Saturday, November 24, 2012

Of Text Sets, Diversity, Challenge, and Learning Communities

So many things I didn’t do this model coming up with an idea for the next essay. Sigh. But one thing I did was make a discovery about text sets. Text sets are something I’ve contemplated since reading Cris Tovani’s I Read It but I Don’t Get It a number of years ago. It sounded like a good thing to do in the author’s situation--but maybe mine was different--maybe my students aren’t as diverse. 

I like the way we can spur each other on with insights into the same reading. I like the way that students have epiphanies connecting past years’ readings with this year’s: “The people in Night becoming more and more inhuman--that’s just like the slippery slope into evil that we talked about last year in Lord of the Flies!” And I like the way that seniors reflect back over their reading experience in their project “The Story So Far,” showing which of the books in our school curriculum (among others) have made a lasting impression on various lives. But as our population of non-native speakers increases, and I’ve dropped the unit on Dante’s Inferno from my English 10 course to allow more time for sinking deeply into the reading and writing that remains, I’m increasingly thinking that text sets are in our future to some extent. 

This week I had an experience to confirm that that is not necessarily a bad thing.

It started as a jigsaw exercise to provide students with “current events” content for the response essay to Night analyzing the tendency of people to disregard human dignity. At first I was worried about keeping the four articles updated. Eventually I compiled so many articles and sources that I couldn’t reduce the significant number down to four. Modern slavery, gendercide, prejudice, the biological basis of morality, to current situations being monitored as heading toward genocide--I had a lot of good sources I kept in the file and didn’t use because they seemed too difficult or too easy. 

This year I abandoned strict jigsawing, put out 10 articles and web pages, and said, “Pick whatever interests you. Tomorrow you’ll get a chance to discuss it first with other people who read the same article you did in order to share points of interest, clarify questions, and be sure you got the main point and supporting evidence. Then we’ll mix it up so you can hear about some of the other articles--maybe you’ll discover something you want to use in your paper along with your original article or instead of your original article.” 

As I gave a brief synopsis of each, I introduced one article as “long and difficult.” I grimaced inwardly, suspecting that comment would be the kiss of death. But 13 out of 47 students selected it! I was amazed: Students will select difficult material if they are interested. (Though judging from ensuing group discussions, students focused mostly on the side bars featuring moral dilemmas--would you kill a crying baby to save the lives of all the other hiding people? There was less evidence they read the body of the article. Next year I’ll have a response guide.) Still, they were discussing the reading heatedly. 

As were others. I stopped by two other students discussing the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. They said, “This is so depressing! Over 50 years ago everyone agreed these were universal human rights, and today there are still so many places where they don’t exist!” In another group, which had read an editorial about the author's experience of discrimination as an American Muslim post-9/11, one girl shared her experience of being at a multi-school tournament and overhearing a slur against Christians: “Why do you want to go over by CAJ [Christian Academy in Japan]--Christians are all fanatics that you can’t trust.” In yet another group, that had read about the IAT (Implicit Assumptions Test), one student was explaining how she had gone online and taken the test. In the mixed discussion, a student who had taken the IAT and come out racist asked me to get the laptop cart so everyone else could take the test and quit looking at him like an oddball.

Did some students select material because it looked short and easy? I’m sure. Did everyone read it thoroughly? Probably not. Did some people do more than required? Yes. (Some students asked politely if they could take more than one article. I also emailed out links to all the sources that had online versions. Several students asked which group they should go to if they had read more than one.) Were students engaged in learning? Definitely.

I still want students to have many common reading experiences. I also know that there is much more information (and excellent writing!) out there than we could all possibly read, and that one thing a learning community does is share good stuff they’ve read and learned with others who may want to read and learn it, too. 

May my class be more and more that kind of learning community.

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