Leading Classroom Discussions of Literature

The way we think about a text depends in large part upon our purposes and expectations for reading it. Whereas reading for information requires finding a sense of the topic early in the reading and then shaping our search for new information with reference to that topic, literary reading is in a constant state of flux. We explore deeper possibilities underlying the particular part we are reading, while also exploring the different ways each of these explorations might affect our interpretation of the entire work. Thus, as we read, we entertain various interpretations as the text progresses, while at the same time recognizing that a development in the work or interaction with other readers might change our thinking.

These unfolding and shifting understandings of a piece of literature are now known as envisionments. They are like the kinds of knowledge we call upon when making sense of any new experience. Because they illuminate important themes in the text and reveal areas of insight or confusion on the part of the reader, envisionments are at the core of what teachers and students should be attending to during literature instruction.

However keen on reading and eager to share their thoughts and impressions, students need support in developing and articulating rich and powerful envisionments if they are to form deep and defensible interpretations. Such support is strengthened when teachers do the following things:

  • Focus the discussion on students’ ideas and questions, first to capture the thoughts students come away with at the end of a reading, and later, as they further develop their understandings.
  • Teach students to strengthen their reading abilities by showing them ways to discuss and ways to think about a work.
  • Ask questions that move students to different stances in order to develop their understandings.
  • Foster student awareness and control of their envisionments through oral and written activities that make students’ thinking visible to themselves and others.

These kinds of supports have the advantage of requiring active mental engagement, raising reading behaviours to the conscious level for examination and reflection, inviting participation by students of varying reading and ability levels and aiding their comprehension.

While the nature of any literature discussion will be guided by both the text and the students’ emerging understandings, the example below illustrates one sequence a teacher might use to assure that such discussion is productive:

1. Invite students to read the text, responding in any way that helps them. (Teacher: Jot down your thoughts and questions, or use sticky notes to record anything that strikes you as interesting or puzzling.)

2. After all have finished reading, tap readers’ first impressions. (Teacher: What does the piece mean to you? What questions were you left with?)

3. Continue to keep readers’ ideas and questions at the centre of the discussion, exploring possible interpretations and seeking deeper ones by encouraging students to respond to one another and build upon what others have said. (Teacher: Do you agree or disagree? Are there any other possibilities?)

Where appropriate, orchestrate the discussion by:

  • Building on initial impressions (Teacher: What do you think this story is about? Was there anything you didn’t expect?)
  • Using uptake, or picking up on what is said (Teacher: I hear so and so say… anybody disagree with that idea?)
  • Asking for clarification (Teacher: Can you say more about that? Why do you think that happened?)
  • Making connections (Teacher: Is there anything you’ve read that helps you understand why it happened this way?)
  • Encouraging multiple perspectives (Teacher: If you were (a character in the story) how would you interpret…? What if the narrator were… instead of…?)
  • Taking a critical stance (Teacher: Was there anything about the style, organisation, or wording of the piece that made an impression on you? How? How might someone in another century react to this piece?)

4. End the discussion by taking stock of ideas. (Teacher: So far we have discussed the following threads or themes… What else do we need to discuss?)

Teaching literature, getting students to read and talk about what they have read is not easy. Every year, with each new group of students I start work with, I go through the same ordeal: How do I make them reconsider the definition of the word literature which, in their minds, is always associated with a pile of dusty, difficult books stacked in a rarely frequented corner of the library? How do I stimulate their curiosity to check what a particular book is about? How do I cultivate a positive attitude towards the habit of reading?

But after months of efforts, as I look over students’ responses to the question: “What did you learn this year?” I can see that the hard work has resulted in tremendous growth for all of us. My students and I have learnt that:

  • Literature can be understood in different ways.
  • It is valuable to hear what others think and to consider various possibilities before reaching a final determination of what the piece says to you. Understandings are not complete when the reading is finished.
  • Literature is real; the problems and issues discussed in class relate to problems and issues that people experience in real life.
  • Literature discussions are an arena for sharing and testing ideas without fear of being attacked for having an opinion that differs from those of others.
  • Thinking deeply about reading and sharing that thinking is an expected part of the class.
  • Ideas of all class members are valuable.

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