Monday, August 24, 2015

One size for all limits learning

Last post I wrote about the importance of including literature in the curriculum that students can connect to in time place and space. As promised, this week I am writing about how studying one text across a class, year level, or school is something that happens often, if not regularly. Again I will be referring to Barbara Braxton's article "One size does not fit all"  (Teacher Librarian ; Feb 2006, Vol. 33 Issue 3, p50. Available through Ebsco).

As a reader I enjoy books that others wouldn't enjoy and other people have different choices and preferences in their reading. Even within the closest of families there are different preferences for writing styles, genres, subject matter, length, font size and type, hard back or paperback, fiction or non fiction. Reading is a very personal experience. So why do we insist that students in a class read the same novel? Using the one novel kills choice, ownership, interest and possibilities.

The proponents of this outdated model will insist that having all students read the same text ensures that all students are exposed to works they may not have been exposed to. It also allows for common conversations and analysis on the one book. After doing a brief search I have not been able to find further strong reasons to support novel study like this. I think it is done this way for a few reasons - it is easy for the teacher and it has always been done this way. If you are a teacher of English literature and know of other strong arguments, please let me know.

How could an approach to studying literature allow for student choice and wider reading but still reach the outcomes required by the syllabus? A conceptual and inquiry approach would be the best fit, so how could this work?

With each novel study are essential questions and concepts to be answered or learned. For example a study of "To Kill a Mockingbird" would include covering  concepts of racism, prejudice, justice, integrity, time and place, gender roles. The teacher could identify the concepts (and other elements they want learned), then the students need to find a novel (or even non fiction) that covers these themes. The teacher could supply a list of possibilities (which would include To kill a mockingbird) to help the selection process and the school librarian could support the students with suggested possibilities. 

The students would read the books of their choice and then discover and connect with the themes and elements they need to connect. The teacher could direct the learning with questions, but also allow the students to create their own questions relating concepts to the book, concepts to their own lives and making connections. As the book is not being read by everyone, including the teacher, the process of justifying and supporting their arguments, findings and stance becomes authentic and they learn these skills. More research and inquiry would need to be conducted to find out more as the teacher would not be the fountain of all knowledge.

Braxton offers a number of questions that could start the conversation ....
  • How did the title prepare you for what the story was about?
  • How did the main character change and develop throughout the story?
  • If you were the main character, how would you have resolved the problem?
  • How did the text and / or illustrations support your understanding of the story?

  • Did the book meet your expectations?
  • What did you need to know already to understand the text?
  • What did what you already know help you to understand the text?
  • What does the writer want you to know?
  • What is the 'big idea' or message of the story?
  • What is the text really about, and what tells you this?
  • How does this fit with what you already know and believe?
  • Does the author see the world in the same way that you do?
  • What are the key similarities and differences?
  • What view of the world and values does the author assume that you hold?
  • Is the author trying to change that perception?
  • Has the author been successful in prompting you to reflect on what you know believe?
  • How has your knowledge and understandings been challenged by this text?
  • How does the structure of this text match its purpose and intended audience?
  • What mechanisms has the author used to introduce and reinforce the message?
  • How do the language and techniques influence the message and purpose?
  • How are the personalities of the various characters developed through the story?
  • How are age, gender and cultural groupings portrayed?
  • How are the relationships between the characters portrayed?
  • Which characters are empowered, and why?
  • Does one characters point of view have a prominent or privileged position in the story?
  • How do the relationships influence the perpsective of the story?
  • Whose story is not told?
  • Where does the author place you in relation to the characters?
  • Is the world the author portrays real or feasible?
  • Has the author presented a fantasy workd and characters to present a real world issue in a less threatening way?
  • How would the text be different if it were told in another time, place or culture?
  • Is your interpretation of the text the only one?
  • What kind of person composed the text?
  • Are that person personal interests beliefs and values evident?
  • What would you ask the author about those beliefs if you had the chance?

"Such an approach allows students to read what they are interested in, and what they can comprehend, yet they can still read critically and develop their understandings of the messages and mechanics of the text." (Braxton 2006)

What do you think? Is it possible to build a literary curriculum based on student choice? This would be an effective method for differentiation by providing students with different avenues to learning, in terms of acquiring content, processing, constructing, or making sense of ideas so that all students within a classroom can learn effectively, regardless of differences in ability and interests. Inquiry learning with choice in English literature readings.

Learning is about making connections, and if that one text that is being used in classrooms does not connect with a student, their opportunity for learning is reduced.

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