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Monday, April 3, 2017

Building Interactive Engagement with Text


In a recent workshop titled "Building Interactive Engagement with Text," I argued that opportunity and motive are two variables needed for students to truly read and comprehend and even enjoy complex texts.

The week prior to the conference, my students were discussing Rick Reilly’s rant on cheerleading titled “Sis! Boom! Bah! Humbug!” For homework the previous evening, students had annotated the article, making note of figurative language and argumentative techniques, and they were now sharing their findings with classmates.

Mary raised her hand and said, “I found something.”

“What is it?”

“Well,” she answered, “I know it’s something, but I don’t know what it’s called.”

She directed everyone to paragraph twelve where Reilly wrote, “If cheerleading is a sport, Richard Simmons is a ballerina.”

“So what’s that called?” I persisted.

“It’s a… It’s a… It’s a literary ratio!” she announced triumphantly, and I immediately burst into laughter. She did as well, because she knew that was wrong. But then I thought about it, and you know what? Her answer was technically right.

“Do you want to know what your ‘literary ratio’ is really called?” I asked. And now the whole class was totally quiet, because everyone wanted to know the real term. Several kids were poised with fingers on their keyboards to add it to their annotations. “It’s called an analogy. But what’s really cool, Mary, is that an analogy is, in fact, a literary ratio. Your answer was genius!”

“I know!” she replied. And it was. But it was also an example of how a shared moment with a text can prime the whole class to receive new learning.

What’s also important to note here is the fact that only this type of wide-open, inquiry-based approach to the text would allow such a discovery. I could have instead asked the class to answer ten very pointed, close-ended questions about the text, and they would have all dutifully, if not enthusiastically, answered them. But the more open-ended approach to the reading and annotation process allowed learners to find things for themselves, even beyond those which I had intended.

In a pivotal scene from Jurassic Park, the terrorized humans are dismayed to discover that more of the prehistoric creatures inhabit the island than they could have ever guessed. This comes as a shock, of course, because earlier in the book we had been assured that an elaborate computerized tally system was tracking the creatures and recording their populations. But Dr. Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum in the motion picture) suspected this all along:
"Now you see the flaw in your procedures," Malcolm said. "You only tracked the expected number of dinosaurs. You were worried about losing animals, and your procedures were designed to advise you instantly if you had less than the expected number. But that wasn't the problem. The problem was, you had more than the expected number" (p. 184). 
In other words, the computer program was getting the right answers, but asking the wrong questions. It was limiting the realm of possibilities. Sometimes that happens to us as teachers. We get all the correct answers to the simple questions we ask, but they’re questions that limit student thinking. They aren’t those questions which demand real thought, and our tasks aren’t those that produce authentic learning. Sometimes we simply need to "open the field" to our students and say, "What do you see? What can you make of it?"

In your own teaching, where can you create such opportunities?

Common Texts

Whenever I'm asked, "What’s the number one suggestion you have for teachers who want to engage students in reading?" I respond with "Common texts."

Many teachers passionately advocate for students reading independent texts at their own levels. I’m one of those teachers. But I also believe in the power of shared, common texts as a jumping-off point for engagement. Novels, short stories, nonfiction articles, op-ed pieces, drama, and poetry are a few such sources.

Why common texts? 
  • Texts read as a whole class provide a common culture, or canon, of literature that teachers and students can draw upon throughout the year as exemplars for reading and writing. 
  • Common texts create a community of readers that can “speak the same language.” 
  • Common texts provide a source of cohesion between diverse students who might otherwise feel little connection with one another. 
  • Texts which are read, dissected, and discussed, and then used as writing subject matter, increase the probability of all students experiencing an equally deep and rich exposure to language and literary ideas. This, in turn, creates a firm footing for future building of knowledge and skills. 
  • Using common texts develops a shared foundation of literary terms and academic vocabulary.
Ironically, the two biggest arguments against using common texts in truth reveal additional strengths of the approach.

Some opponents, for example, will argue that common texts don’t differentiate. But by their very complexity, judiciously selected common texts naturally differentiate through each individual learner's experience with them. When you visit Disney World, you see the Magic Kingdom being enjoyed by everyone, from three to ninety-three. Likewise, a well-selected text has something for everyone. Students learn to read in more circumspect and exacting ways by hearing their peers discuss elements of the text which they may have never noticed.
When I assigned another text for independent annotating, most students came in with over a dozen observations, and some with two and three times that amount. One student, who had learned English the year before, came in with just eight. 
But one of her annotations was a truly insightful and original thought, one that no one else had seen in the text. That day was as successful for the student with eight annotations as it was for the student with twenty-eight.
A second argument is that "what we choose may not appeal to all students." Quite frankly, we often we don’t know what is best for us, or what we’ll enjoy, until we are immersed in it. For example, I have never willingly attended a party or backyard barbecue in my life! My wife drags me there, kicking and screaming. But without fail on the ride home, I will sheepishly admit, “That was fun.” 

It’s one of our many responsibilities to expose students to new genres, new forms, new authors, new challenges. Trust me, none of us wanted to be potty trained, but few of us regret it.

Space and Time

As mentioned above, students need motive and opportunity to engage with texts. In Crunch Time: How to Be Your Best When It Matters Most, author Rick Peterson shares this analogy from ice hockey:
When you're carrying the puck and a defender pressures you by taking away your space and time, you're likely to make a poor decision. In contrast, when you can curl away from a defender and get to open space on the ice, you have time to survey the play and make a good decision. The time and space give you time for quick reflection, allowing you to see things you wouldn't otherwise see… If we can just create space and time, we can survey the situation and make a better choice. We can see things we would otherwise miss. (p. 28)
Although he discusses the variables of space and time (rather than motive and opportunity), Peterson would likely agree that students need a release from the pressure to always be right, to always have the correct answer on demand.

He later says:
By creating a series of simple, short-term, bite-sized process goals linked to a larger outcome goal, you get to recognize success more frequently. Every time a goal is achieved, your body releases dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter. The resulting dopamine makes you feel confident and productive. We all know focus is required to perform at a high level. Yet, when we cannot keep our focus for an extended period of time, it's easy to get anxious and feel like you're not up to the challenge. Clutch performers don't focus for longer periods of time. Rather, they focus at the right times. They have specific entry and exit points that allow them to focus intensely when needed. (p. 72)
Every time a student shares her own thought, or finds confirmation in one of her own responses in discussion with another student, she feels that same small victory. Any perceived progress, no matter how small, motivates students (and their teacher) to happily work even harder.

If you care to read about more specific way to get students motivated to read, be sure to check out the session notes from my Building Interactive Engagement with Text workshop.