Working with Challenging Texts

Welcome back from your summer vacation! I hope yours was as relaxing and rejuvenating as mine was.

This semester, I’m teaching Literacy Studies for the first time in 3 years. I love teaching this class and was excited to have the opportunity to teach it again. One of the things I love about it is that we delve into some really challenging texts. You may wonder why I see this as a good thing.

The students in this class are preparing to be English teachers, which means they usually come to the class with confidence about their reading ability. Encountering a new type of text (research-based and theoretical), they feel what some of their students will feel about reading–it can be difficult!

So in the class, we highlight reading comprehension practices, and I model how to help their future students process text.

Out of class, I’ve asked them to do Double Entry Journals in the past–but this semester, my friend Jackie encouraged me to try out other techniques like writing a “gist” statement at the top of each page and using talmudic pairing. This has opened up homework assignments so that I can have my students do other kinds of writing and thinking. So far, that’s been a good thing.

Today, my students read an article by Brian Street on the “New Literacy Studies.” At the beginning of class, I asked them how they did with the text–they told me it was hard going. I presented two options–we could work with the text as groups or I could do a more lecture-based approach. They chose the lecture, something I do very, very rarely in class. I tried to give context and connect the article with an introductory essay we had read last week by Donna Alvermann. Then, I moved to some excerpted passages from Street–I think seeing a passage in isolation allows students to focus. I also tried to do the connective work, summarizing and contextualizing as we moved through the essay. What tends to happen is that students start wanting to share their thinking, turning the “lecture” into something much more interactive.

I had also prepared the students for this topic by asking them to do a literacy lifeline and reflection for class today. As we discussed the Street article, I could see them start thinking about how it had direct relevance to their own experiences with literacy. For the last activity in class, I asked them to share their lifeline and invited them to make the Street connections more explicit, if they wanted. I heard some of that happening as I circulated around class.

By the end of class, I could see that students were feeling more comfortable with the text–and I also felt they are prepared for the essay they’ll read next, James Gee on discourse communities.


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