Saturday, February 24, 2018

Scaffold Students to Rise to the Challenge of Difficult Reading

Student sharing with the class her group's poster of a chapter of The Scarlet Letter

History was pretty horrible. I’m glad I live now.
This was actually easier reading than A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year.

Third time’s the charm, they say, and my third time teaching The Scarlet Letter is off to a charmed start. Last year’s start was disastrous (see my blog here), so this year I started with the reading strategies and poster idea that salvaged last year. There’s one other thing I did differently this year, too. Instead of starting with a nearly full period of introductory lecture on background, biography, history, themes, styles, influences, romance, transcendentalism, symbolism, things to look for, etc…. I decided to just jump in. 

I have a personal theory that in any well-structured work of literature the first page, couple of pages, or chapter (depending on length and work) will contain in embryonic form most of the themes, motifs, symbols, and other significant signposts of the rest of the work. At this point in 11th grade, I can remind students of where we particularly looked at this in 10th grade: Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, Elie Wiesel’s Night, Leo Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, and Haruki Murakami’s After Dark. So all the introduction I gave them was that this is a novel written in 1850 as historical fiction set in 1625, and that Nathaniel Hawthorne was so mortified about his great-great-grandfather Hathorne who persecuted Quakers and his great-grandfather Hathorne who convicted over 100 witches, that he separated himself from them by adding the “w” to his name. 

Students already know that this novel is a part of our quarter 3 study of the relationship of the individual and the community. We’ve already read a number of short pieces. Now it’s time for our marathon piece—to keep up our reading stamina. It’s also the last long work we’ll read before the AP test in early May, so it’s the hardest. This is a challenge, I tell them—the hardest, longest piece you’ll read this year. And in addition to the quarter-long question about the relationship of the individual to community, we’re also addressing the essential questions of how to interpret difficult text and “What do old, dead white guys have to say to me?” 

With that, I handed out the guiding bookmark for the novel study (see below), the novel, and a one-page copy of the first chapter. I said, “Instead of lecturing you about the background and what to look for, I’m going to read you this first chapter, and stop and model my thoughts to you about where I see everything you need to look for in the rest of the novel embedded in these first 2 pages. And I want you to annotate as we go, taking notes about what you’ll need to look for in the rest of the novel." (Yes, I start with the 2 pages of chapter 1. I skip the 49-page introductory sketch about the custom house. I tell the students what I’m doing, and that if they ever re-read the novel as an English major, they will appreciate the introductory sketch much more than they would now. Purists out there may gnash their teeth at me, but I’m okay with that.) 

I’m thinking that maybe I’m doing a better job of cultivating curiosity and the value of asking questions, because while I was passing the books out, I heard a student mention “romance” and ask how this book was going to be that. It must be on the cover some place? So I got in a mini-lecture on what Hawthorne meant by romance.

After reading/reflecting through the first 2-page chapter (if you love and teach the book, try it sometime! or ask me about it in a message), I sent students off to read the next 2 chapters—about 20 pages—at home. I said, “Copy down in your journals a central image for each chapter, along with a quote you think is important, and any other questions you have. Remember, this is hard, and get what you can.”

The next day, students came in actually excited. One student way showing me her journal even before class began: “Look at my image: It’s Hester shivering, because CHILLingworth gives her CHILLS!” When the bell rang, I asked if they had any questions. The unanimous answer was that the questions were all about vocabulary. So we talked through some of the vocabulary, and then I gave each of the groups of 3 or 4 a paper and markers and the assignment to produce a poster with the following: (1) the chapter number and title, (2) a central image, (3) a 1-sentence summary, (4) a significant quote, (5) a connection to some theme or topic on the bookmark, and (6) a question. They had about 10 minutes to do this, and then 1 minute for each group to present. Here are the posters from chapters 4 and 5:

How do you scaffold students to rise to the challenge of difficult tasks in your field?

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