Monday, October 29, 2007

reading beyond the provincial

It happened again. Today at the end of class, Rebecca’s students finished discussing the last third of their book club books. As part of that discussion, Rebecca asked them to think about a couple of questions—what their overall impressions of the book were and how their own backgrounds might influence those impressions.

The first group who reported out to the rest of the class said that they uniformly did not like How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. The book is told by 15-year-old Daisy whose mother has died and father has remarried. Because of Daisy’s intense anger toward her father and stepmother, she jumps at the chance to visit her cousins in England. A war breaks out after she arrives, and the children are left to fend for themselves when Daisy’s aunt, who is on business at the time, is unable to return home. The novel focuses on Daisy’s personal development and the relationships she experiences in the midst of their attempts to survive.

When Rebecca asked the group to explain why they disliked the book, one girl explained that they thought the book was dull because it went on for a very long time about things they couldn’t connect with. They saw the only point of the book as being about war and felt that they couldn’t relate to the book because, to paraphrase them, you can’t connect with war unless you’re a part of it. At this point, I rejected the urge to ask questions like: Are we in a war? Are any of your parents divorced? Have any of you ever wished that you could be in charge of your own life? Have any of you ever felt like you were falling in love?

Regardless of the connections I was able to make, these kids really disliked this book. One boy said that you should only read it if you have nothing else to do, but then went on to say that he wouldn’t read the book even if we were completely bored. Another girl from the group said others might want to read it for extra credit or for a grade but no other reason. They even seemed to object to the fact that the book was a fast, easy read (though the comments that followed actually suggested that some of them had difficulty with Rosoff’s stream-of-consciousness style).

Another book club who had read The Golden Compass volunteered to report out right after this group did. This book follows the twelve-year-old orphan Lyra through an England that is at once familiar and fantastical. Among other things, Lyra and her daemon (the animal-like companions connected to each character) run away from Oxford college where she has been raised, help to free children who have been kidnapped by the Gobblers, and outsmart an armored bear with the help of witches, another exiled bear, the cowboy-like Mr. Scoresby in his hot-air balloon, and the golden compass which only Lyra can read.

In contrast to the first group, the Golden Compass group unanimously gave the book a thumbs-up and recommended it especially to readers who like fantasy. When Rebecca asked them what they appreciated about the book, they said that they liked that it had lots of action and well-developed characters that they were able to connect with. One boy also mentioned that he was intrigued by the idea in the book that daemons were visible expressions of each character’s soul. Because I had been sitting near the group during their book club discussion, I also know that they connected to many, many other topics, ranging from organized religion to parallels to Nazi Germany to the Icarus myth to recent movies to the relationship between fate, free will, and foreknowledge as prompted by one girl’s discussion of quantum physics in her chemistry class.

As usual, I left class wondering what in the world just happened and about my and Rebecca’s recurrent question about why readers, and more specifically kids, read in the first place.

So beyond the no-accounting-for-taste notion, what to make of the differences in each group’s responses? If I weren’t acquainted with these kids and hadn’t been there, I’d be leaning toward one of these two reasons—it could be the kids OR it could be the books. I think both of these first-glance reasons are inadequate explanations, however.
In the first case, if I were tempted to think that one group was simply more capable of abstract thinking than the other, I’d need to recall that to a person, all the kids in the Golden Compass group made some pretty deep connections during their book club discussion. In the second case, I’m actually struck more by the similarities than the differences between the books. While The Golden Compass is certainly more plot-driven than How I Live Now, both books feature female adolescents (or almost-adolescents in Lyra’s case) of at least symbolic orphan status dealing with questions of good and evil, right and wrong. Both involve survival in the face of armed conflict. Both are even set in England for crying out loud.

I’ve also thought about the differences between the connections The Golden Compass kids made within their book club and those they reported out to the rest of the class. Perhaps they were simply crafting their review for an audience of peers (i.e., “This is what my classmates would want to know about this book”). Since I did not observe the How I Live Now group today, it’s possible that similar complex connections occurred during their book club that the kids didn’t note in their report out to the rest of the class. Rebecca and I have noted the primacy of the social in previous years when kids who have extraordinary in-book club discussions of serious issues gloss or avoid them altogether during final project presentations.

But another possibility is that kids aren’t always (are seldom?) aware of the multiple and wide-ranging connections they make during literary discussions. Because making connections is certainly a huge reason why people read, I believe it’s important that we help kids become aware of the more complex reasons they relate (or don’t relate) to books that extend far beyond “I liked it. I could relate to the main character. I didn’t like it. That character is nothing like me at all.” So one question I continue to have is how to help kids do this, especially in a book club setting where the teacher may or may not be standing by. And if the teacher is standing by, how much should s/he intervene? How much scaffolding is optimal during book clubs, and when does it become obtrusive?

As I said from the start of this post, though, today’s occurrence was a repeat. Last year, one group reading an historical fiction novel had had what Rebecca and I thought were in-depth discussions of it throughout their book clubs. Yet they reported during their final presentation that that they wouldn’t recommend the book because they couldn’t relate to it since it took place in another country and another time period. Since then, Rebecca and I have talked at length about how much our reading motivations differ from those of her students’. Both of us recall the excitement we felt at a very young age when we read books featuring characters, worlds, and circumstances very different from our own. In fact, though we probably weren’t always conscious of doing so, we now realize that we often sought out precisely those kinds of books in order to explore the unfamiliar. Little surprise probably that we both wound up as English teachers and that we still wonder why it hasn’t occurred to some (actually many) kids that part of the beauty of reading is moving beyond oneself to vicariously experience the world of another.

Yet we’ve observed that many kids continue to read or *stop* reading for solely provincial reasons—for the immediate pay-off (think points here) they will or will not have or the immediate connections they can or cannot make to a book. Presumably this would not be the case in a pre-AP class that kids have elected to take, but alas it seems to be so, and Rebecca and I think it’s gotten worse in recent years. I have lots of ideas why this is the case that I want to write about later, but for right now, I’ll just say that these include the reductive approaches to reading that have spun out of the era of standardized testing as well as the potential limitations of reading primarily through the lens of reader response.

How do we counteract this line of thinking? Without harping at kids so that all they hear is the wah-wah-wah of Charlie Brown’s teacher, how do we get them to try on other motivations for reading? What does it look like to help kids learn to and want to read beyond themselves?

My hunch is that one’s capacity for engaging in civil discourse is directly related to the ability to take an empathic stance from which to consider another’s circumstances and point of view. And though I’m not exactly sure what this looks like yet, I believe that helping them learn to read empathically is one way to get there.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

more feedback needed

Rebecca and I have been talking about what we'd like students to do for their final projects. In the past we've asked them to create mandalas to capture the worlds of their books, but this year we've really been pushing them to think about the subjects, questions, and issues that come up in their books that are points of conflict in the real world so that they can discuss them in productive ways. (Judging by the conversation on homosexuality I overheard on Monday, this is working in a big way with at least one book club.)

So as I've been trying to think of another final project that would also help them to think about how their worlds and the world of the text overlap and how they might represent their questions and interpretations in visual ways. On my bike road home from Centennial yesterday, I thought about the typical Venn diagram (bo-ring). Then when I was waiting for a light to change, I thought about intersections. That got me to thinking about maps, so today I did some searching of what features are typically included on maps and then came up with the following assignment. Could you take a look and tell me what you think? A more specific question I have is this: Rebecca and I usually require some kind of written accompaniment to the visual group project that students turn in individually. Could the "traveling tips" work this way?

Here's the assignment:

***Mapping the Terrain of Your Text***

From drawings in the sand to atlases to GPS devices, maps throughout history have used symbols, pictures, and color to guide travelers on their journeys through various lands. For your final project, we’d like for you to create a map directing the class toward your group’s interpretive journey through your book club book.

As suggested by the prompts below, it’s important that you think in symbolic terms as you create your map. In other words, we want you to think beyond the literal, physical locations mentioned in your book to symbolic landmarks and points of interest in characters’ lives as well as intersections between the book and your own lives.


As your book club presents your map to the rest of the class, you’ll function as tour guides with 3 primary goals:

1) to translate the icons on your map’s legend and explain your use of color and spacing
2) to help us understand how and why your book club mapped the terrain of the text in the way you did
3) to offer traveling tips to other readers who might pick up this book

As for specific requirements, your map should include a minimum of 8-10 key symbols. Use the prompts below to help you brainstorm what to include on your map. While you need not address all the items listed, starred* items are required. Also include a legend at the bottom of your map, and create a list or booklet of traveling tips. Finally, as you prepare for your presentation, be sure to discuss spatial layout, that is, how you determined where particular features should be located and what the distance between them should be. Finally, be able to describe how you’ve used color in symbolic ways (for example, a red item might represent an event that provoked anger while a black item might represent a defining moment for the narrator since it contains all colors on the spectrum).


Geographical Features – Think about the geographical features included on maps, like rivers, bodies of water, beaches, mountains, valleys, public parks, forests, etc. What features could you include that would work symbolically for your book? For instance, a forest might represent confusion, a mountain range could represent challenges, and so forth.

*Key Intersections – Where and how did your world intersect with the world of this text? What real-world connections, issues, and questions emerged in your sticky notes, Dailies, and book club discussions?

Landmarks & Monuments – Maps often indicate sites like Mount Rushmore or the Vietnam Wall that honor famous people or memorialize historic events. Who are the key people and what are the important events in this book that? How can you feature them on your map?

Leisure & Tourism – Maps sometimes feature sites geared toward leisure or tourism, such as museums, art galleries, amusement parks, golf courses, sports arenas, etc. What do your characters want to preserve or create? What amuses or inspires them? How do they exercise who they are?

Public Services – City maps typically mark locations where public services are offered, such as hospitals, police and fire stations, post offices, and libraries. When do your book’s characters experience distress or danger? What messages do they try to send? What do circumstances or people must they learn to read?

Roads – Almost all maps include different types of roads, such as highways, toll roads, residential streets, trails, bus routes, and railroads. How do the characters travel through your book? When is the going fast and easy, and when is it more bumpy or treacherous?

Sites of Learning - Some maps indicate the locations of schools, colleges, and universities. What do the characters in your book think about and realize? What didn’t they know at the beginning of the book that they know by the end? What provoked this learning?

Sites of Worship – Some maps show where churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples are located. How do your book’s characters develop spiritually or emotionally? What do they worship or idolize? Whom do they praise or appeal to for help?

*Traveling Tips – What advice do you have to offer about navigating the terrain of this text if we choose to read this book? In other words, what should we be aware of? What don’t we want to miss on this journey? What did you learn, realize, or think now that you didn’t know before you read this book?

* Uncharted Territory – Hundreds of years ago when English mapmakers wanted to indicate the limits of the known world on a map, they would write “Beyond this place, there be dragons.” What subjects, issues, and questions remained unresolved in your book club discussions? How did this book make you think? What questions are you asking now that you weren’t before you read this book?

* Xs and Arrows – On pirate maps, X usually marks the spot where buried treasure lies. On maps of campuses, malls, and airports, red arrows often indicate “You are here.” What treasures are to be found in this book? Where are they located? Where would you locate yourselves in the territory of this book?

Monday, October 15, 2007

take a look and give me some advice

I've started a new blog that the book club kids in Rebecca's and Beth's classes can participate in. "Can" being the operative word here. Not one kid has posted yet, though a few have participated in the little poll I created at the bottom.

Will you take a look at this and let me know of any suggestions you have for encouraging participation? You should know in advance that access is an issue (this may be the problem) because the district blocks comments on Blogger, though reading is possible. Many of Beth's kids don't have computer access at home either.

Here's the url:

(BTW, the "cd" part stands for "civil discourse")

I'd love to hear your ideas!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

can I vent?

WARNING: This post is long and self-indulgent.

Rebecca and I are piloting a new set of materials in her class right now based on our reflections on how book clubs went in her class last spring. We’ve both taught long enough to know that the utopian classroom doesn’t exist, but it still feels to me like we’re searching for that sweet spot right now, the perfect synergy of kids and materials and sunshiny afternoon that will let us knock one out of the park. So every semester, we tweak materials and develop new ones, and that’s what we are doing right now.

True confession: I love developing curriculum. I’ve spent many a happy hour searching for stories and resources and developing materials and strategies to help kids engage with them. So this summer when Rebecca and I decided that the kids could benefit from more easing in to tough talk and the reading/response strategies we’d ask them to use with their tough texts, I was very excited. Still am.

To scaffold their transition into book clubs, we’ve spent this week putting them in “No-Book Book Clubs,” as Rebecca calls them. Allowing the kids to discuss short stories and a long narrative poem in these “practice” BCs has also given Rebecca a chance to observe the social dynamics of different groups of kids before she makes final decisions about who should work with whom when they’re actually reading books. This has been our sequence this week:

DAY ONE: Introduce the project and the concept of civil discourse; ask kids to discuss some “What would you do” scenarios from past BCs we’ve seen when discussion fell apart; ask them to develop book club norms based on this discussion; introduce the sticky notes bookmark and ask them to use it to help with annotating the every-so-freaky short story “The Son” by Horacio Quiroga

DAY TWO: discuss “The Son” in no-book book clubs; follow with a class discussion where each group shares a big idea/big question; explain Dailies (a four-column graphic organizer that allows them—and us—to trace the development of their responses before, during, and after book clubs); assign Julius Lester’s edgy short story “Spear” that deals with an interracial relationship

DAY THREE: Wrap up discussion on “The Son;” discuss “Spear” in BCs; assign the long poem “The White Rose: Sophie Scholl” and provide historical background on the poem via a Keynote presentation (the Mac version of Powerpoint)

DAY FOUR: Whole-class follow-up discussion on “Spear;” BCs create and share visual interpretations of assigned sections of “The White Rose”

DAY FIVE-SIX: booktalks on BC books; kids state top 3 choices; Rebecca places kids in real BCs and they set norms; begin reading books using sticky notes bookmark and Dailies
So today was Day 3. Did I mention how much I love creating materials? Did I mention how invested I get in these materials in the process? What about how I envision kids putting them to use with at least as much enthusiasm I felt as I created them? (Seriously, in my mind, they are so excited that they are eating this stuff up like CANDY. They are BRAGGING TO THEIR FRIENDS that they get to read and write in THIS classroom.)

Did I mention that these kids are fifteen years old?

Okay, so I have a fifteen-year-old daughter at my house who actually loves to read and write, and she has a fabulous writing project teacher for her pre-AP World Lit. class (the same class that Rebecca teaches, except at another school). Every day when I ask my daughter how her day went, she doesn’t even mention English, not even once (unless you count the time that she made eye contact with the boy she likes as she was leaving the classroom. Oh…my...god!). Perhaps if I had reflected a bit more on this reality as well as my 11 years of teaching h.s. English, I would’ve been more prepared for how Rebecca’s class went today.

This morning, I put the final touches on the Keynote presentation. I couldn’t wait to see how riveted the kids would be by the film clip, the old photos, and the scanned images of historical artifacts that I’d figured out how to include in it. Right before class, I re-read “Spear” and loved it just as much the tenth time. “As would they,” said the Kelsey Grammar voice inside my head, “As would they.”

So while I was hooking up the LCD projector in Rebecca’s class and the kids were moving into book clubs, the first thing I overheard was a girl saying, “Yeah, so I didn’t really like this story?” And the first thing I saw when I turned around was all five members of another book club sitting silently, studying the obviously fascinating tops of their respective desks. I glanced over at another group and saw the unmistakable look on the kids’ faces that says “another day, another worksheet” while they filled out their Dailies. (It’s possible that at least one of them was yawning.) Although other groups were talking as I glanced around the room, I was too far away to hear how it was going. So the short story didn’t fly like I thought it would. I busied myself with the projector and put all my hopes in the Keynote.

We allowed ten minutes at the end of class for the Keynote presentation, but the kids had to move their desks back into rows, and I spent too long setting it up, and, and, and…once we finally got started, I talked as fast as I could but the bell still rang before the final big-finish slide, the pow that was supposed to hit it out of the park and send the kids running toward home plate eager to read this poem.

But the bell did *not* ring before their eyes had time enough to glaze over or to fasten resolutely on the second hand of the clock hanging over the door. (Now looking back, I realize that my own daughter would’ve been thinking at that moment, “So what’s the deal with all the historical background? Doesn’t this babbling professor remember that we’re in English for godsake? And doesn’t she know the bell’s going to ring any minute? And doesn’t she understand that if I don’t get out of this class immediately, I won’t get to make eye contact again with the boy I like?”)

So we did not hit it out of the park today. And I walked out to the parking lot remembering what it felt like to be fifteen again while at the same time bemoaning the fact that there may not be a lot that we as teachers can do to compete with that. Tomorrow, I’ll probably be ready to think more about what I wrote in my fieldnotes on Monday: “On any given day in the classroom, what we expect to happen rarely happens, but *something* always happens that we can learn from.”

Right now, though, I think I’ll go plan some more curriculum.