Sitting in an empty classroom during the third snow day in a row this week, I feel like I’m finally able to squeeze in some time to go back over countless drafts I’ve written for my blog and polish a couple up. Here’s what I was doing in October…
After a very intense summer of professional learning and experience-building, it’s always a big challenge to not get overzealous in terms of the changes you bring back to your classroom and school. One of the big themes of the Klingenstein Summer Institute (KSI) is that change is a process and not an event and I’ve tried to remind myself of that regularly as I slowly try to make my changes this fall. One of the changes I’ve been working toward in my practice ties into my goal of finding ways to help students individualize their learning as much as possible. Last year, as a member of Cohort 21, I was overwhelmed by the potential and different approaches to this question and it quickly became apparent that I needed to narrow this idea down – not just for me, but for my students as well. Creating choice and possibility for students can be paralysing if students don’t feel equipped to make such or choices.
This is something I’ve seen a lot during my early teaching years in my English classes. Whether giving multiple choices of texts for a novel study, offering a variety of essay topics or assignment options, or trying to welcome differing interpretations of a poem, students have frequently noted that they have a very hard time making these kinds of choices despite wanting the opportunity to have autonomy in their learning.
In trying to find a solution to this problem, I thought back to some of the powerful experiences from KSI. Many of these experiences involved using strict protocols to get people talking in a constructive ways. The lesson that Richard Messina and other lead teachers reiterated was that, despite the sometimes-artificial feeling that strict protocols can induce, trust the structure. Structure, paradoxically, can be very freeing.
Bringing this idea back to my English classes, I’ve been endeavouring to narrow my focus to provide students with structures to help them make meaning of texts as they read through the incorporation of critical literary theory. In teaching more explicitly about reader response, Marxism, feminism, post-colonialism, and other key literary theories, I have seen vast improvement in my students ability to create a personalized understanding of texts.
Let’s take for example Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” a classic short story that is usually pretty engaging for students. We began by learning about reader response literary theory. Students then read through the story looking to create personal connections and meaning from the story. Students talked about the close connection between the story and The Hunger Games, the shift in mood and style as the suspense build, etc. As we shifted toward a feminist reading, students start to ask questions about why a man is running the lottery, why men are drawing for the family, and why it is a woman who speaks up against the lottery and is ultimately its victim. Next, we shift to Marxism and see students starting to consider how things might have been different if all of the townspeople rose up against the lottery and whether this kind of blind perpetuating of a system is exploitative of lower classes.
It’s low-tech, and at times it’s awkward – even ugly – but in the end I hear students richly engaging in texts and when we move on to our next text, I see students layering these critical lenses to create colours all their own with which to see the text. Colours rooted in theory, but with personalized tints.