Category Archives: Week 2

The Difficulty with Shakespeare

Someone else has already noted that Salvatori and Donahue have a somewhat superior tone in “Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty.” I did not quite consider that while I was reading, however, once I read that blog post, it suddenly clicked: they were a bit off-putting at times. Not that I did not agree with them at several points, but as a reader, I did feel a bit defensive when I disagreed with them. Every rhetorical question they asked was answered with a seemingly irrefutable answer, which at times caused red flags to come up.

Still, I did find this book very interesting, and I learned a lot about how people read. I also found the idea of “difficulty papers” appealing, and I think I would like to try that in one of my classes-particularly since we are about to enter Shakespeare.

Which brings me to my next point: I have been dreading Shakespeare all year long. Not because I dislike Shakespeare. To the contrary: I am a Shakespeare fan! I have been dreading teaching Shakespeare, largely because at the mere mention of the name, my kids moan and groan and mutter choruses of torture. As I read The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, I found myself faced with the same problem Salvatori and Donahue describe: the man himself. None of these kids have actually ever read a Shakespeare play before, and only one of them has every actually seen a Shakespeare play performed. How is it, then, that they all cower in fear when I suggest studying him? They did not make such a fuss when we studied Mark Twain or W.W. Jacobs or George Orwell! In the book, S. and D. say, “…a reader brings to texts a repertoire of expectations, experiences, and knowledge (whether implicit or explicit) which she can use to negotiate meaning (no reading is ever “pure” or “original”), that repertoire may produce so much noise that alternative readers are inhibited” (107). This seems to be the battle which I, and so many other English Lit. teachers, are up against. Perhaps they have heard from older students who say he is difficult; perhaps their parents had bad high school Shakespeare experiences and have whined about him; perhaps a television show quoted Shakespeare, and to the child, it made little to no sense. Whatever the reason, it is now a war I must wage to dissapate all their previous (mis)conceptions about the man himself to get them to see the beauty and excitement inherent in his plays. I think I might try to have the students do some difficulty papers, so we might begin conversations about what we don’t know to figure out what we do know. One of the examples in the “How Experts Differ from Novices” also suggested that when students start with what they do know (by identifying with the experience), their response is overall more positive (the Jake vs. Steven example; I don’t have a page number to reference). Perhaps by starting with what they do know, we can overcome Shakespeare’s great aura and start from ground zero, building only positive experiences from here on out!

Yes, we need to encourage students in THEIR processes of analysis

I was really intrigued by all of the readings for this week’s class and found myself having lengthy “conversations” with each text…especially The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty. I was initially turned-off but what I perceived as Salvatori and Donahue’s haughty tone. I feel that the tone of the book is that of someone who has achieved enlightenment as opposed to someone who has gained knowledge but recognizes that they, too, are still learning. I also found the work extremely repetitive, as others have noted on Twitter and in their posts.

Although I am highly critical of the book. I do feel that Salvatori and Donahue had some valid, important points, and there were some intriguing parts sprinkled throughout the work. Salvatori and Donahue focus on the fact that students tend “to ignore what [does] not make sense, focusing on what [is] clear and presenting their knowledge in the form of carefully crafted and supported arguments” (103). How true! Students are not excited about the idea of confronting the difficulties they experience with the text. Salvatori and Donahue’s whole argument rests on the idea that these moments of difficulty must be tackled because they lead to greater understanding. I agree. However, the authors suggest that they are giving various ways of approaching a text when, really, it’s all the same approach—identify moments of difficulty and work through them to reach greater understanding. I would like to think that most English teachers do this already and encourage this practice of their students, although they might not use the same jargon that Salvatori and Donahue do. We encourage students to confront difficulty when we have class discussions and ask what students have questions about, what they’ve noticed, etc. These are great springboards to class discussion about a text! We work through the questions and observations together and begin to work our way to a greater understanding of the work. I have my students do Reader’s Logs for various works. Students write about their questions and observations to an assigned reading and they must support these questions/observations, forcing them to think out the “difficulties” in writing and work towards a deeper understanding of the work. (My Reader’s Logs seem to be a less-abstract version of “The Difficulty Paper.”)

I agree that students need to be encouraged to tackle their difficulties. I also agree that students tend to be easily deceived by a “difficult” text disguised as an “easy” one and fall into what I call the “plot trap,” feeling as if, and deciding, that there’s nothing else to say. As teachers, we need to push students to ask questions and make observations, and then encourage them to run with those thoughts and questions a bit, exploring them and making connections. I think that, as teachers, we also need to be careful that we start with what our students observe and question rather than presenting our own thoughts and ideas. I really like what Salvatori and Donahue pointed out about “interpretive communities.” The authors point out that “communities of readers […] learn to read in similar ways, to value certain textual elements and to disregard others” (8). Our classrooms are interpretative communities. Teachers have certain preferred approaches and interests, things we gravitate to in a text and then point out and ask. Students pick up on these tendencies and we need to be really carefully! Two things I really “get into” are narrative structure and color symbolism. Before I knew it, without my really being aware that I was focusing on these two elements so heavily in “discussions,” I felt like this was all my students were talking about. At one point, a student submitted a thesis proposal and, in response to “why do you want to write about this topic?”(a question my students answer along with each thesis proposal), he very honestly stated he wanted to write about narrative structure because he knew I really like to analyze the structure of works and, therefore, he thought he would do well on the paper. Yikes! Now, I always start with student questions and observations—moments of “difficulty”—and we go from there. We need to check ourselves and make sure we’re mixing it up and letting students work through their process of reading and analysis, not ours.

The Obvious Is Often the Most Difficult to Discern

After this week’s readings I can see why a well-thought out lesson is not always a success.  Frequent questions and frustrated quips stop the lesson such as “I don’t understand,” and “How am I supposed to ask you a question about something that’s too hard to know what to ask?” As in Salvatori and Donahue’s The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, it is obvious that one of the difficulties I have is gauging my audience.  Prior to engaging students in learning, the challenge appears to be preparing them for the opportunity that they may not understand the material, and letting them know that we have a plan for that circumstance. 

 During a lecture to a multi-education [level] public high school class, I present material by going for the “Big Picture” first, as an objective.  After accessing prior knowledge to foreground the material and exploring who might have a particular claim on the information, I tell my students that at any point in the class they can come up and write a question or observation concerning what I am saying on the board.  Then, using an outline, illustration, or graphic, I delineate the facts I’m offering in the lesson.  My plan is to conclude with the classes’ questions, based on what is not understood, interspersed with observations of what does not make sense, and (hopefully) form a common consensus of the material.  Co-operation works both ways. 

 It is obvious to teachers and parents that even the most motivated students can become complacent at times.  My favorite: while in a room with an 18” diameter clock:  “What time is it?” 

 You cannot observe the internal process of understanding or questioning.   In Difficulty, the authors point out that the student should realize that textbooks and literature are the results of a vast body of well thought-out work (6).  This appropriately implies that an equally vast effort might be required to understand the text.  Students rarely seem to have time to do the work required to unpack this suitcase of knowledge, because they are off to the next lesson: Math after English, PE after Physics.  This disruptive pattern of exposure to themes, coupled with a three-month gap in the re-enforcement and progression of information and ideas, stresses retention ability and the development of learning.

 Drawing attention to the importance of how the material is framed in “How People Learn:  Brain Mind, Experience, and School” is the graph of a chess board memory test.  Players of high, intermediate, and limited experience with the game are show the board for several seconds and asked to recreate (23).  Eventually, they all did quite well.  The difference in how long it took the subjects to accomplish the task with accuracy lies in the chapter title, “How Experts Differ from Novices”; experts notice patterns and can organize and interpret the information using their ability to remember, reason, and solve problems; novices look for one particular fact or formula they can grasp and apply.  This results in a lower quality of choices on the novices’ part (19).

 In addition to the effect prior knowledge has on learning and interpreting material, is the frame in which the material is placed.  In the chess example above, the experts did not always do well in remembering the game board.  This occurred when the pieces were placed with no recognizable pattern.  We can apply this in a multitude of both common and demanding circumstances such as peer patterns, cultural norms, language barriers, and learning differences.   With this is mind, reading strategies such as foregrounding the material and analyzing what makes it difficult for you to come to an understanding of it, demonstrates where my future focus should lie.

Knowing when to struggle.

After reading and marking up The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty and repeating the process with the selection relating the studies done on experts and novices, I noticed an overlap.  Often while reading Difficulty I wrote in the margins “But how do you teach students when to apply this?”

As the selection about novices and experts shows repeatedly, an expert recognizes patterns and is able to begin solving the problem—in fact, to know that a problem exists at all—because of their expert knowledge.  While Difficulty provides a method for students to attack difficulties, how will a novice student know when they should be struggling?

Reflecting on the difficulty papers provided by student novices within the book and thinking of my own experiences with students, I realized that some difficulties will be easy for students to spot.  A cultural element that isn’t familiar or a difficult word are easily identified stumbling blocks.  I can see the difficulty paper being a productive strategy for helping students navigate these types of difficulties.

On the other hand, other types of difficulties frequently go unrecognized by students.  Difficulty addressed a large section to reading Shakespeare, which led me to reflect on my own experiences as a reader and teacher of Shakespeare’s work.  There are many words in early modern English that have altered in meaning over time and these are often stumbling blocks for students.  For example, the expression “passing fair” is often taken by students to mean that the woman in question is “just barely attractive” because of how the word “passing” is understood by the student—or so they think.  It is only with an expert’s help that a student realizes that the word “passing” didn’t mean what they thought it meant.

I don’t bring this topic to light in order to attack of dismiss the idea of the difficulty paper, but it does give me questions about how to teach students the difficulty paper.  I can certainly model how to spot difficulties for my students—but is that enough?  Is there something more I can do as the most expert person in the room to help my students identify difficulties?

Though I have questions remaining about the strategies presented in Difficulty, I did appreciate that the strategies given emphasize showing students how much they know rather than how much they have left to learn.  I have watched many students become disheartened by their own confusion and so I know how important a student’s confidence is to following through on a difficult text.  Reading this text has definitely inspired me to make a more conscious effort to demonstrate to students how their struggles with literature are an indication of their successes and not their failures.

Week 2- Teaching with Difficulty & Admitting It

As many of you have discussed already, the idea of challenging our students and effectively teaching poses a complex dilemma for teachers.  When I read The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, I found myself constantly recalling teaching snafus, moments in which I just hadn’t realized how difficult works had been for my students.  One of my tweets this week mentions that Othello may be a more accessible text than Hamlet for high school students.  Then, coincidentally, in the chapter we read from How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School, the writers included a way to get at Hamlet from a more relevant place for high school students.  On page 34, the book assesses how two new teachers tackled Hamlet differently; though they are both experts, one teacher drew too much on his college experience to teach less-prepared students about the “notions of ‘linguistic reflexivity’ and issues of modernism,” while the other started out with a scenario to which the students could relate.  Only once the students could relate to Hamlet’s frustration at his uncle’s usurpation of power did the teacher introduce the play.

This reminds me of a moment last November when I observed another advanced class (an IB class rather than the AP class I teach) at another school.  In some kind of arbitrary moment of fortune, I happened to observe a class on Hamlet, just as I was beginning to teach the play myself.  The “virtuoso” teacher I observed had introduced the students to the play little by little, whereas for years I had been quizzing the students almost immediately to make sure they had both read and understood on their own.  I wanted to introduce them to the difficulty of college, but at the same time, for years I had been overwhelming them with material that was both challenging and at times, un-relatable.  This past few months, I have been working to more effectively introduce the stories  (and make them relevant to their lives) as well as address difficulties that I anticipate they may have ahead of time.  It has been rewarding for the students and for me to see how much better they understand with a little preliminary help from me. 

After reading The Elements, I’ve also considered how I handle the question of  reflecting on “difficulty.”  One of the things I have significantly neglected to do with my students is to ever have them reflect in writing about what exactly they find difficult.  We often discuss the challenges they face as they are reading and afterward, but I am entirely convinced that some reflective writing, specifically on what precisely turns them off about what we read and what overwhelms them, would really enhance my teaching.

I wanted to leave off with one of my favorite quotations from How People Learn:

Beliefs about what it means to be an expert can affect the degree to which people explicitly search for what they don’t know and take steps to improve the situation. In a study of researchers and veteran teachers, a common assumption was that “an expert is someone who knows all the answers.”  This assumption had been implicit rather than explicit and had never been questioned and discussed. But when the researchers and teachers discussed this concept, they discovered that it placed severe constraints on new learning because the tendency was to worry about looking competent rather than publicly acknowledging the need for help in certain areas.

When I first began teaching six years ago, I wanted to seem like an “expert.”  In recent years, I have come to terms with the boundless knowledge that goes into the various concepts inherent in teaching high school English.  If any of us knew everything there is to know about grammar, vocabulary, rhetoric, linguistics (and so much more), and if we had read all of the literature that exists, we would be superhuman.  Admitting our limits as humans, and therefore our limits as teachers, can be refreshing for both us and for the students.

Chunking Information

As an elective teacher I have a unique opportunity to see students learning outside of a typical classroom. It amazes me the difficulty so many students have transferring information from their English or social studies classroom to journalism. My students write during every class period and they seem unable to make the connection between using correct grammar, etc. in English and in journalism.
Part of my curriculum is discussing leads in a news article. My students look blankly at me when I say a lead is like a topic sentence. For them a topic sentence belongs only in English class. I have the opportunity to help them expand what they have learned in their normal classes and apply their knowledge to different situations.
I enjoyed reading “How People Learn” because it has helped me to understand that my middle school students have trouble making connections and thus transferring information between their courses. Students need a method in which they can organize information meaningfully so that they can store a recall the information for all necessary situations. I have always pictured our minds, or my students’ minds, as a filing cabinet in which students file away the information I give them so that they can recall it again for the test. I think this is because of an early Education class I had to take. I now try and picture the learning process as a system of spider webs. It is my job to weave all the little threads surrounding one topic so that they can connect everything and hold on to the information I give them. I can connect the little webs between information I give them and information already in their heads.
I like that as a journalism teacher I can be the person that gives English lessons an outside of class purpose. My class is about conditionalized knowledge and that it is about forcing students to apply lesson they have learned to create a newspaper.
From now on I will look at my students as little webs and not filing cabinets. I hope that I can help them to make connections and apply their knowledge so that they expand their knowledge and become better students and learners.

Expanded Repertoires

I am interested by Lee Shulman’s treatment and respect for “the learning that’s already inside the learner” (11), and am happy to further explore Shulaman’s “dual process” learning with Salvatori and Donahue’s concept of repertoire. I like the immediate exposure of potential harm caused by a repertoire of negative assumptions: “If you believe you dislike poetry, for example, you may be unwilling to engage in the process of careful, attentive, and slow reading,” (18). Would high school students buy and try that their success as learners is helped or hurt by their own thoughts on learning? I was a terrible student in high school and would now blush at my fifteen-year-old response to a geometry teacher who tried to explain my learning difficulties were partially the result of a destructive self-repertoire. However, undergraduates seem more likely to work with a concept like repertoire and appreciate, or at least experiment with, their understanding of themselves as affecting their work with or understanding of difficult materials.

Although I did not have the awesome vocabulary of difficulty to guide me, chapter 7 and the difficulty of Shakespeare could have been written about my undergraduate education. Sophomore year of high school I didn’t even try to read Julius Caesar and dismissed Shakespeare as impossible for me to understand. Then I made the mistake of pursuing a degree in English and one in theatre. To anyone involved in a college theatre department Shakespeare is not just a great author, but actually a great religion: deity and holy book to guide one’s life. For a year and a half year I side-stepped every course description mentioning the almighty convinced of my inability to understand. If the professor for my play analysis course hadn’t changed last minute I would have missed out on my favorite play, King Lear. My professor demystified Shakespeare, placed him within our reach and utilized every bit of our personal repertoires to have us relate to and make our own understandings of the family issues, betrayals, clothing motif, existential issues of humanity, and all the other beautiful difficulties most would place beyond the sphere of undergraduate attention. And we ate it up. My professor shared his own difficulties with the play and encouraged us never to be satisfied with any one answer. The process of discovery was different than presented in chapter 7, for example, we were encouraged to look up historical resources and critical responses, but it was the continual focus on the moments of confusion and difficulty that lead us to dig deeper and understand deeper. I’ll stop the nostalgia train, but that class really was as wonderfully cheesy as it sounds and the most important class on close reading and understanding that I experienced.

Therefore, I was a little bummed with Salvatori and Donahue’s initial confinement of repertoire. Their introduction to the concept in chapter two kicks off with “your poetic repertoire, your prior assumptions and experiences with poetry,” (17) and a list of probing questions confining the students repertoire to the students’ genre specific inside learning. I’m for a more out-of-the-box repertoire. When we discuss poetic language why not draw on the deep understanding of similes and metaphors provided by our students’ interaction with rap lyrics? The student writer Julian Betkowski utilized a David Bowie song to work with the difficulties of Krik? Krak! demonstrating the depth of her repertoire. We should be aware of the vastness of learning already within our students and connect our teaching to their repertoires on as many levels as possible. Of course we should focus on our discipline and foster the growth of genre-specific repertoires, but I want to be aware of every teaching resource available, whether provided from or for my students.

Difficulty – why we do it

I wish I had had a copy of “The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty” as an undergraduate English major in the 1970s.  It would have been reassuring to know that a text loaded with obscure references and confusing imagery can be accessible if approached in comprehensive method.

The best way for me to understand Salvatori and Donahue’s book it to juxtapose the methods they have put forward against the recollections of my education in literature.  I think I was fortunate because my initial exposure to literature in high school had clued me in to the fact that much of what I was going to study was going to be difficult to understand and require me to find other ways to construct meaning than the more contemporary ones I was used to.  Still, my introductory college literature classes took me by surprise.

I remember struggling with one or two other literature students in my dorm, trying to keep up with the readings and knowing that complete understanding was out of our grasp; only in class would more be revealed.  I think I succeeded because I had instructors who were passionate about literature and understood our predicament.   They would hint at a couple possible interpretations of a passage or give us a new perspective with which to analyze the text.  They were patient and would shepherd us along in the general direction they wanted us to go until we understood, making us occasionally feel that we had stumbled upon something nobody else had discovered.

Reading Salvatori and Donahue’s book, I understand that they too have a passion for literature and a desire to make it accessible to all; their methods also rely on the student “discovering” possible meaning.  Salvatori and Donahue, however, have emphasized that the process of discovery, the journey we all take when we read a difficult text, is as important as arriving at understanding.    How do we know what we know if our teachers don’t let us go through the process of analysis and examine our repertoire of beliefs?

The only issue I can see with their approach the authors take in their book is that they do not emphasize enough the importance of “pre-reading” activities.  Students who receive a thorough back grounding on the author, the genre, and the period frequently feel better prepared in dealing with ambiguities in the text.  If the student’s context is expanded, there are likely to be fewer difficulties in interpreting the text.

Writing to Learn & Literary Analysis

As I finish up with The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, I, like some of my fellow classmates, have some initial “difficulties” regarding the use of this textbook in the classroom. What age are the students to whom this textbook is geared? I ask this because at times, the book takes on some rather abstract concepts—i.e. a “moment of difficulty” for me was the discussion in Chapter Two about the difference between standard and poetic language. On the other hand, this textbook also introduces vocabulary like “narrative,” “personification” and “simile,” concepts that are generally taught in early high school and maybe even as early as elementary school. As I will further, Elements clearly promotes the use of writing as a gateway to understanding literature. This leads me to another initial question—in what kind of classroom is this textbook geared towards? I can see it in both composition and literature classrooms.

Moving past these initial questions, I’d like to focus the bulk of this post on what I found most fascinating with this textbook: Salvatori and Donahue clearly promote the act of writing as a critical thinking tool in the study of literature. For the authors of Elements, readers have a responsibility to the text; it is the reader’s duty to do “the work, be creative, and not settle for the quick and easy response” (33). In other words, rather than being given the answers to textual difficulties by their teachers, students should be given the tools to critically analyze these moments of difficulty themselves. The authors of Elements clearly advocate the act of writing as one of, if not the best, tool to give literature students; both the “Difficulty Paper” and Triple-Entry Notebook assignments are designed to help students make sense of both their own repertoire and more importantly, how their repertoire affects their understanding of any given text. 

I was surprised to encounter, then, this “writing as a means of discovery” mentality in what I thought was going to be a textbook on the concepts of literary analysis. Salvatori and Donahue show that writing can (and should) be used in every aspect of literary analysis. The student case studies that are excerpted throughout the textbook clearly show how writing can help a student recognize his own previous misconceptions that are inhibiting his understanding of the text. In the discussion of hybrid genres in Chapter Three, for example, students are asked to writing Difficulty Papers on The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere. Most of the student writing focuses on the difficulties of reading a long poem that strays away from standard chronological storytelling. Here, the act of writing illuminated the repertoire of the students who believed that longer texts should function as straightforward narrative. Writing about this particular difficulty in Rime helps the students come to an understanding of the poem as a hybrid text. Following this discussion of hybridity, Salvatori and Donahue ask their readers to analyze their own writing as a hybrid text. Here, the authors equate student writing with literature; it is so refreshing to see how literary analysis and “writing to learn” should work hand in hand in the literature classroom.

The Difficulty of “Difficulty”

After reading The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty I find that I have one major difficulty with the book.  I feel that with so much focus given to the difficulty paper throughout each chapter, it is only appropriate to write my blog as if it were a difficulty paper about this book.

For the entirety of the book, I was engaged and excited about the ideas the authors were presenting.  I had never before considered difficulty as a means of exploring and learning.  While reading the first chapter, I came to the realization that if a learner can learn to identify and work through their difficulties with a text, then the three pathologies (amnesia, fantasia, inertia) discussed in Lee Shulman’s article are more likely to be avoided.  If one can find the answers for oneself instead of being given them by a well-meaning teacher, then that person is much less likely to forget or distort what she learned and will  more likely be able to use that knowledge later because of the exercise of discovering the meaning for herself.

In chapter two, the authors explored the difficulties of poetry but insisted that learners already have a repertoire of knowledge that gives them the necessary tools to work through new and challenging poems.  In chapter four they return to this idea.  “What is important is that we become able to identify and use our pre-understandings as a scaffold to construct new understandings.” (62).  This idea of scaffolding and building upon what you know is not new.  I am very familiar with it from my days of being an elementary teacher.

The difficulty I have is a contradiction I found in the last chapter of the book.  In the section about reading a “great” author, Salvatori and Donahue seem to contradict what they had stated in the previous six chapters regarding pre-understandings.  They point out that sometimes our pre-understandings can be a difficulty in and of themselves especially when reading a well-known author whose reputation is greater than our own personal experience with his or her works.  So, in the first six chapters, the authors establish that one must use what they already know in order to make connections with new material and be able to learn.  I get that.  But, in the case of a well-known author, we should put aside pre-conceived ideas in order to adequately understand the text.  So, what we already know is not useful?  This seems like a contradiction, but I also understand the point they are trying to make.  Students should use their pre-understandings but only up to a certain point – the point where their prior knowledge may be the source of the difficulty.  This requires a novice learner to exhibit metacognition and be self-aware enough to monitor his or her own learning.  Or, it requires us teachers to be the monitor and know how to help the students identify when their deceptive pre-understandings are the cause of their difficulty.

Difficulty Paper-like Exercise

Last week in my New American Poetries course (a literature course on post-modern poetry) with David Kaufmann we discussed what according to The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty would be a “boring” or “intimidating” poem. Before class everyone was required to read several poems, including Robert Lowell’s “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket,” which at first glance is a tedious poem written in seven parts, saturated in challenging language relating to nautical terms and imagery with metaphors and connections to both religion and the literary classic Moby Dick.

I did not realize until later while reading The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, but the professor’s method of opening class discussion to the reference-heavy poem was similar to the exercise of a difficulty paper. He asked everyone to read the last section of the poem (due to time constraints and having other poems to discuss) and to take a few minutes to write down any ideas we had about the last section of the poem. Then, after everyone completed jotting down notes of their thoughts on the last section of the poem, as a class we were supposed to analyze this last section. However, when Professor Kaufmann asked what we noticed about the poem, there was more silence than talk and we did not get much beyond that it seems there are a lot of references to Moby Dick. Someone also connected the dedication at the beginning of their poem with prior knowledge that the poem was written for a relative of Lowell’s who drowned while serving in the Navy. Our class is full of MFA Poetry students and other graduate level writers, and most of us are familiar with the process of analyzing poetry; however, even at experienced levels a poem can still be challenging and require what some students discovered in The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty as some “extra work.”

Professor Kaufmann then revised his question to ask, “Why is this poem difficult? What is getting in the way of understanding the poem?” With this new approach our class was examining the parts of the last section that hindered a clear reading of what was going on in the poem. The discussion started to open up. We decided in order to understand the poem, it would help to be familiar with nautical terms like “gaff” and “shoal-bell.” Also, we discussed how the syntax was tricky. The last section seems to be addressed to the Atlantic Ocean; however, some parts contained modifiers that were confusing to trace back who or what was being modified. For example, “It’s well;/Atlantic, you are fouled with the blue sailors, sea-monsters, upward angel, downward fish:/ Unmarried and corroding, spare of flesh/ Mart once of supercilious, wing’d clippers/ Atlantic, where your bell-trap guts its spoil/”

What does supercilious mean in this context? “Unmarried and corroding” is modifying or referring to what? This poem seemed syntactically convoluted, as well as coded with references similar to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” where you need to refer to footnotes every line.

We then went on to point out the references to other literature and to Old Testament passages, particularly with the last line of the poem “The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.” Through the use of prior knowledge of Biblical stories, we related the address to the Atlantic and other lines to the flood and Noah’s Arc. At the end of the flood there was a rainbow, which was God’s promise that he would not flood the world again so long as man agreed to treat the blood of man as sacred to not be shed.

We ended up realizing, that Lowell’s poem does not sum up with a message in this last line, rather his poem is diagnostic instead of remedial. The open-endedness of the poem and back and forth between God and what is happening in the Atlantic is intentional to show the speaker of the poem’s conflict with religion and this pact made between God and man.

This activity, which I related to a Difficulty Paper although on a smaller-scale, is also how literature had been approached post-World War II when the GI Bill of Rights was signed, which upped college enrollment by at least 30%. The accessibility of college put scholars of all different backgrounds on the same level, so in order to teach literature to both the elite (who would be familiar with the likes of Shakespeare) and the undereducated in the same class (who might not be familiar with specific authors), a new way of approaching the analysis of literature, called new criticism, was developed. New criticism involved reading the text itself without bringing in outside sources or knowledge of other criticism in order to analyze the work.

12th-Grade History, Difficulty Papers

Before I talk about Elements, I wanted to say something about the Experts/Novices article: The discussion about “knowing facts” vs. actually internalizing the information made me think about my high school American History class. I went to a small, private high school in Alabama (seriously, 43 seniors in my graduating class), and twelfth-grade history with Mr. Thagard had a reputation. We heard about it as freshmen and sophomores, dreaded it as juniors, and sweated through it as seniors. I’m talking 6:30 a.m. study sessions on test days (tests were two days, by the way: multiple choice on Day 1 and discussion questions on Day 2). Mr. Thagard specified how we were to take notes (right side of the page only; in pen, because it’s easier to read; and in the formal outline style: I., A., 1., a., i.), and he checked our notebooks the first week of class to make sure we were doing it correctly. Class consisted of 50 minutes of note-taking. I studied for these tests by pacing around the island in my kitchen repeating my notes to myself. I did well on the tests.

And? I’m pretty sure I couldn’t tell you one true thing about the Louisiana Purchase. Or name more than fifteen or so presidents. It’s pathetic.

I thought this article was a really interesting read. I recognized myself (esp. in high school) in some of the situations discussed. I like the idea of “expert” being kind of an untrue term — “we’re always learning,” etc.

So, Elements. There are several different ideas produced in this book that I liked and could talk about here, but I think I want to focus on the idea of Difficulty Papers in general, something that I found particularly intriguing.

I think I’d find a Difficulty Paper much more interesting to read than an “academic” paper in which the student fumbles around, talking about a text in a way he thinks he should (that he thinks the teacher expects), but isn’t comfortable doing. Such papers would allow for more interesting and useful classroom discussion — you could talk about the things the students are obviously interested in, intrigued by, confused by, excited about, etc.; students would be able to better relate to the text, and hopefully see it less as lofty English Literature (with a capital E, L).

Also, calling them “Difficulty Papers” is a way to get students to grapple with confusing or contradicting thoughts and ideas about texts without thinking that they will receive bad grades for their papers because they didn’t come to a conclusion about the text or put forth a polished and well-argued reading of it. It moves the pressure from writing a complete, reasoned reading of the text and puts it on truly understanding the text, appreciating its nuances, its contradictions, its strengths and weaknesses.

The reality is, though, that students need to know how to construct a compelling, well-reasoned argument about a text, because that is what other teachers will expect of them (teachers who aren’t familiar with Difficulty Papers). I think Difficulty Papers are a nice place to start, but they are certainly only a start. If I was teaching English to a class of high school students utilizing this strategy, maybe I would assign Difficulty Papers during the first semester and expect regular academic papers from them in the second semester, or perhaps each semester would be divided roughly in half, with students writing Difficulty Papers in the first half, and regular essays in the second. It might also be helpful to consider Difficulty Papers the first draft of a paper — if you have time/space/flexibility in your curriculum to assign several drafts of each paper, the evolution from Difficulty Paper to reasoned, argued academic essay would be an excellent learning tool, perhaps. I do think that Salvatori and Donahue show the usefulness of Difficulty Papers in Elements.

Blindness and Teaching

The relationship between Robert, the blind man, and the husband (who I will refer to as “Bub”) in Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral” relates to the issues addressed in the chapter we read titled “How Experts Differ from Novices.”  Bub may be an expert at seeing a cathedral, but he lacks the pedagogical skills to teach Robert, the novice, to do so.

As teachers we tend to forget that students are not seeing things the same way that we do, or did, when we originally learned the subject matter.  A good example would be “Box 2.4” on page 34 of “How Experts Differ from Novices.”  The one teacher, Jake, cannot understand why his students are not enjoying Hamlet when he is teaching it the same way that he was taught, which he enjoyed immensely.  Like Jake (and Bub), we too often take for granted our point of view, and project it on to students.  We were easily able to decipher meaning of a poem or passage, so we know it can be done, and we do not understand why they are not able.  I think that “How Experts Differ from Novices” does a thorough, scientific and clear job of explaining why this happens.  In English studies, we place the emphasis on the text itself, we believe that it is all there to figure out, students just need to take the time to tease out the meaning.  We do not give credit to the multiple reading strategies we have internalized over the years that we are able to call up and apply without realizing.  Students, who do not have the experience we have, are not able to see a text the way that we do, their thought process is blind to things happening automatically in ours.

Bub is not an expert on cathedrals, he is an expert on seeing in general.  What Bub is trying to teach is how to “see” a cathedral, not just memorize random facts (as Robert already has).   Similarly, most of us are not experts on every text that we teach, but we have a general knowledge of English studies.  Also, it is more important for us to teach our students to see a text the way we do, than to memorize random facts like the number of plays Shakespeare wrote.  Bub starts off trying to teach Robert what a cathedral looks like from his, or a sighted person’s, point of view.  He says that cathedrals are “tall” and “have these supports” that “remind me of viaducts,” all of which is completely useless information to Robert.  Robert sits there and smiles politely.  Just like our students sit there and nod their head while we go on about literature using all the knowledge we learned in college, not realizing that this information is useless unless we frame it some way that they can understand.

Eventually, Bub is able to comprehend that the way that he has tried to go about teaching Robert to see a cathedral is not going to work.  They are able to work out a strategy that will allow Robert to learn what a cathedral looks like.  Just as important however, is the fact that by looking at a subject that he has taken for granted (his sight) in a new light, Bub is able to learn something new about the subject and himself.  Similarly, if we form new pedagogical techniques to help our students “see” a text better, we will most likely learn something new ourselves.

In literature, as in life, stuff is just messy…

One of my biggest challenges as a teacher is my own totally uninspiring memory of high school.

Actually, it’s really a lack of any memory that frustrates me.  I can recall a few teachers by name.  I can tell you a few of the texts that we read.  But beyond the fact that I now know Hamlet’s fatal flaw was indecision (haven’t you heard?), I’d be hard-pressed to explain much about any of those works that I studied.  I’m also not exaggerating when I say that I cannot recall a single poem I read the entire time I was in high school.  I’m sure we read some, but I’ve totally forgotten about them.

What literary knowledge I have retained was gained during my undergraduate years, when I majored in English at a college with very small classes and absolutely no multiple-choice tests.  It occurs to me, now that the topic has been raised, that it was during these years that the messiness of literary analysis was allowed to flourish in my presence.  There were seldom pat answers from my professors – only what seemed like more irritating questions.  The Type A “closer” in me hated the loose ends.  It was like geometry instead of the neatness of Algebra.

Ten years after graduating with my B.A. in English, I first set foot in a classroom as a teacher.  I was desperate to figure out how to teach the texts I’d never, myself, studied.  I felt like I was a fraud, and that any “real” teacher would have read them all before.  Clearly, I thought to myself, I had huge, embarrassing holes in my education.  I filled those holes guiltily by stealthily researching the unfamiliar works on the web and using textbook support materials offered by other teachers.  At the end of my first year, I announced to my family (with some surprise) that even the works I’d read before seemed much more enjoyable now that I had to teach them.  To know them so intimately and struggle alone with their meanings had actually improved them for me.

Reading “Elements,” I realize this should not have been a shock.  Like most people (even those good at literature, who got A’s in school) I thought that the study of literature was about having professors tell you what the “official” meaning of a work was.  I really thought that.  And a lot of other people are out there, teaching, who still think it…like most of the people I worked with at my high school teaching job.  I look back now on my feelings of guilt about using the textbook support materials and I realize that these instincts were actually good ones.  What I was lacking wasn’t the education in literature.  It was the realization that the most important part of being literate isn’t the possession of information – it’s the ability to discover it for yourself.

So…difficulty?  BRING IT.

Using Krik? Krak! as a Stepping Stone to Tackling Difficulty

After reading only a few chapters of The Elements (and Pleasures) of Difficulty, I realized I had become a bit cynical. Sure, I thought. The students described in this book are willing to do the difficult work required of careful reading. My students are not. As a rule I dislike cynicism (Sidenote: anyone catch Conan’s comments re: cynicism last night? So refreshing!), so I was disappointed to find myself already questioning the relevance of these concepts to my classroom. (I was also disconcerted by the repetitiveness of the writing—not to mention the incorporation of definitions such as simile and personification—and I must admit it took me a while to get past these venial flaws.) It seemed at first that the discussions and activities presented in the book would be well over the heads of my students; however, as I continued to read, a few ideas have jumped out at me. In fact, I just finished Chapter Five and now have a new appreciation of the concept of difficulty (and its relevance to my students). I actually had to force myself to put the book down and begin this blog while my thoughts are still fresh (albeit a bit scattered).

Although some of the book’s activities may be better suited to an undergrad class, there are certainly basic concepts that relate to high school students such as I teach (sophomore “honors” students who are generally less than prepared for the rigors of an honors curriculum). Recently I’ve been mulling over the dilemma that confronts me daily: my students are in an honors course, yet they lack the foundational skills necessary for reading carefully (if at all), making predictions, and drawing relevant inferences. In short, their reading comprehension skills are nonexistent (or atrophied from lack of exercise). The idea of engaging with a text is foreign to these kids. They expect to be able to do one quick reading (those who read the text at all—others opting for the quicker fix of consulting SparkNotes) and understand everything. Obviously they’re missing the point.

Issues of enrollment aside, I know I need to meet my students where they are and provide support to help them move forward as readers. The concept of embracing difficulty as “a rewarding path to knowledge” (back cover) may be a bit too much to ask, but I hope to be able to encourage the kids to view their difficulties as opportunities to enhance their understanding of a text, not as impermeable barriers to comprehension (a la Kim Woomer’s comments regarding “difficulties” and “obstacles” on page 2). I anticipate my attempts succeeding with the students who are actually interested in becoming better readers, and I suppose I’ll just have to tolerate the apathy of the others.

The section in Chapter Five about Krik? Krak! fascinated me. I haven’t read the entire book, but some of my undergrad classmates used it for lesson planning activities, so I was familiar with it. After reading the three difficulty papers presented about KK, I immediately flipped to Appendix D to read “Night Women” and “Between the Pool and the Gardenias.” I really enjoyed both stories and am already tossing around thoughts of how to incorporate excerpts from the book in my class. Due to a combination of factors (the recent earthquake in Haiti; the fact that my students are currently learning about the Haitian Revolution in the history half of my World Civ course; and the fortuitous coincidence that I have a few days to spare in my lesson plans), this would be the perfect time to study selections from KK. My ideas are all abstract at the moment, so I’d appreciate suggestions from others. I plan to pick up the book later today and (if possible) read it this weekend. I hope to find a story or two to use with my classes. I’m envisioning an annotation activity where the students color code their reading difficulties (i.e. red=unknown word, blue=I don’t know what this sentence means, green=what does this have to do with the story? and so on). My students generally do well with annotations, but I’m not sure how they’d handle monitoring their reading and stopping so often to make notations. In any event, I hope to sort out a plan in the next couple of days, as I’d like to do the lesson on Tuesday or Wednesday. And as I said, all input is welcome!