Learning to Talk the Talk

By Toni Poling

My students come to me as juniors in AP English Language and I walk with them through the complex and fascinating vocabulary that is the study of rhetoric.  Together we tackle non-fiction pieces on climate change, school choice, social justice, basic human rights, and the documents that form the foundation of our country.  My students willingly and enthusiastically engage with me and share their thoughts.  They learn to form and write well-reasoned and well-researched arguments.  They transform in front of my eyes and become well-informed citizens ready to discuss politics and the criminal justice system with anyone who will say to them, “How’s it going?”  The transformation that often occurs with these juniors is one that can get me through my roughest days in the classroom; it’s a reminder of why I came to teaching in the first place.

The truth is, though, that I became their AP Language teacher through an unforeseen set of circumstances.  I originally planned to step up and teach the course for a year to help my department our of a scheduling issue, but somewhere in the midst of teaching and learning with that first group of kids, I fell in love with the course and I’ve kept it.  Now, I am one of the lucky teachers who gets to ‘loop’ with my kids.  After seeing them awaken in AP English Language, I get those same students back the following year as seniors in my AP English Literature course and I get to share my first passion with them: literary fiction.

Like most teachers, I spend a healthy portion of my summer planning my courses.  I research updated articles and texts on current events and hot topics for my AP English Language course and I devour works of fiction and build curricula for my AP English Literature course.  I’ve traveled with students across Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and we’ve written about Edna Pontellier’s outward conformity in The Awakening.  I’m constantly devising new ways to bring independent student-choice reading into my classroom and I’ve finally gathered a healthy file of mentor texts to help my students see what good writing is.  Everything should be coming together, but this year I realized that something just isn’t.

This time of year, as we’re spanning the short weeks between holiday breaks, when we’ve wrapped up with Hamlet and wrestled with the question of “To be or not to be,” is when I like to give my students a novella, a shorter work that challenges them and engages their minds.  For me, as we’re approaching the Christmas holiday, there’s no better choice than Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw.  The Victorian language and lengthy syntax challenge my students while the thought of the ghosts (and whether the governess truly sees them) keeps them reading.  While my focus up to this point in the year has been heavily on writing, this novella and its inherent ambiguity scream for discussion!  And herein lies the problem.  I have modelled writing for my students; I have provided them with engaging and meaningful mentor texts; I have literally watched them grow as writers.  But in all of that, when have I taught them to talk about literature?  When have they been given the opportunity to hear impassioned experts talk through a challenging text?

Most days, as the teacher, I am the expert in the room.  But the truth is that I do not want to create classrooms full of Toni Poling clones!  I don’t want students to simply regurgitate my thoughts on literature back to me; I want them to be independent thinkers!  I want them to form their own opinions about literature and be able to articulate them as clearly as they can articulate an argument on those social justice issues they engage with so willingly in AP Language.  With all of this in mind, my search began for a new kind of mentor text, one my students can hear.  Podcasts.

It’s no secret that I love The New Yorker and I value the magazine as a teaching tool.  For years I have used book reviews, contemporary poetry, and original works of shorter fiction in my classroom and I believe my students are the better for it!  Which is why, in my search for an audible mentor text, I was thrilled to learn that The New Yorker has podcasts as well!  I immediately downloaded all of the episodes I could and began listening.  It wasn’t long before I saw the potential.

The New Yorker: Poetry podcast features readings and conversations with the magazine’s poetry editor, Paul Muldoon.  In these mostly short episodes (each is around 25 minutes), a poet who has been published in the magazine, reads the work of another poet and one of his or her own poems.  Then the magic happens…the writer and Paul Muldoon discuss the works!  For example, in one episode Joyce Carol Oates reads John Updike’s “A Lightened Life,” and her own poem, “This is the Season.”  Oates and Muldoon discuss the meaning of the poems, the poets’ influences, and the process of creating such powerful works.  There is a focus on syntax and looking through a biographical lens.  Immediately after listening to that episode, I knew my students needed to hear this.  I printed out the poems for them, I turned on the podcast, and I watched.  I watched them start off bored and unsure; I watched them reach for pencils and begin to make marks on their handouts; I watched as they looked to me with a question in mind, then scribble furiously on their handouts; I watched them learn to talk the talk.

The New Yorker: Fiction podcast is very similar, but features a monthly conversation with the magazine’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman.  Since these episodes are longer (around 50 minutes), I wanted to start my students off with a piece they knew already, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”  I gave them a printout of the story, I turned on the podcast and I observed as the same phenomena occurred again.

After each podcast, I let the class debrief what they had heard and I answered any lingering questions, but I didn’t assign any additional work.  After all, my objective was for them to hear powerful literary discussion and then see if they could emulate it.

In our first discussion on The Turn of the Screw following the introduction of the podcasts into my classroom the difference was immediate!  The first thing I noticed was that my students had altered their vocabulary; they were using literary terms to discuss what they were reading and interpreting, not just telling me what they “liked” about the reading.  They were questioning the motivation of the characters.  They were challenging they author’s intent.  We made a list on the board of their questions and insights as we reached the mid-way point of the novella and I couldn’t fit it all on the whiteboard!  More than once I found myself saying, “I’m not sure.  I’ve never looked at that passage from that angle.  What page did you say you read that?”  My students and I were engaging in a true academic discussion and I did not feel like the only expert in the room.


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