If you haven’t picked up this so far by reading recent posts, I love me some Sheridan Blau. I didn’t know anything about him until I was told to read his book The Literature Workshop (2003) during my research in literature course this past fall. Reading about, discussing, and even practicing some of his workshops from that course has changed my teaching practice forever.
It took me several weeks into this past semester before I began to appreciate what Blau’s book offers me and any English teacher for that matter. When you begin trekking through a doctoral degree, you are at first inundated with theory, theory, theory, and wait for it–more theory. Despite the mocking tone you might be picking up from that statement, please don’t misread me here. Theory is foundational and essential but to any practicing teacher, it can become cumbersome and far too hypothetical to apply readily to your classroom. Blau’s text is different. It is the first text I had read to that point in my program that put theory clearly into practice with examples, dialog, and reflection.
My first change in practice inspired from his text had to do with how I took myself out of much of the interpretive authority when discussing poetry. My students were already familiar with the basics involving poetic form and literary terms, but what they hadn’t had a chance to do was honestly explore a poem without someone else telling them how to think about its lines and verses. When exploring ancient Chinese and Japanese poetry, I had students workshop many of the poems using a few of the strategies that Blau presents in his text, including having students read a piece several times while documenting what stands out, questions, and general thoughts each time BEFORE discussing the piece. By the time discussion did happen, I took myself out of the interpretation and allowed my students’ questions, concerns, and observations to push the discussion forward. That’s not to say that I didn’t put in my two-cents as well, but I only commented on what they offered and I refused to give them a ‘straight’ answer, which certainly bothered a few of them. The result of such a practice though, lends authority to the student, giving him or her a very real experience with understanding and bringing meaning to text. We still talked about literary terms and context, but they brought it up, not me. The process wasn’t entirely comfortable, but the resulting dialog from the lessons were the most insightful I’ve had in class to date.
In my ninth grade Studio class, I had my students explore a poem of their choice (with my ultimate approval) by developing a writing process paper–another strategy Blau provides. I too had to complete such an assignment this past fall when I had to read, re-read, re-read and repeat while documenting my experience and questions connected to a poem and a short story that I had never read before. Much like what I had to do, I had my ninth graders choose a poem and document their experience of struggling with understanding, interpretation, and questioning of the piece. The purpose of the activity is to reveal to a reader what kind of reader he or she is at times, while also having the reader reflect on the process and what it reveals. The documentation of the readings eventually turns into an organized paper that concludes with a reflection of what the student genuinely realizes about his or herself as a reader and interpreter of text. While not all students took the task to heart, the many who did produced some of the most metacognitive and genuine writing experiences I have ever evaluated!
Blau’s caution with any of the practices I’ve shared above is that our interpretations cannot go beyond what the text actually provides. It is important that students understand that while their interpretations can all certainly be valid, they must use the evidence available in the text to justify themselves. It cannot be a free-for-all, which is a philosophy that I know I subscribe to. But what I also believe wholeheartedly is that I cannot be the purveyor of how my students think. I do them no favors by not empowering them to use the evidence in front of them to justify their own thoughts and interpretations.
For many years I’ve believed it is my job to place my knowledge in my students’ heads. I now understand that it is my job to empower my students and equip them with the right tools to develop their own real and visceral knowledge. Knowledge and ability that will last far beyond the final pencil mark left on the multiple choice Scantron that my students know all to well.
Blau, S. D. (2003). The literature workshop: Teaching texts and their readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.