A couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation with one of my students who is currently student teaching. She was sharing teaching materials she'd developed this semester. She was clearly excited because, as she put it, "What I love about these techniques is that they really work!"
The materials she described made my heart hurt: choral responses to vocab. words ("I can really see who knows the definitions and who doesn't!" she explained, her eyes bright), pre-tests and post-tests containing multiple choice and fill-in-the-blank questions ("They do so much better on the post-tests!"), lesson plans based on the school's template, which mandated that most of the class be devoted to direct instruction.
And I began thinking, what does it mean to say that something works? Did these things "work" because kids were compliant when she asked them to participate? Did they work because the majority of the class scored well on the unit test, even though it assessed only low-level understanding--the kinds of knowledge you can bubble in or fill in the blank?
I've been contemplating the same question the past couple of days in the book club classroom where I'm working. Yesterday, the kids were making mandalas to communicate their understanding of the spirit of the book. I've written about this exercise previously in an English Journal article, but I'm really excited about the changes Rebecca and I made for this go-round because, well, at least intitially, it appeared that...it worked! What do I mean by that?
Well, yesterday, it "worked" in terms of eliciting student engagement. In fact, as Rebecca and I discussed later, for the entirety of the class period, only a small handful of kids got off-task, and even they didn't stay there. Kids who rarely participate in whole-class discussion had already talked more in the book club setting. But during mandala construction, some of them actually even took the lead! Overall, the groups worked *willingly* until the bell rang, and then they scrambled to put away their supplies, gather up their books, and rush off to the next class.
Today, as students began presenting their mandalas to the class, however, I thought of the question again. In the past when I've used visual interpretation activities with my classes (again, Peter Smagorinsky and I have written about Body Biographies extensively, so you should check those pubs out if you want to know more), such activities have generally encouraged students to move beyond the literal in their interpretations. The very nature of asking them to create representative symbols usually encourages that. This time, though, I was surprised to find that some of the groups didn't move much beyond the concrete events that occurred in their books. For instance, the "symbols" created by the book club who'd read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime included smiley faces ("Christopher uses these to show his emotions because he's autistic"), envelopes ("Christopher's mom sends him letters in the book"), and math equations ("Christopher really likes math"). Yesterday, though, mandalas really seemed to be "working" for this group. One of the girls had even remarked, "Our mandala is basically cool."
So did mandalas really "work" for them? Well, sort of. I think the kids would say they enjoyed the activity and felt they'd provided an overview of the book for the rest of the class. Yet, as we debriefed afterwards, Rebecca was clearly disappointed. I think she'd say mandalas didn't work at all for this group. But was this a symptom of the activity itself or something else like the fact that Rebecca suspects these kids are dutiful assignment readers but non-readers beyond that? In other words, is this a sign of the consequences of aliteracy?
Or maybe it's something else. Like the Curious Incident book club, other book clubs mentioned in their presentation that they weren't able to relate to their books because they hadn't met similar characters or had similar experiences. Maybe that's why they didn't move beyond the literal. But as Rebecca and I discussed later, isn't that why we read in the first place? To get to live other lives? So is their literalism, even in the face of a prompt like the mandala that begs for symbolic representation, a product of the standardized testing era where you get to be successful as a student if you understand the plot and can label the simile? Where in schools are kids taught to see reading, and literacy in general, as a means of cultivating the imagination?
My point is that the notion of "what works" is far more complex than we generally imply by the phrase. The good news is that I think the new book is NOT a big mistake because Rebecca and are learning that we need to provide far more scaffolding to help kids discuss difficult books in complex ways. That's what I was hoping to accomplish anyway; getting there is just going to be more involved than I anticipated.
If anybody's out there, oh, dear reader, please tell me what you think.