What’s Happening: The Observation
“You know, every time someone read that, I understood it more,” Dawn told me. She stood next to me after class, an “average-level,” tracked, eighth-grade English/reading group.
I felt like hugging her, but instead, I put my hand on her shoulder and asked, “Dawn, will you write to me in your lit log about that? Tell me how that happened for you?”
“Sure,” she answered casually and went off to her next class.
I had been reading aloud all week long to these “average-level” eighth graders and to my class of “remedial” eighth graders. The context for this reading aloud is a version of what Nancie Atwell calls writing and reading workshop, the crucial feature of which is student self-selection of reading materials and of topics for writing (1987, In The Middle, Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Boynton/Cook, 160-64). The. week I am describing began with excerpts from The House on Mango Street (1984, Houston: Arte Publico), Sandra Cisneros’s award-winning volume of vignettes about life in the barrio. Even in a class in which self-selection is standard procedure, I selected some materials for modeling purposes or for whole-class discussion.
After reading aloud, I asked my students to do what Peter Elbow calls “text rendering,” to say aloud any word, phrase, or sentence that they especially liked or noted, that stuck with them for any reason, including confusion or lack of understanding (1989, A Community of Scholars, New York: Random, 430-36).
I began Friday’s workshop with the first- period, “average-level” eighth graders by asking for volunteers to read the very short chapter, “Those Who Don’t,” from the Cisneros text. A few hands rose; I called on one student. When she had finished reading, I let the silence in the class continue for about thirty seconds. This is the passage she had read:
Those Who Don’t
Those who don’t know any better come into our neighborhood scared. They think we’re dangerous. They think we will attack them with shiny knives. They are stupid people who are lost and got here by mistake. But we aren’t afraid. We know the guy with the crooked eye is Davey the Baby’s brother, and the tall one next to him in the straw brim, that’s Rosa’s Eddie V. and the big one that looks like a dumb grown man, he’s Fat Boy, though he’s not fat anymore nor a boy.
All brown all around, we are safe. But watch us drive into a neighborhood of another color and our knees go shakity-shake and our car windows get rolled up tight and our eyes look straight. Yeah. That is how it goes and goes. (29)
I asked for a second volunteer. Another hand rose immediately, and after that reading, I again waited silently. I called for a third volunteer, allowing more silence after her reading. I then invited students to say aloud, without raising a hand, any word, phrase, or sentence that stayed with them, that stuck in their minds. Without hesitation, several students began to volunteer their preferences, rendering lines word for word from the text:
“All brown all around, we are safe.”
“. . . shiny knives.”
“Those who don’t know any better. . .”
“. . . he’s Fat Boy, though he’s not fat anymore nor a boy.”
“They think we’re dangerous.”
“They are stupid people who are lost and got here by mistake.”
One student’s face showed disappointment when she heard another student voice the line she was going to say, but I told her it was OK; the same lines could be repeated more than once. We took at least five minutes for this oral responding, and then I asked for questions or comments. None. I went on. I reminded the class that when they listened to one another’s compositions in writing workshop, they could use the text-rendering process there, too—saying back to one another the exact words they had heard or read in their partners’ papers rather than paraphrasing the ideas. I pointed out that several of them had chosen the same lines to read aloud from Cisneros and that it is often helpful for a writer to see which phrases or lines people find most moving or memorable, as a kind of affirmation of the writer’s own perception and ability to articulate that perception for others. Writers can also be surprised to discover unexpected places in their texts that resonate powerfully for readers. And that, too, is important information.
Having made these points, I asked for any questions or comments. None. I went on. The rest of the period, I announced, could be used for reading and writing in their literature logs. Literature logs in which students write letters to peers and to the teacher about their books are also a feature of Atwell’s workshop. The context of the writing in lit logs (to peers as well as to the teacher) and the format (letters rather than summaries or book reports) invite sharing of knowledge and the building of community in the classroom rather than competition for the “right answer” in the study of literature. These two dimensions—community vs. competition—of the atmosphere of any classroom were focal points for our discussion at the South Coast Writing Project’s Literature Institute for Teachers, University of California, Santa Barbara, California. One of our goals was to find ways to increase the opportunities for community and to de-emphasize the competitive nature of literary study.
After instructing the class to spend the remainder of the period reading and/or writing in their lit logs, I suggested that they copy out a phrase or sentence they had liked or found confusing. “Then, speculate,” I suggested, “about what it might mean.” I defined “speculate” simply as “guess.” “Write to a friend, or to me, making your speculation or guess, and we’ll write back to you, doing the same.”
Two students approached me at the front of the room. Joey—blond, surfer—asked me if he could read “that” book. Dawn, quoted at the beginning of this article, who had been transferred from another English class because of disrespectful behavior toward the teacher, stood beside me to tell me of her evolving understanding.
Period 2 was next: an eighth-grade “remedial” group, highly social, inclined to demonstrate lots of “eighth-grade love” (as a colleague named the phenomenon of landing a fist in the middle of someone else’s back with all of one’s might). This group rarely volunteered to read their own compositions aloud to the rest of the class during “group share,” a part of the workshop designed to provide feedback and suggestions for students on pieces of writing in progress. Therefore, certain that I would get no volunteers from this group to read a strange piece aloud, I read all three times myself, with significant pauses between readings. As soon as I asked for text rendering, several hands shot up at once despite my direction that they need not raise their hands. The same words, phrases, and sentences that the first-period students chose were selected by these students. The major difference was that one student asked, “What does ‘brown all around’ mean?”
“OK,” I addressed the class. “What does ‘brown all around’ mean?”
“It means the hills.”
“It’s an old neighborhood.”
“It’s the rust on the cars.”
“It’s the brown fences?”
In the pause that followed these initial speculations, I asked, “What else could ‘brown all around’ be referring to?”
“It means they’re Mexican,” a voice from the back volunteered.
“No, it’s the hills, it means it’s an old neighborhood.”
“Maybe,” I offered. “After all, Hope Ranch [a nearby exclusive residential area] isn’t ‘brown all around,’ is it?”
More discussion followed then, about what “neighborhood of another color” was talking about, with “green” being the first color offered as a possibility for “another color”—with green as in Martian, or green as in Hope Ranch. So on a humorous note, the discussion dropped as this class, too, turned to reading and writing in lit logs for the remainder of the period.
Period 3: same as period 2, but even more difficult. More students in this class were retainees, and overall, the reading level of the class was lower than that of period 2. Again I began reading aloud, certain that no volunteers would respond to my request. I read aloud once, paused, then announced, “All right, I’m going to read this again, and you can just listen.”
“Vd, like to read that.” Hope had spoken strongly. And before I could answer—in fact, almost simultaneously with Hope—Zellicka said, “So would I.”
“Great! Hope, you can be first, and then Zellicka.”
As Hope read, she stumbled here and there, especially on “shakity-shake” which she pronounced “shackity-shake.” Her mispronunciation was based on using, indeed applying quite literally, reading skills she had learned. I offered no assistance, and no one else noticed her miscues on this or any other word. Everyone just listened.
Then it was Zellicka’s turn. She, too, read with some errors, but not one snicker or giggle accompanied her mispronunciations, and surprisingly, she, too, said “shackity-shake.”
The responses volunteered by period 3 duplicated the favorite lines of periods 1 and 2. There was less discussion, no questioning, but more pointing to favorite lines, more of the same lines repeated. I said my piece about responding by saying the exact words being helpful to the writer, and Hope asked, “Can we write this in our own words?”
“Of course you may,” I responded quietly, and professionally. Inwardly, I was delighted.
After third period was lunch. Going down the hall towards the faculty lounge, I saw Dawn from first period.
“Hi, Dawn, did you write to me in your lit log about your coming to understand that piece this morning?”
“Yeah, it was so strange. That ‘brown all around’ made no sense, then I realized it was a Spanish neighborhood, and then it came clear to me—that she was talking about her neighborhood and everything.”
“Thanks, Dawn. I’ll look forward to reading it.”
Here is the complete text of Dawn’s lit-log letter me:
Dear Ms. Robertson:
Like I was telling you every time some one read that little story I would hear and realize more things about it. When ever I read a page in my book maybe I should read it over one more time. I will probably understand the book a lot more.
What Happens: Reflections
The conclusions and interpretations which follow will guide our perspective on the reading and discussion just described, as well as on what it means for a teacher to allow students to empower themselves and one another within a community.
As a way of “entering” a piece of literature, as a way to begin to pay attention, to become involved in the world of the text, “text rendering”—reading aloud and saying back—slows down the reading process, forces us to prolong our initial response to the text, and opens that initial response to the influence of other readers. Text rendering keeps our attention focused on the language, allowing us to live with the words for a few moments, and allowing the text to disclose itself to us. In the same way our eyes become accustomed to a darkened room, our minds need to be allowed time to find our way around within the world created by the text. Confusion, frustration, discouragement, and the sometimes desperate search for the “right answer” to the meaning of the text pull us away from the literary experience, supersede it, in fact. Text rendering keeps the readers inside the text, reading and rereading. I was introduced to the practice at the Literature Institute for Teachers. It has long been axiomatic among writing teachers and professional writers that “writing is rewriting.” Among teachers in our Literature Institute it became equally axiomatic that “reading is rereading.”
Consider Dawn: she (and others, I hope, who were less verbal than she) learned lessons she could carry with her beyond my particular English class; most important, perhaps, she learned that reading is rereading. Through rereading, she saw that she could experience a deeper understanding of a difficult text and clarify her confusion. Through rereading she could see what she didn’t understand and monitor the increments in her gradual understanding of what she didn’t know before. “Every time someone read that I understood it more.” This experience of the unfolding of clarity out of confusion, her awareness of it as it happened, and her drawing a conclusion from her experience marked an important learning event for Dawn. She came to know and knew that she knew. She needed no external validation from a teacher to confirm her understanding.
It is also important to note that the community of students and their interaction with the text illuminated Dawn’s understanding rather than the teacher’s agenda about which questions in what order to ask. Dawn’s experience supports the growing body of research evidence demonstrating that literacy is socially constructed.
The phenomenon of the strength of a role as more powerful than the person inhabiting the role is evident as the students offered no response when I, as teacher, asked for questions or comments. If I asked for further comments or ideas after students Finished with their initial responses and ensuing discussion, silence again dominated the room. I interpret this behavior from students as evidence of their belief in their inability to participate in what they have come to regard as a meaningless activity. The silence of the students showed me that they have come to regard reading in school as a teacher-owned activity, in which the teacher has predetermined both the questions and answers. Their job as students would therefore be to guess the answers to questions they already know teachers have the answers to. Disenfranchised as they are in this situation, why should they try to guess what those answers might be? They implied by their silence that any question or comment they might have I would answer or dismiss by my answer. In either case, their experience of involvement with the text would be closed. Even after a semester of my offering invitations for us to work in a community of learners who actively construct and negotiate meanings together, the old patterns of frightened and tense silence pervaded the room when it appeared that I reverted to a more traditional teaching role, implying I had a direction in mind for dealing with the text. One of the ways I try to create a safe, comfortable environment with a level of trust sufficient to an activity such as text rendering is to accept unconditionally such silences from students, without chiding or coaxing or cajoling when they apparently have no response. (“None. I went on.”)
The spirit in which the activity begins is subtle yet crucial: I invite students to share rather than challenge them to show me what they know. Often, I think, teachers conceive of their jobs, especially when they are involved in the serious business of literary analysis, as challenging students, to dare them, almost, to show us what they know. When they don’t respond, we categorize them as less intelligent because, obviously, they have not responded to our challenge.
A student-generated question, however, was another matter. These questions came out of the silence which lingered in the classroom after each reading. Precisely because I didn’t rush in with teacher- or textbook-designed questions aimed at analyzing the piece, students could simply let the words work on them, let the words sink into their minds and selves and create whatever individual images and feelings they might. I didn’t interfere with their responses to the piece with teacher-talk or questions. Typically, the teacher’s agenda interrupts even the opportunity for students to react (much less respond) to a piece of literature. If I didn’t interfere and then invited them to share their initial response, how different the class was. Remedial students not only have something to say but are capable of demonstrating genuine engagement with the text and all that means, including questions, positive and negative reactions, speculations on the literary world created by the author, and the legitimacy of that world, as well as humor. When it was clear that they could say, quite simply, what their initial response was, what they liked and didn’t like, rather than having to guess the answer to questions of mine that they knew I already had the answer to, they became verbal, lively, engaged students working together on a text, creating a world of their own, a world possible only in a classroom with a text and with people reading that text. All students deserve such an opportunity.
The fact that the students did respond readily and willingly in this situation can be attributed partly to the silence between readings. I was comfortable with the silence in the room, with not trying to fill up the silence because of the danger that it might appear nothing was going on in that silence. Thinking requires time and silence. I don’t want to be afraid to allow that time. “Wait-time” has become another educational buzzword, and the agenda of the classroom prevents its use. We rush ahead all too often. Louise Rosenblatt (1989, Literature as Exploration, New York: MLA) says that it is
essential to scrutinize all practices to make sure that they provide the opportunity for an initial crystallization of a personal sense of the work. (69)
In the silence between readings, students are given the opportunity, in fact, to have the literary experience we so frequently accuse them of being incapable of having. Organizing the classroom as a community of readers is a way to enfranchise students—especially those students whom we have too often excluded because we have assumed they do not have the ability or the desire to belong.
Santa Barbara Junior High School Santa Barbara, California 93103