Friday, January 26, 2007

martin luther and walt disney as teachers of reading

Because part of my job here at San Jose State is to serve as a university supervisor of beginning teachers of English, I've spent a great deal of time over the past 19 years observing students in classrooms at the middle and high school levels reading and responding to what they read. Often, as I observe these classrooms, it seems to me that teachers are behaving as if the Lutheran revolution is the only game in town. You know the general story: Luther directly challenged the whole notion of what reading was for and who should be allowed to learn to read. Prior to the Lutheran revolution, readers of texts were largely monks and priests, while the rest of the population acted primarily as listeners to the Biblical narratives told by this priestly class. These readings were frequently supplemented by visual versions of these same tales, often depicted as frescoes on the walls of the church.

Luther changed all that. "You must be a reader yourself if you are ever to understand your true relationship to God," he proclaimed. Even more somberly for today's students, he suggested that if you could not understand what you read, you were meant to damned. Damned eternally. Oh my.

As a student growing up in the late 50's, I was a child of Sputnik. Surprisingly, the sudden and quite unanticipated launching of this orbital satellite by the Russian government had the effect on American education of driving us back to the basics of the Lutheran revolution. Shortly after the launching of Sputnik in the fall of 1957, American students' reading comprehension began to be tested both systematically and frequently. Depending on our comprehension level, we were 'placed' the following year in either 'higher' or 'lower' classes: saved or damned.

The logical culmination of this system, at least for me, came in my senior year of college. I was taking a class in the modern British novel by a Professor of English that I greatly admired. All the group of us 'saved' students in English were sitting in the first two rows of the small lecture hall, laughing at the professor's jokes and nudging each other as we pointed to passages we'd underlined in our texts and comments we'd written about these passages. I chanced to turn around one morning to look at the back of the lecture hall. There on the far side of the back row, hunched down in his chair, was one of my classmates, a good friend and a fellow member of my residential hall. He was looking rather desperate, peering over the top of his book and clearly hoping that the professor would not notice him. I knew this particular classmate was extremely bright. In fact, he later went on to attend Oxford and then Harvard Law School. What sort of system could lead to the conviction on the part of such a student that he was not among the saved, at least as far as the reading of works of modern British literature was concerned?

But that was the consequence, I later came to realize, of identifying specialized talents in diverse fields of study early in a system of schooling, then nurturing these talented individuals at the expense of those who were not 'meant' to be saved. The field of talented individuals, of course, got smaller and smaller as one rose up through the educational ranks. Eventually, in English studies, it became a matter of fewer and fewer people talking more and more loudly to one another.

In my third year of graduate school in English, as I was observing this process of increasing selectivity taking place, and wondering when I would be the next to be pushed off the gang plank, so to speak, I was asked to take over the leadership of an undergraduate seminar made up of English majors who had a different take on the purpose and value of the study of English. These were quite bright students who were not planning to pursue studies in English at the graduate level, but rather to enter post-BA credential programs in the state of Connecticut, where they were studying. Since I'd been a 10th and 12th grade private school teacher for three years prior to beginning my graduate studies, I was considered an appropriate instructor for this group of undergraduates. The questions they were asking in this seminar fascinated me: how should the field of 'English' be understood when it became the one field of study required of all secondary level students in each year of their public schooling? Even more importantly, how should one re-envision this field of study when the students one is teaching are there by law rather than choice?

And here's where Walt Disney came in. What if we decided to look at how kids 'read' when they are good at it? Wouldn't this give us a different perspective? What purpose was served, after all, by observing kids suffering through reading programs whose effect, if not intention, was to increase the disparity between "good readers" and "poor readers" in each successive year? Since I was leading this seminar as an adjunct course to a class in Children's Literature that these same students were taking, it was a relatively straightforward matter to turn from understanding 'reading' primarily in terms of decoding print text to understanding 'reading' as a matter of making sense of 'texts' that were both visual and verbal. Isn't that what any good elementary teacher taught: stories in which the illustrations gave the reader as much information as the words?

In pursuing this line of inquiry, we learned that prior to the creation of the first full length Disney animated film (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937), it was widely assumed that "talking animated cartoons" could only sustain the attention of the average viewer for about ten minutes. Sound familiar? Disney and his animators challenged this conventional thinking, asking themselves what made viewers want to sustain their attention for longer periods of time. Telling a good story was obviously a key ingredient (hence the choice of Snow White), but equally imporant for sustaining the attention of the "reader" was the appeal to our universal delight in sound, song, movement and a bit of irreverence (hence the Seven Dwarfs). By drawing on these attributes of what made kids variously talented and smart, might the supposed "shortness" of kids' "attention spans" be significantly augmented? As we all know today, Disney and his animators proved the skeptics wrong. Kids could pay attention to what they were being 'taught' for a good deal longer than 10 minutes. It was all a matter of knowing in advance what might interest and engage their attention, then incorporating these elements systematically and consistently into this uniquely modern version of visual and verbal story telling. Were it not for the launching of Sputnik, perhaps this Disney "vision" of kids as diversely talented readers and viewers might even have prevailed in American education. Sadly, however, this vision of the later 1930's gradually faded as school once again became more 'academic,' more 'rigorous,' more relentlessly 'selective.' And so it is today.

In a workshop I've given for a number of years on the teaching of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, I return workshop participants to the world of the early Disney and introduce then to an approach to reading comprehension that draws on the many ways both kids and adults are uniquely talented. We start with the most traditional of exercises -- reading short passages that provide vignettes of the characters of Dill Harris, Mayella Ewell and Tom Robinson, then writing about what we understand about the characters based on these what these passages convey.

But we move from this quite traditional exercise in reading to a range of alternative ways of responding to these same passages. We start, in acknowledgment of Walt Disney, by viewing a segment of the 1963 film version of Harper Lee's novel. I introduce workshop participants to a way a pre-reading a visual text by "scaffolding" what one is about to see with a "cumulative graphic organizer" designed to help the viewer understand the roles played by the different characters they wrote about in relation to the larger society of Maycomb County, Alabama of which they were a part.

Then I have participants work in small character groups, creating visual symbol posters of the particular characters they have written about at the beginning of the workshop. We then do a "gallery walk" of these visual symbol posters, and I then gather participants together in mixed character groups of three, where each participant role-plays their assigned character as the other two members of their group asks them questions.

Finally, we re-experience the same excerpts that we read in 'Lutheran' fashion at the beginning of the workshop (i.e. silently at one's desk), but this time in pre-Lutheran mode, listening to them as excerpts from the Recorded Books version of this novel. I follow this final experience of listening by having participants write on their assigned character a second time, reflecting on what they learned by comparing their initial 'character study writing' with this final piece of writing.

By and large, participants enjoy these exercises and find them interesting and insightful. Not only in terms of their own sense of themselves as readers, but also as teachers of reading and writing who work with students with many different talents. The point I wish to make in this workshop is that we can all deliberately and systematically draw on the various ways we know our kids are smart. That is, we can draw on their various talents as readers, listeners, responders to and shapers of their world. In doing so, we can significantly enhance the experience of reading and writing for all our students, countering the drive towards year by year "progressive differentiation" that is, perhaps unconsciously, built into the systematically structured reading programs that are presently required in the great majority of California classrooms today.


Scot said...

I enjoyed this piece very much. It stimulated not only my musings on your combination of different pedagogical strategies to make a connected point to those in the workshop, but also on the powerful influence of Disney in American culture--great new bio by Neal Gabler--and on the particular influence of To Kill a Mockingbird on the American experience. I spent a year teaching at the National University of Singapore a decade ago, and at the time, the one required work of American literature that every student in the country was required to study in school was this novel by Harper Lee. We all know what a significant novel it is, but what I discovered is, when it is sometimes the only shared reference to American writing everyone in the room has, how powerfully it shaped their perceptions of contemporary America in all its complexities. The lesson I came away with was my need to reflect on what other cultures and societies I was shaping strong opinions and perceptions about based on perhaps one work of literature of that society that I knew well.

Anonymous said...

As one of Sputnik's brood to another, and presumably one of the saved, I well remember the national response to "Why Can't Johnny Read?" that swept education in the 1950s. But my salvation, much like that of Langston Hughes, was based on false testimonial. I was always, secretly, a better reader of pictures than of words. Or maybe I've just become one, along with the current generation of students who prefer movies and graphic novels, recorded books and magazines, to the naked printed word. I like my Bible illuminated, the more colors, the more pictures the better. So I'm glad to see you encouraging teachers to offer their students alternative assignments to the weary book review. I imagine that your movie clips, posters, and character wheels--Disneyesque though they may seem--do more to raise the state of literacy in your classes than the wordbound exercises that I suffered through in my school days. And I would guess they do a lot more for that damned soul in the back of the room.

jonathan said...

Hi Scot,

Thanks so much. I appreciate your perspective very much indeed, and am flattered you took the time to read my blog entry. It made me think that I have a simiar take on Afganistan to your Singapore students' take on the US through the filter of TKAM.

In my case my perspective is a combination of a very short visit I made to Kabul in the summer of 1966, augmented recently by my reading of The Kite Runner. Whether of not the The Kite Runner's depiction of Kabul in the late 60's and early 70's supported my own recollections and perceptions is something I'll never know. What I do know is that this powerfully told story "became" my way of recollecting Kabul in those years, and placing it in a longer and quite horrific later historical trajectory.

Thanks again for your comments and reflections.

jonathan said...

Hi Bill (aka Anonymoous),

I should have guessedl this was you, my east coast doppelganger and author of The Writer's Eye. In distinction from you, however, I'm pretty sure I that as a kid (and as an adult) I was a better reader of words than of images. But growing up with the initial TV generation has meant that I continue to be mesmerized by that flickering screen image. To this day I will let several hours just slip away as I remain "glued to that screen," as my mother was fond of observing.

What surprises me about the turn to a more 'rigorous' academic curriculum in the post sputnik years was that it was not challenged more consistently and with stronger voices. In a word, why did so many otherwise intelligent educators of the late 50'sd and early 60's buy all that "Johnny Can't Read" crap? It's not as though the "Walt Disney" voices weren't around, as the persistence of the Waldorf School movement bears somewhat quiet testimony (as my sister reminded me in her recent response to my blog entry). Why was there no resistence?

Don Rothman said...

As usual, Jonathan prompts thought. Which way to go? I think that Sputnik launched a judgment of America's educational failure that has been sustained for 50 years. It has become idiomatic in the press and among political leaders that America's public schools are in permanent crisis. We ought to ask how the constant description of failure shrinks our collective imagination about what schools could be.

Maxine Greene is so good about pointing out that children's imaginations enable them to become empathetic, and that empathy and democracy may need each other. Memories of my father reading to me include illustrations that I could see in the books' pages and those that I imagined and could never find in the books themselves, but accompany me forever.

Kelcey Wilson said...

When I woke up this morning, I rolled over and enthusiastically began to leaf through the pages of my copy of Hugh Nissenson’s Tree of Life to find the spot where I had left off the night before. A passage on page 4 caught my eye that plunged me into contemplation: “Atop the white oak stump in Central Park, Mansfield, John Chapman read the Declaration of Independence aloud.” My thoughts revolved around the idea that some of the “self-evident” truths mentioned in the Declaration are not particularly evident at most times.

That all people are created equal is, essentially, a statement of recognition of the infinite value of each person – that no person has any inherently greater worth than any other – and it was included in the Declaration because it is the premise upon which the claim of equal political rights are based. It’s not a statement about each person’s particular talents, capacities, and inherited economic advantages, which are evidently unequal; the point is that these fluctuating social inequities should not fool anybody into thinking one person actually is superior to another.

One might expect that Americans today would almost unanimously agree with that essential premise; and while few could justifiably claim in this time of corporation-financed campaigns that people actually have equal political rights, one might still expect most people to believe they should. In my limited experience, however, neither is reliably the case.

I have become aware that many people (including friends of mine with whom I have grown up and whom I believe to be good people, though I sometimes wonder), do not even believe we should be politically equal. Some believe, for example, that business owners justly have greater influence over politics than other citizens (through their ability to finance campaigns and political groups, not only out of their own pocket, but out of the additional budgets they control, which could number in the dozens considering membership in corporate boards), the absurd reasoning being that these people supposedly have a greater stake in the for-profit economy (which, itself, seems to be almost the entire purpose for which the United States of America was established).

The point I’m trying to get to here – this does relate to your entry, believe it or not – is that it seems likely to me that the hierarchical form that our educational system has adopted for teaching subjects, like literature, that should and could be appreciated by practically all people, is at least partly the result of a deeper negative value judgment – a profoundly undemocratic value judgment – that too many educators make about their fellow human beings.

The irony is that, as a supposedly democratic society, we have created a one-size-fits-all education system in order to weed out those people who we have judged to be unfit (presumably by educators who were not entirely fit to be educators), rather than a system of multi-pronged approaches, such as the one you have developed, that recognizes the infinite value of each person and would lead to an equality more evident. In the ideal form, instead of a pyramid of authority, your strategy would give us a network of politically equal, intellectually self-sufficient individuals who have high self-esteem and respect for others because they have been taught that everybody has an equally valid way of learning.

jonathan said...

Hi Don,

I was just in the process of writing a follow-up blog entry on how a class's collective 'personality' seems to emerge when a teacher self-consciously uses various get-acquainted strategies designed for maintaining the class's appetite for getting together again and learning more about one another. I think I'm leaning in the direction of thinking that perhaps we're just more interesting and engaging collectively than we are individually. Something like Lewis Thomas argued in his wonderful essay on the English Language, where he analogized the capacity of the English Language as a collective achievement to the capacity of termites to build complex underground structures. They can do so collectively but not individually, or even in small groups. There have to be 25 or so to actually become a collective 'master builder.' I sometimes think the same thing about some of the classes I teach. I ALWAYS think this way about the collective intelligence of the participants in our Writing Project Invitational Summer Institutes. You too?

jonathan said...

Hi Kelc,

Thanks very much for responding to my blog. I was just thinking last night about the ease with which both educators and students fall into hierarchical ways of thinking and acting. The occasion was watching the recently released film "Freedom Writers" (see their terrific website: www.freedomwriters. com) and meditating on how hard it is for teachers to actually believe in the capacity of "all people" to appreciate and value the subjects they teach, especially when these subjects, like literature, have a built in class bias, when they are "u" rather than "non-u" subjects, as the Brits like to put it. The English department chair in this film was presented quite unsympathetically and quite convincingly as she tried to explain to the new teacher, Erin Gruwell (based on the true story of a Wilson HS teacher in Long Beach ), that her low level ninth graders should not be allowed access to the school's copies of The Diary of Anne Frank. "They are all at 3rd and 4th grade reading levels," the dept chair argued. "And they'd just deface the books because that's how they treat all school property." What struck me about these responses were how realistic and reasonable they must seem to most beginning teachers, and how casually they become part of standard practice, part of the accepted school culture. What's difficult to understand for those who do not spend time in schools like Wilson High is how absolutely fiercely democratic a teacher's dedication has to be to resist the siren song of these arguments. And how difficult it is to retain the fierce passion needed to defend such an egalitarian outlook day after day and year after year. While I'm privileged to be working, through the Writing Project, with a number of teachers who could compare quite favorably to Erin Gruwell in their dedication and passion, I think it's important to remain sympathetic and compassionate to those who don't. Not least because I count myself, most of the time, in the latter category.

Jay said...

Hi, Jonathan -

How great to see another blog entry six-months after the Ash Street Inn. By the way, do loyal readers of "jonathan's edutalk" get a discount at the Ash Street Inn?

Anyway, your approach to teaching literature is more rigourous than Mickey Mouse (pun intended, of course.) Your memorable TKAM approach, (which I still fondly remember ten years later) was rigorous - we participants read, write, thought, discussed, interpreted, role played, and wrote again. That asked a lot more of me than a Disney movie.

There's a lot more to reading than watching the movie, and your approach demands a great deal of going back to the book and considering characters, not just main characters, more than once.

English teachers need to show the kind of rigorous teaching you demonstrate to improve the thinking (reading) of saved and damned alike.

- Jay

Ree said...

Wow! With all due respect, I'm certainly familiar enough with Luther's thought and writings, and with Protestant assumptions and contributions to society in general, to take serious issue with your interpretation of Luther!

I know this isn't a religious blog, but I hope you don't mind my focusing primarily on that portion of your post.

Luther wasn't some intellectual elitist, thinking one could "separate the sheep from the goats" according to who was and wasn't able to decode a text. Quite to the contrary, Luther's whole purpose was to make Scripture accessible to the common "plowboy" in order to free the Scriptures from what he saw as corrupt religious authorities who, he believed, were misrepresenting what Scripture taught and leading people astray.

I'm not sure what you're referring to when you say that he suggested that, if you couldn't understand what you read, you were meant to be damned, but based on his theology in general, I suspect it's a reference to the idea that the Holy Spirit must convict the heart of the reader (or hearer) of Scripture that he is absolutely unworthy of salvation based upon his own works, and that salvation is based solely on the merits of Jesus Christ.

In the context of the issue of literacy, isn't it generally understood that the Protestant Reformation was overwhelmingly responsible for the widespread popular literacy that followed on its heels? Sure, the pre-Reformation church used images, icons, and drama to teach Scripture to the illiterate masses, but I don't believe Luther took issue with that, in principle. (That, I believe, was more of a Calvinist objection, and that was based on their interpretation of the Second Commandment, and not on some elitist notions about intellectual worthiness.) Luther just wanted people to see for themselves what Scripture actually taught so that they wouldn't be misled. Sounds like a fairly egalitarian notion to me.

What say you to this alternate interpretation of Luther's effect on history?

As to the general inclination of literarily-inclined individuals to want to keep good literature confined to a special class, perhaps that just springs from the natural human inclination to want to create elite "inner circles" of mutual admiration societies to which we can belong and feel really, really good about ourselves (while trying to squelch the inner doubts that we're really frauds invading a society to which we don't really belong.)

jonathan said...

Hi Ree,

Thanks as well for your very thoughtful response to the Martin Luther introductory segment of my blog. As a person brought up in the very tradition you rightly wish to rescue from my seeming criticism (Congregationalist, in my own case) I also have great admiration for its egalitarian message. It's the unintended consequences of the Lutheran Revolution I'm referring to in my blog, however, rather than the religious and political motivations of Luther himself. To my mind, these unintended consequences have been quite compellingly described in Frank Kermode's The Genesis of Secrecy. What Kermode argues is that "reading" in the Protestant tradition became "reading the old testament as a prefigurement of the new." This meant that the whole "reading game" was about hidden meanings, and the juiciest plums went to those readers with the cleverest sense of what prefigured what. I think that the whole notion that literacy is connected to secrecy, whether one connects it specifically with the Lutheran Revolution or with the broader notion that literacy in western culture has been used as one means of keeping outsiders out and insiders in, has to be taken seriously if one is to understand, and perhaps empathize with, those "elective non-readers" I spoke about at the beginning of my workshop last Thursday night.

jonathan said...

Hi Jay,

Thanks so much for taking the time to respond to my blog entry on ML and WD as "teachers of reading."

I was watching the 1963 film version of TKAM once again two nights ago, since I was giving the workshop I describe at the end of my entry to my spring 07 methods students. What impressed me about the film is how many different "ways" it was telling or conveying the substance of the courtroom scene from that novel. Having watched this particular segment of the film at least two dozen times at this point, I was especially struck by the filmmaker's decisions on how long he would linger on different "shots" when the dialogue called for this lingering. After Mayella Ewell replies to Atticus's accusation "Has he ever beat you" with her defensive "my paw's never touched a hair on my head in his life," the camera pans over to show Bob Ewell sitting just to the right of an arrogant, toothpick-chewing William Windom as Mr. Gilmer the prosecutor. The body language of both--Bob Ewell as the sullen father who knows he's just been publicly humiliated; Mr Gilmer, with his left knee bent casually over the arm of his prosecutorial chair, knowing that in legal terms he's just dodged a bullet--tells far more about what is happening at this point in the narrative than do the words alone.

My point is that one can bring this level of response to what one sees with just as much rigor as to what one reads. I'm not saying it's likely to happen very often at the middle or high school levels, but I am saying that we need to open our English language arts classrooms to as wide a range of artful "tellings" as we can, and to be ready to learn from our students and from our own "re-seeings" just as much as we commonly do from our own re-readings. Now if they'd just come out with a smashing new film version of Jerry Spinelli's Wringer . . .

David Meuel said...

When I began to read this blog, I wondered just waht Martin Luther or Walt Disney had to do with a workshop on To Kill a Mockingbird. Now, I know. It is a fascinating group of parallels, Luther with Disney and both with the book. In recent years, Disney has been harshly criticized for a variety of things from his treatment of employees to the values portrayed in his films, to his political beliefs. When this kind of criticism occurs, it is more difficult for us looking back to give credit where credit is due--to appreciate an innovative thinker for making major positive contributions to the way our world is today. As well as shedding light on Martin Luther and To Kill a Mockingbird, this entry helped me to "re-appreciate" Walt Disney. Thanks for the thoughtful analysis!

Chuck Serface said...

Indeed, I was one of the "damned" who barely graduated high school. I was interested in what my teachers had to offer, but not in how they offered it. My senior-year British literature teacher would occupy a stool in front of the room and begin reading from a notebook she'd cribbed from the Venerable Bede or Lord Macaulay. Even as a verbal learner I found this method particularly "numbing" to say the least. How wonderful it felt when she interjected the rare film into the mix or shocked us with a participatory reading exercise! Not surprisingly, I did much better in college where professors allowed me more latitude in directing my own learning and insisted on discussion rather than straight lecturing. Thus began my assent from the lower circles. As a teacher-trainee, I wonder why the hell anyone would want to emulate Luther anyway? Perhaps because he or she cannot give up some need for total control in the classroom, or because he or she finds it more satisfying to "damn" rather than "save?" All hail the "New Protestantism" that works to save rather than damn!

Tia said...

I enjoyed this very much :]

Todd said...

Something about this is keeping me from organizing my response. I'm having trouble connecting all the different parts of the post. While reading, it makes sense from paragraph to paragraph. After I finish, though, I can't remember how you got from the beginning to the end and what the connection is between everything. Is your premise essentially that reading isn't, as you say, "the only game in town"? That Disney presents a method of communication that went against popular thought but proved effective? That teachers should be looking for other ways to give students what they want, yet still address standards/skill development? I'm adrift in the comparisons and I haven't even gotten to TKAM.

I've been wrestling with how to spit my ideas out in a cohesive comment for the last several weeks, hence the delay. Today, I give coherence the boot. Here's my stream-of-consciousness:

First off, I'm wary of a comparison between public education, religion, and the entertainment industry. Each has far different objectives. They can learn from each other, but we cannot get those goals mixed up. Religion seems a mix of entertainment and teaching (and perhaps a more compelling comparison because of that). If movies teach, it is merely the byproduct of entertaining. That's what movies are supposed to do. If I entertain as a teacher, it is merely the byproduct of teaching. That's what I've been hired to do.

If we can get our students to think like Luther (someone else shouldn't be telling you the meaning behind something, you need to find it yourself), we will make a lot of progress.

That placement you're talking about is happening again with CST scores: if a student scores at Below Basic or Far Below Basic, an elective is taken away the following year and that student will be enrolled in an English and/or math support class. The saved and the damned are still walking the earth.

"nurturing these talented individuals at the expense of those who were not 'meant' to be saved."

That, my friend, is where the problem rests. Whenever anything in public education is done at the expense of someone else, that's trouble. There is a way to nurture the high, middle, and low ends of the spectrum. Unfortunately, it might not be possible in a classroom of 30 students or by a single teacher. It may take lower numbers; it may take heterogeneous grouping; it may take more teachers at a time; it may take fewer classes enrolled in; it may take smaller schools; it may take specialty schools. There is a way to do it, but it's going to be a very hard push.

Currently, public education is everything to everyone. That, not to oversimplify an incredibly complex situation, is the reason public education is largely considered a failure in this country. And since the 1950s, we have increased the percentage of the public that we try to educate: more students are enrolled and fewer are excluded.

Kids pay attention to Disney for longer than 10 minutes because they aren't being taught anything, at least not in the traditional sense of student-teacher. Kids pay attention to cartoons because they carry neither heavy-handed instruction nor homework. The goal is only to entertain. There would certainly be a public outcry if classrooms moved to that kind of model.

I just listened to a bit of an interview with Neal Gabler, the author mentioned by scot in the first comment. Interestingly enough, Gabler mentioned that Walt Disney fell out of love with animation quickly; after "Bambi" (1942, only a few years - though several projects - after "Snow White"), Disney apparently moved on to focus on what would become Disneyland. What does that say about our jobs as teachers? Do we need to move from the theoretical (animation) to the real (amusement park) just as quickly?

There's something to be said for Disney's work in proving that animated feature films could work, but there's also something to be said for his quick falling out there in favor of a method of communication that he could constantly work to improve. Disneyland was never finished, so it could always be better. An animation is done when it's put to film. How can we give students that chance, too? Maybe teachers don't need to think like him, but work to allow their students the chance to think like Disney. What if every project a student completed could be seen as Disney would have seen it, a never-ending quest for perfection? What if there was always a way to improve it?

jonathan said...

[ed note: here's a response from one of my methods students, Lilli Schmidbauer, reflecting on her experience of taking the workshop described at the conclusion of my blog entry]

Hi Professor Lovell,

Thank you so much for the thoughtful and thorough presentation on Thursday evening. As a person who is not yet in the classroom (or at least not yet in front of the classroom) I have to admit that I have a certain amount of trepidation regarding how to bring the novels we will read alive for my class. Your workshop was an excellent example of how to do so in a truly engaging way. I appreciate you taking the time to actually teach us as a class, rather than simply explaining how it could be done. This "modeling" technique is immensely helpful as a student who will become a teacher, as I could see how students might react to the different activities from my own feelings about them. I enjoyed the diversity of activities as I felt as if there was something for each type of learner, which is crucial in an English classroom. I also liked that each group member could contribute regardless of their level as either a critical thinker or perhaps lending their artistic or presentation skills. I feel that this is incredibly helpful for ELL's as well as special education students and will help bolster their confidence as they participate in activities such as these. My character was Mayella Ewell and I felt that the group discussion regarding the further exploration of our character exhibited through symbols, and then actually having to role-play the character as I was questioned by classmates, brought me to a deeper level of understanding of Mayella.

The variety of activities was varied, yet none felt redundant. Overall it was a solid sequence of events that the students would enjoy, become engaged with, and most importantly learn something from. I felt that the activities put each student on a level playing field due to different learning styles and abilities.

I enjoyed reading your perspective in your blog very much. One portion that particularly stayed with me was the end of the third paragraph, where you described students who were placed in either "higher" or "lower" English classes as saved or damned. I agree with this analysis and I struggle with this system as I do feel that the students who are placed in the "lower" classes are truly damned; they may struggle valiantly but only a small portion will overcome that early typecasting throughout the rest of their education. I worry that by separating them so early and with such finality, that we are not only sending them a message that they are mediocre, for whatever reason, but also sending them down a path of life that they may not deviate from, even if they have the ability to do so.

Thank you for your insights, as always.

Lilli Schmidbauer

jonathan said...

[and here is a response from another student: Tia Han]

Hi Professor Lovell,

You succeeded last Thursday in making me feel like a high school student again.

The TKAM Workshop was rich, incredibly engaging, & FUN. I liked the way the entire workshop was organized, especially how the workshop (interactive as it was) began & ended with quiet, individual writing. All of the different activities introduced were unique & effective in their own ways, but I enjoyed the visual symbol posters the most (& not just because we were given snacks to enjoy during the presentations!).

The visual symbol poster groups were extremely effective in focusing my various observations & analyses of Mayella's character into one, all-encompassing symbol for her. Finding a personal connection with her took a little more thought, but once the connection was made, my understanding of her character was enhanced & solidified in my memory. Hearing other groups present gave me a deeper understanding of the other characters as well. What a great idea this was. I hope to use this idea, or an adaptation of it, in my own English classes in the future!

I'm not sure if I would show the TKAM movie until after the students have finished reading the book & have completed their own character analyses. This is just because I personally find it disappointing to see another's interpretation of literary characters in movie format & thereafter having that interpretation etched & stamped in my own interpretation. I find it more interesting to compare my interpretation with another's after I've finished my own first.

Here is the character analysis of Mayella Ewell I wrote at the beginning of the workshop (compare it with the one written after the workshop):

Mayella Ewell seems to be a woman of many mixed emotions & experiences. This level of inner chaos & bewilderment appears to manifest itself even in the description of her "home" - it is cluttered, unclean, & described as a possible "playhouse of an insane child." Her mixed emotions & inner turmoil also rise to the surface while she is being cross-examined by Atticus Finch. She is conflicted by feelings of both "terror & fury". These are vividly displayed on her face & in her speech. She seems to be distrusting & unaccustomed to respectful speech. Yet, she still tenderly cares for her red geraniums.

After the workshop:

Mayella's character is volatile & extremely conflicted. Her home & her red geraniums appear to symbolize her to a degree. Her home stands rather aloof from the rest of the community. Though it, physically-speaking, is not completely neglected, it is yet a place of refuse. Living within with her is her abrasive father & seven chaotic children. Likewise, her geraniums are also individually isolated in their "slop jars" - jars used for human refuse. Mayella, too, possesses an exterior (circumstantially, relationally, & physically) that is disheveled & isolated. Within her is much conflict & a measure of chaos, but there is also a heart seeking to preserve beauty & find love.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed this blog very much. It gave me a better understanding of why students may be the way they are when it comes to literature. The comparison between Luther and Disney is an interesting one but an intriguing one at that. Dr. Lovell's explanation of how the two correlate to one another was fascinating and made sense. The workshop was a great idea in incorporating all different types of learners with one another. I highly believe that it is a matter of knowing in advance what might interest and engage students, then incorporating these elements systematically and consistently into verbal and visual versions of the story. --Adrienne Herbst

jonathan said...

[ed. note: this is from "Diana who dislikes dinosaurs," another of the students in my English Methods class]

Hi Dr. Lovell,

Wow! I've never read To Kill a Mockingbird before, but yesterday's workshop made me want to go and read it right away! The pre-reading activities we simulated, personally, made me anticipate what was going to happen next in the story (Is Tom guilty or not??). From those few exercises, I feel like I understand the characters (Dill, Tom, and Mayella), even though I've never read the book. Particularly, I enjoyed the role playing activity because it allowed us to "get into the heads," so to speak, of the various characters, which is a great way to establish a sense of anticipation. I'm eager to find out what happens next!

During the first writing activity, I assumed that Dill was just an idealistic daydreamer. Without having any background knowledge about the novel, I missed a lot of information from the excerpts. I think this is also due to the fact that we had to write a character analysis in five minutes! I felt extremely rushed and flustered because I could only think about the time constraint. Afterwards, I came to realize that Dill is similar to Dahl's Matilda in that he is kind of an outsider who is "wise beyond his years." After working with my group to analyze our character, I arrived at a greater understanding regarding Dill's personality. It was really helpful to be able to "talk it out" with my group members. It's also nice to receive input from others because they pointed out a lot of the things I missed! Like I said earlier, the role playing exercise helped me gain a greater understanding of Dill because I had to put myself in his shoes in order to answer the questions. At the end of the workshop, I walked away with a greater understanding of the three characters we examined.

Thanks for the great lesson!

Have a great weekend,
Diana who dislikes dinosaurs

jonathan said...

[ed note: Holly is another student from my methods class; she arrived half-way through my workshop so I found her response particualrly interesting]

Dr. Lovell,

I'm going to guess that I had a somewhat unique experience in your
workshop since I showed up halfway through. I arrived in the midst of the
"Gallery Walk," and despite my frazzled state of mind, was immediately engaged.
I have read half of TKAM (it's a long story, but I WILL finish it) and I have
seen the movie a few years ago (Atticus was the best role Gregory Peck ever
played, in my opinion...). While I was familiar with the story, most of my
memory centered around Atticus and Scout, so I found myself having to "remember"
the characters of Dill, Mayella, and Tom through the symbols and drawings as my
classmates presented them. Right away, I was aware that everyone was already
engaged in a deep understanding of these secondary characters that I had nearly
forgotten, and this was only after the relatively short amount of class-time
that had transpired. I had only been in the classroom for five minutes, and I
was already learning something new!

I was still a bit in the dark though as we entered the role-playing
exercise, but I found it to be a great exercise anyway for two reasons. 1) Since
I was in the "doubled" group, I had another person to play my character,
"Mayella." We took your suggestion of splitting the "night" and "day"
personalities (I took the night). This allowed me to give responses to questions
that I felt I could answer, while having a partner that could answer when I
couldn't. My partner's responses also helped me gauge my own. 2) I had a GREAT
group that really took the idea of role playing seriously. Most of the time they
asked their questions in character, which helped me learn more about my
character's relationship to theirs. I would have to say that the role-playing
exercise was my favorite, even though I was nervous because I didn't have all
the information that everyone else had.

I had a mixed response to the overhead with the narrator. Listening to the
audio helped me slow down and feel the emotion more. It also helped me really
notice the descriptions, such as Mayella's yard, whereas I often skim through
description when I read to myself. However, my mind tends to easily wander
sometimes when I am listening to the audio, and I stop following the text, so it
is hard for me to reference back when I want to discuss something. Overall, I
think using the audio is a great enhancement to my perception of the text.

Even though I missed the beginning of your workshop, I'll give my two
cents about some of what I have read from other people. It seems the quick
character analysis stressed some people out. In-class quick writes tend to scare
me too, and I don't do well UNLESS I am told that I won't have to turn it in. It
sounded like it was hard for people since there weren't clear guidelines. I
think in those situations doing a quick free-write that you know is for your
eyes only is a great way to get the juices flowing. Otherwise, I think it is
too soon and too short of a time to do any serious writing. In such a case, I
would spend most of my time trying to come up with a Great Idea, and not write
at all.
I also agree with a lot of people who said they would use the film clip
after students had finished the whole book. I think sometimes a film can "bias"
you to focus on certain aspects and overlook others. On the other hand, showing
a clip early on can help some less engaged students put a face to the names and
bring things to life in a way that might help them be more enthusiastic about
reading. Plus, when they do read that scene, you can easily bring up discussion
on what is different between the text and the film and why the director filmed
it the way he did.

I'm sincerely sad I missed the opening exercises. That's how great the
second half of your presentation was; despite how exhausted I was, I actually
wished I had been there for all of it!

Thanks for your thorough and outright FUN workshop! It's an honor to be in such
a class.

Holly Stokes

LynnMmmm said...

Dear Dr.L, I enjoyed reading about the illustrious historical figures, and how their activities have contributed in some part to our ability as children and adults to decipher information in this complicated process we call reading. What remains foremost in my mind is the feeling I had as a young child when I was read to by my family members. My imagination was my tool for entering that zone of "no time" the narrative created. I believe the job of a teacher is to inflame the imagination so that students who have never experienced the "no time" zone can access this important place. LynnMmmm

Jean said...

Dr. Lovell,
First of all, I just wanted to say that was one of the most interesting presentations I’ve seen. It utilized all the different methods of effective teaching I’ve been learning lately: quick writes, graphic organizers, group work, visuals and more. I’ve been wondering how to incorporate all of those in a lesson without making the lesson too hectic and unfocused, and you did such a wonderful job demonstrating it. Personally, I’ve never finished reading To Kill a Mockingbird because I had thought it was boring. Granted, it was years ago in my freshmen year of high school, but I never had the motivation or curiosity of finish the book, until this Thursday. Reading the short excerpts sparked my curiosity to know more about the characters and the background of this book. Although I’m not a big fan of quick writes, it helped me actually stop and think about the character. I also loved how there were different ways of seeing the same text, reading it, watching it, and hearing it. I had a lot of fun doing the group work as well. - Jean Kim

jody johnson said...

Hi, Dr. Lovell,

I'm from the Sputnik generation as well, although I had never before considered the correlation between the space race and the evolution of teaching practices. Thinking back on my high school classes, I realize that all my teachers taught in pretty much the same manner: they pontificated, the students listened and absorbed (or didn't) and then regurgitated what they had "learned" for the test. In truth, though, I loved being one of the "saved" English students in high school, because here was a place that I could shine. I wasn't concerned that there were a large number of students who were not "good" at English. I know exactly how they felt, though- they felt like I did, sitting miserably in the back of my math and science classes, hoping to remain unnoticed.

Nothing in the education program at Arizona State suggested that methodology should and could be more creative and more successful. When I stumbled upon the idea of group work in my first year of teaching, I was quickly corralled back into the fold of "normal" teaching. As a first year teacher, my classes were monitored over the intercom by the principal, and the hubbub coming from my classroom was seen as a lack of control over my students. Likewise, when I tried to use a song by Joan Baez in my poetry unit, I was told that this was inappropriate, as she was a left-wing anti-war hippie married to a draft dodger. So much for creativity and tolerance. From this wonderful lesson of yours, as well as those taught in my other classes and SJAWP seminars, I'm so relieved and encouraged to see that not only is the teaching of students improving, but the teaching of teachers is exponentially better.

-Jody Johnson, F07 Methodonian

shihfaphoto said...

Dear Dr. Lovell,

I am currently teaching in a high school that features To Kill a Mockingbird in its curriculum. As a teacher in the classroom I definitely see this divide manifests itself in my students. During class discussions there are students who answer immediately to almost every questions, and then, there are students who choose to stay quiet. For some students the issue is shyness, while for other students the issue is that they are still trying to figure out the content of the reading material. As a teacher, I have often wondered how to catch these students up with the rest of the class. In my classroom, I think this divide manifests itself because I respond to the excitement that advanced students have on the topic. I have to constantly remind myself to check for understanding around the classroom, but sometimes I get excited by the discussion and do not check for understanding adequately. I have personally also been part of this divide in a college classroom. Unfortunately, unlike you, I was the student who stressed over the understanding of my assigned readings. From my experience, I think that the college classroom might actually enhance the divide because many of my professors would walk into the classroom and lecture instead of helping the students to understand the material.

After watching the workshop by you, I definitely see how many of the activities that you modeled can help a student who is struggling with the content. The cumulative graphic organizer definitely makes a very important scene in To Kill a Mockingbird accessible to students.