Category Archives: Week 3

Cultural Code Switching

It is interesting that both Scholes and Linkon address the concept of culture and the skill of rendering interpretations in this week’s readings.  These are issues that are not far from my immediate focus in a class I am teaching this semester.

A little background is in order. I teach a level 5 ESL reading class – this is the last reading class students must complete before they can take mainstream “academic” class at NVCC.  The syllabus stresses literal, critical and affective comprehension of college level texts as well as novels and poetry.  This is not an introduction to literature, but more of a reading skills class.  I have 13 students from 7 countries this semester; many have a high school background in their native countries or a few years of American high school.  They are not fluent English readers.  Many have told me they enjoy reading in their native language, but find reading in English to be a laborious process, fraught with misunderstandings that impede their comprehension and strip the pleasure from the text.

For the last two semesters I have been “piloting” a new novel that I selected because I thought it would be appealing to immigrant students: The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears by Dinew Megestu.   The protagonist is a young Ethiopian immigrant running a small grocery in the late 1970s in a neighborhood of Washington, D.C. that is becoming gentrified.  His clients, mostly prostitutes, drug addicts and the poor, are slowly leaving, but instead of taking advantage of a changing clientele and the money they could bring in, he lets his business go down hill.   He is emotionally paralyzed as he reflects on the part he played in his father’s death at the hands of thugs during the Ethiopian revolution.  At the same time, he is beginning to fall in love with a white woman and her mixed-raced daughter, two of the outsiders gentrifying the neighborhood.

There are an abundance of cultures floating around my classroom; American culture, the author’s culture, the student’s culture, the college’s academic culture, the collective immigrant culture, youth culture, &c.  The issue is to get the student to understand and/or explain which cultural point of view they are representing when they speak or write.  We’ve discussed the concept of an individual having multiple cultural identities and the possible perspectives it can bring to them as readers, but they seem to be unable to identify any part of their cultural make up that accounts for their views.

A male student from China wrote in a final course reflection that he was “disgusted” with the grocery store owner because he used his father’s memory as a reason for inaction and failure rather than honoring him by working hard to succeed.  He then noted an apology for his Chinese view point.  Many women students can relate to the gossipy, mean spirited feminine social culture that dominates many immigrant enclaves and regard it as something their mothers or grandmothers would participate in, but they would not because it is “not American.” Most students identify with their role as immigrants and the frequently confusing aspects of American culture.  All seem to be navigating a confusing cultural stew.

Like Linkon, I think a lot of my students, when asked to interpret a passage from the book, try to guess what the “correct” answer is.  They engage in a kind of cultural code switching; rather than express what their true feeling are and where those feelings come from, they neglect the insight their cultural heritage gives them and try to figure out what a native-born American would say and what I want to hear so they can get a good grade.  This is a fairly standard response for Generation 1.5 students; they feel trapped between cultures.

One thing I am hoping to get from this class is an approach to literature that I can use to help students sift through their thoughts and reactions and give them the confidence to express themselves.

Linkon and Expertise

I’m not a very good student this week. I have to be honest that the readings didn’t interest me. Why? Because I hope to never have to teach reading. I know the class is all about teaching students how to read literature. As a teacher I have become very good at adapting most of what I learn to work in my classroom with what I teach, and that is what I have done so far in this course. I actually enjoy adapting lesson plans. Last week I took the 3 column note taking method and taught my students to take notes about photography using this strategy (don’t worry I learned other things too). This week though I had trouble getting myself excited about Linkon.
So as I dove into the reading I had to remind myself that my students do, or course, have to read for my class. Through out the reading there were places that Linkon identified a teacher doing something without the students’ knowledge of the process the teacher innately followed. For example Linkon discusses a teacher doing research to find multiple readings of a text or a teacher analyzing a text and then presenting his or her findings. Linkon expresses the importance of letting the students see our process. The article says, “The processes of thinking are often invisible to both the students and the teacher” (256). I find this so true in my own classroom. It can be hard for teachers to teach the process when for most of us the process comes very easily. I often have trouble translating my thinking process to my students when it comes to certain things. As Linkon suggests I think it is a wonderful idea to have the teacher teach students the process.
After reading this article I have begun thinking about demonstrating and modeling more to my students, and still including lots of hands on activities where they can apply their knowledge. Tomorrow my students will learn about interviewing and I plan on involving a new lesson where I conduct an interview in front of them and then I will let them practice interviewing me before I set them loose on their own.

Linkon & Scholes—Teaching Textual Codes with the Process in Mind

As Scholes points out, we, as teachers, must realize and be reminded that very few, if any, of our students will go on to study literature at length or depth in college or in their careers. The question then becomes, how do we reach the average/typical English student? Scholes speaks of teaching students “textual power”—“how to use it and how to protect themselves from its abuses” (21). He also states that “it is not so much a matter of generating meanings out of a text as it is a matter of making connections between a particular verbal text and a larger cultural text” (33). Scholes is speaking of what I call the “larger ‘So What?’” of a text. (In his discussion and analysis of Hemingway’s “Interchapter VII,” Scholes expands to this larger “So What,” making statements about war.) Similarly, Linkon comments that “We should be just as concerned about what students are learning about how to read critically and culturally” as we are about their knowledge of specific concepts or terms (257-8).

The point that both authors emphasize here, and throughout their works, is that we need to give students the “tools,” not the answers. This role is key! As Scholes states, “our job is not to intimidate students with our own superior textual production; it is to show them the codes upon which all textual production depends and to encourage their own textual practice” (24-5). As I mentioned in my posting last week, we need to be careful with how much we influence our students and their interpretations. Activities and discussions need to be student-centered and student-led. Scholes discusses how he uses questions to guide close reading and understanding of the textual “codes,” which is something I do in my own classroom. For instance, when students complete the POV writing assignment, Scholes has them consider why they made changes (if they did). Although Scholes doesn’t state it directly,  we need to ask these same questions of the original text. “Why did Hemingway do      ?” Why didn’t he do                 ?” To put it in IB English lingo: What is the effect of the piece, and how is that effect achieved? And, “So What?”

Linkon also emphasizes the importance of continuing the conversation(s) about a text. She makes the point that analysis is never really “done” (252)—it’s an ongoing conversation that students enter into at various points and levels, and from various backgrounds and experiences. I saw echoes of Salvatori and Donahue when Linkon discusses expert vs. novice approaches to encountering and dealing with “difficulty” (251). She points out that “experts” ask questions. My IB students question and dig deeper while my regular 10’s give up or complain. My regular students are not aware that deeper understanding rests in figuring out and working through difficulty. As their teacher, I need to do more to teach these strategies and give them the tools!

On that note, I feel that both authors emphasize the importance of modeling. Many of my students have shared that they don’t really understand how to analyze a text, mark-up (annotate) a text, etc. Students need to see and hear us grabble with a text! Modeling is not only beneficial for our students, though—modeling can help us remember the process. I appreciated Linkon’s observations and ideas, her reminders about the process. We skip steps when we teach, forgetting the process. As teachers, it is critical that we don’t lose touch with the process.

Finally, I think both authors acknowledge the idea of expanded literacy. It’s not just about reading and responding to the text in class, but it’s important to learn to go beyond that text and enter the conversation. This expanding notion of literacy also encompasses different forms of communication, and both the expanded notion of literacy and the various forms of communication rely on understanding textual “codes.”

Believing In and Implementing New Teaching Strategies

Perhaps I am too easily influenced by the things I read in my grad. classes, because I am already incorporating what we read this week into my teaching. For example, I was already planning on teaching a few Hemingway pieces from In Our Time, mostly because that’s the only book we have enough copies of to give out, but also because I read most of his stories last semester and loved them. I now have every intention to have my Honors 10th grade students dig through Interchapter VII as Scholes did. While he’s right that it will be tempting to “show off” what I know now about the text and its context, I’m going to let them analyze first with what they know and then introduce them to some of the “principles and procedures that lead to strong interpretive positions” (30). I’d love to see some of them move from understanding the allusions to putting the whole piece together as a larger comment on “a world where human qualities are regularly crushed and brutalized by social and biological forces too powerful for individuals to resist” (35).

Likewise, as of today, I am asking my 12th grade AP students to pay more attention to not only the experiences they bring to the texts they read, but also to the approach they naturally take. I told them that I tend to lean toward a more psychological or gendered approach, and I told them that one my classmates (that was Todd!) said last week that he tends toward archetypal readings. I want students to pay more attention to their own theoretical approaches. As I told them today, I realize now that I need to empower my students more by helping them to become more aware of (1) what they bring to the text and (2) the power they have to interpret on their own.

I want students to understand that there is no one way to interpret Hamlet’s behavior—perhaps he is mad, perhaps not—but that they have the power to decipher on their own what they believe to be the case. This recalls something in Linkon’s article: “It is the combination of these [multiple habits and practices] that generate the excitement of scholarly work—the moment when everything changes, when research and reflection transform a story or painting, making available more complex insights into both the text and the world that it represented” (252-3). During my thesis-writing experience so far, I have had several of these ah-ha moments myself (in between the hair-pulling and nail-biting moments), and I really want my students to share this transformative experience, particularly the AP students who are about to enter college classrooms where that kind of inquiry and analysis will make them more competitive and better-equipped to succeed.

I wonder whether my excitement (which I swear is real) about reading these pieces stems, in part, from my generally negative opinion of education pedagogy. I have often found myself frustrated with the simplistic and childish ways some educational gurus suggest we change our teaching, but these two texts have both made the case that we should adjust our teaching of reading in a way that makes sense to me. It’s logical to help the students to get stronger and more confident as readers and to do so in a way that moves them from a basic understanding to a more complex and meaningful criticism of texts we read.  It also seems particularly useful since the pieces seem to be directed at college-level courses, and I want to effectively prepare my Honors and AP level students for college-level work.

Questions without Answers

Why wasn’t I taught how to ask questions? This was the first research question I asked during my second 701 meeting (a popular subject for this week’s blog). How can I help my students ask questions? What are those magical questions that will produce more questions? Linkon’s article and inquiry-project really exposes how questions are the center of any literature classroom and, in connection with Scholes, the importance of producing questions in our students, rather than only providing them.

For too much of my education I fell into the novice traps Linkon discusses: I provided (and married ‘til death) conclusions. If a teacher asked a question then they expected a concrete, correct answer, right? Why else would they ask? So, my role as a student was to provide answers and their role as teacher was to provide questions. Why didn’t I further question their actual motives for questioning? My knee-jerk cultural assumption, as we discussed in class, lead me no further than a shallow response based only on my narrow comprehension of the text I read once. Right on to Linkon for appreciating the understanding found through re-reading texts and structuring assignments to foster recursive readings.

My writing assignments always required answering the questions of specific prompts, but again those questions were provided by my teachers: “Did Christopher Newman’s character change throughout James’ The American?”  I remember experiencing Linkon’s “excitement of scholarly work,” (253), while composing this final paper and finally came to my unsatisfying “defendable conclusion,” (270). Unsatisfying because I didn’t ask the question? Maybe. Unsatisfying because I honestly believed that I was finished and had discovered the only correct answer? Definitely. Later I reread The American as an out-of-class activity and although I was pleasantly surprised that I still found joy in asking the question of Christopher Newman’s character arch and re-examining the textual evidence. The question no longer produced a clear-cut yes or no, but developed into more questions. How did I learn to ask these questions when inquiry was a skill I was never explicitly taught? Good question.

I never remember any teacher holding a class discussion on how to ask questions or what kind of questions to ask. Somewhere in the character arch of Faye I came to a different understanding of why we ask questions and the dynamic aspects of answers.

All of literature instruction requires questions. Even this blog feeds on questions: “formulate an insightful question or two about the reading and then attempt to answer your own questions.” What questions produce open and active inquiry? How do you ask those perfect questions to facilitate multiple interpretations? I’ll start with Linkon’s in-class activities for framing different kinds of questions and a collaborative class list (262), but I think this is one of the research questions I’ll continue asking and testing hypothesizes for my entire teaching career.

Turning Students into Experts

The Reader’s Apprentice, for me, was the most fascinating of the week’s readings. After reading this article, I was honestly so surprised at how…obvious Linkon’s points were about treating students as apprentices in the classroom. In other words, it should go without saying that students who have come to college without ever doing real library research or being asked to think independently about a piece of literature should need some hands-on, meticulous, step-by-step guidance on how to actually do those things. And yet (and I can only speak from my own experience) literature classes continue to be taught under the assumption that students have already acquired these skills in previous courses. (Side note: I have never taught before, so I appreciate articles that can apply abstract pedagogical theory to real-life successful classroom examples, as Linkon does in The Readers Apprentice).           

Linkon draws upon the study we read last week on experts versus novices to conclude that students should be treated as apprentices in the literature classroom. In this kind of classroom, the teacher (assumingly an “expert reader”) guides his novice learners through a set of meticulous assignments designed to help his students become expert readers as well. In my undergraduate studies, every English major in my program was required to take a 200 level course that was an “introduction” to literary scholarship and criticism. This course was designed to prepare students for the kind of work they would be asked to do in upper level English courses. After reading The Readers Apprentice, I realize that this class didn’t come close to teaching me the kind of critical thinking, writing, and researching skills that I would like to think most English Majors should acquire in their undergraduate coursework. If I’m being honest, I never encountered the kinds of assignments Linkon describes in her classroom until I began my graduate studies in English here at Mason (and more specifically, in my English 701 class). In English 701, for example, we were asked to complete weekly assignments that took us step-by-step through the kinds of library research we would be doing in the course (and even more importantly, our class met in the library a few times so that we could get a feel for actually conducting library research). Never once in my undergraduate English studies did a teacher devote class time to explaining library research, let alone allow us to meet in the library to go through the process with our teacher as a guide. In addition, I was never explicitly taught the idea that texts are “grounded in their cultural contexts” and that to really understand a text, one must understand the cultural context, until English 701 (252). Asking students to conduct research on the history of the time period of the text should be a must in undergraduate literature classrooms as well. While I am so glad to have received this kind of instruction in my graduate studies, it seems a crime that such fundamental ideas and skills were never taught to me in undergrad.

While Linkon suggests that her class should be taught at the 300 or 400 level, I would like to see Linkon’s class taught as a required 100 or 200 level undergraduate course. Perhaps it could be a required class that all English majors had to take and a prerequisite to any literature courses. In this classroom, I envision a lot of hands-on assignments that guide students through the process of critical analysis. I envision a lot of research assignments that require students to practice using the library. I envision incorporating discussions on history as well. The point, as Linkon’s class shows, is to give students the skills to become themselves experts in reading. And for the typical novice English student, wouldn’t he be best served by taking this class as soon as possible in his undergrad curriculum?

Kogon, Magic: Learning To Teach How To Teach

610 Blog  2/3/10/10

 Kogon, Magic:  Learning To Teach How To Teach

 “The Reader’s Apprentice:  Making Critical Cultural Reading Visible” sounds like a magical work, and, it would be magic if I knew how it worked.  Metacognition, the process of knowing what you are thinking while you are thinking it, is a skill I can barely demonstrate while not speaking my thoughts out loud.  Teaching this concept is the beginning point in including high school students in the world of deeply understood text.  How to know how to teach them is beginning point of my exercise here.

 Linkon demonstrates how teachers introduce students to the text by using background information including the historical frame of the piece, the point-of–view generated by this context, the literary form and genre of the text, and, the she tops it off with genre placement and critical interpretation.  We all understand the problems in student work generated by this in-and-out process: they paraphrase or go off on an undesirable tangent, and they do not make effective use of their outside research or the content resources we give to them (253).

 So how do we incorporate the solution to what we know will happen with what we want to happen?  The Experts vs. Novices challenge is a good place to start.  We’ve learned that experts differ in how much they know, how they categorize this information, and how readily accessible their facts and analyses tied to their prior knowledge are.  Modeling basic strategies while prereading, reading, and rereading texts allows students to acquire and access the skills to decode the work they are reading.

 One of the links on the Visible Reading Project website links to a poster by Randy Bass of Georgetown University:   In the middle column is a paragraph titled “Learning Activity Breakdown.”  Click on the link and you will see a table on: “reading a text to generate researchable questions.”  It is a two-entry notebook graphic that allows for three levels of reader accomplishment.  The strategies and their correlating obstacles form the basis of what we know and what we would like to know.  Now, if I could only do that in my head without talking aloud.

Slow Down Sherry

While I think that Linkon’s Inquiry Project is a very good project and one that obviously benefited her students, I would not be so quick to jump into having a literature classroom that insists on placing all literature in its historical and cultural context.  I think that there is a lot that can be gained by just close reading a text and ignoring the author’s biography, time period, social class, etc.  A piece of literature is a piece of art and should stand up on its own merits, it does not have to be  a reflection of its time period.  Although they are not in vogue right now, both Russian Formalism and American New Criticism were based on the idea that we need to separate the text from its context.  I think formalism is an especially interesting for introductory English classes, it explores what makes something literature instead of just writing, a question we could all explore with our classes.  We also should make it clear that there are critics out there who do not believe that what the author intended matters at all.  Basically, I think we are doing our students a disservice if we imply that placing a work in its cultural context is the only way to analyze it.

We have all noted in class or in blogs that students will regurgitate our answers for us, or will try to give us the answer they think we want.  If we tell them that a text is a reflection of its culture, then all texts will be reflection of their times.  This brings about another problem in my opinion, relevance to the student.  There have been many posts about making texts relevant to students’ lives today.  Teaching them that texts depend on their historical context does nothing but distance them from students.  One of the biggest problems I had with Beowulf was trying to convince students they should care about Anglo-Saxon culture.

Stressing the historical approach also reinforces the idea that there is a “correct reading” of the text, that is, you study the culture, you will find the “meaning” or the “reason” for the text.  If we teach our students that Animal Farm has to be read as a reflection of socialism and the Cold War, their eyes will glaze over (most of our students were born after the Berlin Wall fell at this point).  Now if we take the novel out of that specific context, and just read it and have them come to their own conclusions, who know the parallels they could find to their own world? (the media, the War on Terror, the Health Care debate, clique hierarchy, just off the top of my head).

Again, I am not saying that there is no value in learning about the historical context of a text.  However, I feel that we need to be open-minded about different ways of approaching a text and letting our students come to whatever method they favor on their own.

The inescapably political classroom.

After having completed my reading for this week, I found myself with one big question left to address: why read in a culturally critical manner?  What is to be achieved with this approach?  I’m not unfamiliar with the approach and so I have my own ideas as to why, but I felt it would be useful for this week’s writing to puzzle out what possible goals professionals in the field such as Scholes and Linkon might have.

I can see the question taken from two approaches, the first being that it is impossible to not read a text in a culturally grounded way, but that reading critically as well enhances the reader’s metacognition as to why they are receiving and constructing a text the way they are.  This seemed to be suggested in Linkon and Scholes by their assertions that students possess both some degree of agency and a necessary grounding in their own current culture.
The other approach to answering this question could be that the goal of reading in a culturally critical way is not just a more metacognitive method of reading, but a useful way to critique culture with an eye towards improving it.  This is where things get sticky—if a teacher advocates culturally critical reading, are they by extension advocating critiquing and changing culture?
I think that this is the crux of why we don’t see more teachers advocating for culturally critical readings of text—this issue of critiquing our culture and what implications that carries with it. On one hand, some people are really quite content with the status quo and see little about culture that needs critiquing, while others don’t wish to be perceived as taking a political stand in the classroom, never mind that tacit acceptance of the culture is a political act as well.
As a current practicing educator and someone who attempts to consider issues of culture in literature when I discuss it with my students, I have found myself doing this careful dance in the classroom more times than I wish to remember.  When reading Elie Weisel’s Night, I’m  piqued at his use of the term “homosexual” for what is very clearly a pedophile in the story.  When I discuss this cultural issue with my class, I find myself wondering, will I be seen as politicizing the classroom?  If I don’t discuss the word choice in this instance, aren’t I politicizing it just the same?  I don’t tell my students what opinions to hold, but if I have one in my heart, have I done something unfair as their mentor?
It’s been said by those with more experience than myself that critical thinking in the classroom suffers under the impression that it’s advocating a liberal mindset, and that such a political act has no place in the classroom.  As Sholes and Linkon suggest, no reading can be done by a subject totally untouched by their culture.  In the same way, I believe no classroom teacher of literature can teach it without committing a political act—it’s just that acts of critical thinking draw more attention.

Breaking Expectations

In reflecting moments of difficulty for students, Sherry Linkon says in her article, “Too often, final papers offer competent close readings that either rephrase what was said in class, suggesting that students have done little thinking on their own, or reflect course themes only minimally, suggesting that students are not applying what they’re learning to their own interpretations.” (p. 253) I wondered if this is related to the student’s expectation of reiterating points because the student believes it is what his or her teacher will accept as the “right answer.” As we discussed in class, usually when a teacher has an idea of an interpretation or what she intends to teach, if this is disrupted in some way, then it will be less likely accepted by the teacher. It makes sense then that students instead of taking the risk of furthering their thought process, will write on points their teachers have made. I too am guilty of this; especially in a merit-based educational system, unfortunately, grades are the measure of success and students are afraid of failure.

For a midterm last semester, I wrote an essay on Emily Dickinson’s poem “I heard a fly buzz.” In making an analysis on the last stanza, particularly the second to last line of the poem, “And then the windows failed, and I,” my interpretation was that this insinuates the speaker’s eyes closing and thus, the speaker dies. The problem with my analysis was that I was choosing an interpretation that I tried to remember from high school or undergraduate classes (with the death part). As far as the eyes closing theory, it made sense because I thought of the phrase “eyes are a window to the soul.” I chose this line of the poem as the pinnacle point of my interpretation. However, my professor, who is beyond familiar with prosody, shot my interpretation down, taking a more literal stance that indeed the windows were failing to let light inside. So, I take there to be two issues with this in terms of learning and teaching. 1) I was that student that Linkon speaks of rephrasing what I heard from somewhere else, and expecting my professor to want this already theorized interpretation. 2) This was not the interpretation my professor wanted or expected, so essentially it was a further thought process, and instead of opening up to it, my professor refused my interpretation.

I am also guilty of thinking I work best under pressure and should procrastinate (although Linkon stresses that this doesn’t work). Linkon also says, “No matter how early in the semester [teachers] give term paper assignments, most students will complete them quickly, in a week or two at most near the due date.” (p. 253) I agree that this happens often; I have also found that a lot of papers will be on a syllabus at the beginning of the year, but that teachers will not explain what the paper will involve until later on in the semester, closer to the time the paper is due. Perhaps, this is a teacher succumbing to his/her knowledge that students’ wait to the last minute? Not only do students have assumptions of what professors expect, but professors have assumptions of how students work (mostly not ahead of schedule). However, starting a research paper early is critical, as pointed out by the “inquiry project” in Linkon’s article. She says, “[students] need to learn to evaluate how well an approach works and adjust their thinking as they work—to reframe questions, to try another strategy for locating sources, to revise a conclusion in light of new ideas.” (p. 258) Most of the students participating in the research project in the article, revised their focus of their papers as they continued to do research, because their initial ideas just scratched the surface. In taking a week or two to write a paper, a student doesn’t allot herself enough time for such revision. While I think students would benefit from a capstone course or the inquiry project as Linkon outlines, most courses or schools do not have the time to focus on a semester long research project. So, how can this be done? When I eventually go into the classroom to teach, I would at least take the philosophy Linkon had about viewing teaching as an apprenticeship. I would also try to clearly outline my expectations (that I expect students to think critically on their own and take a step further than what we discuss in class). I would also not assume that students know how to approach a research paper or culturally critical texts, and would welcome tutorials on research and would discuss requirements for such papers earlier on. Basically, expectations on both sides (teacher and student) need to be revisited.

Value of Reading Journals

Wow! The readings this week were insanely thought-provoking, and I had a very difficult time deciding to which amazing idea I wished to respond. I decided to settle on a paragraph in Linkon that struck me as familiar. I am not sure if anyone else’s school uses the McDougall/Little “Language of Literature” textbooks for their middle/high school English classes. Or if anyone has ever read about using Reading Workshops in their classroom. In either case, they recommend each student having a Reading Journal.

Mine all have writing journals, and they use them quite frequently, but what they don’t have is a reading journal. The way they had always been described to me before made them seem…not quite useful. But Linkon’s view of the Reading Journal made me stop and think that I should try and use them in the classroom. On pg. 262, she notes that she has her students stop anytime they find themselves responding to a text, rather than the typical “look for this, this, and this, and write it down in your reading journal when you find it” assignments I had always heard about. Linkon’s suggestion makes much more sense to me, as it breaks down the student’s reading process, so that both the student and teacher can see exactly what goes through the student’s mind as they read, thus working together to solve any comprehension issues, but also engaging both student and teacher in academic discussion.

She also has them write a few lines if they didn’t feel compelled to stop, which also makes sense and hopefully deters the typical, “I didn’t get it,” response that students like to make, sometimes when they struggle, and other times when they just don’t want to take the time to read thoroughly. At least if they are writing a few lines at the end, it’s almost like a shortened difficulty paper, in that it asks students to be active in identifying why they didn’t “get it.” Having the students talk about their questions and difficulties in class also ensures that students are engaging each other in academic discussion, which involves more critical thinking than having the teacher answer all of their questions.

Though I believe Linkon is writing more about college students, I think her ideas could definitely be pared down to high schoolers. As I mentioned earlier, the readings this week really got me thinking about my students and new ideas for the classroom that it was hard to choose which to mention on this blog! But I do believe Linkon’s version of a reading journal might really be worth considering.

Finding the “Right Answer”

After only two weeks I recognize a subtle shift in my attitudes and approaches to teaching literature to high school sophomores.  My blog post last week included the type of frustrated complaint often overheard in faculty workrooms (“They just don’t know howto read!”), and although I’m willing to move away from that (simplistic) diagnosis, it’s important for me to remember that students—as novice readers—do not automatically “get” the process of reading literature.  As Sherry Linkon explains, “Active reading that examines the text itself closely draws upon the reader’s experience with and knowledge of other texts, and engages both the reader’s own perspective and historical and cultural resources to uncover complex meanings” (250).  This is not a depth of engagement and analysis that comes naturally to the average student in a high school English class.  In fact, students do not even realize they should be personally involved in the process of finding meaning, as they expect there to be a single neat and tidy “right answer” (and perhaps that is just as much the fault of teachers as students themselves).

One passage early in Linkon’s article made me recognize the shortsightedness of my previous complaints:  It is not “appropriate (though it may be tempting) to blame students for not reading well enough, not trying hard enough, or simply not being smart enough” (248).  (Tempting indeed!)  After reading this statement, I feel I’ve been unfair to my students.  Their inability to read at the expert level is not an excuse for me to throw up my hands in resignation—rather, I need to learn how better to support and encourage their process of reading.  For example, Alicia mentioned in her post that she realized her students don’t think it’s normal to re-read a passage, so she tries to model this practice to them.  Such is also true for my students, who approach a text with the belief that there is one ultimate (and seemingly random) “answer” embedded in the words and it is their job simply to locate that answer and transcribe it.

I enjoyed reading about the Inquiry Project Linkon assigns in her American Lit class because I see the merit of allowing students to pursue their own lines of investigation regarding a text—after all, we should be encouraging students to make meaning partly based on their own perspectives.  I’m not sure such an open-ended project would be a perfect fit for high school underclassmen, but I hope to use some aspects of her project in my next lit unit.  Students will work in groups to study carefully one thematic element of a novel.  Although I’ve used the framework of this project before, thanks to Linkon’s article (and our discussion last week) I have several additions.  The students’ first task as a group (before they even begin reading the novel) will be to generate a list of questions they want to address while examining their topic.  I also plan to include metacognitive reflection writings a few times along the way (after their first reading—initial impressions—and then later to revisit those first impressions).  Although I don’t have the flexibility or resources to conduct the project the way Linkon does with her undergrads, I hope that by incorporating some elements my students will be able to interact with the text on a deeper and more personal level.

I want to end with a question I’ve been considering since reading the excerpt from Scholes:   I like his descriptions of the practices of reading (text within text) and interpretation (text upon text), and I believe I can work with them in my classes; however, is what he refers to as text against text (criticism) too lofty a goal for the average high school student?

Pursuing Patience

With all this talk of embracing difficulty and recursive reading (practices that we are engaging in as “experts”, according to our readings) I am reminded of real-life experiences I have had trying to make the work of reading “visible” to my classes in the past. After hearing from a reading specialist, years ago, that my students probably didn’t understand it was NORMAL to re-read things, I tried modeling this behavior in class. Many times, we would read something, I would stop and point out that it didn’t (on first pass) make sense, and then tell them “this is where I would have to go back and read it again.”  I got a considerable amount of eye-rolling. I think that, for this group of students, the idea of “wasting” one’s time reading any of the stuff we were doing in class, let alone (God forbid) RE-reading it…well, it was just unfathomable. I won’t pretend to have solved this problem. And I’m not saying this in a negative “the strategy will never work” kind of way.  However, I did start asking myself why my students gave up on reading so easily, as well as other pursuits in English class.

One of my jobs as a ninth grade teacher (and the one universally dreaded by my colleagues) was to drag the class kicking and screaming through a term paper. One of the most unpleasantly surprising moments for me was getting the ninth graders in the library and onto the computers, suggesting they start their research with a google search, and having all their hands fly up within moments. “Miss…” they would say, gesturing at the list of search results. “What do I do now?” Baffled by their lack of expertise in, of all areas, COMPUTERS, I would suggest that they start opening some of the links and looking at them. Aghast, the students would look at me. “What…ALL of them? That’ll take forever!”

I tell this story to lead into a question I’ve mulled over for some time. Is today’s instant-gratification-on-demand-twittering (sorry, Prof)-soundbyte culture making all of us too impatient to suffer through difficulty? I, myself, am guilty of sparking to anger as soon as my screen won’t load. I have been known to hastily close a website that didn’t instantly reward me with an answer and surf to another. But as an Atari-wave Gen Xer, I didn’t encounter the internet until I had graduated from college. Was there enough “waiting” in my upbringing that I can still work through problems with some shred of patience?

I am not trying to diss the internet culture or say “GAWD, these kids today…” I just wonder how to present thinking and waiting as a positive activity in an era when even I, admittedly, no longer wish to wait. Can there be a slow-thinking movement to match the slow-food movement? What can we, as teachers, do to bring challenges back in fashion?

To close, I demonstrate with a picture of my 10-month-old, who shocked me yesterday by overcoming great difficulty in order to escape from the house.  Babies are wired to overcome difficulty.  What happens to us that makes us lose that?

Babies take on difficulty with no problem.

Critical Reading Skills = Critical Thinking Skills

Like Abbie, I began my reading for this week with Sherry Linkon’s “The Reader’s Apprentice.”  And, like her, I also find myself struck by something in the article that is forcing me to pause my reading in order to think through my thoughts by writing them down.

On page 251, Linkon paraphrases Randy Bass, “…one of the differences between expert and novice readers is that experts are able to both formulate hypotheses and defer reaching conclusions, practices that novices do not use comfortably.  Expert reading is thus critical in part because it involves actively considering multiple interpretations.” 

I propose that you re-read that quote and substitute the word “think” for “read”.  Really.  Try it. 

Perhaps this is at the heart of why English teachers have such a hard time engaging students and motivating them to put in the time and mental work to really read something, even if it is difficult or boring or seemingly irrelevant to their lives.  Maybe we can’t just blame their English teachers from the previous years.  Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that for some reason, these students don’t know how to think critically.  But, does thinking need to be taught?  Isn’t this something that is inherently natural to humans? 

As discussed in class this last week, our education system seems to favor breadth over depth.  When learning isn’t deep, how can thinking be deep?  If students don’t think deeply, how can we expect them to read critically?  I don’t think we can.  Every one of us in this class thinks (and reads) critically.  If we didn’t, we wouldn’t be in this field of study.  Who taught us how to think?   Were we taught, or have we just had these inquiring, critical minds since childhood?  Were we all reading novels and having philosophical debates at age seven because we were born with the ability, or did someone in our lives teach us to reach past the surface of things and question them, to consider more than one perspective, to draw connections between ideas, and to formulate interpretations that we can justify but aren’t afraid to modify?  All children are curious, but why do some seem to lose that at some point along the way and replace it with a shrug, an eye roll, and an attitude?

As current and/or future teachers of literature, our job is to not just to teach students how to read critically, but it is to require them to think deeply and critically first.  Perhaps for some students, that will be a new experience and a serious challenge.  For us, it will definitely be a challenge.

Context, the Oxford System

I began with Sherry Linkon this week and paused mid-article to write down my thoughts. I pulled three quotes from Linkon’s “The Reader’s Apprentice: Making Critical Cultural Reading Visible” that inspired my blog post for this week:

  1. p. 248: “Great lectures and discussions work on many levels, but they do not provide students with sufficient guidance in how to read cultural texts critically and contextually.”
  2. p. 251-2: “Good critical readers are conscious of the difference between their own experience and worldview, the culture in which the text was created, and the world represented in the text.”
  3. p. 252: “Good readers draw on their existing knowledge of that cultural moment, and they seek out additional information about everything from the issues of the day or the artist’s biography to cultural practices about art and publication, everyday life, attitudes, and behavior.”

These ideas made me think about the University of Oxford’s tutorial system, and about the English Faculty Library at Oxford. You may be familiar with Oxford’s tutorial system, but if you’re not, the short-ish version: It’s basically founded on the idea that for whatever you choose to “read” (major in), you’ll have a certain number of tutorials per term paired with lectures in your discipline that you’ll attend. The tutorial sessions are literally an hour or so a week with an Oxford don (professor), usually one-on-one, but occasionally two students::one don.

So, when I studied abroad there, I had two tutorials: One on the 19th century British novel, and one on postmodernism. I met once a week with each of my two dons. I was basically reading a book per week and writing a paper on it for each session. The sessions consisted of my don tearing apart my paper, asking “Why this?” “What about that?” and “You didn’t support this idea with any evidence,” &c. My tutorials in particular were almost as much about writing as they were reading.

Now, one awesome thing about Oxford is the faculty libraries. There is essentially one for each major discipline, and the English Faculty Library is literally heaven on earth for any English major or book nerd. It’s organized by period and by author. So, when I was writing a paper on George Eliot, I could actually go to the George Eliot section and find tons of criticism on her (including historical/cultural context), information on her relations with contemporaries, biographies of her, her collected journals/letters, &c. It was amazingly easy to use and made so much sense. I wonder why we can’t create libraries like that here. How often have you gone to Fenwick for a research project and had to travel to three different floors to find books on the same idea?

Anyway, I bring up Oxford and these faculty libraries because I think the way they have their system set up is pretty ideal, especially for accessing cultural and historical contexts when reading. I distinctly remember getting a paper back in an English lit. class in undergrad (with John Foster here at Mason) with comments about how my paper would have been X% better if I’d considered the social/historical events going on at the time and how they influenced the writer/the text. Yes, he’d lectured a bit about these things in class, but relating them back to the text in an informed and intelligent way would have required a little extra reading, and honestly, as an undergrad, I wasn’t totally sure where to go to find that information.

As an eager little English major, I was actually willing to go the extra mile to include “extras” like this, but I suppose we must consider the general apathy of some students, esp. in high school, and the attitude of doing just enough to get by. Are high school/college students in the U.S. willing to be so self-motivated? Not sure. How can we make such information easily accessible to students without having to count on ourselves (as teachers) to “lecture it to them,” likely ensuring they won’t listen, will forget it, or won’t realize the connection between it and the text — or, by requiring “eight outside sources” without showing our students where to go find helpful sources and what tools to use to evaluate and engage with those sources?

As Linkon says in “Reader’s Apprentice,” “critical cultural reading emphasizes inquiry” (251), and, like we talked about in class Wednesday, what are the things we should be saying to students before/as they read texts to get them to (1) ask questions, and (2) seek answers through considering their own prior knowledge and looking for social/cultural/historical context in other places?

(added:) Now that I’ve finished the article, I want to comment on one thing that my experience with the Oxford tutorial system did not do: allow sufficient time to study any particular work in real, meaningful depth. I would argue that I enjoyed exploring those two particular genres in depth (and the works to some extent), but if I’m honest, as intense as each weekly study may have been, I may have gotten “inch-deep” kind of exposure. (One week is hardly long enough to study Middlemarch — it’s barely long enough to read it!) I loved reading about Linkon’s “inquiry project” — what a great way to achieve mile-deep knowledge, not to mention skill building! (I would like to elaborate on my opinion on the importance of skill-building (vs. simply “gaining knowledge”), but I think I’ve already doubled my word limit.)

(P.S. — I know this was really long, and I’m sorry!)