Category Archives: Week 5

Baldwin Redeems His Characters

Isaiah 51:17-22 (New International Version)

The Cup of the LORD’s Wrath

17 Awake, awake!
Rise up, O Jerusalem,
you who have drunk from the hand of the LORD
the cup of his wrath,
you who have drained to its dregs
the goblet that makes men stagger.

18 Of all the sons she bore
there was none to guide her;
of all the sons she reared
there was none to take her by the hand.

19 These double calamities have come upon you—
who can comfort you?—
ruin and destruction, famine and sword—
who can [a] console you?

20 Your sons have fainted;
they lie at the head of every street,
like antelope caught in a net.
They are filled with the wrath of the LORD
and the rebuke of your God.

21 Therefore hear this, you afflicted one,
made drunk, but not with wine.

22 This is what your Sovereign LORD says,
your God, who defends his people:
“See, I have taken out of your hand
the cup that made you stagger;
from that cup, the goblet of my wrath,
you will never drink again.

23 I will put it into the hands of your tormentors,
who said to you,
‘Fall prostrate that we may walk over you.’
And you made your back like the ground,
like a street to be walked over.”


Baldwin’s  1957 short story “Sonny’s Blues” is rife with Biblical imagery.  Told in the first person, as if God was speaking, Sonny’s brother has all the information at his fingertips, if he only knows how to use it.  Often stories written from no-name points of view are set up that way because the audience does not really need to know any more about the narrator than that he is the person in the best position to tell the story.  Baldwin finds Sonny to be the main character in the story and the one who learns how to survive the hard way. The older (nameless) brother is along for the ride while picking up essential life skills he did not know he needed.

Based on Baldwin’s tough life in Harlem’s mean streets, the narrator could be Baldwin himself, although it is an unacknowledged assumption.  He is supposed to take care of his younger brother, Sonny, after his mother dies.  Accomplishing this by moving Sonny in with his wife Isabel’s family while he goes off with the military gives us the foregrounding for the older brother’s sense of responsibility.  The plot continues along describing Sonny’s Bebop haunts and the narrator’s school where he is a teacher, until Sonny’s arrest for heroin possession and distribution.

Ending the pleasure and beginning the difficulty, we begin to see why we have arrived here:  why isn’t the older brother taking care of Sonny?  What are Sonny’s vulnerabilities?  How did the older brother become so strong or was he always invincible?  Finally we want to know how redemption will be included in this history of misery.  Sonny is certainly miserable in jail, but what of his brother, never seeing his own misery or understanding how others can be helped out of their torment?

We can hypothesize that like Isaiah and Ishmael (and blindly assume) the brothers come to an understanding.  This would make sense as Baldwin often has Biblical themes about favored sons in his work; Sonny is repeatedly held out as the favored son, while the narrator is left to deal with a far more ominous father, even though Sonny wants to follow in his uncle’s musical footsteps.   The story alludes to Biblical passage of the man lying in the street which refers to the uncle’s tragic death after being run over while walking with his guitar.

Appropriately during this Harlem Renaissance scene, Sonny redeems himself through his music when he finally plays with meaning and spirit all that has been pent up inside him.  Prior to this the narrator distains the new Bebop sound Sonny loves, for the higher plane of Jazz.  As his older brother has a glass of milk and scotch (“a cup of trembling”) placed on top of the piano where Sonny is playing, the narrator show he understands that music is lifting his brother up, regardless of what kind of music it is; and, it will save him.


“The burden of the word of the Lord for Israel, saith the Lord, who stretcheth forth the heavens, and layeth the foundation of the earth, and formeth the spirit of man within him. Behold, I will make Jerusalem a cup of trembling unto all the peoples round about, when they shall be in the siege both against Judah and against Jerusalem. And in that day will I make Jerusalem a burdensome stone for all peoples; all that burden themselves with it shall be cut in pieces, though all the nations of the earth be gathered together against it.” (biblebb)

Works Cited,+Biblical+phrase+in+Zechariah&cd=8&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=us

Kogon 3 .610 Risk Taking Made Easy

Kogon 3.610 Blog 


Risk Taking Made Easy

Shuffling together (like cards before they are dealt) Schulman’s piece Taking Learning Seriously and Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach us About Learning and Literacy, and eloquent comprise between how intellectually understanding and accessible knowledge emerge.  Schuman argues that we teach too wide a variety of subjects which disallows the opportunity to go deeply into any one major concept (8). This shocking revelation surfaced during the comparison of results between US and Asian/European AP test scoring.  We were woefully behind. 

It appears our standards-based learning model goes broad but not deep into subject matter; we try to cover everything but, in essence, giving students a smattering of knowledge misses the mark.  A better way to learn is to focus on major, but fewer, bodies of work in each subject area, delving deeply into those pieces for building blocks on which the student can base queries on works yet to be taught.  In other words, once taught to fish, the student can then feed himself (or figure things out) in the future.

Pointing out that girls stop playing video games and enjoying math (and I would add,  participating in sports) around the time of middle school, Gee indicates concern that they (girls) might be left without not only technological skills, but without the confidence to see and solve problems using visual and multi-modal texts (13, 16).

Maintaining that we are always learning, and that all information is connected, Gee shows how the semiotic, “’an area or set of activities where people think, act, and value in certain ways’ –an area like video gaming…”, areas fit into the semiotic domain, or “practices that recruits one or more modalities…to communicate distinctive types of meanings” (19).  Drawing attention to the need for teenagers to practice real world skills, Gee explores the connection to great amount of time well spent on video games with the principle Erik Erikson identified as the crises of psychosocial moratorium (59, 69).

Erikson stresses the adolescent’s need for a “sense of identity through [their] accomplishments (Crain 282).  Within the world of video gaming, the student is enticed to try and take real world risks that can and will result in empowerment with no threat to status or embarrassment (Gee 61, 64).  This author maintains the ”Psychosocial Moratorium”  as Principle #6 in the steps toward efficacious learning with cognitive skills (64).  Now we can see a brighter future for the girl who sticks with the 30-100 hours of video play in order to enter and succeed in the world of gaming (Gee 2).  We can almost hear her as she stands up indignantly and “demand[s] to know who told [Gee that] girls don’t play video games” (14).

 Works Cited

Crain, William.  Theories of Development, Concepts and Applications.  4th ed.  Upper Saddle River:  Prentice, 2000.

Blau: Guiding Students toward Stronger Interpretation

Like many of my fellow ENG 610ers, I have found Blau’s book exceptionally helpful.  Thinking back through all of my experience with education classes, I cannot recall another book that relied on, or even included, scripts in order to propose a teaching strategy.  What better way is there to share with teachers how to implement a strategy than to model for them the exact thing you propose in the form of an imagined (or sometimes real) dialogue?  I love how Blau includes students’ criticism and diatribes, and the way “T” comfortably moves students towards a consensus, or in the case I’m going to discuss next, towards stronger interpretations of difficult passages.

I find myself particularly drawn to Ch. 3: “Which Interpretation Is the Right One? A Workshop on Literary Meaning.”  I particularly enjoyed his example of a literature workshop on “My Papa’s Waltz,” and I’d like to try to have my AP students read the script aloud in order to model for them the kind of ambiguity that we find in the kinds of passages that show up on the AP exam.  I have been fortunate to have some conversations like this in my classroom, though I’m sure they have never been this organized or well-led so I’d like to aim for more planning when I try to implement a literature workshop in my classroom.

Along with this literature workshop in Ch. 3, Blau discusses the multiple possibilities inherent in interpretation, which certainly got me thinking.  Without meaning to constantly connect everything we read and do to the AP course I teach, I cannot help but wonder how an AP teacher is supposed to balance allowing students to interpret passages (particularly ambiguous passages) in multiple ways while also preparing them to answer multiple-choice questions that suggest there is only one correct way to read that passage.  I really do love the openness of the AP English Literature curriculum (because I really can teach whichever higher-level texts I want to teach), but the AP exam’s much more rigid multiple-choice section certainly causes me some concern. 

For example, for part of this year’s AP midterm, I had my students annotate the Dunya Mikhail poem, “The War Works Hard” which seems to literally suggest, through a laundry list of the war’s effects, that war can be productive and useful.  Of course, when we read the piece more carefully, it seems clear that the speaker intends this message to be ironic.  For example, the poem reads, “It inspires tyrants/ to deliver long speeches,” and “It contributes to the industry/ of artificial limbs” and “builds new houses/ for the orphans” (  When some of my AP students read this poem, they took the speaker’s words literally as evidence that the speaker saw the merit in war.  While I did not entirely dismiss the notion that the speaker illustrates that certain people and industries (and even flies) benefit from war (and death), I was particularly astounded by the students who said the poem showed how good war can be for humanity.  Not only had these students simply believed what the speaker said, neglecting to identify the poem’s irony (though I told them to look for verbal irony in particular), they also seemed somewhat brainwashed by their misinterpretation of the poem’s message.

When I graded these midterm annotations, I felt I had to honor the AP exam and score the students who caught the verbal irony higher than the students who did not; however, when we went over this poem, I had one particularly precocious student try, unsuccessfully, to, as he put it, “prove me wrong.”  His line-by-line analysis was wonderful because students were actually able to see where that kind of interpretation fell flat.  In any case, as productive as that classroom dissection went, I felt oddly resentful that the AP exam requires me, the teacher, to punish students whose interpretations are not “correct enough.”  (I should explain that my school has pushed the AP teachers this year to make sure our grades align more readily with the students’ expected scores on the AP exam, which totally renders my grading more punitive than it was before this year.) 

I hate to find myself enacting the same kind of rigid interpretation that I dislike about the AP exam’s multiple-choice section, and yet I must prepare the students for that portion of the exam.  That said, I felt oddly comforted when my precocious student inadvertently proved himself wrong (and admitted his mistake) to miss the poem’s ironic tone.  Likewise, I felt I wasn’t forcing an interpretation on these studetns when another rather articulate student summed up the poem with the following words, “This poem just proves that the consequences of war simply outweigh the benefits.” 

In case any of you are interested in teaching “The War Works Hard,” I found myself emulating Blau’s tendency to rely on some sense of authorial intent (though with Roethke, the intent is much more ambiguous), so I looked up Mikhail’s background.  In my resarech, I found the following interview with Dunya Mikhail on NPR, in which she says, “When I think of war, for me, it’s by default a … lose-lose case.  I believe there’s no winner in the war because, you know, the killed one dies physically and the killer dies morally. So they are both dead.” (  Thus, while Roethke’s poem may celebrate ambiguity, I would argue, and I think my students would (now) back me up on this that Mikhail’s poem is much less ambiguous in its relevation of the hardships of war.  Either way, I am only beginning to see the difficulty in teaching the analysis of poetry, something which is inherently so personal in its ability to speak to us, in a high school classroom.  Thankfully, Blau has some really great suggestions on how to make this process, much like the writing process, more of a successful and meaningful experience for students and teachers alike.


I have two differing opinions of Blau. I enjoyed the ideas presented but did not enjoy the style in which it was written. Reading about the experiements was interesting but tidious. I do have to admit that it may have been tidious because I was reading often with a sick infant in my arms which can make most tasks tidious!
I enjoyed chapter two and felt that a lot of the observations made were interesting and followed my thinking on rereading and interpretation. I must agree that there is a difficult balance in teaching students that there are many interpretations of texts that are acceptible but not all interpretations are. I know many adults that will say “English is ridiculous because you can say whatever you want.” I also thought that chapter 4 made a good point about background knowledge.
I had trouble reading each of the lesson/ workshop/ experiments but they were nice to have in the book. It seems like a teacher could take the different lessons from the text and plug them into different pieces of literature that are taught through out the year. After reading this a teacher could walk away with a variety of units to teach reading. I think that is an important aspect of “teaching” books. The lessons also seemed like they were a good balance of student participation, lecture, group work and the final product seemed valuable to student learning. I know that the focus of each lesson was realitiviely simple but each was a topic that can be difficult to translate to students- interpretation, rereading, incoportating background knowledge.
Reading the section in background knowledge about “A Modest Proposal” did make me laugh as I know that is how the reading was taught to me and I think I taught it that way my first year teaching. I do see Blau’s point and I think it is important to present to students other readings that support the reading they are doing. It is important to let our students into our thought process and not just give them knowledge but help them learn how to learn.

What about style and technique? What about the author’s craft?

Blau’s The Literature Workshop should be required reading in every English teacher’s undergraduate program. He provides such great insight with extensive rationales for his workshops. In the reading thus far, there have been many connections to the need for (and “pleasures” of) encountering and working through difficulty. Blau’s work definitely speaks to the differences between expert and novice learners and thinkers, and he speaks to the importance of practice. It seems that the greatest difference between expert and novices learners comes down to the issue of experience—expert learners have more practice and experience than novice learners. Thus, it is important for us to provide our students with plenty of practice.  Blau also repeatedly stresses the importance of modeling for our students. Additionally, he stresses the importance of recursive readings. (Although, I would like to know how he stresses/handles recursive readings of full novels.) I feel that Blau presents great reasoning and workshops to illustrate, among other things, the intentionally fallacy and the importance of evidentiary reasoning. I am really enjoying The Literature Workshop, and I feel that Blau has articulated many things that I have thought about the teaching of literature. I look forward to incorporating Blau’s workshops and activities in my classes!

Along with all the praise for Blau’s work, though, I do have some questions. My biggest question at this point is what about style and technique?? What about the author’s craft? Blau refers to Scholes when he says that we should help “students see how [literature] speaks to them as human beings rather than as test takers and technical analysts” (102). Agreed. Blau continues (referring to and quoting Scholes) by saying that “[b]y asking students as they read to look for and analyze such elements as irony, theme, symbol, tone, and so on, […] we erect a screen or alternate text ‘that stands between the literature students read and their own humanity’.” Hmmm… I think Blau’s (and Scholes’) point is valid, but I’m not sure that I completely agree. Isn’t examining and analyzing the author’s craft—their use of the language, their tone, their use of symbolism, etc—part of analysis? Isn’t it another way to approach the text? Granted, we don’t want our students solely reading a work on the look-out for literary devices. But can’t an exploration and consideration of technique lead to further understanding? I’m guessing that Blau isn’t a fan of the IB English program. Two big questions of IB English, as I explain it to my students, are: How does the work make you FEEL? (What is the effect of the work?—We’re not talking touchy/feely feel here.) and HOW does the work make you feel? (How is that effect achieved?) (They are also working with the greater “So What” question, too.) So, my IB students definitely explore (“dissect”?) literary works. But I don’t believe that this means that they aren’t seeing and discussing “how it speaks to them as human beings” because they do so at great length in class and in their writing!

You don’t know it until you can teach it.

Blau pg. 151: “…the Deweyan notion that the only knowledge you truly possess is knowledge you have somehow made.”

(Perhaps also known as, roughly: You don’t know it until you can teach it.)

The connections Blau made in Chapter 7 between reading and writing really stuck out for me. I took 615 just last semester, so maybe that is coloring my experience here in 610, but I think the connections between reading and writing are so important, and each benefits the other equally. I love the idea of understanding what you read by writing about it. My first experience with reading logs (since high school anyway) was in 615, and I was surprised by how much I valued them — as tedious as it was, I certainly wouldn’t have gotten all I did out of the readings without being “forced” to write about them simultaneously. And I agree that logs can be a great place to store ideas, ideas that maybe the student will be able to come back to when asked to write a paper about the text with no prompt or direction.

I also like the idea of working through confusion by writing, something that students are usually not willing to do in “formal academic essays” for fear of bad grades, but that is possible, and even expected, in a more casual reading log or journal, which is often described as a place for questions and “but what abouts.” Blau says, “there is value in writing about and sharing confusion” (155). And as we have read elsewhere this semester, confusion = learning, questions = learning, and as Blau says on page 12, difficulty = success.

What I’ve been taking away from this class these first few weeks is how important it is to show students that difficulty, questions, misunderstandings, and disagreements are not the enemy when reading literature. The challenge is to make the English literature classroom a space where students feel confident expressing these reactions, where those things are welcomed, discussed, and built upon.

Maybe I am a hippie…

Blau’s dedication to a learning community and real-world examples of the educational benefits for participants came at the perfect time to settle an argument. I guess I am a hippie, I have always enthusiastically believed in a “community of learners” (16) as the goal for any classroom. I am that kid… Recently, a classmate (different class) was struggling with some technology issues and basically just needed some resource accumulation help. We traded contact info so I could help. A friend (a former teacher) heard the phone call when I walked him through databases and set up a time to meet for some library exploration asked why I did not charge this classmate my standard tutoring fee. I was not a happy camper. 1.) Accumulation of resources is an offensive, backwards way to describe tutoring in any subject. 2.) I would hope a classmate would do the same for me. Everyone needs help sometime and everyone has the right to ask for and receive help. Classroom communities are participatory in many ways and not just during the appointed class time. Every learner has different strengths and weaknesses and Blau recognizes this as key in his workshop methodology. 3.) It helped me gain more experience and knowledge with the resources I was introducing to him. Silly argument aside, my number three is just today’s example of why I believe in the workshop method. I appreciate Blau for finally articulating and theoretically backing the workshop model in such practical, followable steps. I have always been a fan of study groups and can finally feel confident about incorporating a structured workshop into actual classroom practice. Hallelujah, seriously.

I am enthralled with Blau’s introduction of literature logs and, honestly, in love with the concept of low-stakes writing.  The in-class workshops could be extended in structured re-reading log assignments, as students learn to respect their own opinions and rate their understanding. Man, how Blau can inspire and develop metacognition with a deceptively simple 0-10 scale is very impressive and honestly practical. I was almost in awe of his ability to explain, through the actual application of his scale, how confusion and questions are part of the necessarily recursive reading process. That vocabulary, yes sir, he really gets to the meat of an unnatural process in such an approachable manner. Anyway, the log is such a functional companion (obviously not a replacement) to the necessary analytical essay: it’s a huge, sneaky pre-writing assignment encouraging a persona, yet authoritative voice! As a not-yet teacher, I am blissfully unaware of the curriculum restraints and attitude discrepancies which will eventually break me of most of my hippie leanings and naïve trust of students’ willingness to learn… I wish I could sit in on one of Blau’s literature courses. Or maybe just give him a hug.

To conclude, I would like to share the design for my next tattoo: “the processes of reading, interpreting, and criticizing literary texts teach and call for the exercise of evidentiary reasoning and the practice of critical thinking skills that are required for successful intellectual work in every field of study and academic discipline.” (59) It will be a full-back spread with Sheridan Blau riding an eagle.

Explaning a Bike to Sir Phillip Sidney

Well, thus far, The Literature Workshop offers some of the most practical and insightful tips on teaching literature that I have ever read. Already, I have bookmarked workshops and made plans to incorporate some of his ideas into my lesson plans. The truly interesting part? Most of the ideas I am most excited about are not ideas I am considering for my 8th graders…but for my 5th and 6th grade language arts class. Perhaps because they are my language gurus. They were actually asking me today what Middle English was, and why our English is so different from theirs, and how come we don’t speak Middle English anymore? The most common question I get from my 8th graders is “What time does this class end?” But I digress.

I have often wondered the best course for teaching interpretation. Teaching comprehension is fairly straightforward. Getting students to ask the right questions about literature isn’t always. How do I get them to move from comprehension to interpretation? Blau’s chapter on “correct” interpretations was interesting, as I have often found that to be a contentious debate in literary circles. It was the most common complaint I heard in undergrad from English students: “The professor didn’t like my interpretation, so I didn’t get a great grade on the paper.” It was also a common complaint from those outside the English major: “English majors have it easy. They just have to give their opinion, and it’s always right, because how can a professor argue their interpretation is incorrect?” Blau combats this by pointing out that the object is not whether or not you have an opinion, but whether or not you can prove your opinion with information found in the text. Two people can view the same text and walk away with entirely different interpretations, and still both hold valid views if their opinions are supported by elements found directly in the text itself. This must be why law schools value English lit. undergrad degrees–they have the ability to interpret texts and back up their assertions with facts, regardless of the side. As Blau further makes note, this instruction is “salvational,” as so many professions make use of one’s ability to interpret texts or situations (77-78). I highlighted this sentence, as I feel it should be the creed of the English teacher. It makes English important in a world that sometimes thinks its a “frivolous” or “easy” subject.

This has truly been an eye-opening book. While some of the things he suggests are far too advanced for my middle schoolers, I do believe I can tailor most of his ideas for them, and make literature a more exciting world for them to play in. As for the title of my post, I just found the most fun activity on pg. 93– have one person explain a modern poem to Sir Phillip Sidney! What a great idea, and the kids always love role playing. I will definitely have to try that one!

Between a rock and a sign out sheet.

I said in an earlier blog post that I came to grad school because I wanted to know what best practices were according to a community of professionals. After having completed a course on writing instruction and being a quarter of the way into a class on reading instruction—well, I’m starting to think ignorance was bliss. But not in the way one might first assume.

One point that Blau makes—and I couldn’t agree more—is that rereading is key to understanding literature. I know this to be true of myself and I’ve observed it multiple times in others as well. This is something I try to facilitate in my classroom—and it’s been a point of contention.

There’s a log book in the English department at my school, broken into 3 week increments for signing out novels. I had one signed out for my 9th grade class earlier this year, S.E. Hinton’s That was then, this is now. It’s about 150 pages, and an “at grade level” read for my students. There is only a class set, so all reading is done in class. We read the novel within the 3 weeks, but my students were writing about and discussing the themes in the novel—drug use, growing up, racism. I wanted them to be able to reread as we did these assignments, so I checked the sign out sheet and as no one was signed up, I signed it out again.

I will spare you the details of what happened, but I had a serious disagreement with a colleague who came in a week later and wanted to use the book. She interrogated me angrily in front of a few early comers to class that morning—why was it taking so long? Do you really need a month to read that book?

Incidents like this, not to mention the breadth of what we’re expected to cover, makes doing this type of careful analysis and rereading so difficult that I have questioned myself and fretted more than I care to admit. My foray into grad school has pointed me in the direction of what practices are best and confirmed some of the practices I was already employing—but what good is a tool if my hands are tied behind my back?

I acknowledge that the answer is as simple as doing the best I can, but it’s distasteful to me to have to compromise what I consider the core principles of my work. Blau said in his writing that teachers are often put in the “professionally humiliating” position of being told what and how to teach, and he could not have been more right.

Blau’s Book Is A Keeper

Blau works nicely to fill in the gap between the theory we’ve been encountering and the reality of the classroom. Several of us have commented on it. Finally, news we can use!

I like that Blau gives us models and examples of what we can do, but I also like that he also tells us what NOT to do. Like Scholes, he warns us that we can easily slip into the role of “sage on the stage” and put our students into the position of spouting back to us our own interpretations when it comes time for assessment. This “banking model”, where information is deposited into our student’s memories and withdrawn by them when they need it is, unfortunately, what many of our students have come to expect from us. His revelation that in planning and preparing to teach a course, teachers are doing the learning while students are relegated to the role of serving as witnesses and recorders of interpretations and approaches to conceptual problems. I confess that I have occasionally presented lessons like this, usually when I am out of ideas on how to engage students or when the material is new; it sometimes is the easiest way, the path of least resistance, but it is mediocre teaching at best.

Fortunately Blau’s book is full of suggestions on what we can do with a classroom full of students so they can become more competent and productive learners instead of merely containers for our ideas. I appreciate his emphasis on group work and how it is a natural part of the reading process. Yes, reading is a solitary act, but that doesn’t mean that understanding, analyzing and interpreting should also be done by the student working alone. In my composition classes, I am always pleased with the results of group discussions as a pre-writing activity. Working in groups, students rarely complain afterwards that they don’t know what to write about. Working together, without the intimidation factor of a teacher standing over them, they feel free to say things they might not say otherwise. They question each other’s ideas, suggest alternative approaches and general are more open. This is exactly what we want them to do in a literature class when we ask them to engage an author’s text.

Blau’s book is crammed with too many examples to discuss in a single blog post, but his workshop on background/prior knowledge (Chapter 4) is especially illuminating to me as an ESL reading instructor. One of the biggest issues I face is that ESL students frequently discount what they know because they don’t see the universality of it or its worth. After all, their cultural background is different from that of their peers and from their instructor, so how can it apply to a classroom discussion of a poem or passage they don’t understand?

I would modify Blau’s approach and have them bring in examples of fables indigenous to their cultures, then spend time in groups where they would “teach” each other how they construct meaning from the cultural references. I think they would soon realize that there are themes that run through many of the readings that are universal to all cultures. They would hopefully also understand that what they bring with them from their culture is just as valid as anything I or any students has to say.

I also think that Blau’s storytelling workshop (Chapter 5), where students exchange interpretations of personal stories, would be an excellent way to illustrate how each of us uses our different backgrounds and cultural references when we attempt to create meaning. As students and instructors, we are the sum total of the experiences we have had in our lives. There is not “wrong” interpretation, only different interpretations.

Literature Workshops – a cure for amnesia

Let me first begin by saying that I have enjoyed reading Blau more than any of the other reading assignments thus far.  I found myself taking trips down memory lane while reading his book and revisiting my old literature classes from my undergraduate days.  What struck me most is how little I could remember from some of my classes and how vivid some of my memories from other classes are.  Not only can I not tell you what we read in Victorian Lit, but I hardly remember even attending the class (although I promise that I did).  However, I remember discussions about Madame Bovary, details about Kate Chopin, and arguments we had about Humbert Humbert.  I even remember the names and faces of some of my classmates (and this was ten years ago!).  Perhaps I remember these classes more clearly because I found the texts more interesting to read.  However, I think that the most significant difference between the classes I remember and the classes I don’t are the teaching methods used by the professors.

I attended a small, liberal arts school, and there were only four English professors.  I remember things I read in Sister Thomasita and Sister Deborah’s classes because they let us explore them for ourselves.  I felt slightly uncomfortable the first time I had to get into a small group and discuss what we read the night before because I had never been asked to do that in high school.  However, I soon realized that it was a lot more fun to talk about the book than to be lectured about it.  These two professors did give lectures providing background information about the authors or explaining the literary and historical context of a work, but they also incorporated activities similar to the ones Blau describes.  On the other hand, I cannot remember much of anything about other classes (like Victorian Lit) taught by Professor X.  I do remember that the texts were generally not easy for me to read, and so I would sometimes just not do all of the reading.  I knew that he would spend the entire class time just telling us what we should have understood from the text, so if I could take good notes then I’d be fine.  I don’t want to be a teacher that causes amnesia in her students or fosters a helplessness even among English majors.  I want my classes to provide meaningful learning experiences for students, and with some borrowed ideas from Blau and my old professors and some creativity on my part, I can hopefully achieve that when I do teach some day.

Background Info

No! I was considering using “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner” by Randall Jarrell for my teaching presentation; however, Blau uses it in one of the workshops in Chapter 4. The point of using this poem is an example of how sometimes background knowledge is essential for interpreting a poem. Students might have more confusion of this particular poem if no one is familiar with the role of a ball turret gunner and the structure of fighter planes in World War II.

Blau even admits that he’s never conducted that workshop without at least one participant knowing about WWII bombers and ball turrets on page 84. I wonder what would happen, especially with newer generations moving farther away from that era, if no one knew. Blau mentions that he draws a picture of the WWII bomber, which is one method of introducing the background information to students.

However, in class we’ve also discussed New Criticism and how perhaps, background information can get in the way of a reading as well. A good example of how background information got in the way of interpretation is my group’s “think aloud” exercise, where we had such focus on the poet William Carlos Williams in our interpretation. However, background information would have also been useful had my group recognized the date of the poem 1934, we might’ve considered The Great Depression in our reading (especially with the broken green bottle).

I feel conflicted on whether a teacher should provide background information before a reading. In some ways, this would be very helpful. As a reader, if I’m at home, I tend to research information I am not familiar with in relation to a text. On the opposite side, I think that giving background information might lead readers to one type of interpretation, which brings up what Blau points out in Chapter 3 about one of the misperceptions of reading literature being that there is only one “correct” response/interperation.

What Binds Us Together?

I opened Blau reluctantly. As someone who taught for years in an extremely challenging school that had high teacher turnover, I have long felt that the ideals presented by the ivory tower just don’t fly in the exhausting and thankless world of the urban school. To teachers who are struggling to read Shakespeare to a class of ninth graders who are reading on the fourth grade level…well…you get sick of being told you just need to raise the bar and believe in your students. However, I came to like Blau for his honesty regarding his preconceptions and limitations. I think sometimes a tired teacher needs to know that the person who is preaching to him or her has also experienced failure and understands the odds.

Of particular interest to me is the problem of cultural literacy. Even though diversity is creeping into the curriculum, my experience is that there is still a heavy emphasis on what we teachers were, ourselves, taught — dead white men. As Scholes went on and on about Hemingway and his universality, I thought “my ninth graders never would have picked up on these World War clues.” I found that, when I was working with them, I was constantly stumbling upon problems I never expected. They had never heard of Marilyn Monroe, for example. The administrators blamed low test scores and poor retention of our material on this “cultural illiteracy”. At one point, we actually had a mandate to teach three idioms per quarter and the specific idioms were chosen for us. A drop in the bucket.

Reading Blau and mulling over “My Papa’s Waltz”, I think one of the solutions is to try very hard to find works with universal underlying themes (such as first love in Romeo and Juliet or familial relationships in “My Papa’s Waltz.”) There will still be terms and cosmetic elements that don’t make sense, but those could be surmountable. Note to self: avoid texts that are very time-and-place-specific if an alternative exists. I’m not sure what this means about my choice of Jane Eyre…but it doesn’t sound good!

Teaching Students to Trust Their Interpretations

I’ve been really thrilled to read Blau’s The Literature Workshop because of the practical teaching methods that Blau gives us (not that Gee wasn’t interesting, but definitely not too practical). As someone who has never taught before, the “workshops” that Blau methodically works through in each chapter are really enlightening. I was particularly drawn to and interested by the techniques Blau introduces through his workshop on the David Ordan short story in Chapter Six. As an undergraduate English major, I was always troubled by the idea of “what’s worth saying about a literary text”? After years of lectures and writing prompts, I never felt like I was taught how to read a piece of literature and trust myself enough to know what in the piece was “worthy” of writing about. I found Chapter Six to really be helpful to me both as a future teacher and also as a reader and student of literature.

Blau emphasizes the importance of having our students read and reread through a series of silent reading and reflection and by using the “jump in” reading that the entire class participates in out loud. The last time I participated in this kind of “popcorn” reading style was probably when I was in middle school. I think that a lot of secondary school teachers and university level professors probably find this kind of activity to be a waste of time. Rather, Blau tells us that he uses versions of pedagogical strategies that elementary school teachers use (like this “jump in” reading) to help their students make sense of what they’re reading (98).  Using these sort of “elementary” reading activities first and foremost ensures that all students have read the text; more importantly, going through these reading techniques emphasizes the point that no reader is skilled enough to understand all the nuances of the text in the first read-through—not even the professor (I particularly liked Blau’s observation that teachers are more willing to fail at understanding the first time around than their students). I really liked the “pointing” activity that Blau introduces in this chapter. Allowing students to pick the lines that they saw as most important and then watching as some of the same lines are repeated again indicates that the teacher is allowing the students to dictate the interpretation of the text. The students see that what they find important in the text matters. They can also see that other students found the same lines important, giving further satisfying validation that their initial thoughts were “on track”. The writing assignment that follows is also a great way to get students thinking independently about why they were drawn to certain lines in the poem. These three steps (rereading, pointing, and the “most important line” writing assignment) seems like they could also work for any writer who wants to figure out what he thinks is “worth saying” about a literary text that he is grappling with.

So far, I would probably use most of the workshops presented in Blau’s text, except for the one in chapter five that asks students to share their own stories and have their peers interpret them. I understand the point of this exercise (to teach students that anyone can interpret), but it seems that this kind of activity wouldn’t work in all classrooms. Students must be mature enough not to take this “story-telling” time as a time for socializing, and I think a lot of students would be uneasy “interpreting” the anecdotes of their peers. In other words, I think you really have to have the “perfect classroom” to pull this one off.

Efferent vs. Aesthetic Reading

There was definitely a lot in The Literature Workshop that I identified with and enjoyed.  The transcriptions of the workshops are great models to use in the classroom, even if I realize I will not be getting quite the same level of response/cooperation as Blau’s students.

I agree with Nikki that although I read a lot of educational theory back in college it all seemed alien to me as I did not have any real world context to place it in.  For example, I know that I read Rosenblatt in college, but I do not really remember much of what she said.  Reading the summary of her ideas about efferent and aesthetic reading in Blau’s book (145-147) now, as someone with classroom experience, I am able to relate to it, and agree that it is one of the fundamental problems I run into as an English teacher.

“Why are we reading this?” “What are we supposed to be getting out of this?”  I am inundated with these questions on a daily basis.  The question as always been so hard to answer and annoying to me because to me it seems obvious: we are reading this because it is literature and the experience is supposed to enrich your lives.  I have tried to tell students that reading literature is all about the experience, about appreciating the language, of relating to a piece of art, of connecting to humanity via shared experience, and so on.  Nope.  They are not buying it.  “What are we supposed to get out of it?” really means “What will be on the test?”

Until I read this passage it never dawned on me that English class is really the ONLY place this students are expected to read aesthetically.  They have to read in every other class, but in every other class they are being trained to read efferently.  I am the only in that classroom who primarily reads texts that are meant to be read aesthetically.  It made me realize that I should be more forgiving of my students and their need to know “what they are supposed to be getting out of it.”

However, as Blau points out, testing for aesthetic reading is remarkable difficult.  There are the state mandated tests that are more efferent that aesthetically based.  There is also a push for common curriculum and common assessments in many school districts.  In my experience common assessments lead towards a “correct reading” of a text, and therefore a more efferent reading.  There is also administrative pressure for crunchable data on assessments.

I guess I should focus on what I can change, as the I do not see the educational system moving away from collective testing anytime soon.  What I need to do in my classroom is incorporate as much of Blau’s ideas about enriching a literary experience for students while also making sure that my students are prepared for the types of assessments that are mandated for secondary students these days.

How do I love thee, Literature Workshop? / Let me count the ways:

  1. Non-threatening Approach:  People often talk about “bad teachers,” but Blau doesn’t assign blame.  He explains that although some traditional teaching practices are flawed, teachers don’t rely on them for malicious reasons.  Now, instead of thinking of these people (and myself) as “bad teachers,” I realize they are (I am) simply misguided.  Call me needy, but I appreciate reassurance that my intentions are good—otherwise I couldn’t stand such prolonged (and painful) reflection on my own practices.
  2. Ironic Paradox of Teaching (55):  Teachers learn more than students when “teaching” a lesson.  I’ve never thought about it quite like this before, but it’s certainly true.  It makes me wonder how so many otherwise “good” teachers can be fooled into thinking they’re doing the teaching, not the learning.  This one idea alone is enough to turn my basic approach in the classroom upside down.
  3. Memorable Sayings:  Blau uses expressions from other scholars to summarize his own arguments, specifically, Newkirk’s “looking for trouble” (24) and Rosenblatt’s contention “that taking someone else’s interpretation as your own is like having someone else eat your dinner for you” (25).  These two sayings will help me apply Blau’s concepts in my classroom because they are easy to remember and clearly encapsulate his ideas.
  4. Two Terms:  “pseudoliteracy” (27) and reading “dysfluency” (30).  I had never come across these ideas stated like this, but I could immediately apply them to what I see in my classroom on a daily basis.
  5. Personal Reflection:  Blau refers to many other scholars throughout TLW, some of whom I remember from my undergrad days.  I pulled out some old books (Rosenblatt in particular) and reflected on my English Ed courses back then.  I’m learning so much more now than I ever did as an undergrad because it’s hard to understand educational theories when you have no concrete experiences to apply them to.  Now, as I read TLW, I’m picturing my students (past and present) in the workshops.  I’m hearing the types of comments they make and envisioning how I can encourage them based on what I know about my teaching environment and myself as a teacher.
  6. “Responsible” Teachers:  Blau questions what it means to be a “responsible” teacher:  “The conventional idea . . . is that a responsible teacher will [answer all possible questions before assigning a reading] as if reading is . . . a process in which one never experiences frustration and . . . always understands everything immediately” (41).  Blau’s suggestion certainly isn’t conventional.  I never thought about providing crutches to students as doing them a disservice, but now I see that it enables them to continue hobbling along lamely with weak skills.  This is going to be a struggle for me because it’s so different from what teachers are tacitly taught to do, but now that I’m aware of the harm of enabling, I can work to improve my methods.
  7. Poetry Workshops:  They’re fantastic!  I was so intrigued by the workshop for “My Papa’s Waltz” that I did an experiment of my own.  Both people I asked to read the poem explained their interpretations apologetically (as if they knew they must be wrong because I, the English teacher, had read the poem differently).  This shows me even intelligent adults believe there is one “correct reading” of a poem.  (The workshops also reminded me that I enjoy poetry a lot more than I usually think I do.)
  8. Transcription of Workshops:  This method enabled me to picture the workshops in my own classroom.  I could even identify my real students by the types of comments made by S1, S2, etc.  I felt like a fly on the wall, and I could see myself in the role of both teacher and student.
  9. Two Disciplines of Interpretation:  Textual evidence and evidentiary reasoning (75).  The next time someone argues that if there is not one correct reading, then any reading could be correct, I can show him this explanation.  Blau outlines the parameters of legitimate interpretation very clearly.
  10. Background Information & Intentional Fallacy:  Excellent practical examples of how background knowledge and the author’s intention do and do not affect students’ readings of a text.  The Roethke discussion and Sir Phillip Sidney exercise were very helpful.