Friday, January 27, 2017

Rise to the Occasion of Student Confusion: Reading Strategies

Students presenting their chapter poster on A Scarlet Letter.

If I understood the words, I think I would understand the story better. 

Not an auspicious beginning to our AP Language class discussion of the first assigned reading in The Scarlet Letter when the above comment was the first response to my query, "How did the reading go?"

I guess the moral of this story is don’t assume that what worked with last year’s students will work with this year’s students. Last year a little introduction to the context, a modeled reading of the first chapter, a double entry diary, a couple of purpose-setting questions, and the challenge to see if we can find out why people today still consider this “old dead white guy” significant.

But I had a bad feeling as this year’s students left the classroom after that introduction. They weren’t rising to the challenge; they were nervous, hesitant, unenthusiastic. 

So at least I was prepared when they returned with their confusion. We regrouped with a review of reading strategies, some vocabulary discussion, and some group posters. 

Reading strategies: I’d been meaning to get that anchor poster up—and now it is! What we’re particularly targeting this unit is (1) plan and monitor, (2) determine importance, (3) ask questions, and (4) visualize. (True confession: I might not have specifically covered any of this this year, because I had taught it to most of these students last year in 10th grade, and they had not significantly struggled with any reading the year.) Here’s what those reading strategies looked like over the course of the next couple of days, especially in the context of the daily group poster:
  1. Plan and monitor: Students know now what they are reading for—to create in a group a chapter poster with a central image and surrounding quotes, connections, questions, observations. 
  2. Determine importance: They know they need to think about that central image, and what ideas and quotations are important enough to make that poster. The finished poster gives us a summary—visual and verbal—of the chapter.
  3. Ask questions: Questions make their appearance on the posters from time to time. Sometimes they emerge in the group talk as the poster is created. Some questions are clarifying and really important for getting at misunderstandings and significance (Why did Hester have to wear the scarlet A?” “Is the ‘pearl of great price’ actually a Biblical allusion?”) Others show young minds engaging with predictions (Who is Pearl’s father? Current guesses range from the beadle to Dimmesdale to the husband of the most vindictive woman at the first scaffold scene. Shh…don’t tell.) Still others are the ones that lead us toward the ambiguity and complexity of human nature and the challenge of a good work of literature (Why won’t she reveal identity of the baby’s father? Is Pearl a blessing or a curse? Why are there so many allusions to God, the Bible, and Christian topics like sin and guilt, but not one mention of Jesus?)
  4. Visualize: This might seem like one of the most basic, and also, obviously, the center of each chapter’s poster. And it fascinates me what clarifications emerge as the groups work on the central image and then run into questions. For example, for chapter 4, “The Interview,” a group drew a picture of Chillingworth handing a cupful of medicine to Hester and the baby. Suddenly someone asked, “Which one did he give it to?” And then, “Did he give 1 or 2 draughts of medicine?” Factually, he gave 1 to each. The students answered that for each other. And it led to a discussion of motivation and symbolism.
My chapter 1 poster model

Student group posters on chapters 2-4

Students seemed more cheerful and ready to tackle the challenge of the next 2 chapters by the end of the second day, after I’d introduced the strategies and group poster activity. Sure enough, they walked into class the following day bursting with questions and predictions. 

Is there anything you need to tweak for this year’s students because they aren’t last year’s students? Is there anything that your expert’s blind spot has led you to forget students don’t know? How have you helped your students read and respond to complex text in your discipline this year?

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