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Education Opinion

Spinning Plates

By Emmet Rosenfeld — October 26, 2007 4 min read

I like to have different books going in a class at one time. Think of a circus performer weaving precariously beneath sticks balanced on his chin, nose and outstretched index fingers.

This is not a comfortable image to some, I’m sure. The standard model, after all, is that everyone reads the same book at the same time, and discusses it together. The teacher assumes either an explicit or implicit role as Literary Authority (lion tamer?). There is value to this approach, at times. Frankly, in most cases the teacher is the authority. He can guide students to deeper understanding than they might be able to achieve themselves.

But the one book fits all approach stifles kids’ ability to become independent readers. As teachers, I think we owe it to our students to allow for authentic reading experiences where they and their peers are the arbiters of meaning, even if that means in the end that they don’t get the benefit of our Profound Understanding about, for example, the layers of symbolism in Beowulf.

Having groups of kids read a book together has plusses and minuses. What’s good about it is that they are forced to guide themselves. Their understanding is based on genuine responses by a 15-year old to a text without the filter of a seasoned teacher’s guidance. What’s bad about it is that their understanding is based on genuine responses by a 15-year old to a text without the filter of a seasoned teacher’s guidance.

It is scary to relinquish an accustomed degree of control, but by embracing a student-centered approach, we might be pleasantly surprised to find that, on our best days, we can structure activities that let kids discover most of the good stuff on their own.

Recently, my tenth graders finished reading novels in small groups, and as I type this they are working on their final projects due next week. Over the course of this post and next week’s, I want to share how I let them choose books, what they did as they read, and the assessment.

Choosing books: Pin the Title on the Excerpt

Having discovered Beowulf as a class, I decided to expose students to other epics or epic-influenced books. I picked six from our bookroom, some for their strong connections to Beowulf and others because I thought they were appealing reads for my particular batch of students. (The books were: Gilgamesh; Grendel by John Gardener; Nectar in a Sieve by Kamal Markandaya; The Once and Future King by TH White; Siddhartha by Herman Hesse; and, The Thirteenth Warrior by Michael Crichton.)

Not quite at random I copied a couple pages from each and gave the packet to kids. For each excerpt I asked them to guess what the book was about and its title, comment on the author’s use of language, then rank the choices based on which they most wanted to read. I also asked them to continue their favorite excerpt in their writer’s notebook.

When we came back to class, students shared their continuations with each other and a few read out loud to the class. Then after brief discussion of each excerpt I “revealed” the book. Finally we sorted out who wanted to read what, and each group set itself a reading assignment of the first 40 pages or so.

What they did as they read (part I): Mad Libs

The method to my madness is rooted in reader response theory, boiled down to what I call the two most important questions in literary interpretation: How does it make you feel? (Pause here, until a student cries out, “That’s only one question!”) At which point, I explain the two questions:

How does it make you FEEL? The only legitimate starting point for interpretation is a reader’s individual response to a work of art.

HOW does it make you feel? Our job is to figure out how the author manipulated language to make us feel whatever we felt.

To address the first question (How does it make you FEEL?), I began class with mad libs. Kids filled in the blanks:
Reading my book is like eating a…
Reading my book is like going to…
Reading my book is like _______ing a _______.

This generated some excitement. We continued with metaphors.
If this book were music it would be…
If this book were a type of weather it would be…
If this book were a _______ it would be_______.

I asked kids to write about their favorite mad lib, which led to scribbling and then more conversation.

The students spent the rest of class in groups discussing the second question (HOW does it make you feel?). I asked them to look at three aspects of the book, as listed below. Please excuse in advance my inability, born of perusing far too many a lit book’s table of contents, to use the term “elements of literature.”

Elephants of literature
Plot: What has happened so far? Any questions? What do you predict will happen next?
Character: Characterization is achieved by what a character says, does or thinks, or what others say, do, or think regarding that character. Discuss with reference to main characters.
Setting: How and where is it described? Does it contribute in some way to our understanding of the story?

How is the book put together?
What are the sections or divisions?
In what order are events revealed?
Is the story told chronologically or out of order? If the latter, how and why?
How might this architecture in some way affect a reader’s experience of the story?

Narrative strategy
Who narrates? In what person is the narration (1st, 3rd)?
What are characteristics of the narrator’s voice and point of view?
What is the degree of omniscience (limited/ partial or fully omniscient)?
What are the limits of what the narrator knows or tells?
What has the author gained or lost by this narrative strategy?

Stay tuned next week for the second installment of “What they did as they read” and the thrilling saga of assessment, featuring Triple Fishbowls and an Epic Experience.

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