Where did January go?!
I have been busy getting all my ducks in a row so I can begin data collection on my study for the ol’ dissertation. So far, everything is looking good. I have IRB approval, I’m moving ahead on my proposal edits, and I’m hoping in a few weeks I’ll be defending my proposal. By mid-February I should be off the ground and running. Wish me luck!
Today’s post is really dedicated to what Sheridan Blau (2003) calls a reading process paper. I did this assignment with my students last year, but I did not write about the experience. Inside, I will lay out the process and how students work through interpretive struggles with reading a poem and how ultimately the practice promotes metacognition.
I became a believer in the concept of a reading process paper after completing my own a few years ago at the beginning of my doctoral studies. To this day, one of my favorite courses I have had during my studies centered on theories and practices surrounding the teaching of literature. Within that course, I spent time reading through Sheridan Blau’s (2003) The Literature Workshop, where the man brilliantly pairs theory and practical application in an English classroom. I actually left the class wondering about the amount of good his text might do for master level students rather than waiting for a doctoral student to come along and encounter it. Needless to say, I found myself referring to myself as a Blau-ite, and I stick to that label to this day.
All that being said, I decided my students would benefit from a similar writing experience last year. The experience went well enough to encourage me to do it again.
So what is a writing process paper? The concept is fairly simple–a student reads unfamiliar text (in the case of my class a poem) and the student documents their reactions to the poem over multiple readings. The end goal is for the process to hopefully reveal something about the student as a reader. Those revelations should be powerful for that student who may have never thought about ‘how’ they read or ‘why’ they read or even ‘when’ they read. This process asks students to notice not only what may be going on in the text, but what is going on personally through the experience as well.
What I like about the structure of the paper is it is unlike anything my ninth graders have ever been asked to write. So much of how well written the paper is depends entirely on their level of confidence in their own interpretive authority and willingness to reflect on their strengths and weaknesses as a reader. I also particularly love that I choose to have them structure the paper using headings, which is another way of writing they are unfamiliar with altogether. In other words, this writing takes my students way out of their comfort zone, but at the same times has the possibility of really empowering them as writers and readers.
Before I get to the instructions I give the students, I want to be clear that to successfully set up a student to take on this paper there is a decent amount of upfront ‘weaving’ of interpretive skills a teacher needs to do. I spend a decent amount of time building up my students’ confidence in their interpretive authority (at least a week of continual reading and process poetry together). I do this through typical annotating the text, but also through doing what Blau calls ‘noticing what you notice’ through multiple readings. It allows my students to open up to the possibilities of multiple interpretations steeped in evidence found in the text. Now even with a decent amount of practice in this area, students will struggle with the process paper–at the end of the day it is a very foreign writing for them. BUT they can definitely adapt quickly.
Alright, so this link here will take you to the instructions I give my students.
Did you look at it? Good.
Notice the emphasis on multiple reads and journaling through each read. I will tell you now most of them simply won’t want to follow the process. They’ll want to cut corners, not read each time, and not journal. Why? They’ve never done it before and it’s scary! Stick with it though. Build in time into your class to let them practice the reading and journaling process and providing them feedback while they are doing it. From there the key for me is to have them write multiple drafts where revision and editing happens in and out of class.
This link takes you to the outline I give students to use when structuring their paper.
Look at it? Good.
In all, it typically takes even my most advanced students four drafts before they are really ready to turn in a final paper. The first draft I concentrate almost entirely on their introductions because, honestly, it’s all some of them even have. I ask them to re-envision their opening by designing four different openings using different strategies. These strategies vary, but a few are the rhetorical question, a shocking statement, or an anecdote. While a little difficult on its own, it’s a manageable request that is a nice starting place. The second draft is a group revision where students come up with a specific question that they want their group members to help them answer about their paper (i.e. What can I do to improve my word choice in my paper?). Students take turns reading their papers aloud and then provide one another verbal and written feedback. The third draft is where I finally come in by taking the drafts home with me and providing each paper four specific comments about their paper to help them improve their final writing. By the time I get the final fourth draft, grading is pretty easy and the paper is much improved.
Ultimately, students who take on the process and do not run from the opportunity tend to learn more about themselves and appreciate themselves more as a reader and are proud of not giving up on a difficult process. At least, that was my anecdotal experience from last year.
I don’t know how helpful anyone reading will find this post as is, but take heart that I plan on sharing how this year’s iteration of the assignment comes together. I’ll share some examples as well. As always, thanks for reading.
Blau, S. D. (2003). The literature workshop: Teaching texts and their readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.