Monday, November 27, 2006

What if my new book concept is a big mistake?

I'm writing today with disappointment...or at least so I thought as I was rehearsing this entry in my head after working in Rebecca's class this morning. A bit of background info. to contextualize this post:

I'm working on a new book on book clubs, the premise of which is that book clubs might provide a context for students to do 2 things:

1) explore challenging topics and/or controversial issues in difficult texts

2) learn how to talk about the above in productive ways

Well, today, as I watched Rebecca's students in their book clubs, I felt like my whole book might be in jeopardy because neither of the above things seemed to be happening. And I thus faced a terrifying prospect: What if this whole book concept that I've already devoted considerable time and energy to is a big mistake? What if I don't learn anything at all?

Fortunately, my teacher researcher voice is telling me to back off a little from my grand expectations and see what I actually have to learn. In fact, if all your initial predictions prove true, do you really learn anything in the end?

So at the moment, I think Rebecca and I may be learning that we need to prepare kids more if we want to help kids accomplish these objectives. Because let's face it, they probably haven't been cued to do so already in schools. What have kids been cued to do? Well, it's hard to know for sure without direct interviews, but it's likely that they've been taught to read for structural features like similes, metaphors, plot development, theme, and so on. For instance, if they read Romeo and Juliet last year, maybe they did so with a focus on decoding the language, comprehending the plot, and defining tragedy rather than understanding sexual puns, thinking about class and gender expectations, or exploring the phenomenon of adolescent suicide. Like I said, it's hard to know for sure without talking to them personally, so I'll probably need to do that at some point--maybe in a group interview at the end of the book club sequence where I'd ask them to comment on how this approach compares to prior classroom experiences they've had with literary texts.

But my hunch is that we can't expect that kids will suddenly be able to talk about difficult issues like racial conflict in Cry, the Beloved Country or the existence of God in The Life of Pi or sexual identity in Postcards from No Man's Land simply because we've bought some really cool books and asked them to use sticky notes to respond to them.

Of course, we've done more than that, too, but the students appear to be either unaware of or unable to address the issues I'd predicted they'd discuss in their book clubs, even when the issues are central to the texts and we'd indirectly prompted them to do so with the response tools we've provided. As a result, I'm asking new questions. Here are a few from today's fieldnotes:
  • In their independent responses to texts, do kids know how to acknowledge and respond to difficult issues and conflicts?
  • Do they know how to have discussions on such topics in schools? Or do they need more explicit models for doing so? If the latter is the case, how do we reconcile the notion of models with the benefits of the free-flowing nature of book club conversation?

At the very least, Rebecca and I are already thinking carefully about what we want to do next semester with book clubs in another class. At the moment, I think we need to be more explicit about why we've chosen this particular set of texts and about the teacher research questions we're attempting to answer by observing their book club interactions. We also need to more deliberately scaffold the processes of identifying difficult issues in texts and dealing with them productively in the public setting of book clubs.

So maybe the book concept isn't a big mistake after all. At least I'm learning something....

1 comment:

camdaram said...

The longer I'm in teaching, I'm encountering more students who are products of a testing generation (CSAP) and district mandated curricula (Open Court), and teachers teaching to the test, telling kids what to do, test scores being the basis for most teachers' instruction. Students are told very directly what to do, shown how to do it, essentially removing thinking from what students are doing.
I feel like I have to do a lot of un-teaching in the sixth grade to develop narrative voice, a conversational voice, a poetic voice, because everything at first sounds like Step-Up to Writing. I think with what you're doing will take time.
Also, with all the issues teenagers are dealing with on a regular basis, it may seem normal (conflict, issues, overall tension) and to possibly spend some time identifying problems, reactions, what is and isn't appropriate, and why.