Category Archives: Week 5 – Lit Workshop

Self-knowledge and realistic expectations

A theme that pervaded both The Literature Workshop and “Confronting Resistance” seemed one of learning to let go.  Wilner came to the realization that she had to let go of her own preconceptions and biases simultaneous to her students letting go of their previous cognitive frameworks of belief.  Both were forced to identify when feeling ended and thinking began, what was a critical reflection and what was merely an automatic response.  Blau described the deliberate shift a teacher must make when letting go of what you’d like to present in favor of what you’d like your students to discover.

While we often readily seek to de-bunk the tradition of lecture teaching I can’t help but wonder if it’s reasonable that we expect others to let go of anything while in the act of becoming educated.   Blau puts it rather nicely in the guise of a cliché: “What is needed, of course, is the fishing pole and the fishermen’s lore that the wise benefactor gives to the poor man, instead of a handout of day-old fish” (31).  This is all well and good in the context of promoting self-discovery and learning, but it fails to recognize the inherent value in some of that hand-me-down knowledge as well as the real mental leaps that must take place when belief and value networks form the basis for interpretation.   While I very much appreciate Blau’s stance on the righteousness of the academic relationship between teacher and student, I temper my own over-glorification in light of real-life constraints and forces at play inside and outside of the classroom.

Wilner very courageously attempts to confront these forces, but falls victim to one of my cardinal pet-peeves: Humanities experts are not social scientists.  While I believe that there is a dearth of wonderful research out there about pedagogy, rhetoric, composition, learning styles, genre communities, and so on and so forth, there is a hard limit to pedagogical experts making claims about religion, ethics, morality, and psychology.  Cognitive theory can yield some very powerful conclusions about feeling and thinking, but cannot be finessed into a comprehensive overview without also associating the necessary experts in the supplementary disciplines.

Blau’s perspectives on “From Telling to Teaching” heartily preconceives that learning how to interpret texts must be a process that students come about determining for themselves.  It’s not good enough to just “hand-down” our own knowledge or the historical/background information (although, sometimes these lectures are imperative).  If you have ever worked with a “student” (adult or otherwise) than you know that there is something that isn’t being said here… the student will only determine such a process for themselves if they are personally emotionally driven to do so.  Teachers are not just contending with how to present or collaborate on texts; we’re contending with apathy.  I can’t help but think of this in terms of embodiment.  I think of embodiment as the level at which we take ownership of a task and personally care about its success.  Embodiment of a critical practice such as reading or writing is wholly driven by my personal interactions with text, mind, and peers (not to mention a million other variables).  Accordingly, it is all similarly dependent on level of engagement.

Am I able to focus my mental faculties substantially enough on this task?   Stressed?

Is my mind wandering?  Sleepy?  Hungry?  Bored?

Am I distracted by unrelated thoughts?  Did I remember to switch the laundry?

Is this person irritating the heck out of me?

Are some mental distractions actually favorable parallels that will actually catalyze the depth of my engagement?

Are others just a manifestation of my previously held beliefs and values?

Are those impeding my growth or interpretation?

What does all of this add up to?  Think about what you’re thinking about!  Meta-cognitive awareness must be enacted in the individual, but can we actually teach meta-cognition?  Blau says we should embrace “readings that disrupt coherence and subvert certainty” (46), but as we saw in Wilner’s “Territory” experiment, the result can be less than a pleasant ride.   She said she wouldn’t arrange the writing assignments in the same fashion the next time around.  “To move in the wrong direction is not progress, but to move backward in order to correct your course is” (46).   Embrace your fallible nature (as teacher and student)!  If haven’t been bucked off once or twice you’re not riding enough horses.

On providing a little background info to students

Both Blau and Wilner bring up the question of a little background information (author bio, historical context) as something many teachers find necessary in helping students interpret a literary work.  I believe that this background information leads students away from their own personal interpretation of a story or poem, and therefore almost never provide it.  I used to feel guilty about “gypping” the students out of a little more knowledge, but I don’t anymore.  Once a teacher provides biographical or historical information, students often shift their thinking to fit what they now know.  And that contradicts the idea of making meaning.  In many cases, the background info isn’t much help anyway, but I have seen students try to fit an interpretation to their new knowledge.  For example, Emily Dickinson was a recluse.  Knowing this detail of her personal life may help in appreciating ED, but it is not much help in understanding many of her poems. However, I have had students who try mightily to fit this fact into their reading of her poems.

Wilner talks about the emphasis that thoughtful teachers place on the reader’s emotional connection with a text.  In fact she says this connection “should not be underestimated”.  This is what I am counting on when I select poems and stories (from my anthology) for the class.  By eliminating the “little lesson in geography, history, or politics”, I feel like I leave the learning up to the student.  When Fish said that it is the readers who make the meaning, he meant that they do that through their emotional connection, that empathy or understanding, to the text.  When students can fit the text into what they already know, culturally or academically, then they make that emotional connection and can therefore construct an interpretation that feels authentic to them.

Blau has a nice solution to the problem of background info – and that is to give the students other material written by the same author (88).  Students can then absorb the themes, language, nuances that interest the author, and see connections in a body of work.  By doing this, students can also monitor their progress in understanding, and see their own construction of meaning evolve as they become more familiar with an author.  Blau says that it is not our job “to convince our students that we are in possession of some unattainable knowledge that makes it easy for us to navigate in textual waters”   (95) but rather to help them acquire the knowledge they need by providing them with the texts they’ll need to learn that knowledge for themselves.

Your Pappa’s Waltz, My Humble Pie Poem

So here I was all proud of myself for doing something different when I ‘taught’ poetry and, come to find out, I was doing it all wrong. If I were the type to be embarrassed, I’d be really embarrassed about that blog entry. To add insult to injury, I was teaching the wrong interpretation of “My Pappa’s Waltz”! Dagger. I am one of the 85% that thought the poem was sad and that the father was an alcoholic. I gave the students the poem after we read the trial scene in To Kill a Mockingbird and read Mayella testify against Tom Robinson. Of course none of my students interpreted the poem as a happy poem because when read directly after reading about Mayella’s relationship with her father, the poem is tainted! I got the idea that “My Pappa’s Waltz” was a poem about an abusive father because that’s how it was presented to me when I first read it.

I can’t help but wonder then, how do you present poems to students in such a way that they aren’t tainted? Do we bring back the dreaded Poetry Unit? If you weave poems into classroom units like I did, do you run the risk of giving students context that can alter the interpretation they might have had if read independent from another text? I used to open class with a warm-up– grammar or quickwrite. Would a poem be a good addition? Maybe even one that a student has brought in that I’ve never seen before?

One thing I noticed about Blau that I will definitely have to work on when I go back to teaching is how masterful he is at conducting workshops. He’s like a traffic cop, coordinating the discussion in efficient and effective directions. He also reels back his own opinions. If a student had told me that “Pappa’s Waltz” was a happy poem, I don’t know that I would have shot him down, but I may have said something like, “Oh! Well, isn’t that a *neat* interpretation?”

I am guilty of feeding the English teacher machine in that I teach texts the way was taught them and have assumed that there are many ways to interpret a poem, but really there is only one right version. I have to confess that it is going to be really hard for me to let go of the idea that several ‘correct’ reading possible, but I think his workshop discussing Pat Mora’s “Sonrisas” is a strong argument for accepting different interpretations.


It’s official: I’m sick of pedagogy.

Or, to be more precise, I’m sick of pedagogical articles implying that the sentiment “teachers need to be flexible and reflective” remains a meaningful contribution to theoretical dialogue in the field. Ho hum, teachers are not always right. Ho hum, teaching must be adapted to the audience and context. Ho hum.

The problem with this argument (and the endless number of articles promoting it) is that, when carried to a logical conclusion, it negates the value of pedagogical instruction. If every interaction with a student or group of students is unique, if even the instructor herself endeavors never to be the same river twice, what is the purpose of trading tales of classroom success? Aren’t these tales little more than the self-congratulatory palaver of veterans? (I’m looking at you, Wilner.)

With my apologies to Sylvia Plath, I would suggest that teaching is an art, like everything else, and if you do it exceptionally well, it feels like hell.

Successful teaching is that which balances the observation of students’ backgrounds, competencies, and needs with the assumptions and demands of the cultural moment. It asks teachers to plan carefully, prepare diligently, and cheerfully scrap it all and begin again when any one of the multitudes of classroom variables invalidates all of the work done in advance. Successful teaching requires knowledge of both the content area and the pedagogical strategies that will encourage learner autonomy.

In comparing the week’s readings, I am struck by how much more realistic, practical, and useful – in short, how much more valuable – I found the chapters by Blau. Like Wilner, Blau acknowledges the necessity of recognizing the various viewpoints and personalities that come together in the classroom. Rather than allowing these divergent points of entry to tempt him into a solipsistic exploration of the role of the teacher, however, he attempts to propose thoughtful ideas (I hesitate to use the word “solutions”) that allow students to engage with a text or an activity at a level appropriate for them as individuals.

Blau and Wilner both seem to imply that every class meeting, every assignment, indeed, every interaction in some way represents a kind of battle. Wilner’s hyper reflective approach seems to make an enemy of the self, refusing both pat assumptions and the confidence that might otherwise accompany a long and successful career. She seems to delight in making teaching, already a difficult task, impossible. Blau, on the other hand, implies that the instructor has an opportunity to join students in the struggle, completely re-conceptualizing both the union between these groups and their goal.

Viewed this way, the value of exchanging experiences becomes obvious: while no two lessons will ever be the same, the benefit of having other teachers’ ideas and approaches to draw on helps prevent instructors from having to continually re-invent the wheel. In doing so, teachers are free to focus on observing and empowering their students, confident that they will be able to respond to whatever each class session may bring.

Hemingway’s Iceberg

Having finished reading Wilner’s 25-page exposition, I reflect back on the first week or two of class, on my first blog post: apathy and its destructive nature in the classroom. If our previous reading was an illustration of the necessity of stepping outside of one’s own comfort zones to engage readers in the classroom, averting apathy, Wilner’s could almost be considered, in line with that conversation, the “what if” when such “comfort zone” methods go wrong.

She argues initially that her mistake was imposing authorial intent as a guide to the classroom, asserting that she now believes that historical context in most cases is irrelevant to our own interpretation: “[Sonny’s Blues] describes a young black man falling victim to the seduction of heroin in the Harlem of the 1940s—from such a threat my mostly white suburban students could feel relatively safe,” (189). She argues that by attempting to continually hammer home the cut-and-dry interpretation of the text, “the meaning of this profound story would not emerge for them,” (184).

I would argue that on one level Wilner perhaps misjudged the maturity level of her classroom introducing such emotionally- and perhaps politically-charged texts. When male students submit journal entries brandishing righteous indignation because underage girls could get into clubs slipping into revealing outfits, or because one boy felt emasculated in the shadow of his older brother, some kind of re-evaluation of course material must be made—or perhaps not.

I too, am in fact a white, upper-class, suburban male, and I had no difficulty grasping at Wilner’s suggested theme of the story. Rather than judging students by their privilege and stereotyping potential limitations by that, I think there’s plenty more to be said that the mistake was imposing a difficult text with an incorrect frame; that is, what I mean is that Wilner mistakenly assumes that the conventional reading of the text is the best one, and that by not grasping it, or paying attention to it—or the narrator’s transformation/epiphany at the end of the story—they have somehow missed the point of the text.

To place a little context of where I’m coming from, reflect back on last week’s discussion of Hemingway’s “Chapter IV.” It may not really matter all that much what Hemingway’s belief in courage or guts is; it enriches my own interpretation of the text by how I understand Hemingway as a writer, but that isn’t to say anyone must accept it as final. By all means, I would never assert that one has missed the point of the story by reading it differently. There are, after all, a lot of different methods to reading Hemingway. His writing is like an iceberg; it’s deceptively simple. But that is neither here nor there.

The issue is the reading of “Sonny’s Blues,” and I think she mistakenly concludes that authorial intent is an irreconcilable method to course instruction, as their understanding of authenticity may work in opposition to the author’s: “By imposing meaning that the students may not consider authentic, the ‘sacred text’ approach … can backfire; it can alienate them from the reading rather than engage them more deeply in it,” (192).

This is, in essence, throwing the baby out with the bath water.

I think what’s necessary to identify here is that you can include authorial intent and more foundational readings of a text without imposing it as sacrosanct.

To cut it out of the classroom based on their background as privileged compared to that of the narrator, because they “didn’t get it,” seems far more alienating than the process of finding reconciliation. If it doesn’t happen, what’s the issue? What matters is that these students engage with and take away something from the text. Let them interact with the more conventional interpretations of the text and mold them to their own perspective. This isn’t an all or none kind of game. I’ll identify Hemingway’s iceberg to a student; where they go with that is solely up to them. And it’s hard not to see any other writer’s work the same way.

The very idea that conventional methods of reading are immune to being overturned, after all, flies in the face of the way the Humanities has shifted and evolved throughout the years. She does to some extent come to this conclusion herself, identifying “going meta,” but she does not so explicitly come to a balance that I find satisfactory (193).

What I actually find most liberating about the Humanities is that it is not so rigorously defined by hard facts and numbers—merely logic. And with enough logic applied, any argument works. This is practically the mantra of our field, a discipline that constantly pushes its disciples into newer boundaries—if not, at least, to so consciously avoid the realm of an “obvious” thesis.

Working through Difficulty with Peers

I’m a product of the Northern Virginia Writing Project, so Sheridan Blau had me hooked from the Introduction when he discussed how the National Writing Project led him towards this style of teaching in literature as well.  I admit, I’m sad that I don’t have a classroom to practice these techniques with yet, because I’m already thinking about how I want to incorporate Blau’s ideas—whether as a full on lesson, as several mini-lessons, or as habits of mind for my students—when I get back to my own classroom next year.   But since I don’t have the ability to practice these things and report results, I want to think about the implications of what Blau’s saying.
One of the themes of our readings is the idea of difficulty: how we approach it as teachers, how students approach it, how we teach students to work through difficult things.  One thing that has been cropping up with the sixth graders I work with is that (according to their parents) they feel very anxious about getting anything wrong on homework, on worksheets we do in class, and also on tests or quizzes.  Much of what we’ve discussed in class and Blau discusses in The Literature Workshop deals directly with this idea: students don’t necessarily know how to work through something difficult and they don’t recognize that “failure” the first time is actually a necessary step in the learning process.  In Chapter 2, as Blau presents the workshop on “Sonrisas,” he comments that “to move ahead in the wrong direction is not progress.  But to move backward in order to correct your course is” (46).  So much of what creates problems for students is that they’re afraid to move backward because they don’t understand that sometimes that’s a necessary step.  We often talk about making our classrooms a safe place for students to take risks, but it seems that when we simply lecture about our interpretation of a piece of literature, we’re not only not showing students how we’ve come up with that interpretation, we’re also nullifying that safety zone.  One of the things I really like about the literature workshops as Blau presents them is that much of dealing with confusion is handled on the peer to peer level, rather than asking the teacher for answers when there’s a problematic section.  This should empower students to realize how much they can come up with just within their peer group, and it also makes admitting confusion more possible because it’s in a low stakes setting with only a few people, rather than in front of the whole class.   The more students can practice admitting confusion, backtracking when they had a misconception, and reading things over and over again, the more they’ll be able to begin doing these things naturally when they read on their own.  I hope.