[Apologies for the bizarre numbering in this post - I can't get the numbers to behave normally, so there are lots of "ones"]
I started teaching high school with a classic university lecturer’s attitude to reading - that is, I had the following assumptions:
- The skills required to intuit a teacher’s reason for assigning a reading, comprehend an dassigned text, and take notes that allow you both to “hold your thinking” as you read and to return to the text and find key information and ideas without reading the entire thing again, are either already in students’ possession, or can be acquired purely through the act of reading an assigned text.
- Anything I assign will be read by my students because I have decreed it.
- Sometimes the reading will be followed up in class, and sometimes it won’t - but either way, the reading’s intrinsic value will be obvious to students.
Of course, I couldn’t articulate these assumptions when I started teaching - it’s taken me until now even to recognize that I was burdened with them. At the time I just thought I was free from the hang-ups of high school teachers (I wouldn’t have even been able to articulate that notion at the time, but it’s painfully clear to me now). I distinctly remember assigning my first reading early in the semester: an excerpt from the first chapter of Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Travelled, a guide to writing poetry, which I would have described as “accessible” before I started teaching high school. I now realize that it is “accessible to anyone with an undergraduate degree in the humanities who already likes poetry a bit, and lives in England” (the book is absolutely jammed with English pop culture references). After I’d handed out photocopies to everyone, a student asked “do you want annotations for this?” I had two immediate thoughts:
- “What on earth is this student talking about?”
- “This sounds like the sort of inauthentic task that leads to students taking notes in order to fulfil an extrinsic requirement rather than for their own use as a reader.”
So I told the student “You should definitely be taking notes, but I don’t care how you take them. Do it the way that works best for you.”
Now, if you’re a teacher, you’ve spotted what’s wrong with this statement: if you’re 16 years old, you probably don’t have a way of taking notes “that works best for you”. And even if you do have a successful note-taking strategy, it’s probably not one that stretches to popular poetry how-to guides written for English people. I didn’t think this mattered, because the reading had an “authentic purpose” that would be obvious to my students: they were writing poems about historical events for the “Poet Laureate Project
”, and in order to write a high quality poem, they needed to understand meter (which was what the reading was all about). The limitations of word-count won’t allow an enumeration of everything wrong with this assumption, and in any case, it’s pretty obvious. Of course, when the deadline for the reading came around, it became pretty obvious that most of my students had given up on the reading partway through, and nobody had fully understood it.
This experience informed both my choice for the next reading, and the way I introduced it. First, I assigned Stephen Fry’s introduction to The Ode Less Travelled, in which Fry explains his approach to poetry, and, crucially, his belief that it is more worthwhile to learn the mechanics of writing poetry than to start out by trying to fathom what other poets “mean” with their poems - this is one of the key assumptions underpinning the Poet Laureate project.
This time, we started reading in class. I divided everyone in groups of four, and divided each group into the following roles:
- Sultan of Summaries
- Duke/Duchess of Definitions (this role required either a dictionary or a laptop)
- Prince/Princess of Predictions
- Count/Countess of Connections
The groups each were given a sheet of legal-sized paper (it would have been better with a bigger sheet of paper). I modeled
how they should create their summary, based on my interpretation of a speech by Dr. Evil
from Austin Powers, International Man of Mystery. The “sultan of summaries” wrote a summary down the middle of the page, the Duchess of Definitions wrote definitions around the outside, the Princess of predictions drew an arrow from the end of the summary to a prediction about what would happen next. The Countess of Connections didn’t actually do anything because, as I realized when I made my model, I didn’t really know what “connections” meant in this context. You can see an excellent example of a student group’s summary here
. This was the first time that I used a real structure for reading, and it worked pretty well, though I can see a few ways to improve it. For example, now that I understand how to make a “connection” when reading, I’d have students use a double-headed arrow to connect a point from the chapter to something else the Countess has read or seen, or to their own life. The other problem I discovered with this was that many students could not discern which unfamiliar words mattered and which did not. This was a particularly noticeable problem with this reading, because Fry spends a lengthy paragraph describing all the technical language you need to understand in order to become a painter or sail a sailboat. He only does this in order to make the point that poetry isn’t unusual in containing technical language, and you don’t actually need to understand any of the words in order to make sense of the article (since the point is that you probably won’t understand them). Nevertheless, several students dutifully looked up ten or fifteen words about painting and wrote down definitions of all of them. To address this, it would be worth having students read a passage with some new vocabulary and identify unfamiliar words that are “probably important” vs. unfamiliar words that are “probably unimportant”. Students could compare lists, and we could develop a shared criteria for judging the importance of specific words to overall comprehension.
I’m ashamed to admit it, that I never returned to this activity after we did it once. But at the end of first semester I realized I had a problem, because I didn’t know how to teach reading. I talked to my Dean, Spencer Gooch, who’d been a humanities teacher, and he llent me Cris Tovani’s Do I Really Need to Teach Reading?
, which transformed my teaching. In fact, it’s striking to me now that the roles I invented for my activity (summary, connection, prediction, definition) are, for the most part, the same categories that I used when I started doing double-entry diaries after reading . So I obviously got them from a good source (I’m certain I didn’t make them up myself!)