On Saturday, Natalie asked that I post the questions I’m investigating in my current sabbatical project, a book tentatively titled Tough Talk, Tough Texts. I thought I’d done so before here on this blog, but they’re actually pretty hard to find. So I’ve spent the past half hour or so reviewing old entries, my original sabbatical proposal, and the NCTE proposal Rebecca, Cam, and I had accepted for this year’s conference. What I discovered was that my questions have definitely evolved over time. In fact, a whole series of sub-questions has emerged. Still, in its most boiled-down form, my controlling research question is:
How do we help students engage in productive conversations about provocative texts during book clubs?
The underlying premise of this question is that our students don’t have a plethora of cultural models at hand to help them engage in civil discourse. With commitment and very careful preparation, however, they can learn to do so independently within the context of a book club discussion.
(NOTE TO SELF: I should talk more later about what I mean by “productive conversations” and “provocative texts.”)
Before I leave, though, I want to admit that as I’ve described the book concept to others over the past several months, I’ve felt a little sheepish. I keep hearing this voice inside my head that wants to know, And exactly why is this so important? On Saturday, Natalie and Rebecca helped me remind myself why I still think it is.
You know, a lot of really fine books have been written lately to help teachers figure out how to help kids read and write for authentic purposes. These recommended strategies often culminate in service learning or community projects. In other words, at the end of such a unit of study, kids literally have something to show for it—a petition to city council, a letter to the editor, a new deck for the local coffee shop. I heartily applaud these approaches, but as I’ve held them up next to what I’m proposing, I’ve wondered:
Is learning to read with empathy and talk about difficult issues in productive ways really enough?
But every time I ask that question, the other little voice inside my head quietly but clearly says:
Yes. Oh, yes it is.
In my high school classroom, I only had two Argus posters (you know, the ones with the beautiful photographs and the inspirational quotations). One of them said, “Everyone is an exception,” and the other said, “To be faithful in little things is a big thing.” I’ve been thinking about these phrases over the past few days because they both seem relevant to this project. What might really happen in our culture if people were able to recognize that everyone is indeed an exception, then to enter empathically into lives that differed from their own? What would happen if they were able to really listen and to talk with one another about difficult issues in an effort to co-exist, even when they don’t see eye-to-eye?
Mother Teresa said, “Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.” When I take to heart how much the world has benefited from her thinking, suddenly, this doesn’t seem like such a small endeavor any more.