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Making a Change

By Toni Poling 

I like routine, both in and out of the classroom.  I believe that structure and routine provide stability and consistency for students.  I believe that when students know exactly what is expected of them they are more likely to meet (or exceed) those expectations.

With that said, I also believe that making a change can have positive implications in the classroom!  All of us can be lulled into a sense of complacency when we only do what we’ve always done.  Typically, when teaching a novel, my students are given discussion questions to answer as they read and their responses are used to fuel our discussions in class.  While I do feel that this is a very effective method of providing guidance for independent reading, students can sometimes become uninspired in their answering of these questions.

Over winter break, I began sketching out plans for the spring semester, I wanted to take a different approach to the novels we would be studying.  A few years ago, our English PLC had completed a book study on Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide.  I got the book back out and read it over break.  In his book, Gallagher discusses the “overteaching” that can occur that can sometimes kill a student’s love of reading.  Instead, he proposed a more focused approach, encouraging close reading and focused study of the work’s theme(s). I decided to adapt some of his methods to my AP Literature’s study of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.

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Upon returning from break, I distributed to my students a copy of “Good Readers and Good Writers” by Vladimir Nabokov.  This is an essay with which my students have some familiarity given that we’ve read it at least two times before.  In his essay, Nabokov expresses his thoughts on what makes a good reader and a good writer.  Though my students have read the essay before, I felt it was important for us to be reminded of the purpose of this course and the objectives we are all setting out to accomplish.  After closely reading the essay, my students worked in collaborative groups to create a list of characteristics shared by good readers. Below is a sampling of what they came up with:

  1. Good readers are re-readers.
  2. Good readers read with a dictionary.
  3. Good readers massage and fondle details.
  4. Good readers read the text without inserting themselves.

Every group listed re-reading as a characteristic of a good reader, yet when asked if they re-read almost every student responded in the negative!

The next day, armed with some notes on the social, historical, and biographical context for the novella, we started The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  As it has been one of my goals this year to read aloud to my students, I began my introduction by reading the first chapter aloud, modeling for my students how I decode vocabulary through context clues and how I make note of important details.  I sent the students home that day with a copy of the text and a reading calendar, but with no study guide or discussion questions.

At the start of the next class period, I provided my students with their final essay question: Discuss Stevenson’s use of duality in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and apply this idea of duality to an aspect of the modern world.  Students copied down the question in their notebooks.  I explained that our discussion of the text would center primarily around this idea of duality.  In the spirit of Gallagher’s Readicide, I structured our first close reading exercise just as he had laid out in his book.  I provided my students a copy of the first paragraph of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  They were instructed to work in cooperative groups to identify, through close reading, at least nine instances of opposites in the first paragraph.

After doing so, I asked the groups to answer the following questions: (1) What is duality? and (2) What is the duality of man?

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After finishing the task, we reviewed the nine instances of opposites in the first chapter and discussed student responses to the questions.  At first, this was challenging for students.  They were struggling with working only with one small passage of the text instead of the entire chapter, but they were amazed at how much they could find in only one paragraph.

The following day I again provided students with passages for close reading and focus questions.  The previous day, the students defined the term duality and the began a simplistic discussion of the duality of man; now the focus is on “good” and “evil” and Stevenson’s portrayal of that duality.

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In an AP course, I’m used to having sophisticated discussions with my students, but the discussion that stemmed from this close reading passage and the focus questions was, beyond a doubt, the best discussion we’ve had all year!  My students were raising questions and making salient points that far exceeded my expectations.  When I walked over to refocus one group having a side conversation, I found they were passionately discussing one of the focus questions.  Students who aren’t in my class stopped me in the hallway on their way to lunch to tell me their thoughts on duality and “good” and “evil” because they’re friends with one of my students and had found the topic interesting.  Isn’t that a teacher’s dream?

We are still working through this method to finish the novella (we should finish next week) and I can’t wait to formally assess their learning; I’m anticipating some of the best essays I’ve read all year!

Though I can’t say that I would use this method for every novel I teach, there is a lot to be said for the students’ enthusiasm and the depth and quality of the discussions taking place.  I think some of my students will likely pinpoint this novella as their favorite text thus far, but in all honesty that’s not the purpose.  My purpose has been to get them reading and thinking; so far, so good.

WVCTE is wondering…
How do you foster a love of reading with your students while maintaining the integrity of the curriculum?  

-Toni 🙂

Toni M. Poling is a National Board Certified Teacher at Fairmont Senior High School in Marion County where she teaches AP English Language and AP English Literature to juniors and seniors.  Toni is currently serving as the 2017 WV Teacher of the Year.

Gallagher, Kelly, and Richard L. Allington. “Remember the Value Found in Second-Draft (and Third-Draft) Reading.” Readicide: How Schools Are Killing Reading and What You Can Do about It. Portland, Me.: Stenhouse, 2009. N. pag. Print.

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