(We met teacher Diana Senechal when she took the train down from NYC to attend our February panel on 21st century skills. She’s concerned about forces that are reducing students’ contact with high quality content, including fine literature. We’re thrilled that Diana has agreed to serve as a guest contributor to Common Core’s blog.)
I teach literature and theatre at an elementary school in the East New York neighborhood of Brooklyn. One late afternoon in January, my principal called me into her office. “I have an idea for you,” she said. “I would like you to run two lunchtime literature clubs, just for girls in the fourth and fifth grades. I want them to read literature and really dig into it.”
I eagerly accepted. Literature is my field and lifelong love. At age five I could be heard howling late at night over the funny parts of Winnie-the-Pooh; at age nine I was reading Oscar Wilde’s plays and acting out all the parts. In high school I had wonderful English teachers who introduced me to some of my favorite authors, including Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, and T.S. Eliot. In college and graduate school I fell in love with the work of Nikolai Gogol and ended up writing my dissertation about him. I have translated poetry from the Lithuanian and read literature in a number of languages. Teaching literature would be natural for me, but literature is not taught much now.
It is somewhat unusual for children in New York City public schools to read literature together in class. Under Balanced Literacy (the mandated reading program), the lesson focuses not on specific books but on strategies. A teacher might give a short lesson on “making predictions.” Then the students work in groups, making predictions about the books they are reading.
This approach perplexes me. How could a strategy be as rich or memorable as a book itself? It is through delving into books that we learn how to read them; and when we read challenging books in school, together, with a good teacher, we come to understand it in new ways. We learn to take in the author’s language; to heed details and their relation to the overall meaning; to sense subtle contradictions and ironies; and to enjoy the rhythms and sounds. Each work has its own internal laws; each must be approached on its own terms. I could not wait to begin.
I went down to the cafeteria during lunch to announce the clubs and sign up a few interested students. Suddenly girls were crowding around me asking if they could join. I drew up a list and a long waiting list. The newly formed clubs met that week; I had each group choose a book out of several options I gave them. The fourth graders chose A Little Princess; the fifth graders chose A Wrinkle in Time . (I found, upon reading A Wrinkle in Time this time around, that it was good but not great; I will not offer it next time.)
We began meeting once a week, during their lunch period. I prepared and distributed questions and vocabulary a week in advance, in order to guide discussion; and discussion never sagged. In all our meetings, the time has gone by too quickly, with hands waving in the air, girls volunteering to read, lots of interesting discussions and debates. One day the fifth graders debated the question of free will on the planet of Camazotz in A Wrinkle in Time; the fourth graders discussed the irony of Sara Crewe’s letter to her father about her “Last Doll.” Girls have brought in their own questions for discussion; one girl asked how Sara’s friendship with Ermengarde would change after she became poor.
The girls respond intensely to the books. The closer we read, the richer the discussions are. Sometimes they get carried away with “strategies” they have learned before, such as interpreting the cover picture or making predictions at every turn. I keep pointing them to specific passages. Reading them out loud is a delight and a revelation; that is what makes the hands fly. I hope I may do for my students what my best teachers have done for me: they brought excellent books into my life and taught them in a way that made them ring.