Category Archives: Week 6

Williams and the Struggle of Paradox

Placed and prized ever since in the 1938 publication in the book Life along the Passaic River, my favorite William Carolos Williams’ short story “Use of Force” is a first-person exposition with very little dialogue. I am comfortable with the tension created by the lack of quotation marks, as I like reading in a smooth steam, and Williams’ intensions to tell the story appear to be clear. Focusing on his profession, Williams is recounting a story from the medical practice in which he started out.

The words are important in social discourse and we discover as the narrator draws our attention to the uncomfortable welcome the mother into her house, that the doctor is an important guest whose presence is crucial. The object of the visit is her sick daughter. Williams describes the daughter as “One of those picture children [sic blue-eyed blondes] often reproduced in advertising leaflets and the photogravure section of the Sunday papers” presuming the readers’ familiarity with reading and with these American publications (22). This identifies his audience but puts distance between them and the characters in the story.

Doctor, father, mother, and the beautiful Olson child are afraid because cases of diphtheria have been found in the local school district and its contemplation, embedded in the social context of life in the poor industrial towns of New Jersey, was too awful to even be spoken about out loud. The child says her throat does not hurt, she has a fever, and she will not let anyone look at her throat. Here we have to defer meaning of the title “Use of Force.” Who would want to force something on a very sick child? The examination becomes a test in several layers.

The most obvious area to look for closure is in how the doctor has to eventually force her mouth open in order to see her secret: “both tonsils covered with membrane” (24). I see meaning in a more disordered sense of the title, however. Deferring until I had reread and highlighted the sexual and physical terms in the story, I also see another struggle or use of force.

Observing moments of difficulty when the narrator’s description, which if taken out of context, could be mistaken for a physical act of abuse, we hear that he “had already fallen in love with the savage brat” and that “her parents were contemptible to [him]” (23). He “wanted “to kill” her father over his behavior and word choice (23). When the doctor first tried to see inside the child’s mouth he says “…I coaxed, just open your mouth wide…opening both hands wide…just ….let me see” (22). He thinks of her as a heifer (22). Her magnificent blonde hair…is in profusion” and he wants to “expose her throat for inspection” (22, 23).

Likewise the child looks at her adversary with “cold, steady eyes, and no expression to her face whatever” (22). She pounces on the doctor with catlike movement[s], knocking his glasses off (22). She “fights valiantly” to keep him away (24).

These major clues of dysfunction in the natural order of caretaker and innocent could actually describe a rapist’s behavior: “I could have torn the child apart in my own fury and enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to attack her. My face was burning with it (23). Why else would he make an “unreasoning assault” and “overpower the child’s neck” (24)? The concluding evidence implies her rage and downfall as she attacked him again with “tears of defeat blinded her eyes” (24).

On cutting the knot of the double-bind (Blau p. 196)

I liked reading about Blau’s writing assignments for literature classes. Specifically in the second paper that Blau assigns (p.176), I like the idea of giving students the freedom to think honestly about what they read, but still also giving them the security of being able to “cross-check” their interpretation against the readings of more accomplished scholars. Allowing students to (1) come up with their own rough thoughts about the text and its meaning, then (2) having them read “professional” critiques of the text and see where their interpretation intersects with that of the “pros” is a good way, I think, to expose students to multiple interpretations and to illuminate their reading processes.

Then when comparing their interpretation to others’, perhaps they would be able to locate places where their thinking and/or their knowledge disallowed them to come to the same conclusions as the “pros” — that is, they could pinpoint what it is that they were missing as interpreters of literature (prior knowledge, cultural context, experience, &c.). Not that they could do anything about that right away. A person can only read and absorb so much at a time!

In the third paper Blau assigns (p. 180), he de-emphasizes the idea of a thesis, which I think is interesting. He says he does this to allow a kind of blooming of ideas — opening up to different ideas rather than closing them down (by narrowing to a thesis). I have a feeling that this would work well in a rough draft, but unless students were already strong writers, it would likely produce a paper that was hard to read and hard to follow (and maybe a bit incoherent). I think this is where the ideas of reading and writing (and lit. class and comp. class) really intersect in an interesting way. Blau’s assignments seem like they would be great to use in a literature class where the focus was on interpretation, identifying and exploring problems, difficulties, &c., understanding the reading process, and finding meaning in texts. But those same assignments would probably fail miserably in a composition classroom, where cohesion, coherence, and a stable foundation are valued.

So I wonder, does the kind of writing that produces knowledge and skills in a literature course clash with the kind of writing that produces knowledge and skills in a writing course? If so, then that sucks, because now we have another double-bind on our hands.

Week 6

I have really enjoyed Blau’s book, especially because of its practical applicability to me as I brainstorm new lessons and approaches to reading and writing. My thoughts are, as always, a bit scattered as a I work to make meaning of all that I’ve read (there’s a lot to take in!), but here are a few things that jump out at me:

–Reading logs as preparation for class discussions: Students don’t realize it, but if they have an opportunity to jot down ideas before being put on the spot by the teacher, they are so much more likely to have formulated a thoughtful response to what they’ve read. I’m sure we’ve all experienced the (many) moments when we call on student after student and no one seems to have anything to say about a passage that is overflowing with material for analysis. I really like the reading log idea because it helps prepare students to make thoughtful comments in class, but I’m still working through practical applications of this practice in a high school classroom. I like the idea, and would like to implement it in some form, but a reading log audit would be a bit of a stretch for my sophomores—and I simply don’t have time to collect and read the logs regularly.

–Students revising their initial impressions based on input of others: This concept fascinates me. I love doing group annotation activities (“silent conversations” as I call them). I ask kids to annotate a poem or passage; they then pass their papers around in a circle, each making one or two comments about, in response to, or against what the original person wrote. By the end of the exercise, the students’ initial ideas have usually changed, extended, or been reinforced in a stronger way. I’m thinking now of asking students to write a reader response journal to a poem/passage, and then, when they bring it in to class, have them read and respond to their own writing (and then possibly have others provide input as well). The students would then go home and revise their original response. I think my students would really enjoy this activity, especially if I give them freedom to be creative in their presentation of the information (different colors, fonts, etc. to demonstrate their thoughts at different times). I enjoyed the Think Aloud analysis we wrote for this class for similar reasons. It’s refreshing to color outside the lines every once in a while.

–Questioning the thesis-proof essay model: I see Blau’s argument and I agree that in “the real world” of writing there are few circumstances that call for such an essay style; however, the unfortunate fact of the matter is that we, as high school teachers, have to prepare students for standardized tests (SOLs, SATs, etc.) that require these cookie cutter formulas. I would love to use some of Blau’s suggestions, but I just can’t see how I can add them in to the already overflowing curriculum I’m up against. I think the best I can hope to achieve is a balance between thesis-proof essays and other, more open styles of literary analysis. Even if I start with only a handful of such activities per year, that’s a step in the right direction.

More on Blau

I apologize for my late posting. The stomach flu has done nothing to help my procrastination.

I found that Blau reiterated much of what we have already read. The pointing, double column notetaking, rereading, the different types of knowledge/literacy and so on are all thing that we have already discussed. Blau does present a fuller picture though.

I enjoyed the section on Fostering Performative Literacy in the Classroom. It wasn’t a big section but Blau offered a variety of good techniques to really enhance students learning. I am a big advocate of writing to learn and I think Blau offered a few good suggestions on how to get students to really reflect on what they have read and learn from what they have read. I think double column note taking is a good idea. I also think writing to address unresolved problems could be very beneficial for students. I think the technique could help students who have trouble processing or dealing with open endings to resolve issues they have, or to at least confront issues with the text.

He also suggests looking at different reading of the text and having students write about them. I think this could help students look at the different sides of a text. It could also help improve their ability to research and write about that research. I also think this could help students formulate their own ideas and come to terms with the idea that there are many ways to read a text, as many students have trouble with this.

I also loved the section on “pants-down readings”. This idea seems very similar to think-alouds. It allows the teacher to show the process of evaluating a reading. It shows students that teachers also struggle and how they work through their difficulties with a hard reading.
All of these techniques are great ways to get students into analyzing texts and to evaluate what they are reading.

Blau’s Interpretation of the Modern Classroom

This has quite possibly been one of the most practical books I’ve read in a long time…well, perhaps, ever! I am not known for reading practical things (excepting, of course, street signs), but this book has given me a great deal to think about. First off, I have already begun implementing some of his ideas in my classroom. Most notably, I am much more aware of my responses to students in the classroom. When they ask me to explicate (my term, not theirs), I find myself asking them to interpret first. I am finding students much more willing to engage in a discussion, arguing or backing up their classmate’s assertions, which is fascinating to me, as that was an experience I never got to have until college, really. It is also one of my favorite things about English, discussing in a non-threatening environment my own thoughts and opinions. The amazing thing is, I teach 6th-8th grade English! And yet some of these kids (even the ones who don’t necessarily have the best grades) are talking about texts in a very advanced manner–they just don’t realize it yet. It’s been a fascinating experiment the past few weeks, especially since all of my classes are studying Shakespeare. Who would have thought that a group of 6th graders could explain “Shall I compare thee to a Summer’s Day?” to me! And one of them even pointed out something I had never really noticed before. It was a discussion I was not so much leading as participating in, which made the kids feel more in control of their own educational experience.

While I do not agree with everything Blau says (part of my own “discussion with the text”), I have found a lot of his conclusions and observations very useful. I look forward to trying a full-fledged literature workshop very soon. This book seems to want everything that I myself want for my students–that they take charge of their own learning and begin to grow confidence in themselves as readers. This feels more like a book review than anythin else, but I really was fascinated by this book, and I look forward to trying more techniques in the near future!

A Few Points on Blau

In an effort to touch on the many (sometimes very unrelated) things that have come to mind as I’ve read The Literature Workshop, I am once again going to create a list. This time the list will consist of my responses to a few quotations that strike my fancy.

1) “Student readings […] often differ not as a consequence of ideological or theoretical or even cultural differences, but as a consequence of inattention, inexperience, or ignorance (among other causes)” (190).

I like this point because I agree that it is our responsibility to educate students on the difference between misreading or “pseudoliteracy” and expert readings. By giving them a safe and conducive environment in which to practice their reading and writing, we help to improve their “performative literacy,” teaching them how to go off on their own to read as experts themselves. Blau proposes a great deal of useful classroom strategies for (1) modeling and teaching the kind of close reading (to combat inattention), (2) exposing them to a multitude of relevant and difficult texts (to combat inexperience), and (3) encouraging students to experiment with literary endeavors, even in the face of failure or ambiguity (to combat ignorance). I’m a huge fan of this kind of approach because it doesn’t dumb literature down, but it does make learning more accessible for all students.

2) “The decision on how much historical or contextual information it is necessary for a teacher to give to students in order to foster rather than preempt their autonomy as readers is one that each teacher must make based on a knowledge of the students as well of the texts being taught” (200).

This is something we have already talked about in class. I really have a hard time deciding just how much context to give my students prior to reading certain books, especially since the AP exam only gives them so much background, too, on the exam readings (if any background info. at all). This year, I have started to give more contextual information this year than before, but Blau makes a good point that we, as teachers, have to know our students and the texts being taught before we decide what to tell them ahead of time. I also think that, like one of the pieces we read earlier in the semester pointed out, we need to remember that our students (at least in my case) are in high school, and they cannot be expected to read as experts just yet.

3) “While reading, interpretation, and criticism define the overt focus of instruction in the academic discipline of literature, they also analogously describe the sort of critical thinking that is required for responsible intellectual participation in most civic, economic, and moral transactions and in virtually every academic discipline and learned profession” (204).

I completely agree, Blau! Teaching students the kind of higher-level analysis necessary for good literary responses certainly will aid them to think critically in other aspects of their lives. I wonder, however, if the same is not true for any academic endeavor which can, in turn, teach students to think critically. Of course, I am partial to the teaching of literature, but I also wonder whether critical thinking in other core classes (and even electives) might serve the same kind of purpose. Either way, I completely agree with Blau here.

Overall, I am a huge fan of Blau’s book. I feel confident that there are a number of activities in his book that I will incorporate into my own classroom.

Eight is Great!

Chapter eight is pretty great. I devoured the first seven chapters eagerly, loving the ideas Blau had to offer about running literature workshops in the classroom. However, as I read them, I kept wondering exactly how writing would fit into the picture. Thankfully, Blau answered my questions with chapter eight.

I almost laughed as I realized that Professor Sample has incorporated the first two writing assignment ideas into this class. Our weekly blog works as a reading log, and because it is online, solves the dilemna of how to keep track of students’ progress. The Reading Process Research Report is a version of the Think Aloud we did. I find it extremely helpful that not only do we get to read about these ideas in this book, but we are practicing them as a class. This will make incorporating them into our classrooms even easier.

I love the idea of the alternative formal literary paper that Blau writes about on page 180. I think that for many young literature students (and I’m speaking from personal experience), the form and the conventions of a formal paper can be daunting and can take the focus away from the content. By allowing students to present their ideas in a less formal, less intimidating way, I imagine that the objective of meaningful interpretation is more often met than if the students are required to fit their ideas into a format they are not entirely familiar or comfortable with. This was one of the things I liked about the Think Aloud assignment we did. I was able to focus on what I was saying, not on my organization or format.

Finally, I think that the idea of not grading individual papers is brilliant. I’m not sure how this would work in a high school classroom, but I think it is a great idea. I think that too often students not only rely on teachers for information and interpretations, but also for evaluation. By putting the ball in the students‘ court and requiring some thoughtful self-evaluation on their part, we can foster more independence in our students.

Inspired by Blau, but sensing some contradiction

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading Blau’s work, and I know that I will continue to refer to his book and work to implement his workshop ideas and writing assignments in my classes. I would love to know about even more of his writing assignment ideas!

Although it seems to be very time-consuming, Blau’s Reading Log assignment sounds very beneficial. My students have “Writer’s Notebooks,” but I give them prompts, and the entries are not nearly as regular as Blau’s Reading Log entries. While I see benefits to the Writer’s Notebook entries (and my students have acknowledged benefits in their end-of-the-year course evaluations), I’m interested in trying Blau’s approach. I am also a fan of his Interpretation Project because it touches on so many skills, and I would love to be able to incorporate his grading and portfolio ideas into my classes! (Any thoughts on how to adapt the portfolio assignment for high school classes?)

I’m also interested in trying his Reading Process Research Report. At the beginning of each school year, my IB students have a “Processes of Reading and Writing” assignment in which they reflect on how they approach texts and writing about those texts. Blau’s assignment is much more authentic, though, since students are actually working through an analysis of a text while reflecting on their process. I plan to revise my assignment and adapt Blau’s. I do not think I will adopt his “twist” on the assignment, though, where he has students share their writings and then allows them to revise their papers (171-2). It seems that the purpose of the assignment is to see where students are in their analytical process at the beginning of the school year. I don’t want to see their “tainted”/influenced interpretations or approaches—I want to see theirs!

On this note, I sense a bit of a contradiction in Blau’s ideas and assignments. At some points he seems to encourage students to use outside sources (collaborating with colleagues on the Reading Process Research Report, stating that research is not prohibited for “The Interpretation Project,” etc), but then he is also critical of students using Cliffs Notes or similar resources as it can result in borrowed, “unearned” interpretations, which Rosenblatt says is “like having someone else eat your dinner for you” (187-8). Am I missing something? Obviously, students should be able to enter the conversation of literary interpretation and respond to other interpretations in a “they say/I say” way (term borrowed from Graff). But I feel that Blau is sending mixed messages. Shouldn’t we start with students’ “untainted,” uninspired-by-outside-source interpretations? How do we balance?

I love portfolios and low-stakes writing

As a student and future-teacher Blau’s ‘low-stakes’ writing assignments really make me smile. I consider all of the assignments presented in chapter eight as low-stakes, too. Really, the whole concept of portfolio takes the pressure off and produces really great learning through writing. The idea of the final perfectly-correct draft is just as harmful and counter-productive as the final perfect-correct interpretation. Yes, one draft will be better than the last and one interpretation will be more valid to you than another, but there should always be potential with that comfortable room to grow. Students will be more involved in your carefully crafted dialogic comments in the writing process isn’t finished when they turn in the final draft, but simply a continuing portfolio piece with a potential lifespan beyond that of a semester or class. The portfolio concept has amazing expansion potential! If all writing assignments, no matter what discipline produced in or for, are chunked in the students’ mind as belonging to one writing portfolio, we may finally have a tool for fighting compartmentalized learning. This could also be an alternative to standardized writing tests, requiring more than a formulaic argument, but actual proof of revision, etc. Okay, I went on another hippie tangent, but the portfolio grading system is one I find extremely useful and beneficial to students and teachers. Besides, I find the worst writers’ block is a product of silly perfectionism. With more and more students being pushed for better and better grades I really think we need to take a combative stance against this writers’ nightmare. These assignments are the most practical way I have seen to fight perfectionism, while still produce assessable learning.

And just because it’s on my mind: I love how reflective/reflexive writing is crafted into the personal analysis of the writing logs and portfolio. I am just realizing how beneficial writing about the self through an interpretive, analytical lens can really be, so I guess I’m hungry for more self-reflective assignments.

Wrong answers and right practices

The discussion in the last half of the book that interested me the most was Blau’s discussion of wrong interpretations. He seemed to be walking a pretty fine line between saying that students should create their own interpretations, that these interpretations are valid—and that some interpretations can be wrong. I suspect this looked like a thin line to walk because in the classroom it is.

I appreciated that Blau noted that teachers in secondary schools (as well as many others) are often expected to produce students who can recall what the accepted interpretation of a work of literature is. I found myself holding this issue in mind as I read. Much as I want to encourage students to read and make meaning of their own, I wondered what I was to do if a student misunderstood the events in a narrative. At first I felt like I would be doing them a disservice either way— I would cheat them of their own reading experience if I directed them on how to go, or I would praise them as competent readers only for their next instructor to be baffled by their ignorance regarding the accepted understandings of works they had read.

Blau’s answer of evidentiary support was a relief and made complete sense. Asking students to provide textual evidence draws a necessary line to show that while there are many right answers to what a text means, there are still wrong answers. Basing the correctness of an interpretation on textual evidence is an easily defendable practice, and being able to defend one’s practices as a teacher is important whether we as teachers wish it to be or not.

Blau’s book raps up with the seven practices of successful readers. After reading this section I decided to turn these principles—shortened and in high school level vocabulary—into a display in my classroom. I don’t know how helpful the students will find them on a conscious level, but I hope it will reinforce that my classroom is an environment in which success is based just as much or more on persistence as on natural skill.

I’m also putting the seven practices up as a reminder to myself. Much of what I took from Blau’s book is that many of my practices are on the right track—but small habits of mind are what I need to be a more effective teacher while using them. Blau has reminded me of how important it can be to do what feels counterintuitive—to not answer students’ questions, to allow them to struggle, to repond to questions with more questions—in order for my students to realize that they have the capacity to find the answer on their own.

Intolerable Ambiguity

One of Blau’s criteria for achieving performative literacy is “tolerance for ambiguity, paradox, and uncertainty.” This struck me as one of the major problems that I see with my students on a daily basis. At my school, senior year is divided into AP Literature or “regular” English 12. I teach the “regular” sections. Although I do have some solid readers, most of them are inexperienced, or just not that interested in reading literature.
Whenever I try to get to the bottom of this distaste for reading in English class (which is often), I usually get some response about how the reading is “stupid” or “doesn’t make sense.” When I probe more about what is “stupid” or “does not make sense” about a reading, it usually has to do with some ambiguity in a reading. Students want answers, they are waiting around for me to tell them what a text means, so they can write it down in their notebooks and dutifully re-hash whatever I said on the test. To try to combat this reliance on my readings of texts, I stopped giving them “answers,” I decided to leave interpretation up to them. Easy right? Well, not so much. The problem then became that many of the students would just give up. They had no persistence when it came to literature with any sort of ambiguity in a text, or when a text’s meaning was not obvious right away. There was a near riot when I tried to use William Carlos Williams’ “This is just to say” as a warm up (ok, I am exaggerating, but there was some yelling and they were not happy).

The other problem that I have with this approach is that instead of coming up with an interpretation on their own, students grasp onto the first interpretation that someone in class presents. Now often these opening interpretations are good starting points, but they are no means the end of the conversation. Also, sometimes they could definitely be considered incomplete or missed readings. They will go out of their way to come up with spurious, often logic-defying evidence to back up an interpretation presented by someone else instead of forming a new one on their own.
Students today are just not interested in any sort of grey area. They want everything to be black and white. I think it may have to do with the testing culture that these students have been surrounded by their whole educational careers. It does not really matter what has caused it, it needs to be addressed in some way. Reading Blau, I realized my “I am just not going to give any answers” is not really the solution. I need to help them understand the mental processes involved in reading and interpreting and foster an environment where students can learn to trust themselves. Hopefully, if I can adopt some of Blau’s ideas and activities I can lead them to be more accepting of multiple interpretations and the ambiguity that goes along with a literature reading.

Blau Ch. 8

One of the most interesting and new strategies that Blau brings up is in Chapter 8. In the Interpretation Project on p. 177 he recommends that students do not do any library or web based research, but rather to use information from the papers’ or thoughts of other students in the group to support or contrast their point in their own papers.

The beginning stages of this project is described much like a difficulty paper, but I am conflicted over this twist of using each other as sources. On one hand, it’s great because as Linkon brought up in her article, a lot of students do not know how to research properly or how to use the information they find from research. Blau also points this out in saying that students may end up writing a paper that cites source after source instead of developing their own independent ideas. However, I think there could be a lot of room for misinterpretation with students using each other as a source of authority on the subject when the students themselves are trying to figure it out. A “good” student might be able to pull an idea from another student that they find is an “incorrect” interpretation and use that to show or discredit an alternative point of view. This student may also be able to pull another students’ similar idea to defend their own point. But, what about the other students who struggle developing their own interpretations on the poem/story let alone extrapolating from another student’s ideas.

This almost reminds me of a semester I had where the professor barely lectured or spoke during class; instead, students were divided into groups and were to present on the weekly topics. The students acted as teachers, informing us other students of the research they had done on a certain form of poetry. In a lot of ways this was great for the student presenting, because as Blau mentioned earlier and in this situation the teacher often learns more when teaching than the student. However, as a student listening to what may or what may not have been a correct parlaying of information on the subject. I had a difficult time parsing through the presentations by students for pertinent information. I think it also has a lot to do with seeing the teacher as the authority, which as we discussed is not always good because students may take a teacher’s lecture or interpretation as the sole way to think.

I guess I need to see results of this type of project, which Blau didn’t really provide for this section, before I would try this in a classroom.

Preparing Students for Assignments

As a new teacher, I found Blau’s writing assignments in Chapter 8 to be really helpful and I’m drawn to comment mostly on this chapter in my posting. While I’ve encountered assignments like Blau’s in previous undergrad English or Composition classes I’ve taken, I was never given such in depth descriptions of these assignments that Blau provides his students. After reading through all the assignments, I noticed a commonality in how Blau presents them. When giving his students a particular assignment, he always makes sure to contextualize it. In other words, Blau doesn’t just give the reading log assignment or think-aloud assignment to his students without any further information. Rather, he also takes the time to explain to his students WHY the assignment is valuable and what the students can expect to get out doing it. Sometimes, this contextualizing happens in the actual descriptions of his assignments. For instance, in the description of the Reading Log assignment, Blau uses phrases like “The logs will be useful to you in several ways” and then lists the reasons why completing the assignment would be worthwhile for the student (164). Other times, this contextualizing is given through class discussion and modeling. After assigning the Reading Process Research Paper, Blau tries to “dignify the entire study” by providing in-class contextual information about theorists who were concerned with how readers make meaning (169). Seeing Blau’s approach to his assignments made me realize that as teachers, we can’t simply hand out assignments without justification. We must also remind our students that what they are working on for class is a valid use of their time.

I also want to touch on Blau’s argument that before students can be expected to complete certain assignments, they must first be given “a model and a language” with which to complete them (170). Too often, I think teachers forget that students who don’t possess a model for the kind of thinking that they are being asked to do, simply do not know how to complete the assignment. To help give his students “the language” for the Think-Aloud assignment, for example, Blau tries to “prepare students for their study” by first dividing them into small groups and asking them to go through the motions of the Think-Aloud in the controlled classroom environment (169). Blau makes a great point that I think is often overlooked; he writes “A student asked to write a paper in a literature [. . .] needs to what such a paper looks like” (173). Thus, for many of his assignments, Blau “reads aloud some sample papers from students from previous years” to give his students a model for their own assignment (170). A valid point in Chapter 8 is Blau’s argument that we can’t expect students to know how to complete an assignment without first giving them an understanding of both the form and the way of thinking the assignment demands. Rather as teachers, we must demystify our assignments by first giving our students justification, contextualization, and models to help them be successful.

Briefly, I did want to say something about Blau’s argument in Chapter 10 that students who learn how to think and interpret literary texts for themselves inside the classroom are better able to think critically about the world in which they live. With this view, the English teacher now seems to take on the dual responsibility of both teaching students how to read literature and also molding them into active participants of their society. I tend to agree with Blau here, but I also think this way of thinking is somewhat daunting (especially for a new teacher).

Blau and the ESL Perspective

I have a good friend from Belfast who speaks with a heavy Irish accent. He has lived in the U.S. for a number of years and in the mid-1990s he taught at a language school in New York City, where most of his students were first generation Asians. I kid him that every time I visit NYC that I find myself listening for Asians speaking with Irish accents.

I’m reminded of this when I read Blau’s conclusions in chapter 9; we can disable our students by over-directing them to a particular interpretation or “otherwise render students overly dependent on their teachers in the production of interpretations, so that students to do not recognize or never have the opportunity to discover the efficacy of their own experiences and persistence as readers” (p. 200). How much of us spills out into the classroom, according to Blau, determines the difference between fostering our students or preempt their autonomy.

As a middle-aged, white, native born American male (from Topeka Kansas no less!), my experiences indelibly color my interpretations which, on occasion, have seeped out into the classroom. Try as we might to be neutral facilitators, as teachers attempting to take advantage of teachable moments, we all have often grabbed the closest thing available to us in the swirl of class discussion; usually the examples we use to illustrate a point reflect who we are. Like Asians speaking English with an Irish accent, foreign born ESL students basing their views of literature on my WASPish past is a troubling thought.

The problems that Brau outlines in his book seem to become more complicated when dealing with non-native born ESL students. Most of them have had some academic experience in their own cultures, where the instructor is usual held in high esteem and mimicry of what is spoken in the classroom by the teacher is considered knowledge. For many of them it is a matter of respect to parrot the instructor’s views.

This is compounded by the desire of ESL students to acculturate. If teachers represent American academic culture, then emulating their thought processes is seen as a move towards academic acceptance. It is also seen by many as the surest way to achieve good grades and the path to other academic achievements. They see other advantages; because they are absorbing what they think is an American point of view, it makes them more “American”, while “learning about literature.”

Native born students don’t have this issue; they are taught the value of independent thought in American classrooms, even though many choose the easier way out by also mimicking their teachers.

While Brau does not address the issue of foreign born ESL students specifically, the rules he outlines for how we operate in the literature classroom frequently lead to questions from foreign-born students who want to know what we, as teachers, think and what our thought process are as we struggle with interpretation. They feel that they are at a disadvantage because their point of view is “different” than native-born students and instructors.

One reason I like Blau’s story telling workshop is that it teaches students that their view point is just as valid as any other students and that they should value their cultural heritage and views. Unfortunately, for students struggling to fit in to their adopted culture, this frequently does not give them the sense of security they need to be autonomous.

Straying from Blau for a sec…

I should probably talk about Blau again this week, but I am still thinking about Sonny’s Blues, which I’d never read before.

For much of the story, I was focused more on checking to see how much was left than I was on relating to it in any way or enjoying it. Reaching the end, though, I found a very powerful (visceral?) connection to the character of Sonny and I was reminded of how golden it can be when we manage to produce a piece of writing that truly resonates with our students. You see, ever since I was in elementary school, I’ve been a singer. I participated in all the usual stuff – musicals, choir, even a cappella groups. It was during my seven years of voice training, while I was living in Manhattan, that I truly discovered my calling, however, and that is cabaret.

I’m not talking about strippers on a pole, of course. I’m talking about the kind of cabaret that is best performed at 2am on a Wednesday night in small Manhattan bar. I’m talking about Gershwin and Strayhorn and Kern. I’m talking about music that you love so much that you don’t care you are drunk and singing to only five other hardcore Porter fans and that you still have to get up at 4:30 am and catch a flight to Cleveland (where you will present an advertising concept to the Nestle client in a beige-carpeted boardroom). When I try to describe this type of degenerative lifestyle and this brand of obsession to those who have not experienced it, it is nearly impossible to find adequate words. If the love of your own particular brand of music is not powerful enough to make you desert productive work, hometown, and creature comforts for a life of nearly certain poverty and excess, then you are lucky. I was lucky. People in the business always say, “only live the life of an actor/dancer/singer if there is nothing else you can do.” It is a hard slog, indeed.

So Sonny’s Blues ended up speaking to me in such a way that I am still thinking about it a week later, despite the lackluster start. Of course, students cannot always read texts that are mirrors. That would be restrictive. But how can I keep finding stories that contain even a shard of that mirror? To see the immigrant experience in an immigrant of another nationality, for example (per Linkon). Or to spot the abusive father (?) in Roethke. I am still trying to figure out why I think reading Victorian British literature is important, but I return again to Jane Eyre and ponder what relatable element exists there. Dead parents? Overly critical teachers? Disenfranchisement? I’m reaching. How do you, then, teach a work that may contain nothing recognizable to your students and still make it memorable? I confess, without the ending of Sonny’s Blues and the music connection, I’d have quickly forgotten the story and moved on.

Here’s to hitting the sweet spot, anyhow. My job is to pick the right material – and I think my views on that topic are evolving.