Thursday, April 5, 2012

Literature Discussions with Full Participation I

Question: What is one way for the English teacher to organize a discussion of literary works?

Summary: In my classroom, discussions of literature begin with the question, ‘What do we know?’ followed by the question, ‘What don’t we understand?’ Students raise questions about the meaning of what they have read. I focus the discussions on what the students do not understand. Discussions organized in this way invite full participation.

A Discussion That Wasn’t
One scene in the movie Peggy Sue Got Married shows an English teacher sitting behind his desk engaging in a ‘discussion’ with a single student who disagrees with the teacher’s point of view about Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. While the student and teacher continue to disagree with each other, all the other students look completely bored or are idly doodling. Finally, the bell rings and the teacher says, ‘We’ll continue this discussion tomorrow. And, oh, yes, don’t forget to begin reading The Great Gatsby. Enjoy.’ The latter is called out to the backs of the departing students.

Too many of the literary discussions in my memory were like the one in Peggy Sue Got Married—the ones in which I participated or in which I didn’t participate as a student, the ones I directed as a teacher and the ones I observed as language arts supervisor.

In contrast, I have learned that a good literary discussion, a discussion involving many members of the class, begins with students’ questions about what they do not understand—not the teacher’s and not the textbook’s.

Next Blog: The Great Books technique for discussing literary works.

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