Quick Tip Tuesday: Moving students toward meaningful reflection

January 26th, 2010

If you ever had a classroom full of teenagers groan and question the necessity of reading a great piece of literature, then Kelly Gallagher knows how you feel. “The success of our students’ reading experience may hinge on just how effective we are in providing meaningful answers to these questions,” Kelly writes in his book Deeper Reading: Comprehending Challenging Texts, 4-12. In this week’s Quick Tip, Kelly shares some of the reasons he gives his students – and how to move beyond those questions and help students see what role a great book might play in their own lives.

In my earlier book, Reading Reasons: Motivational Mini-Lessons for Middle and High School, I outline a number of answers to the question “Why should I read?” I focus on reasons that demonstrate the benefits students get from reading. Students should read because:
• Reading is rewarding.
• Reading builds a mature vocabulary.
• Reading makes you a better writer.
• Reading is hard, and “hard” is necessary.
• Reading prepares you for the world of work.
• Reading well is financially rewarding.
• Reading opens the door to college and beyond.
• Reading arms you against oppression.
• Reading makes you smarter.
• Reading develops a moral compass.
Once a week I give my students a mini-lesson that delves into one of these ten reading reasons. I have found these mini-lessons useful in motivating my students toward our classroom goal of every student’s reading two million words a year.

Making students aware of all the reasons they should be readers helps them develop recreational reading habits, but a more targeted approach is needed to help them see why they are about to spend a few weeks reading the same novel together. In many ways, “Why should I be a reader?” is an easier question to answer than “Why should I read All Quiet on the Western Front in the next three weeks?” Students readily understand the overall importance of reading in helping them land a good job or get accepted to a university; they have a much more difficult time understanding what specific and immediate benefits they will reap from reading The Scarlet Letter or Things Fall Apart.

When students ask, “Why are we reading this book?” teachers often rely on one of two stock answers, or both. These answers are legitimate; but alone they do not go far enough when it comes to motivating adolescent readers.
Stock Answer 1: “We’re reading this book because it’s a great story.”

Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, I want my students to appreciate great stories. This probably sounds absurd to people who like to read because they—we—take this for granted; but many of our students have never discovered the pleasure of reading great books. They haven’t found the beauty and power the stories have to offer. They haven’t experienced unforgettable reading moments. I can still remember the exact moments in my reading life when . . .Anne Frank’s hiding place was discovered. Boo Radley appeared out of the shadows to rescue Scout and Jem. Harry Potter defeated Lord Voldermort. Sethe’s daughter was murdered. Sophie made her terrible choice. George killed Lenny. Winston and Julia were discovered in their love nest.

My list of memorable reading moments goes on and on, as undoubtedly does yours. Unfortunately, many of my students look at me oddly when I describe the powerful feelings that can arise from reading memorable books. Some of them have never found themselves in a reading flow—that trance we get into where we become so engrossed with what we are reading that we lose track of time and place. Many have never had the experience of having a book linger in their minds long after they have finished it. They have trouble seeing the greatness of literature.

During the first week of this school year, I asked my senior students to share some reflections they had about themselves as readers. Here are some of their responses:
• “I only read when teachers make me.”
• “I never read on my own. It’s boring.”
• “I have never read a single book on my own.”
• “Why should I read when there are so many interesting things to do
instead?”

Their aversion to reading is appalling, and I want to change the way they perceive reading. I want to help them discover the greatness of the books we will read over the course of the school year. Though I am not naïve enough to believe that every one of my students is going to love every book I assign, I start with that as a goal. I know that what I do as a teacher will greatly influence the level of my students’ involvement.

Though not every student will like every book, I want every student to see the value in what they are reading. Have you ever read a great book with your class only to have many of them tell you they found the book boring? When this happens to me, I have to think that maybe it’s not the book that is the problem; maybe it’s me. When my students are having a hard time connecting with a great book, I am forced to reconsider my approach. Have I provided enough framing? Have I addressed my students’ lack of prior knowledge? Have I supported them to make sense of the difficult vocabulary? Have I helped them embrace their confusion? What is getting in the way of their discovering the greatness of this book, and what can I do to remove these obstacles?

As I have emphasized throughout this book, if we want students to fully appreciate great works, we must design lessons that lead students to discover this greatness. If we’re asking our students to read a great book, it’s our job to nudge students past their reluctance and allow the book’s greatness to emerge.
Stock Answer 2: “We’re reading this book because it affords us the opportunity to recognize and appreciate the writer’s craft.”
If my lessons are successful in drawing students into literary works, I then have the opportunity to make the author’s craft visible to the students. Once they understand the story, they can be taught to analyze one or more of the following:
• Characterization: How does the author develop the characters? What is the difference between “flat” and “round” characters? Which minor characters play important roles? How do the characters advance the plot and the conflicts?
• Time and sequence: How does the author develop time and sequence? Is foreshadowing used? Flashbacks? How does the author craft these time shifts? How do these time shifts advance the telling of the story?
• Themes: Which themes emerge from the book? Is there an overriding theme? Do minor themes emerge? How are these themes developed?
• Author’s purpose: Why do you think the author wrote this book? What did he or she really want to say? What was the historical context in which this book was written, and how did this influence the author?
Who is/was the author’s intended audience?
• Diction: How does the author’s choice of words advance the story? Is dialogue used effectively? Does the diction ring true? Does the author effectively use figurative language—metaphor, simile, and allegory?
• Symbolism: How does the author effectively use symbolism to advance the story? How do these symbols enrich the novel?
• Voice: Who is telling the story? Which point of view has the author used? How are the other literary elements revealed through the use of narration, dialogue, dramatic monologue, or soliloquy?
• Setting: Where is the story set? How does this setting affect the story’s development?
• Conflict: What are the central conflicts in the work? How does the author develop these conflicts? Are the conflicts primarily internal or external?
• Irony: How is irony used in the story? What kinds of irony (verbal, situational, dramatic) are used? How does the use of irony advance our understanding of the characters?
• Tone: What is the author’s attitude in this work? How and where is it revealed?
As English teachers,we are already aware of these literary elements, but year in and year out I am surprised by how little my incoming students are acquainted with them. They are accustomed to simply reading books without any awareness of the level of craft employed by the author. Knowing the story is one thing; appreciating the level of craft under the surface of the story is another thing.

Making these techniques visible to students boosts their appreciation of the work. When students examine the time and sequence elements found in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, for example, they begin to understand the level of craft that went into the writing of that novel. When students are asked to write a sonnet in iambic pentameter, their appreciation of the Shakespeare play they are reading instantly deepens. If there is real craft involved in the writing of the work and this craft can be made visible to the students, their commitment to reading the work intensifies.

Students revel when they discover the craft used in the work. Making the writer’s craft visible has an added benefit: it can help improve our students’ writing. If I want my students to write an effective persuasive essay, it helps immensely to provide them with models of persuasive pieces (the “My Turn” essay featured in Newsweek is one source of excellent models).When my students learn to spot arguments and counterarguments in an essay they read, they are more likely to make use of arguments and counterarguments in their own essays. Students who are taught how to study the techniques, the structure, and the craft of other writers often find these techniques seeping into their own writing. Models help students write better.

Both of these approaches—appreciating the greatness of books and developing an understanding of the literary techniques employed by the authors—are valuable, so much so that they have become foundational in secondary schools. Indeed, I emphasize both of them strongly in my own classroom. But when it comes time for students to find the relevance a book plays in their lives, they must be encouraged to move outside and beyond the text to consider the following questions: What does this book mean to us today? Why did we read it?

Entry Filed under: Quick Tip Tuesday,Reading

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