Thinking About Authentic Literacy…

Authentic literacy is defined as “text-based discussion, dialogue, and argument” and provides the focus of any study of literature in which my students participate (National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, 2003, p. 65).

When I taught high school English classes, I loved exploring literature with my students as we read, wrote, discussed, wrote, read, discussed, and well, you get the idea. In fact, I cannot imagine reading a novel such as William Golding’s (1954) Lord of the Flies using the approach of my high school teachers thirty-five years ago, which was the routine of read, discuss, and write, the end. Reading and writing, with discussion, are so interwoven that they happened simultaneously, and even spontaneously, in my classroom. Using Lord of the Flies as my core text, for example, my students found themselves journaling from the point of view of one of the characters, explaining the irony of characters’ words, and writing from the point of view of the philosopher Hobbes about the novel’s themes in a response to Hobbes of Calvin and Hobbes. These activities lead us through the course of knowledge and comprehension, application and analysis, and synthesis and evaluation (Benjamin, 1999, p. 10).

When reading a novel, teachers desire that students understand the sequence of events, the setting, the conflicts, and the characters. According to Benjamin (1999) this is level one thinking and includes recall of facts, summarizing, retelling, and asking “what?” (p. 10). To achieve this purpose with Lord of the Flies, after we read the first two chapters, I asked students to choose one of the characters to be for the rest of our reading. Each day, students wrote a journal entry from their chosen character’s point of view, sharing what happened to them or what they observed or what they thought as that character during the day’s portion of reading (we did something similar with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar because the activity so succeeded in engaging the students with the text). The journal writing required students to consider the text and explain it in their own words. As students wrote, I moved around the room, reading over their shoulders, and positively commenting on interesting entries. I also asked students to share their entries with their group members (my students always sat in base groups) and to discuss the text from the various viewpoints represented. This provided me with a quick means of assessing students’ comprehension and enabled me to clarify or answer questions as needed. As students read the novel and wrote their journal entries, they “made knowledge their own” as they “struggled with the details, wrestled with the facts, and reworked raw information and dimly understood concepts into language they could communicate to someone else” (National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, 2003, p. 9).

Furthering the process of making knowledge meaningful and providing my students opportunity to deepen that knowledge through application, I asked them to consider the words of characters and discuss the implied meanings. For example, on a test, I asked students to write a paragraph explaining why the following words spoken by Jack are ironic: “I agree with Ralph. We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages” (Golding, 1954, p. 42). This lead students into higher level thinking as they analyzed the quote, considered the use of irony, and then related the two. The prompt clearly framed the task by providing students with the needed guidelines of length, focus, task, detail, language, tone, and terminology. In this way, students could show what they knew, and I could assess their understanding as they gave examples, analyzed and defended, and engaged in literate thinking.

The writing activities that I enjoy most are those moving students into even higher level thinking, synthesis and evaluation. Often I asked my students to interact with additional related texts through discussion and writing. For example, we read the words of philosopher Thomas Hobbes who wrote that the “natural condition of mankind, a state of violence, insecurity and constant threat” and then discussed how Hobbes’ view related to Golding’s view as conveyed in the novel. After discussion, I gave the students a Calvin and Hobbes comic, in which the young boy, Calvin, asks the tiger, Hobbes:

“Do you think human nature is good or evil? I mean, do you think people are basically good, with a few bad tendencies, or basically bad, with a few good tendencies? Or, as a third possibility, do you think people are just crazy and who knows why they do anything?” (Watterson, 1988, p. 71)

The prompt with the comic states:

  • After discussing the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, write an answer to Calvin from Thomas Hobbes’ point of view.
  • Your answer must show an understanding of the key points discussed, must be written in 1st person as if you are Thomas Hobbes, and must be at least one paragraph in length.

This writing task scaffolded students’ thinking by developing complex activities and by asking questions that required that the students look more deeply and more critically at the content of lessons. As my students analyzed the philosophy of Hobbes and applied it to the question in the prompt, they also explored the relationship of those ideas to the text of Lord of the Flies, and “exercised the most relevant intellectual capacities–the ability to detect patterns of meaning and to weigh words and evidence for specific purposes” (National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges, 2003, p. 61). This prepared them for a culminating writing task of an essay in which they agreed or disagreed with Golding’s view of human nature.

Currently, I am not teaching high school English, but as I reflect on these activities that I have used in previous years, I find myself wishing to return to that teaching role. I love hearing my students interpret the text from the view of a character; I enjoy the AhHa! moment when students identify later uses of irony themselves; and I enjoy modeling how to write an essay agreeing with or disagreeing with Golding’s and Hobbes’ view of mankind. Too often, instruction in English classes “focuses on content or skills rather than on the process of learning” as “teachers concentrate on covering the required information;” I much prefer integrating reading, discussion, and writing and helping my students “internalize the methods and strategies for accomplishing tasks” and enjoying literature (Langer, Close, Angelis, & Preller, 2000, p. 10).

References

Benjamin, A. (1999). Framing the task: Be careful what you ask for . . . you just might get it. In Writing in the content areas (pp. 3–26). Larchmont, NY: Eye on Education.

Golding, W. (1954). Lord of the Flies. UK: Faber and Faber.

Hobbes, Thomas (1994 [1651/1668]) Leviathan, ed Edwin Curley. IN: Hackett

Langer, J. A. (with Close, E., Angelis, J., & Preller, P.) (2000). Guidelines for teaching middle and high school students to read and write well: Six features of effective instruction. Albany, NY: National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement.

Langer, J. A. (2004). Developing the literate mind. http://cela.albany.edu/researcher/langer/IRA_Develop.pdf

National Commission on Writing in America’s Schools and Colleges. (2003). The neglected R: The need for a writing revolution.  http://www.writingcommission.org/prod_downloads/writingcom/neglectedr.pdf

Sanchez, S. (2001). Using journals for a variety of assessments. In C. R. Duke & R. Sanchez (Eds.), Assessing writing across the curriculum (pp. 109–118). Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Watterson, S. (1988). Something under the bed is drooling. NY: Andrews and McMeel.

 

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