Teaching literature in the Interpretation of Literature classroom is significantly different from doing so in a class of students who are majoring in English–most of your Interp. students will not be taking English Lit classes regularly if at all, and this class may be one of their last experiences with literature in a classroom setting.
Because of this reality, much of what we do in our teaching needs to allow for students with little experience analyzing texts, to take into account students’ time and reading speed, and to assist them with becoming more comfortable and self-confident regarding the interpretation of the texts we assign. Aligning our plans to this mission can be tough, but it is also quite rewarding and inspiring at the same time. This section should help you as you begin to plan your sessions, but you should also consider finding resources for the invidiual texts you will teach here, since those indexes may have more specific plans and activities that you can use.
In the sections below, you will find a number of resources to help you on your way organized around components common to the GEL classroom (In-Class Teaching Strategies, Generation Discussion, Group Work).
In-Class Teaching Strategies
With luck, you will have already been considering how to approach your class when you meet them, including your demeanor as a teacher, your level of familiarity with them, and the name you want your students to call you. If you haven’t done so yet, you might begin to contemplate these things, but you should also consider what general skills you are seeking to impart to your students and how you want your class to reflect those goals.
Class time can be used for a lot of different things, and what you choose to focus on and how you use that time is as important (if not moreso) than what kinds of assignments you give and the grading schemes and strategies you use to provide feedback to your students. This section contains a number of useful concepts and ideas to jump-start your plans in the class.
Lecturing can be a particularly useful tool when introducing a new text, unit, or course theme. Never assume knowledge in the GEL classroom: if you are working with a text that is heavily informed by a historical moment/period, you should introduce this historical information to students assuming they are either unfamiliar with it or may just need a refresher. Short lectures throughout the semester can be particularly useful in helping students make connections between the materials and the class theme.
Long lectures may feel tedious in any course, but they feel especially egregious in the GEL classroom since it is one space where students should be encouraged to discuss course materials and participate more actively. Lectures should ideally be kept on the shorter side so that you can jump into conversation with the students.
As one of the primary activities in class consists of discussion, this section of the wiki is designed to help provide some guidelines that can help improve the quality of discussion in your classroom. Creating good discussion questions that students will attack can be a troublesome task, but some of the ideas here can be very useful—though every class will be different, and you should be prepared to change your tactics to suit the mood and attitude of your students.
GOAL ORIENTED DISCUSSION
What is the point of talking about literature in class? Aside from the enjoyment I am sure many of us feel when we get a chance to talk about books, you should consider how what you are doing at any given time is designed to help your students learn and take material away from the class. The list of ideas below should give you some possibilities to consider when you think about what you will be discussing – and why.
- Recall or Comprehension: Questions regarding these things can be useful for checking students’ understanding of material. They don’t usually generate dynamic whole-class discussion, but can work in small groups if groups are then responsible for “teaching” the rest of the class.
- Analysis: Questions asking students to analyze the text are suitable for helping students comprehend a difficult reading assignment, by identifying patterns or breaking ideas down into component parts (and can be tied to the Close Reading section above).
- Application: Questions that ask students to apply a specific concept to a particular instance can aid understanding and retention, sometimes create controversy or highlight “sticky” spots in the material.
- Synthesis: Questions that guide students to pull together disparate readings or ideas to create a new overarching theme, or to consider implications of course material can usefully incorporate several of the ideas in this list (analysis and application for sure).
- Evaluation/Argumentation: Questions that encourage students to make choices based on evidence can teach them to make solid arguments and anticipate counter-arguments that might arise.
- Specifics: While not a questions per se, asking students to point to specific moments in the texts that support or contradict their ideas helps to focus learning on a more evidentiary approach to reading and understanding literature.
The skills listed above are useful goals for all instructors of Interpretation of Literature, as they tend to fit with the missions of the General Education Literature program. However, these are not the only goals possible, and you should still consider what goals you have for your students and fit them into your own classes.
THE DON’T LIST
As with many other attempts to define something, the easiest way to begin is by explaining what it is not – and while it can be difficult to state what is a good discussion question, it is pretty easy to note what simply doesn’t work well.
Don’t Ask ‘guess what I’m thinking’ Questions: If you are asking questions for which you already have a set answer in mind you are closing off possibilities for students to surprise you. Questions like “What should Bob have done to improve his focus?” ask the students to guess at the answer hiding in your skull, whereas “What could Bob have done to improve his focus?” actually asks for their input.
Don’t Ask ‘yes/no’ or ‘leading’ Questions: If your question can be literally answered with a yes or no, or if it has a ‘true’ answer that people who have read will get, the answer stops the discussion dead. Questions like “Do you think Didion’s conclusion is effective?” or “Wouldn’t you agree that Didion’s tone is whiny and annoying?” ask students to engage in nothing more than simple affirmation or negation, simple agreement or disagreement. Transform the question into something that asks for an analysis or interpretation, for example: “Why do you think she chooses to end the essay this way?” “How would you describe Didion’s tone?”
Don’t Ask ‘rhetorical’ Questions: If you mask a declarative statement as a question to ‘soften its blow,’ you make it more difficult for students to have counter-positions in which they might actually have to think for themselves. Rhetorical questions allow us to foist our interpretations and ideas on our students while deluding ourselves that we are actually asking for their opinions. Questions like “Don’t we have an ethical and moral responsibility to inform parents that a convicted pedophile is moving into their neighborhood?” aren’t really questions, of course. Transform such sneaky assertions into actual questions: “What arguments, pro and con, can we generate about informing parents that a convicted pedophile is moving into their neighborhood?”
Don’t Ask ‘information retrieval’ Questions: If you ask students to go find a specific passage, metaphor, or whatever, and bring it back to the class, once it is there you are forced to move on immediately. “What metaphor does Milton use to describe Satan in lines 617-634?” amounts to a classic example of mindless, page-turning busy work. Transform the question into something that asks for analysis or evaluation: “How does Milton’s description of Satan in lines 617-634 compare with depictions of the Devil you know from the movies or television?”
These are all good guidelines, and will help your discussion if followed in many circumstances–however, remember that there are always counter-examples that work just as well, though you should be careful to consider why you are breaking the rules above and make sure you have a good pedagogical reason for doing so.
Consider preparing questions for the following class’ reading and handing out a set of questions that they need to be able to converse about. This can be especially useful as it gives your students something to be comfortable discussing and gives you some leave to call on anyone, as they should have already been thinking about these issues and have something to say.
Perhaps useful especially at the beginning of class, you can go around the room and ask each student to state one outstanding concrete image/scene/event/moment from the text. No analysis, just recollections and brief description. As they are noted, list the images on board. As a follow-up, ask the students to study the items and look for emerging themes, the connection between images, patterns, as well as missing elements and places where things could be expanded as the text continues (if it is a longer piece).
STARTING EASY: PREFERENCES
While it may seem counter-intuitive to begin with something that feels very much like an opinion, it’s worth remembering or acknowledging that students have a relatively sophisticated system of responses to a text, and even if they do not believe it to be the case, it is possible to work with them through the assumptions they are making and the values they hold by beginning with a question as simple as “How did you like today’s reading?”
Asking them to begin there allows everyone to have an opinion, and from that starting point you can work through the ideas that the group is carrying into the text, asking them to self-examine and carefully analyze their reaction to the literature as well as the literature itself.
TOPICS AND ARGUMENTS
Students often feel overwhelmed by the texts that we discuss, and so it can be useful to work through some of the possible topics that a text is dealing with—for instance, asking them to consider what a particular reading is ‘about’ can be a good way to spark discussion, as it can begin with relatively straight-forward things (‘a journey’ or ‘a family’) and can progress to more interesting concepts (‘friendship’ or ‘racism’). Once they have a sense of what the text could be about, you can ask them to determine what the text is arguing related to that concept, asking them to consider what the text is saying: “We know that our text is about ______, but what does it say about this thing? Is it good? Is it bad? Is it complicated? What parts from the text give us the chance to make this claim?”
Getting students to discuss the material sometimes requires that we as teachers take ourselves out of the equation, letting the class run itself in some ways. This can be something as simple as breaking students into groups to grapple with questions more directly, but it may be something more structured and complicated, as needed.
Before you really dig into this concept, there are a few ideas you should think carefully about.
- First, not every class will benefit equally from group work, and you should consider your class dynamic (as well as your own preferences as a teacher) as you consider how much group work to assign as well as what level of structure is needed.
- Second, you need to make clear both what the groups’ responsibilities are in their groups as well as after their groups, when students are talking again as a full class.
- Third, it is important to consider your activities when students are working in groups. Do you stay at the front of the room, ready to answer questions? Do you circulate? Do you talk to specific groups when you circulate, or remain silent? I would suggest you try these things out to see which works best for you and for each class. If you don’t consider these things, you may have groups that end up being bored or groups that do not pay attention to each other’s reports or ideas.
Below you can find a few examples to help you as you look to mix up your classroom organization, and if you have any of your own please feel free to send them to the textbook committee so we can include them here.
One of the easiest things to do in splitting up your class is to ask each group to answer a specific question about the text, either giving each group its own question or asking all of them to consider the same question. This is easy and quick, but has a major pitfall in the ‘report’ stage, when the class regathers and everyone is asked to discuss what they determined in their groups. If there is no reason for other groups to pay attention, they may not do so—therefore you might wish to consider giving tasks to the listening groups, such as defending the points made by the speaking group or challenging them.
In many texts, major moral choices are made with significant consequences for characters, and students enjoy talking about these moments, both setting themselves into the role of the characters as well as evaluating the ethics of the decisions. This drive can be made more formal by asking students to prepare for a debate where each group must advocate for one side in the evaluation of the decision.
This can be made even more dramatic by asking students to put characters on trial. Popular trial subjects include Victor Frankenstein, Minnie Wright (from Trifles), and either John or Carol from Oleanna.
Sometimes getting students into smaller groups can get them to think outside what other students are saying or thinking, while being in a large group can stifle creative thinking. One way to get a class to consider the text from their own perspective (instead of simply agreeing with their neighbors) is to have them break into small groups and determine, for their group, what are the most important values or themes of the reading. Asking them to do this and then to return to the whole class with their ideas can be a great way to spark interest, though you might ask each group to be prepared to interrogate their classmates regarding their choices.
CHANGING TEXTUAL DETAILS
One useful tactic to get students thinking about the micro-level of the text and force them to close read is to ask them to get into groups and search through a recent reading (this often works well with short stories) and pick a detail in the text that they change—that is, they pick a word and change it in the story. Once they have done so, the class gets back together and each group presents only their change, and it is up to the rest of the class to work out the implications of this change.