Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Things They Carry

English is a soft-edged discipline. That's one of the things I most like about it. At any given moment there are probably more things on the agenda in an English class than there are in any other content-area discipline. In responding to a text like The Poisonwood Bible, we might wind up talking about syntax or character development or writing style or psychological dynamics symbolism or religious beliefs or global politics or interpretive strategies or the relationship between art and music or what the sound of one hand clapping might be, and why it matters, or doesn't. Just yesterday in one class we got stuck for a moment on the word "Papist" and wound up in a longish digression about the origins of Protestantism and its relationship to Catholicism, and how that particular set of uneasy relations has defined the recent history of Ireland.

Amidst all this forest of overlapping territories, literary, historical, cultural, and linguistic, it's easy to lost sight of trees. As we get toward the end of the year in sophomore English, I'm feeling the need to ask the students to stop and think about the skill sets they have been accumulating. One of the most important skill sets, especially in terms of the students' ability to do well in upperclass English courses, is the ability to respond thoughtfully and articulately to whatever they are reading. Some students find it hard, confusing, mysterious, and I worry about them. Other students seem to have the knack for it; it just comes easily to them. I worry about these students too, and maybe even more, because they often really don't know what they're doing. They're used to shooting from the hip, and they're good at it, and so they never develop any sort of discipline in their approach to what they read. Most of the time, they're winging it.

All during the year I've asked students to do short pieces of writing that have given them the chance to practice particular interpretive moves. But now we're getting close to the end, and they've got a Big Deal paper coming up in response to Poisonwood in which they're doing to need to frame and put together a substantive essay drawing on all of what we have been talking about in the book and practicing in our short papers.

So yesterday, by way of both warming up for the essay and trying to highlight this particular skill set, I asked the students to open their books to a passage they had already read, the chapter where Brother Fowles makes his appearance, and we did what amounted to a slow-motion sequential read-aloud. I asked one student to read the first paragraph, asked another student to make a comment, and then asked a third student to tell us what the second student had just done. What sort of response was that? What would you call what that student just did? If you wanted to do that sort of thing yourself, what would you be doing? Then we went around clockwise and went through the process again. New reader, new comment, new characterization of the nature of the comment. While all this was going on, I was at the board making a listing of the various interpretive moves being put on display.

Given the slow-motion, three-tier aspect of the discussion, we actually only got through about two pages of the text. But as I told the students in class today, I am actually less concerned at this point about the text itself or what they had to say about it on this occasion, than I am about the metacognitive piece. What are you doing when you respond to a piece of writing? What are your options? What's in your toolbox?

The list we began to put together at the board during this exercise was, by the end of the period, just developing, so for homework I asked the students to keep (re)reading, to think about what they might choose to say about what they were looking at, to identify in this way at least two strategies that we had NOT mentioned in class that are part of their repertoire of reading responses, and to email those strategies to me so I could add them to the list. The responses are still coming in, but here's an interim wrapup:

Reading Response: An Inventory of Moves

Diction: What particular words or phrases seem most significant or surprising or confusing?

Passages: Which passages seem especially relevant or significant? Which passages convey most clearly the important ideas? Where is the writing at its best or most effective? What makes it that way?

Repetitions, Patterns, Motifs: Which repetitions (of ideas, images, words, even objects) can be seen as part of a pattern? What’s the logic of the pattern? What might the pattern represent or symbolize or emphasize?

Compare/contrast: What do you see in the text that reminds you of something else inside or outside of the text? How are those two things the same? How are they different?

Reader response: What goes in your mind as you think about a particular passage? What do you feel? What do you like or dislike? What else does it remind you of? How does it connect to the world you live in, the life you are living? What questions does the text create in your mind? What answers suggest themselves?

Contexts/intertexts: How does the context shape your understanding what you are observing? In what other texts have you seen something similar. How does your previous experience other texts help shape your understanding of this one?

Character analysis: What do we know about particular characters? How do they behave? What are they doing? Why are they doing it? What motivates them? How do they compare to one another? How do they change or grow?

Structures (Beginnings, endings, turns, epiphanies): What are the observable structural elements in the text? How many parts are there? How are they related to one another? Where does one part end and the next begin? Where is there a surprise? What points of view are represented? How are they signaled? How does the title relate to the rest of the text? What does the title tell you about the way the author intends the text to be read?

Observations, Inferences, Questions: What do you know for sure? What can you make reasonable guesses about? What remains open to question?

Persuasion: Is there a case that you can make about an arguable point, a thesis?

Cultural background: What does the text reveal about the culture in which it is set? Which aspects of FREEPA (family, religion, education, economics, politics, and arts) are emphasized? Which are deemphasized or ignored?

There are others, and I invite you to add anything that has worked for you that you think might benefit student readers by commenting below. But this seems to work as at least a preliminary set of consciously articulated response strategies. Once the list is complete, I'm going to give each student a copy, in the hopes that at least some of all this will leave an imprint, and that if it doesn't, they'll have the list with them as a kind of map to help them navigate on higher ground.

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