I’m the only high school teacher in my cohort, so sometimes I feel very separated from what goes on in my classmates’ elementary school classrooms. Many times I’m left in awe of the sheer number of tools and techniques it seems that elementary teachers have at their disposal. So many of them are fantastic, innovative ideas that I would love to try myself — if only I could make them work.
So, when my class was issued a literacy strategy challenge, I decided to try it. The challenge was this: Develop a list of 10 strategies that you use to promote literacy that can be used by other teachers. The lists were then made public on our class website so that we could all peruse each others’ for more ideas.
Some of these (phonics, sound blending/tapping, word segmenting) are fantastic strategies for elementary students, but aren’t that adaptable to high school. After all, my kids should know their word and letter sounds by the time they get to high school. Some of the more literature-based strategies, though, hold more promise in terms of being adaptable. I decided to focus on one of these strategies to see if I could rework it for use with my students.
From blogger griepmk’s list, I pulled the following strategy:
Bubble reading– This is a reading strategy I teach when we learn about characters in our books. Students have popsicle sticks with thought bubbles attached to them. When we read a text aloud, we pause as a class and try to imagine what the character is thinking at different parts of the story. “What might the character be saying here?” “What might the character be thinking here?” When students practice this individually, they have sticky notes with speech bubbles on them. Students periodically stop and jot down what the character is thinking at that point in the story with the exact page number they used.
I love this activity for multiple reasons. It asks the students to infer from the text, and asks them to use specific evidence to support their inferences. Both of these skills are directly tied to Common Core standards for high school (RL9-10.1, RI9-10.1). I also love that this activity begins to touch on character complexity and development (RL9-10.3), which is something that I need to address with 9th graders.
I decided to use this strategy with To Kill A Mockingbird, which my students began reading this week.
While my students don’t really find the reading level of this book difficult, they do often struggle to grasp how the motivations and mindsets of the characters impact their choices. They have trouble, for example, with how Atticus praises Mrs. Dubose for being “the bravest person I ever knew” after she’s so openly horrible to him. Or how Walter Cunningham can be part of a mob that almost attacks Atticus even after Atticus has been kind to him and his family. Or, most importantly, how the jury can find Tom Robinson guilty when he is so obviously innocent.
In order to understand the weight of these scenes and others like them, it is necessary to delve into the complexities, development, and interactions of these characters. I wanted them to do this while reading Part One of the text (Chapters 1-11), so that when we get to Part Two next week, they have a firm understanding of who the characters are and can begin to understand why they might react the way that they do.
To implement this strategy (and for lack of craft supplies), instead of giving my students popsicle sticks with bubbles, I explained the metaphor to them, and used a picture of a thought bubble of a cartoon character. Then, I drew on my acting skills (far from Oscar-worthy, but illustrative nonetheless!) to give them an example of how a person might say something (“It’s so nice to see you!” through clenched teeth) but mean something else (“Actually…it’s not!”). So, sometimes what is expressed and what is intended or implied are actually two different things. Sometimes, a little digging is required to find out one’s true motivations.
The next step was to group students (six groups of six), and assign each group a character. I wrote the names of the six major characters of our focus (Scout, Jem, Atticus, Dill, Calpurnia, and Miss Maudie) on slips of paper, folded them secret ballot style, and let each table select one.
Tables were given specific instructions — to choose two passages in which the character is present and analyze their actions and motivations. Then, they had to synthesize the information, and make an inference about the character’s motivation based on the passages collectively. In other words, what can the reader tell about their motivation based on these interactions?
Students had 20 minutes to work, so it required them to know and recall the text, but also to sift through and really find the passages that held the most complex interactions.
Some of them were great at picking passages — but they had a little trouble constructing meaning, which led to some good whole-class discussion.
One group, for example, selected a passage where Miss Maudie, Scout and Jem’s neighbor, instructs Scout on why she can’t just pull a blade of nut grass (a weed) out of the ground:
“Pull it up, child? Pull it up?” She picked up the limp sprout and squeezed her thumb up its tiny stalk. Microscopic grains oozed out. “Why, one spring of nut grass can ruin a whole yard. Look here. When it comes fall this dries up and the wind blows it all over Maycomb County!” Miss Maudie’s face likened such an occurrence unto an Old Testament pestilence. (To Kill A Mockingbird, pg. 56)
This can be interpreted as symbolic, of course. The nut grass, like racism, spreads if not extinguished at the source. So, as Miss Maudie vehemently attacks one blade of grass to stop it from spreading, Atticus attacks one case of racism to stop it from spreading. As we discussed and analyzed passages like this one, we listed them in a chart on the board so that students could see each character’s motivation and how their motivations and ideas begin to connect. They were able to draw parallels between the characters, like Miss Maudie and Atticus, and then make predictions about how these characters’ beliefs and behaviors might guide them and impact them throughout the rest of the story.
By the end of class, we had a full chart, and a better understanding of the major players in the story.
Overall, success. I liked this approach, and I’d like to continue to tweak and refine it for use with the literature we read in 9th grade.