Category Archives: Week 5 – Lit Workshop

I found the chapters of Blau’s “The Literature Workshop” intriguing. The transcripts of workshops were of particular interest, because they immediately brought to mind my own experiences in similar literature classes both from undergraduate and here at GMU. As with any written piece, it is helpful to try and analyze as a group, because there will be dissenting opinions and other people who can add their pre-existing knowledge to that conversation to shed light on a subject that is perhaps needed to fully understand the text, as in “Death of the Ball Turret Gunner”. And while he acknowledges that there will be times students simply claim they “don’t get it”, this is a failure not of their reading ability but of their ability to analyze the way they think about reading. As has been discussed by so many of the things we’ve read in class, difficulty is seen as a roadblock, a dead-end instead of an opportunity to learn and overcome.
But what of the willful refusal of students to even read something that challenges their way of thinking? I’m referring of course, to the example that Arlene Wilner gives at the beginning of her article: “The most troubling and disorienting moment came when most of the
male students in one of my sections refused to read, let alone write about, an assigned short story that charts the emotional growth of its homosexual protagonist.” (173) This seems like the kind of problem more likely to be encountered in a high school classroom than at a college level, but that may just be my naivete showing. I’m curious how Blau would handle that kind of disruptive incident in one of his “literature workshops”. While I find his method helpful for promoting and finding/making meaning, it is less useful when there is a simple refusal on the part of one or a group of students to even participate.
On a certain level, a workshop style class can allow some students to get by without ever really participating in the thinking process; to “coast” by mimicking what other students have said, or adding their voice to a discussion that’s already in progress without making up their own minds about why they agree/disagree or how they reached that conclusion. I have been in classrooms with students like this, and I’ve had friends who made it through most of their academic careers this way. They never really gained the cognitive skills they needed, but still managed to pass their classes and get good grades. At some point, I have to ask the question: whose failure is it? The student’s for trying to get by with the least amount of effort possible, or the teacher’s for allowing them to get by without being challenged?

Confronting Resistance: Sonny’s Blues – and Mine

Confronting Resistance: Sonny’s Blues – and Mine

Today, as an overview of the midterm to my developmental English class, I explained to the class that the format will be a summary and response to an essay.  One of my students anxiously raised her hand to ask a question. She asked, “Can you tell us what the article will be about?” I said, I know what the article is about, but I cannot share that information beforehand.  She disappointingly replied, “I hope it is a good essay, because I will not read a boring essay!” I advised her to spark an interest when the text that is unfamiliar or “boring” – To activate her prior knowledge and connect that knowledge to the new text. That is much easier said than done!

I couldn’t help to reflect on what Arliene Wilner pointed out in Confronting Resistance: Sonny’s Blues – and Mind, “…students naturally rely on habitual patterns of reaction, often shaped by unexamined emotions that encourage them to convert nuanced, complex relationships (among characters or ideas) into simplistic, distorted ones. In extreme cases, as in the rebellion in my class, students may simply refuse to do the reading if they do not like what it is “about.” (Page 2) Clearly, this student has not yet learned how to cope with an interpretive assignment.  In the past five weeks of this semester, students have read several essays and completed a triple-entry journal for these essays. Based on her responses, I have noticed that she is an underprepared student who has a difficult time making meaning of text. Is it that she doesn’t have the comprehension strategies to derive meaning out of text or is it an emotional factor? According to the article, “…emotional factors, usually tied to values, are implicated in one’ resistance to new ideas, which are then either rejected or transformed into a more comfortable version that can be assimilated to one’s existing ethos.” (Page 2) My student’s rejection of the “boring” text also has to do with engagement. If she is not emotionally connected to the text, then she might not be engaged as the article points out, “…a reader’s primary emotional connection with a text should not be underestimated, as it easily can be in an academic setting…students must be ‘taken in’ by a text – engaged by it on the level of story – before they can achieve fruitful critical distance from it.” (Page 4)

One of the barriers to critical thinking is our own personal judgment and belief system.  Students engage in critical thinking with a response and interpretation assignment. If the text is viewed by the students as sacred, they might not open up their minds, by letting go of their own strict personal beliefs, to engage in a meaningful manner with the text in order to draw meaning from the text.   In the case of my student, she might be resistant to new text if her own personal values do not align with the author’s views or the subject matter.  If she perceives texts as sacred, she will not be open to manipulate the text, analyze the information, and open her own mind to new information. “…we cannot transfer our appreciation of a work of art to anyone, especially not to student who feel so threatened by the subject matter that they cannot enter the author’s imagined world or who automatically assimilate apparently familiar elements to a stock story line, a reduced, distorted shadow of the text that fails to account for the richness and subtlety…’Sonny Blues’ moves toward an emotional climax, but it is a climax that student will not reach if they remain safely outside the text, resisting assimilation into its disturbing world.” (Page 13)  In order for students to meaningfully engage in a text, they need to be emotionally connected with the text. They need to let go of their strongly held moral judgments and deep-dive into the text!


Act I in Active Reading

The following seems so incredibly obvious, but reading the passage brought an extra, sharper ‘ping’ to the concept’s crystal clarity: “In fact, given what they have experienced in literature classes, most students never had the opportunity to learn that reading, like writing, is a process of making meaning or text construction that is frequently accompanied by false starts and faulty visions, requiring frequent and mess reconstruction and revision” (31).

Pivoting to a its small, albeit attempt at thoughtful application, this week I assigned students a chapter on active reading (annotating, highlighting, paraphrasing, etc).  Knowing most of them didn’t read the chapter on active reading, oh the irony, I went over the genuinely straightforward section.  In the middle of our discussion, one of my elder students asked, “So, what’s the difference between active and inactive reading?”

Here I was presented with a perfectly wrapped teachable moment on a silver platter—and alas, I feel as if I feel short.  I used the word to describe its definition—a major no, no.  My haphazard response, “Well, active reading is exactly that, taking some sort of action with the text, be it note taking, writing in the margins, marking areas of confusion, the whole gambit—whatever you feel and notice as important, so at the end you have a deeper understanding compared to inactive surface level reading which casually absorbs every other word.”  I felt I didn’t reach or answer her question to its fullest illuminating potential.

So, another route was taken; as their first papers were due today I circled back to our writing process and its parallels to the reading process—similar as Bleu mentions.  Revision : Rereading; Free Writing: Read Though Once for General Understanding.  I’m pleased to report a few more light bulbs went on…

Still, while the aforementioned ideas may have helped, the underlying problem stems from their lack of metaphorical acceptance of the text as fluid instead of more literally a tangible, heavy object.  With the majority of students, it’s a one-way street; they read, absorb, and regurgitate.  When I do—excitedly, mind you—point out areas of disagreement with the text, they hesitate and retreat.  I feel the following statement applies to all texts: “readings that treat texts as objects requiring mechanical analysis rather than as invitations to genuine human illumination and pleasure” (101).  Reading for the sake of learning, fueling a spark of curiosity—gone. All gone.  I then spend the rest of the semester making sure students aren’t afraid of their own insightful shadowy thoughts.

Huge digression, when the author was discussing his frustration with tests and formulas for AP exams, all I could think about was this:  It astounds me how relevant and topical testing is ten years later—perhaps exacerbated.

Teaching Reverence Before Breaking It Down

Though she took some time to get there, Arlene Wilner makes a relevant, humbling, and surprisingly funny point about the viewpoint of average college freshman when it comes to reading literature. In direct contract with Scholes, who she otherwise agrees with, Wilner points out that often the difficulty of teaching literature to students is not in getting them to stop revering texts, but rather to get them to care about texts in the first place beyond a basic, shallow understanding (or lack thereof). This reminds me of my personal experience of teaching writing to 5th graders and to high school students. I joke that talking about literature to 5th graders is easy because they are just old enough to be obsessed with reading and just young enough not to be a self-conscious and uncaring middle schooler. On the other hand, high schoolers seem to have the same approach that Wilner observes in college freshman: a distinct inability (or even a refusal) to engage a text without fitting it clumsily into their existing views and opinions, often at the expense of deeper understanding, which Wilner calls “assimilation” (as opposed to “accomodation”). With 5th graders, the difficulty is in moving them beyond the basics of plot, character, and conflict to more detailed, analytical concepts like theme, metaphor, and symbolism; they simply haven’t dealt with these things. But they are not, at least in my experience, resistant to understanding a text regardless of what it might be saying. They are perfectly happy recognizing that the titular character in the Artemis Fowl books is not necessarily a “good” person, as they might have expected from their previous knowledge of stories, and accepting the concept of the antihero, though the terminology would need to be explained to them in a lecture. My students who initially stated that Artemis was a “good” character needed only to be shown places where he was acting in ways that were “not good,” and they revised their interpretation of the books accordingly.

What Wilner is talking about with the college freshman is more akin to my experience with high schoolers; they do not lack understanding of the terminology or of the idea of deep analysis of a text, but they are resistant to it because it is not just a challenge to accomplish, but also often a challenge to their opinions and views. Her examples of students continually misreading an article about corporate influence in journalism and the story “Sonny’s Blues” have echoes of Shulman’s fantasia. These students have developed detailed opinions, tastes, preferences, etc., and moving against those is difficult and a bit scary. Heroin is obviously bad, so Sonny from the aforementioned story must be the person in whom we see significant change; grappling with the changing perspective of the narrator might suggest that the biggest problem here is not drug addiction. It’s a long way away from saying that drug addiction isn’t a bad thing, but what might those students think upon reading On the Road by Kerouac? Every character in that story is drugged out of their minds, and yet the book is hardly one that seeks to deal with the problems of rampant drug abuse. The Catcher in the Rye is often polarizing amongst students because many cannot get beyond Holden Caulfield’s “whiny” nature; they wonder why he can’t just “grow up” and stop being such a spoiled child, ignoring his fairly traumatic journey in the novel and Salinger’s ultimate point that Caulfield values childhood and innocence, spurring his dream about being a “catcher” in the rye, stopping all the children who might fall off the cliff (of adulthood) so that they can continue playing in the fields indefinitely. To many students, the tug-of-war between the responsibility of adulthood and the innocence of childhood is lost in their concern over Holden’s complaining demeanor as if he were literally their peer.

What Wilner suggests through her teaching example is a very astute way of addressing this problem, I think. She uses the narrow, personal reactions of the students to frame larger questions about the piece she assigned, which leads students beyond those personal reactions while still framing the entire discussion in terms of them. This is the difficulty of dealing with the unwillingness or inability of students to move beyond surface readings of texts (“it is/isn’t relevant to me because of my personal experience”); a student’s personal experience and perspective is relevant to the meaning of a story, but it can also be a hindrance, and so teaching students to read stories needs to channel that impulse productively. Before we can do as Scholes suggests and break down established methods and textual reverence, we have to teach students the methods and the reverence in the first place.

“Sonny’s Blues” and “Confronting Resistance”

This weeks reading seems to have taken on a new purpose, establishing the difference between reading and interpretation. When I first read “Sonny’s Blues” I was surprised by the emotional response I had, how the narrators thoughts and actions elicited sympathetic reactions. Perhaps I was in the rights state of mind, or perhaps it was my own personal history and experiences which enables my understanding, but I found the short story to be alluring beyond any other recent work I have read. This makes me question the quote Wilner took form Scholes, “If we impose our own values on every text, we have nothing to criticize but ourselves” (177). I would question the validity of such a statement when our personal values illuminate our readings, yet it is reasonable to believe that some values may overshadow other interpretations. Despite my reaction, there were moments where I had to pause and collect my thoughts, to gather the evidence and carefully examine the actions of the story to make sense of what happened. This most often took place when the narrator skipped on the timeline, such as his transition from learning of Sonny’s incarceration to his own daughter’s death, or how he discussed his parents in the past tense, and then they were back alive in a brief flashback. The structure of this story keeps me on my toes, thinking and connecting the thoughts of the narrator, and trying to figure out what was going on inside of his mind.
Despite some of difficulties with following the narration, only one moment stopped me in my tracks. The absolute, final line made me question and consider the possible implications of the cup of trembling and Sonny’s Scotch and milk. The drink itself, a Scotch and milk, is enough think about, but the composition of the mixture is most likely a distraction from the more important allusion to the biblical passage. Thank goodness for foot notes. Yet even the most detailed foot notes leave some room for interpretation, and at this point I still see the “cup of trembling” in both a positive and negative light. It may represent the penumbra in which Sunny is left, but I would prefer that it means the narrator is now able to see just how close Sunny needs to stand beside the darkness in order to shine.
My above interpretation brings me back again to Wilner, as he discussed how students may not share in the same “enlightened” ideas from reading the same literature. Each reader comes to a work with their own perspective, which may enlighten their reading, but not necessarily in the same fashion as other readers.

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.

The Literature Workshop

The comments that Sheridan Blau makes about confusion in the beginning of chapter 1 of his book, reminded me of the reading we did during the second week of class about difficulty. Blau describes a scene in a classroom where a frustrated student speaks out about reading Julius Caesar in class and refers to the play as being stupid and dumb, and questions why Brutus conspired to kill Caesar if he loved him. The teacher’s response to the student is critiqued by Blau, and he goes on to explain how student confusion in response to literature “often represents an advanced state of understanding” (21). I think its obvious that embracing student questions and confusion in a literature class can produce interesting class conversations and can also results in students and teachers developing a deeper understanding of the literature being studied. I also believe that it is the responsibility of the teacher to maintain order in the classroom, and to foster a learning environment that does not seek to diminish students’ questions, but encourages respectful conversation. Encouraging students to work through difficulty when interpreting texts, and showing them how to use their questions and confusion about a text to examine its meaning is essential to the learning process. Literature teachers have to accomplish the former but they must also correctly identify those in class who are hindering the learning process for others. In order to be a successful instructor I believe you must also recognize that not every question about a works importance or validity is evidence of deep critical thinking. In certain circumstances instructors are faced with students whose frustration is in fact evidence of their lack of desire to do the work.

I could also sympathize with the teacher who avoided certain lines of Macbeth due to his own uncertainty about their interpretation. After retelling his experience in a class with this instructor Blau asserts, “The only texts worth reading are texts you don’t understand” (24).  His explanation of this principle was interesting, and if I had not encountered a similar experience in the classroom, I would probably have thought his comments to be completely bizarre. I can remember preparing for a class, and feeling hesitant about including a poem by Louise Erdrich, because I was more familiar with works done by other poets. It was my first time teaching poetry in class, and I wanted to make sure that I had all of the answers in regard to the author’s background and the work itself. I decided to put my hesitation aside, and discussed Erdrich’s poem, “The Lady in the Pink Mustang”, along with some other works in class. I was surprised that the poem, which I felt would be the most difficult for them to understand, was in fact the poem that they wanted to talk about. Some students brought up things about the poem that I did not even think to mention as I first began to lead the discussion, and it turned out to be a good learning experience for us all.  As a new instructor there is always a fear that your credibility will be questioned if you don’t have all the answers. I think this fear keeps many teachers from embracing texts that they are not familiar with, especially when it comes to poetry.

Later when Blau discusses an interpretation of Theodore Roethke’s poem, “ My Papa’s Waltz”, I was shocked to discover that before 1985 no student in any of his classes had offered an interpretation of the poem that linked it to abuse. I can remember studying this poem as a freshman in college, and later teaching it in my first English class, and in each case abuse was mentioned. The last time I taught this poem in class there was some disagreement as to whether the poem was a reflection on a happy childhood memory, or whether the poem was about abuse. I was reluctant to tell the students in my class how I interpreted the poem, and instead as a class we noted places where it would be plausible to see a positive interpretation, and a negative one. After we discussed the poem I played a recording of Roethke reciting it. After listening to Roethke read his poem some students who previously interpreted the poem as positive found his reading to be quite depressing and were inclined to change their original interpretation


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.

Pair of Thoughts about Paradoxes

So much thought-provoking stuff in the Sheridan Blau’s book, but I was especially struck by two paradoxes he described:

  1. It’s a great point Blau makes on p. 55: “the intellectual work undertaken by teachers in the teaching-learning relationship [presents] richer opportunities for learning to the teacher than anything the teacher might do in the course of teaching his students.” Damn, but this is true. It would be safe to say that teachers are doing the heavy lifting – research, deep analysis, identifying historical context – before the students ever hit the classroom. Blau calls this work “the most difficult interpretive and conceptual problems that might trouble my students as readers of the texts I assigned.” What instructors need to consider is that “troubled” students (intellectually troubled, that is) generate questions, look for answers and argue in a group environment. This gets back to the brief discussion we had in class about the Scholes piece suggesting that it is not the teacher’s job to provide a dazzling display of acumen and erudition to his students. He has to strive to elicit some subset, some glimmer of that from his students, as they work through challenging texts with the guidance (but not complete authority) of the instructor.
  2. Also in the “From Telling to Teaching” chapter, Blau says that “meanings constructed through reading are also composed exactly as written work is composed and through a process that entails rough drafts and revisions as much as any task of difficult writing would.” He further asserts that “reading is more like writing than writing is,” and explains that student revision of compositions often “make them worse.” By contrast, Blau says, “in reading, revision never fails to be productive in yielding additional insight or the recognition of new problems – the confusion that represents an advance in understanding” (53). Gotta disagree here. True, writing and reading are subject to much the same expressive and interpretive sausage-making. It ain’t pretty, folks. But to say that student revision of writing often makes things worse, while rereading always is productive is BS, in my mind. I would argue that writing revisions consistently represent advances in understanding – they turn a student’s understanding and reasoning processes into a concrete product and serve as a springboard for discussion. If there is the blessed, revelatory confusion Blau praises, it is evident on the page (or computer screen) and the ensuing consideration (either from the writer’s own review or that from his peers) advances understanding. Both reading and writing when revisited by the student represent a march toward deeper understanding, appreciation and clarity of thought.


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.