a topic. Teachers (experts) must help students (novices) to focus on the “big ideas” and concepts in a unit and not on the small details. When one can see the overarching goals of a unit, it’s then easier to see how the small pieces fit together.

Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?

Liz MacLean’s Blog Post:  The “Chicken-or-Egg” Question of which does or should come first: Understanding what a text says or understanding what a text does?


I hope we’ll spend a lot of time in class talking about the Pope chapter, because I have a lot of questions about it.  In addition to not being entirely sure I followed his meaning throughout (which is to say, metacognatively, I recognize I have a lot more work to do with this chapter), I’m also not clear who his intended audience is, in terms of to what level of students Pope prescribes  this mode of teaching.

I wonder about what kind of student Pope would apply these strategies to for several reasons.  Or another way to put that, at what point in the semester this type of teaching would occur.  Day one?  Midway?  Toward the end, after students have already grown and achieved a lot?  To put it a third way – what sort of “scaffolding,” if any, would Pope build into a curriculum that includes these teaching methods?

In Bean, we saw the idea of students being asked to differentiate between what a piece of writing says (“summarize this paragraph…”) and what a piece of writing does (“why does the author include this paragraph at this point in the essay?  What is this paragraph doing here?  What function is this paragraph serving?”).  Like Alicia, I, too, employ this strategy for my Eng 101 students, and we also spend a lot of time on an activity I call “Anatomy of an Essay,” which is sort of like reverse outlining and sorting says/does ideas at the same time.

When I teach students to separate what a text says from what it does, I always start with “says.”  I do this in part because, if I start with “does,” students reply with a “says” answer.  Other reasons include that it gives me an opportunity to positively reinforce class participation (“That’s a great summary, Bob”), and I think it helps students frame the next step, assessing the “does,” that I’m teaching them to take.  Through process of elimination, if content summary isn’t the “does” response, they are forced to examine the question more closely in order to answer it:  What is this text doing?  Some crickets in the room don’t always mean the lights are out upstairs – in this case, I’ve found it means many of them are having little “aha” moments in their chairs as they start to grasp that there’s more than one kind of thing to look for in a text.

Back to Pope, who says:  “The best way to understand how a text works, I argue, is to change it….”  As I read through Pope’s essay, I found it a bit startling that he spent very little time challenging students to think about what, say, the poem “My Last Duchess” actually says and seems to skip right to his strategies and approaches for “re-centering” and “changing” the text.  Maybe I’m misunderstanding his meaning, but as I take it, this seems to be a more complex form of the “does” question.  And so I wonder – is Pope offering these strategies to students who have already spent time figuring out at least a general gist of the poem, and this is how he pushes them to achieve deeper understanding of the poem’s content and the technical maneuverings of its creator?  Or does Pope encourage teachers to think of “change” as a starting point for engaging with a text?

I’m really hoping this exercise is meant as a “step two” rather than a “step one” – I need more convincing before I can embrace this as a “step one” teaching strategy.  The value I see in the exercises he suggests, to me, come after at least a general discussion with students about what they thought the poem was all about, whether they liked it, etcetera; this would be a method for helping them fill in those gaps, for re-examining, for digging deeper.  I also would worry that students would get so lost in the task of changing the text that they might make the mistake of conflating the poem with their “interventions” of the poem and walk away from the text with strange ideas about what it is actually about.  And finally, as a fan of New Criticism and as a creative writer, I can’t help cringing a bit at the thought of what this exercise does to works of art – what we are here calling “texts.”   I recall a high school course in literary theory where I had to write a paper about the Oedipus complex in Huckleberry Finn.  Oh, you missed that one, too?  I’m sure Mark Twain did as well.  In any case, were I to employ Pope’s strategies in my own classroom, it would be important to me to make sure the students were “re-re-centered” at the end, and brought back around to a conversation that deepens their appreciation of what the text is – its aesthetic, its ethics, its artfulness — with or without the context of what it is not.

Active readers/Reading comprehension

Active readers/Reading comprehension

I am looking for practical ideas to move students into writing more often and reading more thoroughly.  Many of the readings this week fit the bill.  The idea of the “Difficulty Paper” was particularly interesting to me because I am also interested in getting students to think about how they work, and to think about how they think.   They are very comfortable writing “reaction papers” or “responses”, but they struggle with content when I ask them to think about their own thinking.  The difficulty paper idea, in the Salvatori & Donahue article, is a great way to jump-start this kind of thinking.  When students write about their problems reading the text, they not only begin a sort of analysis of the text, but they also write about their own learning experience.  These papers then turn into asking themselves why – why are they having difficulty.  According to the article, the instructor then uses a few of these papers each week as a starting point for discussion.  This is a great idea too, because all too often, teachers end up summarizing and interpreting the text for the students through our own experiences  (like many of the readings this week address), and don’t get to the issues that are truly troubling the students.

On the other hand, sometimes those interpretive/analytical/summarizing lessons can be very helpful for students who aren’t understanding the material.  I myself have often appreciated a synthesis of challenging material by an expert teacher.  Ideally then we would all go back and re-read, but we don’t, and that too is why teaching the article (poem or story) can be helpful.  Precisely because students do arrive in our classrooms with different experiences and levels of cultural understanding, we teachers do need to provide guidance through a challenging poem or story, and teach students to teach themselves. Getting a sense of how the students are understanding the text before we teach it, can make us more responsive teachers.

The Elements of Difficulty

Leslie Jones

While reading the Salvatori and Donahue text I found myself reflecting on my own experiences as a student and an instructor.  The authors explain that our common understanding of difficulty and its relation to the reading and writing process is often misunderstood, and they further explain that “readers who engage, rather than avoid, a text’s difficulties can deepen their understanding of what they read and how they read” (3). I agree with their assessment, but must admit that as a young student I was not always encouraged to embrace difficulty while reading and writing.  I often felt pressure to understand the texts discussed in class quickly, and to get good results. I further felt that questions were not necessarily evidence of critical thinking, but rather evidence of a lack of knowledge. Further, as a student in elementary, middle, and high school I found that more attention was given to the final quality of my schoolwork rather than the process I went through to achieve understanding.

Many students fall into this category because of the way classroom learning is structured and evaluated. For example, if your school funding is contingent upon favorable student test scores, then as an instructor you may have no choice but to try and achieve student understanding in a limited amount of time. In this case students who master school work and reading easily may receive all the praise and attention, while less time is focused on the actual process that learners must go through in order to become more critical readers and thinkers. It was as a college student that I began to understand that embracing difficultly was not only necessary to the learning process, but also necessary to my development as a writer.

I agree with the authors, and feel that embracing difficulty is necessary to the learning process, but as an instructor I have found it challenging to encourage my students to engage in critical thinking, and move from summary to analysis. I found it valuable that in addition to discussing why introducing difficulty in the classroom should be viewed differently the authors also provide examples of classroom activities that encourage students to be more reflective while reading and writing. In my classes I have students keep a journal in which they record their reflections to the readings that we do in class, but I have never assigned a difficulty paper.

In addition to the triple-entry notebook I think that the difficulty assignment would be a good way to encourage students to embrace their questions about the texts they read. It can also teach them to view their uncertainty about a text as a normal part of the learning process, and not as a weakness. Students should be encouraged to write about the questions and uncertainties they encounter while reading, and they should have no fear in voicing those concerns in the classroom. Both of the assignments that were outlined in reading could help instructors foster an environment in the classroom where critical discussion of readings are embraced because both assignments encourage reflection, and don’t diminish the importance of the writing process.





Writers’ Choices

Molly Davidow

What struck me about the readings is the point that students need to know that authors make choices. Sometimes these choices are made to produce a dominant reading (which Rob Pope would like us to recognize and subvert), but also, authors make choices to make their writing more accessible to readers.

In “Engaging Ideas”, they discuss that novice readers have trouble adapting the strategies they use for different tasks. I’d add that the reader’s knowledge of text features: formatting, headings, subheadings, captions, pull-quotes, etc. tell much about the text’s content, but many students are not in the habit of noticing them.  I recently did an exercise with my students in which they had to identify author’s purpose for a variety of articles in a single newspaper.   I was struck by how many of them acted as if the text features–that could have made their assignment worlds easier, weren’t there.  For many of them, a text just exists.  They don’t think about choices made about what goes on a page to make it readable

Like Pope’s “Textual Intervention,” Salvatori and Donahue give students methods of “reading against the grain” in order to interpret an author’s choices in an (ostensibly) easy text.  When teaching a “difficult” text, my ultimate goal is usually to get my students immersed in the material, so that their comprehension isn’t hindered by foreign vocabulary, complex syntax, and which pronoun goes with which antecedent.  With reading against the grain, or interrupting a text we find ways to alienate ourselves from the text, because its “constructedness” is invisible.  This is the kind of thing I also try to balance in my classroom: making the structure visible in an “easy” text and the content accessible in another, more difficult one.

I often hear that we should urge students–especially struggling readers– to be meta-cognitive.  I liked that Salvatori and Donahue’s “The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty” gives more accessible language to engage students in this process.  By writing “difficulty papers” about literary works, the act of learning to read happens at the same time as (what students often see as) the more advanced work of interpreting a literary text. Too often, I think, the approach is to teach reading skills in isolation.

Should We Try To Make Experts?

In this week’s readings, I was most struck by the relatively straightforward “How Experts Differ From Novices” chapter, particularly in its treatment of the clearly varied skill sets of experts and novices. Some examples, such as the comparison of veteran teachers with inexperienced teachers, seemed to paint a simple picture of a lack of understanding and pattern-recognition that would eventually be gained through experience. My expectation, and I am assuming the general expectation of others observing these two groups, is that the novices would learn how to recognize details and patterns over time and with practice. The same might be said of the master chess players and their “chunking” abilities in relation to novice players: they are seeing the same things as the beginners, but they are effortlessly and automatically recognizing, sorting, and prioritizing complex patterns within the game. With enough practice and guidance from the Experts, the Novices should eventually become Experts themselves, right?

The mention of “chunking” reminded me of my time working as an SAT and ACT teacher for a major standardized test prep company (there is a reading prompt on one of the practice tests about chess masters “chunking”), and how the approach of test prep classes diverges from this notion of turning Novices into Experts by emphasizing pattern recognition and de-emphasizing rote memorization of facts. In our classes, we teach that pattern recognition is far more useful on the test than memorizing facts, particularly because the ACT and SAT tests don’t actually test a student’s knowledge of facts. Being able to see patterns and blaze through problems almost by reflex is much more important than being able to provide complex proofs or even show one’s work.

At the same time, Expertise, as it is presented in the case of the historians and the history students, is very bad on these tests. Being able to get a bunch of multiple choice questions right is actually much more important than being able to really create an essay full of nuance and conjecture. Simply plugging numbers into formulas, as Novices apparently do, is much more effective on a standardized test than complex, overarching understanding of concepts. A physicist might go into the ACT Science section and try to understand the broad patterns and ideas behind the sections, and while that is all well and good in for a laboratory or PhD program, he would end up with a very bad score on the test because he would probably fail to recognize that specific understanding of scientific concepts is completely irrelevant there. The same goes for essay-writing skills, reading comprehension, and math on these tests: breadth of knowledge is much more important than depth on a standardized test; being an Expert in that context can actually be quite harmful.

I suppose, then, this brings up a question: should we always be striving to make Novices into Experts? Is being an Expert in this sense always a good thing? The academic value (or lack thereof) of standardized tests aside, is depth of understanding always superior to breadth? I am not a physicist, and I do not ever intend to be one; is my Novice understanding of a series of facts and formulas bad? Should I have been taught physics differently? There’s a value judgment here that I think needs to have attention brought to it, especially when we are using such loaded terms as “Expert” and “Novice”. Who doesn’t want to be an Expert instead of a Novice?

Pope De/Re Centred

I love Bean’s article, “Helping Students Read Difficult Texts”; his analysis of student writing problems are accurate, in my experience. I especially liked his ideas for helping students understand what they’re reading. Too often, articles point out problems or suggest ideals and give vague one-liners on what teachers are supposed to do to help students. (I feel that the “How People Learn” article was guilty of this).

I also liked Salvatori and Donahue’s article and how it also gave a few examples of tactics to use to help students with difficult texts. I realized that I was sometimes guilty of just spelling it out for my classes when we read texts, especially pieces by Shakespeare. When I read, (forgive me for not couching my quotation), “If [students] move away from those difficulties, or opt for somebody solving them for them, chances are that they will never know the causes of those difficulties, and the means to control them”, I realized that it’s part of my job to let them struggle, just as it is to let my 3 month old struggle to roll over in order to eventually crawl and someday walk and run (3).

I was surprised to be so delighted, though, by Pope’s article. I agree with Alicia; it was definitely a more difficult text to read, especially when you can only find ten minute chunks to read such a formidable text. However, I really loved his ideas. There’s a great balance of creativity with analysis and research in the de/recentring example he uses with Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess”.

By taking a piece of prose/literature/poetry/drama through his text, context, cross-text, re-textualise, and commentary steps, students can understand texts more deeply. The De-Centring and Re-Centring a Literary Classic section starting on page 14 really got me dusting off my teacher brain and imagining how I’d use his techniques for AP English.

As Bean points out, one of the problems students have with reading is they have no prior knowledge. In addition to, perhaps inadvertently, learning how to become new-historicist critics, Pope’s suggestions can help students gain prior knowledge by understanding a text’s contextual underpinnings.

All the articles are very interesting and I gleaned something from each of them, but the main tools that will help students with difficult reading are adequate time to spend on readings, persistence in tackling a text, and intellectual curiosity, which I hope we will discuss more in class.




Collaboration Versus Apathy

I’m pleasantly surprised to have seen Carver’s “Cathedral” put on this week’s readings. It’s a long-time favorite of mine, first introduced to me many years ago either in high school or in undergrad—I don’t quite remember that part. But many years later, today, looking at it again, I read it differently. Similar to what Ben and Miriam have posted previously, perhaps it is best to see it almost as a fruitful exercise in instruction.

Many times as writers and literary scholars we take for granted how easily things come to us. To turn around and make it simple for another person that is quite not as experienced or quick on the draw—to get to the essence of a text—can be a very difficult, strenuous, and sometimes painful process. Because like images—and our imagination—we structure our understanding of language in methods that suit our personal preferences. Knowledge, thus, is stored in a sort of “personalized” fashion. You can’t teach a classroom expecting everyone learns the same way, which is why I think lecture-format classrooms are so harmful. To attempt drawing out or extrapolating similar conclusions to your own, from a text, from the minds of other readers never a care for what they think or believe or understand or wish to know, well … that can be quite difficult—if not unabashedly flawed thinking in teaching instruction.

But I guess, to be fair, what do I know?

At 25 years old, this being the final semester of my Master’s degree, I’ve never had the opportunity to teach either a Literature or Composition course. I’ve worked as a tutor over the years, however, and I can assuredly admit that some processes of bridging gaps between my knowledge and another student’s at many times were filled with bumps and impediments.

Like Carver’s narrator with the old, blind man, I was at times forced outside of my comfort zone to suit the needs of the “tutee,” so to speak. And in doing so, I often learned a lot about myself and my own understanding of texts, language, and meaning while at the same time helping students learn about, develop, or improve theirs. Education is a collaborative process that requires dropped barriers of both the student and the instructor to get the most of it, and that doesn’t always come easy.

I reflect back to last week’s in-class discussion, which I spent for the most part of in silence, observing, as the rest of your addressed the issue of apathy in the classroom. I wonder, now, if apathy is largely caused because of this disconnect—the failure to remove barriers. It can be difficult to motion troubled students into participation, but perhaps if we stepped off our pedestals—closed our eyes like the blind man if you will—we may manage to convince one or two of them the true inspiration of studying works of language. And who knows. Perhaps we’ll learn a thing or two about ourselves, too.

Difficulty and Expertise

Bransford’s chapter from How People Learn detailing the differences between the way novices and experts categorize, retrieve, and use information was fascinating to me not only as a teacher but also as a student interested in observing and improving my own mental functioning. While the piece did an admirable job of describing the differences, I was disappointed with the complete lack of advice that the authors provided for instructors who wanted to foster these habits of mind in their students (and, of course, for students desirous of developing the habits themselves). Surveying our offerings for the week, I began to consider the relationship between the habits discussed in this piece and the theoretical and practical approaches outlined in the other works. Though the Pope chapter struck me as the most pedagogically self-aware reading for the week, I felt that the Salvatori chapter on difficulty was, in fact, the best complement for Bransford.

In the first chapter of Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, Salvatori and Donahue emphasize the value of struggle, claiming that it is only through the recognition of difficulty that we are able to develop the self-awareness and agency required to make the leap from “students” to “independent learners.”  It was the awareness-raising aspect of this chapter that most captured my attention: the fact that students who completed assignments like the Difficulty Paper were better able to think not only about a difficult text or problem but also their own response to that text or approach to that problem. The authors began to talk about how success bred confidence in learners and how that confidence was then applied to even more difficult texts and assignments.

An awareness of the mental processes used – both their own and those of experts – seems to lie at the heart of the readings by Bransford and Salvatori. The most immediate question to arise from their juxtaposition might be: How does exposure to expert thinking help students develop their own strategies for dealing with difficult material? A more successful dialogue between the two, however, might consider the student as more than just a learner encountering difficulty. He is, after all, almost certainly an expert in some field or another in his own right. For an instructor who acknowledges this fact, the question may undergo a fundamental shift: Can students actually become their own expert models through a heightened awareness of their thought processes or approaches when encountering tasks in which they demonstrate expertise?

How Experts Differ from Novices – Metacognition

                As I embarked on my graduate project, “Developing Strategic Readers”, at Virginia Tech, I thought that I could teach my students several reading strategies to enhance their reading comprehension and they will automatically become strategic readers.  I was very naïve about the process of learning and developing metacognition.

                I found the chapter, “How Experts Differ from Novices” of “How People Learn…” very insightful and interesting.  I grew up viewing the term “expert” as someone who knew everything possible in their own field.  This chapter opened up my eyes to a different way to looking at not just the term “expert”, but at learning in general.  As educators we understand that one of the most important tasks of education is to teach our students how to learn on their own throughout their lifetimes, beyond the classroom. First we need to acknowledge the question of how do we learn? How do we know what we’ve learned and how to direct our own future learning? This is where the concept of metacognition comes to focus.  According to this chapter, “…students need to develop the ability to teach themselves.” (page 50) This chapter encourages us to assist our students to “…become metacognitive about their learning so they can assess their own progress and continually identify and pursue new learning goals.” (page 50) Our students will become problem-solvers when they develop metacognition.  They will know how to recognize errors or breaks in their own thinking, analyze, process, and articulate their thought processes, and review their efforts.  As this chapter points out, “knowledge cannot be reduced to sets of isolated facts or propositions…” (page 31)  “Experts have acquired extensive knowledge that affects what they notice and how they organize, represent, and interpret information in their environment.  This in turn, affects their abilities to remember, reason, and solve problems.” (page 31) Metacognition and self-regulation play a major role in our students’ learning and the process is much more complex than just remembering and utilizing a set of reading strategies.