Texts not Terms

This conversation happens frequently in my classroom; I’m guessing it happens in your classrooms as well. 

Student: “What do you want us to annotate the text for?”

Teacher: “Meaning.”

Student: “Yes, but should we mark similes, personification, themes, or what exactly?”

Teacher: “Sure – if you think they’re important and add to the meaning, mark it.”

Student: “Ughhhh.”

And so it goes. (I just finished Slaughterhouse Five; humor me).

I had the privilege of attending NCTE last weekend, and one of the best sessions was the Texts not Terms sessions for AP Lit teachers lead by the AP Literature Committee (Brandon Abdon, Les Burns, Minaz Jooma, and Brian Sztabnik).  While the presentation will be made available later by College Board, I wanted to give my takeaways from the session which completely resonates with my philosophy of teaching.  

Brian Sztabnik asked teachers to read and interact with the poem “Fire and Ice” by Frost. After a few minutes, teachers shared observations, questions, and conclusions in a large group discussion. Observations focused on big picture ideas such as structure and theme while others focused on small details like word choice. Brian teaches students to think about the following questions:

What happens?

How does it happen?

Why is it important?

Focusing on these questions provides a simple framework for students to discover meaning in any text. Once this framework is established through several classes of reading and unpacking poems like we did in the session, students then have the tools and confidence to practice with texts individually thus preparing them for the exam and more importantly life-long learning.

Minaz Jooma did a similar activity with the poem “The Fly” by Shapiro. Minaz had a reader read the first two stanzas of the poem then asked us to interact with those stanzas. After a discussion of the first two stanzas, we worked through the third and fourth stanza then the fifth and sixth using the same method. Minaz divides analysis into three sections:

Preliminary Reading Strategies: Reviewing what students know and using it

Delving More Deeply into the Text: Identifying reader sympathy, tone of speaker, and revisiting   reader sympathy

Synthesizing for Meaning: Considering the poet’s theme or argument and approaches to writing

I especially love that Minaz encourages students to work from the language of the text outward rather than using the terms as a means of looking inward.

This session highlights a paradigm shift occurring in education. No longer is the teacher simply a provider of information and the student a consumer; teachers should instruct students how to make meaning of content but can also be a learner alongside the student.  Far too often teachers get caught in the trap of teaching terms in a text rather than teaching and reinforcing skills which can help students discover meaning on their own. In doing so we deprive students the opportunity to think critically and reduce their reading experiences to a scavenger hunt for terms or a game of Battleship as described by Brandon Abdon. (Simile – there it is – boom). Students should not dismiss figurative language but rather consider the purpose of it instead of just identification. 

Having a background in psychology, I often think of gestaltism and how that theory can be applied to literature: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  Students are often taught to read by marking certain things then adding these things together to understand a text, and while these things can be beneficial for unpacking meaning, the meaning of a text cannot be reduced to a formula to solve for meaning. Meaning is so much more.

What is the framework your students use to make meaning of a text? 

One thought on “Texts not Terms

  1. Excellent offering, Brian. It would have been great to be there. Instead of having students memorize terms, my mantra for them is “It’s the meaning, Stupid!” based on the similar mantra from the Clinton Administration (“It’s the economy…”). I tell my students to only use the terms in a dependent clause and have the independent clause provide text analysis. Example: When Nick Bottom’s alliterative line “He bravely broached his bolling bloody breast is accompanied by overacting, the effect is to heighten the ludicrous and comic effect of what is presumably tragic content.

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