Under Discussion: Reciprocal Teaching

Here’s a problem that teachers have to deal with all too often: Kids come to class not having read the assigned text, or chapter, or article.  What to do to move forward?

The solution for some has been to do an end run around such assignments by having the students read the piece in class instead. That takes a lot of instructional time and leads to strategies like Round Robin Reading (RRR) and its cousins, Popcorn Reading and Combat Reading.

RRR is not a comprehension strategy; it’s a management tool.  Kids keep quiet and listen because they might be called on next.  Worrying that they might get called on next means they’re not paying attention to what is currently being read. If the teacher is obvious about who’ll read next, the students know when their turns are coming and are rehearsing while someone else is laboring away at her chunk of the text.

RRR is not a valid fluency strategy, either: With no chance to rehearse what they’re reading, poor oral readers won’t do well—and on top of that, they’re modeling poor reading for others.  And, there’s the embarrassment factor. I can remember from my own schools days that some kids hated reading aloud because they anticipated stumbling, and the good readers hated it when the poor ones read for just that reason.

But after all these years, teachers still use RRR.  It’s primarily a management strategy.  Kids are quiet, occupied, and the assignment gets read.

So okay.  You still have to lick the didn’t-read-the-assignment-before-class problem.  What could you do instead?

How about trying this strategy: Reciprocal Teaching.

Like literature circles, Reciprocal Teaching (RT) depends on students assuming specific roles: Summarizer, Clarifier, Questioner, and Predictor. In their groups of four, students read the text—or chunk of text—in class and then discuss what they’ve read with each other.  Each student has a reading purpose. The Summarizer knows he’ll have to recap what happened in the story or outline the main points if the piece is non-fiction.  The Clarifier will keep an eye out for words or phrases that might be confusing. The Questioner asks like a teacher, probing the text not just with recall questions (especially if the students are secondary level) but with “What ifs?” and “I wonders…” and other idea extenders.  The Predictors make an educated guess about what comes next—they’re like “the weatherman” one student told me.

Naturally, the teacher needs to be sure the students understand the demands of the four roles.  With older students, that may only require a simple explanation.  At any age, it may require modeling or even a dry run or two.  As with any new skill, the students have to be trained or their conversations won’t be productive.

Reciprocal Teaching can be used with fiction, but it was originally designed for use with non-fiction: a chapter in a textbook, a newspaper article, an argumentative essay, a short informative piece. As they take turns leading the discussion, students practice summary skills, learn to think beyond the text, help each other discern meaning from context, and importantly, grapple with text structure.  This last is a significant challenge. Kids know the story arc well by the time they reach middle school.  Being the weatherman for a fictional piece isn’t hard because middle school students know how foreshadowing works, and they’ve had enough experience with stories to imagine plot turns and story endings that aren’t pat.  But they’ve had less experience with the structures of non-fiction.  Reciprocal Teaching gives them practice at discerning how a non-fiction piece is laid out—to learn about order of importance, problem/solution, cause/effect, comparison/contrast, chronological order, and other methods of organization–to predict what comes next in an informative or argumentative piece.

Website sources such as those listed at the end of this article spell out the details of structuring a Reciprocal Teaching lesson.  Bookmarks with question stems and note-taking sheets are provided on many websites.

Recently I’ve seen Reciprocal Teaching in action.  In fact, I modeled the strategy in a 6th grade classroom, which is where the “weatherman” quip originated.  The students were quick to catch on and excited to implement the strategy.  All the groups were reading the same book: Julie of the Wolves. The students loved talking through that day’s chapter with each other. Days later, after several rounds using the Reciprocal Teaching process as it has traditionally been practiced, the 6th graders suggested a new spin. Let the summarizers all talk together and choose the best summary, the clarifiers work through a variety of confusions to share with the class, the questioners ask questions of each other and then pose the best to the class, and the predictors to consider a variety of options and present their consensus to the class.  Another variation you might try is having each group of four make up a quiz over the assigned section and exchange quizzes with another group. You, the teacher, are the final judge of the quality of the questions: Students get all the points you’ll assign if their questions are thoughtful and carefully written.

Reciprocal Teaching 1Or, each group can read a different piece.  I also recently presented Reciprocal Teaching as a comprehension strategy and an alternative to RRR to a group of high school teachers.  After the workshop, one 10th grade teacher selected articles from internet and newspaper sources that all related to the concept of ambition. Each piece explored the topic from a different perspective. His students read the articles in small groups and then reported the gist of each to the rest of the class. All this was in preparation for a unit on ambition with Macbeth as the anchor text. His students staked out corners in the classroom, spots in the hallway, and tables in the cafeteria to hold their discussions.  I listened in and was reminded not of wooden Q-A sessions where the teacher decides what ideas to privilege and what details are important, but of adult book club conversations.

Another colleague, a high school health teacher, had been using RRR for years.  Once he learned about the advantages of Reciprocal Teaching, he deliberately reorganized his classroom, moving the desks from conventional rows into clusters of fours. His students—who definitely hadn’t been reading their assignments—had taken to the strategy immediately.  They’d developed independence as readers rather quickly.  The teacher found that he was able to circulate among the clusters and keep an ear on their discussions—a much better management strategy, he found, than casting an eye on the students from the front.

One of my colleagues, a high school music teacher and band director, used Reciprocal Teaching as a strategy for students to review for the final exam.  The students enjoyed the process and the conversations about the musical language he wanted them to understand and use on the final went beyond simply recalling definitions.  Watch this video to see what Dan Peo did.  Be warned: the process was noisy.  https://drive.google.com/a/tsc.k12.in.us/file/d/0B1xPdu7aOTwqVlFHWmo1bHcyZTA/view?usp=sharing

Reciprocal Teaching is, at its heart, far more than a strategy to manage the classroom, but if that’s the starting place, that’s okay.  Once teachers see how well Reciprocal Teaching works and how much students like the process of learning from each other, they choose RT.  It’s an effective way to build comprehension skills and teach text structures.  Instructional time is put to good use—and the assignments all get read.

 

http://eclass.uoa.gr/modules/document/file.php/PHS122/%CE%91%CF%81%CE%B8%CF%81%CE%B1/Reciprocal%20teaching.pdf

This is the original research reported by Annemarie Palinscar and Ann L. Brown (1984) in Cognition and Instruction. The authors developed the strategy, Reciprocal Teaching, and in this paper describe its effectiveness in improving comprehension skills among seventh graders.

http://www.readingrockets.org/strategies/reciprocal_teaching

This explanation for elementary school teachers has clear directions and a video of a teacher modeling the process for a group of students. Downloadable bookmarks and a worksheet are provided.

http://www.readingquest.org/strat/rt.html

Another clear set of directions from a web site for social studies teachers. This site explains that the order in which the group members “present” is not fixed.  The teacher should prescribe the order that makes sense.

Harper Lee’s Enormous Gift

For thirty-one years, my school year began with the opening sentence from Harper Lee’s matchless story of courage, compassion, and coming-of-age, To Kill a Mockingbird. It was nothing short of privilege to introduce 9th graders to Jem and Scout, their father Atticus, and their playmate Dill; to rural Alabama in the 1930s; to racism and injustice in the days of Jim Crow; and to the idea that in coming face-to-face with an unvarnished and painful reality, one comes of age.

Sometimes that moment of truth is called a “confrontation experience.”

When the trial is over and Tom Robinson is found guilty, Jem is confused and upset. He cries first, then broods, questioning Atticus intently as he puzzles through the injustice of the verdict. Miss Maudie, the children’s insightful neighbor from across the street, bakes a cake the next morning, but alters her custom of preparing three small cakes—one each for Jem and Scout and Dill—and makes only two. Jem’s portion is to come from the big cake. In this way, she signals her understanding that Jem has grown up: He has emerged from the experience of the trial, changed. Many students—as Jem himself does—miss the significance of that culinary symbolism.

So just after my students have read Chapter 22, the chapter with the cake paragraph that begins “It was Jem’s turn to cry,” I introduce this poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. I project it on the ENO board and read it aloud once, all the way through.

One Wants A Teller In A Time Like This

One wants a teller in a time like this

One’s not a man, one’s not a woman grown
To bear enormous business all alone.

One cannot walk this winding street with pride
Straight-shouldered, tranquil-eyed,
Knowing one knows for sure the way back home.
One wonders if one has a home.

One is not certain if or why or how.
One wants a Teller now:

Put on your rubbers and you won’t catch a cold
Here’s hell, there’s heaven. Go to Sunday School
Be patient, time brings all good things–(and cool
Strong balm to calm the burning at the brain?)

Behold,
Love’s true, and triumphs; and God’s actual.

Occasionally, a student will “get” the poem immediately, but the majority of my 9th graders are mystified. Why am I introducing this poem? What does it have to do with the story? Focused on the verdict itself—which they are eager to talk about even though they had predicted it—they don’t think of the impact of the decision on the children.

“Who in the story do you think this poem could be about?” I ask.

“Atticus,” someone always guesses. “He lost the trial.”

So. They got the gist of the poem. It’s about someone who is depressed.

“But Atticus knew he would lose—and he thinks they’ve taken a step forward because the jury deliberated for two hours,” someone else corrects.

“Tom? He lost and now he’s going to prison.”

“Boo.” Another guess.

“Miss Maudie.” A wilder guess.

Funny—if they’d examine their own reactions—shock, outrage, grief—when the verdict is announced, they’d see immediately that the poem points to Jem.

But Jem is not the “hero” of the story—or even an important protagonist like Tom Robinson or Boo. We’ve talked as a class about the symbolism of the mad dog and related rabies to the mental disease of prejudice. We’ve focused on character development and identified Atticus as the hero. We’ve examined Atticus’ definition of courage in the Mrs. Dubose chapter. But, besides noting that the children are catalysts for action and establishing that Jean Louise (the adult Scout) is a reflective narrator, we haven’t talked much yet about Jem and Scout. So far, they haven’t been a thematic focus.

I suggest that we take the poem apart, line by line. From this moment on, I am largely silent. I simply cover the poem and proceed to expose one line at a time. With its lovely “reveal” function, the ENO board helps me with this technique, but I used to do the same thing with an overhead projector. Baring even that, I could write the poem on the board, one line at a time. The strategy captures my students. They are good detectives, and they eagerly put their skills of observation to work.

First, the title: enigmatic, evocative, puzzling. Why the capitalized ‘One’? And then, it turns out, the title is the first line. The first line stands alone, the students notice. Why?

Then the phrase, “One’s not a man, not a woman grown.”

“So it’s not about Atticus.”

“But what is ‘this enormous business’?”

“It doesn’t say.”

“Whoever he is, he’s walking a crooked path.”

“He’s lost.”

“Unsure.”

“Confused.”

“He—or she—can’t find his home, maybe doesn’t have one.”

“Is this about a homeless person?”

“No, I think it’s about safety. Home is safety.”

“It’s about certainty. This person is uncertain.”

“Something terrible has happened.”

“Look at those words–‘if or when or how.’ Those are question words. This person’s questions are unanswered.”

“But why is ‘Teller’ capitalized in the next line?”

“He wants someone to answer his questions. To tell him the answers. A Teller.”

By this time, several students realize it is Jem’s reaction to the verdict that I am focusing on. I can barely contain them from blurting out their epiphany, and epiphany it is: They squirm in their seats; their arms pump up and down; their faces convey urgency. Others catch on. The class knows.

But what is this last stanza? Look: The font changes. And how are all those things connected?

“‘Rubbers’ are boots,” someone says. “What do they have to do with Sunday School?”

“’Heaven and hell’.” That’s Sunday School.”

“They’re opposites. Like black and white, or right and wrong.”

“Oh I get it! The new font is the Teller talking!”

“Yes! The Teller is telling the person what to do.”

“What to think.”

“How to behave.”

“That’s what he wants. A Teller.”

“Yes. A Teller makes things simple.”

But then the font changes back.

“What’s ‘balm’?”

“Like lip balm. A salve.”

“Oh! It’s ‘One’ again—questioning the Teller. It’s ‘One’ not finding an answer.”

“Not accepting an answer.”

“And the Teller speaks again, telling him everything is okay.”

“Except he doesn’t believe it. Whatever has happened is so bad, he even questions God.”

“Wow.”

And then, silence.

When we resume talking, students are quick to say—and confident now in saying—that “One” is anyone, so the poem can apply universally. “This enormous business” is unspecified for the same reason—and that means the poem can apply to many situations.

Too many of my students have already experienced tragedy, grief, and despair in their own lives. They make the jump to divorce, separation, untimely death, to betrayal by a friend, to abandonment by an adult—to myriad experiences that could force a person to confront an unpleasant truth—and come of age.

And then they know how Jem felt.

Silence again.

Quite often, someone in the class offers a final idea.

“You know, this may be about growing up, but even adults feel this way sometimes. My mom did when my dad left.”

How right that observation is. There is no time limit on innocence, no age limit on hope.

“So it could be about Atticus. He could have felt that way and then resolved his feeling by thinking the two-hour delay in the verdict was a step forward.”

It could be, indeed. Enormous business can level us all, even a hero.

I love teaching this lesson and the technique of “unveiling” a poem. As students pick out the clues, they build meaning and expand their understanding beyond the text. They see the relevance to the story we are reading, but they can apply the meaning of the poem to their own lives as well. They think deeply about an idea—in this case, the transformative effect of a confrontation experience.

What else is wonderful is that they figure the poem out for themselves.

I don’t tell them anything.

The Text, The Students, and Me

“Mrs. Powley! How do you know all this stuff?”

I sometimes heard that question when I was the teacher at the front of the room, leading my students through Great Expectations, Huckleberry Finn, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby…and a library of other literary staples in the English Language Arts canon.

Such a remark was gratifying to hear because what it really meant was that the students had been awed by the text.

“I’ll never be able to read a book like that,” they would say.

“Yes, you will,” I’d answer. “It takes practice.”

And I had to be honest: “Do you think all this comes to me the very first time I read a book?”

I reread the text, I told them, every single time I taught it.  And every single time, I picked up on more subtleties, developed more insight, made more connections within the story and to the world outside my classroom.

“That’s what I’m trying to teach you,” I’d say. “How to read.”

Lately, I’ve been reading a lot about an instructional strategy called “close reading.”  It’s the opposite of reading to get the gist of a piece; that is, reading to summarize.  The Common Core Standards document sets out as its aim that students should be able to “deeply” analyze a piece of “rich text”—it doesn’t matter whether fiction or non-fiction—in order to understand how an author has constructed meaning.

A close reading of text is a rereading of a small slice of a story (or something that is short to begin with, like a poem or an essay)—perhaps rereading it many times. Then, through careful inspection of words, sentences, paragraphs, and the way they work as parts and together as a whole, the teacher leads the students to discern the author’s meaning.  Students are guided to provide “textual evidence” that the author’s meaning is what it is. They can’t  guess, based only their prior knowledge and a cursory look at the words on the page, what the author intends.  This means, practically, that a Cliff Note’s acquaintanceship with the text won’t cut it.

The more I have read, these past few months, about “close reading,” the more familiar it has seemed to me. That’s because, in the very best of my literature lessons, that is what I had been working at for years.

Reading about this “new” instructional strategy has set me to thinking about my long journey through pedagogy and practice, about all the strategies and instructional supports I’ve used throughout the years as I’ve tried to help students make meaning of words on a page.

When I began teaching, the hardest thing for me was to get a good class discussion going.  I didn’t seem to ask the kinds of questions that led to scintillating discussions of life, death, and everything important in between, the kinds of discussions star teachers reported having, discussions where the classroom rhetoric soared and kids came away with life-changing notions about the universe and their place in it.

My questions were the standard ones—and don’t get me wrong, they weren’t unimportant—about the plot of a story, the characters in it, the symbols, point of view, setting, and how they all contributed to the themes of whatever book we were reading.  I’d plod along, chapter by chapter, and it seemed to me the conversation was stiff.  I wasn’t sure where discussions might go, what kids might say, so I pretty much stuck to the script.  Still, kids read the books and told me they enjoyed them.  (Some didn’t, I’m sure.)

I thought maybe the stiffness came from the way I was approaching the stories, so for a while I depended upon the textbook to set the pace. Sometimes, I found, those questions were fine, but sometimes I thought they required the kids to make fantastic leaps of insight.  Other times I thought they didn’t emphasize what was really important.

Like a lot of novice teachers, I used to think the textbook company was the authority on curriculum and instruction. I guess I imagined the editors sitting around having deep conversations about theories of writing instruction and seminal works of literature and the evolution of the novel as an art form.  Presumably, those fervent conversations ended with the editors scurrying to their office cubicles, like monks burning with the faith, to annotate a text and develop the accompanying questions.

Eventually, thank goodness, I realized that the editors were concerned with real things—like wooing customers and cutting production costs—and that the actual writing of the text and the materials to go with it were contracted to consultants.  Thus, the questions in the textbook were only as good as the consultant who wrote them.  And that consultant was a human being—just like me.  With that bit of enlightenment, I felt justified in choosing not to use the questions at the end or to use only some of them.

I tried various “frames” for asking questions. One that teachers use frequently to develop comprehension skills sorts questions into a three-tiered hierarchy. The first questions are “right there” in the text—a student has only to skim and scan for the answer; the second ones require making inferences—the student finds two (or more) bits of information and puts them together in her head. The third tier questions require the student to make a connection to something else she has learned in English class or in another class or even to something she knows from life experience.  Not bad, this frame, but it didn’t always serve my purpose.

There are 4-level frames and other 3-level frames, too, but none of them were fail safe structures. Besides, I’m an English teacher, and what I really wanted—increasingly so as the years went by—was for kids to see how the metaphorical language worked, how the word choice mattered, how images supported meaning, how rhetorical devices helped the writer accomplish his or her purpose.  I was interested in how the author made meaning, in the craft of writing.

I grew to dislike the 4-pound literary anthology that, for the most part, gave students snippets of text (the last one devoted exactly one page to Moby-Dick), the easiest or shortest story an author had written, and poems that were perhaps the most accessible to students but not necessarily the richest.  Today, a typical anthology is accompanied by an even heavier teacher’s edition, the pages so packed on the sides and along the bottom with suggestions for teaching that the literary text in question is condensed to 8-point type.  I could barely read it.

And that doesn’t include the ancillary materials supplied by the publisher—supplementary vocabulary instruction, grammar exercises, practice tests, overhead transparencies, writing prompts, and daily oral language items (DOL, as we say in the business)—that escalate the cost of these anthologies. So much help for the teacher is provided that I found it paralyzing.  Too many choices.

I yearned for it to be just the text, the students, and me.

And that is how I came to “close reading,” even though I had never heard the term.  I stopped plodding through the anthology, stopped trying to create artificial discussions, stopped trying to cover everything.  From a chunk of text that I believed was pivotal in terms of the story or central to developing the themes of a book or key to understanding the author’s style, I’d ask questions that demanded a close look at word choice, at sentence structure, at metaphorical language, at rhetorical devices. Slowly, sometimes dramatically, big ideas would emerge. Then kids would say, “I get it!” or “Wow!” or “Oh, my gosh.” They’d grasp the beauty of what the author had accomplished and appreciate—really appreciate—how she had accomplished it.  Sometimes we made connections from there—to their own worlds or to other things we’d talked about or they’d learned elsewhere—but these connections stemmed from real knowledge of the text, not from idle remarks, snatched from thin air.

Of course, “close reading” is not all that I did in the classroom.  And I wish I could say this kind of epiphany happened every day and every time I taught a poem, an essay, a story, or a passage from a book.  It didn’t.  But when it did, it came about from something deep inside the text, the students, and me. And it came often enough that I know this “close reading” strategy isn’t just another instructional fad.

Besides, the best teachers I know do the very same thing.  They bring their students face-to-face with the words in the text. We don’t all follow the same procedures or choose to emphasize the same thing, but we get the same results: Kids learn to read, really read.

Who Killed Bob Ewell?

Students rarely understand exactly what happens at the end of To Kill a Mockingbird. I like to use their befuddlement strategically to help them put the clues together.

Heck Tate puts them together very quickly when he discovers Bob Ewell dead under the oak tree near the Radley’s house. Heck takes Ewell’s switchblade from the scene and later tells Atticus he “took it off a drunk man.” My students take that remark at face value. Bob Ewell is a drunk and Heck’s a sheriff, so the students make the assumption that Heck picked up the knife earlier in the evening on his usual rounds. They don’t imagine that a law enforcement officer would tamper with the evidence to perpetrate a cover-up. But making those two assumptions is how even Atticus is temporarily misled.

Heck’s motive, of course, is to protect Boo, the children’s reclusive, awkward, ghost-like neighbor. Ultimately, Boo—if he killed Bob Ewell—would be acquitted of the murder charge he’d face, but in the interim, he’d be subjected to a trial and then to a storm of appreciation from the town folk.

I could just tell the students what happened, but that is never my preferred style. Instead, I have them act out the ending of the book because, through role-playing, they discern the answer for themselves. The process of discovery is not only fun, it’s a chance at the beginning of the year for the students to delve deep into a text and to have an analytical discussion without the formality of hands in the air.

I take volunteers for the various roles and urge the students to reread the text carefully so they can act the story out just as it happens. Even so, the next day, when I hold up two plastic knives labeled “switchblade” and “kitchen knife” and say that the actors who need the knives should take them, they all look at one another mystified. Usually the student playing Heck, thinking I’m just supplying props to make the scene more realistic, takes the switchblade. That leaves the kitchen knife for Bob Ewell—another error.

The troupe of actors retreats to the hallway to block out their performance. Meanwhile, I tell the rest of the students: “They’re going to make a mistake. It’s your job to figure out what they got wrong—so follow along in the text.”

While the group in the hall is blocking the scene—and having their own discussion about those two knives—the other students and I move all the desks to the back of the room. We clear a large space at the front of the room and sit on the floor more or less like a theater audience or in chairs that are informally arranged in front of the “stage.”

The actors enter, books in hand, Scout yelling “Cecil Jacobs is a big wet he-en!”

Jem puts his hand on her head, steering her along, and Bob Ewell enters, stalking the two children as they make their way across the classroom to the corner designated as the Finch home. The students read the lines aloud and carry out the actions indicated. I read the narration.

Boo hears the children, comes out of his house, pulls Bob away from Jem, and then…

Sometimes the actors show Boo stabbing Bob with the kitchen knife. Sometimes they show Bob falling on his knife. Sometimes there’s a radical deviation from the text and the troupe tries to show that Jem killed Bob. After all, that’s what Atticus first thinks. Depending upon what the students have decided to do with the switchblade, more difficulty can arise when Heck Tate comes along to examine the body. In any case, the students’ first error is usually at the tree, and the second one occurs when Heck examines the body.

In many years of doing this, only once did a group nail the ending on the first try.

It takes a series of mental leaps to realize that
• Bob had a switchblade.
• Boo had a kitchen knife.
• Boo stabbed Bob with the kitchen knife.
• Bob then had both knives—a switchblade in his hand and a kitchen knife “up under his ribs”
• Heck relieved Bob of the switchblade.
• No one will question Bob “falling on his knife.”
• Heck Tate reasons that justice is ultimately served because Boo would be acquitted in a trial and the man responsible for Tom Robison’s conviction is now dead.

By now, the actors have stopped acting and are huddled up on the floor with the audience. I am off to the side or somewhere in the mix, asking pertinent questions. But the students are talking to each other, looking back at the text, and arguing constructively over what took place. They lead each other through the sequence of events and untangle the circumstances that lead Heck Tate to his declaration. They support their claims with textual evidence and counter each other’s errors the same way. It’s awesome to watch.

In the end, we have an animated conversation about Heck Tate’s preemptive decision to “let the dead bury the dead this time.” He tells Atticus— emphatically—“I’m the sheriff of Maycomb County and Bob Ewell fell on his knife,” leaving Atticus with no questions, no choice, and no responsibility for not pursuing justice, in this case to the point of injustice.

There’s more than one hero in Maycomb County, the students conclude.

This lesson, of course, is an example of the constructivist approach to reading comprehension. Through close examination of the text, the students discern for themselves the author’s meaning. They’re collaborating to put the puzzle pieces together, and they’re actively involved in the process. With or without the name—constructivist approach—this is a powerful way to engage kids, build skills of textual analysis, and have a lot of fun the same time.

And the answer is Boo. The kids just proved it.

Figure It Out: A Reading Comprehension Lesson

I’m a big fan of structuring lessons so that students can figure things out on their own. In the education world, what I am talking about is sometimes called the constructivist approach, sometimes called inquiry-based learning, sometimes called—well, whatever the name, lessons learned this way usually stick—and in the act of discovery, students are empowered as learners.

Here’s an example of what I mean: a reading comprehension lesson involving allusions—in this case, in the context of one of my favorite books, To Kill a Mockingbird. The goal is to show students how allusions enrich the meaning of a text—how to spot them, how to decode them, how to make meaning of what is frequently an analogy.

For example, take this dialogue between Scout and Jem, in Chapter 2:

“Don’t worry, Scout, “ Jem confronted me. “Our teacher says Miss Caroline’s introducing a new way of teaching. She learned about it in college. It’ll be in all the grades soon. You don’t have to learn much out of books that way.—it’s like if you wanta learn about cows, you go milk one, see?”

“Yeah Jem, but I don’t wanta study cows, I—”

“Sure you do. You hafta know about cows, they’re a big part of life in Maycomb County.”

I contented myself with asking Jem if he’d lost his mind.

“I’m just trying to tell you the new way they’re teachin’ the first grade, stubborn. It’s the Dewey Decimal System.”

Students might be vaguely puzzled by “Dewey Decimal System,” but they could just as easily pass right over the reference. If they do, though, they miss the humor in Jem’s misnomer. That’s the way allusions work, I explain to them. They aren’t necessary to understanding the plot, but knowing that Jem is confusing a library cataloguing system with the education reformer John Dewey is funny. Furthermore, in this short passage, we get a glimpse of Jem as an occasionally annoying big brother who isn’t as smart as he thinks he is. Since this is a sibling type many students know first-hand, this depiction of Jem rings true and helps some students to directly and immediately identify with Scout.

That’s the concept. To get started with the lesson, I print and cut into slim strips a list of other allusions from To Kill a Mockingbird, put the strips in a hat, and pass the hat around the room. Students “draw” a strip, and I tell them that the first part of their assignment is to figure out the literal meaning of the words on the strip. (The same strategy could be used with any text that is heavily allusive. I’ve used it with Shauna Seliy’s coming-of-age story, When We Get There, and with Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations, for example.)

This part of the assignment used to be more difficult than it is now. Years ago, before Google, before Wikipedia, before the website To Kill a Mockingbird: The Student Survival Guide (www.lausd.k12.ca.us/Belmont_HS/tkm/), I’d take my students to the library so they could look through books and print encyclopedias to find the answers. Some of the allusions weren’t so easily identifiable, so I’d allow them to ask other people for help—other people but me, that is. My lips were sealed—except to suggest books they might check or to provide hints that would send them in a fruitful direction. After they knew what they had—sometimes a parent would, understandably, just tell them—they’d have to find at least two print sources that explained the allusion and then summarize the meaning and document their sources.

I still ask my students to do this, but thanks to electronic searches, it’s the easy part of the assignment now.

The next step is finding the allusion in context. They’re spread throughout the novel, so while I distribute the strips early on, it will be late in the story before the task is completed by everyone. Once the students come upon their allusions, they write a paragraph explaining the allusion’s purpose in the text. This can be challenging for young readers; nevertheless, they often make amazing connections and articulate insights that astonish me.

Some allusions, such as “Maycomb County had just been told it had nothing to fear but fear itself [my italics],” help the reader establish the time period of the story. So do items like “linotype machine,” or “flivver,” or “Ladies Law.” Other allusions establish place: “Jitney Jungle” and “Bellingrath Gardens,” for example, make explicit that this story takes place in the South. These allusions authenticate what the author has already told us: the setting is Maycomb County, Alabama. Some “place” allusions supply deeper background information as well: “Stonewall Jackson ran the Creeks up the creek” is a reference to the intersection of Alabama history, Native American history, and Finch family history.

There are some tougher ones, though, like “Lord Melbourne,” a British parliamentarian who loved the ladies. When Uncle Jack tells Scout about Lord Melbourne in response to her asking him what a “whore-lady” is, he reveals his discomfort in discussing adult topics with children. His circumlocution, of course, contrasts with Atticus’ straightforward responses to his children. Thus, the allusion to Lord Melbourne (which is obscure for most readers, not just 9th graders) helps to build the character of both men. A student could have read the paragraph, been temporarily confused, but ultimately not concerned, because the allusion does not advance the plot. And yet, “getting” the reference to Lord Melbourne deepens the reader’s understanding.

So does this one, another reference made by Uncle Jack: When he and Atticus are discussing the upcoming trial of Tom Robinson—whom Atticus has been appointed to defend—Uncle Jack remarks, “’Let this cup pass from you,’ eh?‘” Untangling that one means linking the Biblical reference to Christ’s prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane—O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as you will (Matthew 26:39)—to Atticus’ wish that he didn’t have to step into the role of defense attorney in what he knows will be a losing battle. He knows as well that defending Tom Robinson will stir up the town: His children may be the targets of people’s vitriol, and he could lose them in a backlash. Nevertheless, in the same conversation with Uncle Jack, Atticus is clear. He says that he couldn’t ask his children to obey him if he didn’t defend Tom. He will comply with the court order. A student could, of course, explicitly make the Christ symbol connection—but, more likely for a 9th grader, the student who understands the allusion will see the analogy between Christ’s situation and Atticus’ and understand that the comparison supports the picture of Atticus that has building throughout the story: He will do what he must. He will do the right thing.

But the task of building meaning isn’t over. It isn’t enough, to my mind, for a student to know only his or her own allusion. Sometimes, depending upon curriculum needs, I’ve had students report out on their allusion while the others take notes, but this process takes more time than I often have. Recently, I’ve accomplished my purpose much more expediently by posting the students’ work on the walls of the classroom.

Each paper has three parts: the paragraph from the text where the allusion appears, the explanation of the allusion, and then the paragraph about its purpose or how it enriches the meaning. The students circulate around the room, pen and paper in hand, and take notes on what their peers have written. This takes about one class period. I keep silent, read over the students’ shoulders, check the written work to be sure the students have explained their allusions clearly and correctly. Misunderstandings are infrequent, I find. If something isn’t quite right, it’s usually easy enough to question the student on the side, and he or she will see the confusion and make the adjustment on the spot.

By the end of the hour, each student has compiled a list of allusions and their meanings. In essence, they have taught each other some pretty sophisticated vocabulary and deepened each other’s understanding of the text. They’ve also learned a valuable reading skill: how to identify and figure out an allusion. A short matching quiz the next day confirms that the “vocabulary” has been learned (Most kids score 100%), but more importantly, the students come away understanding what an allusion is and how one works in a text.

Imagine how tedious this would have been if I had stopped in our reading to explain every one of these connections. I would have grown tired of the sound of my voice—and the kids would have yawned. Openly.

Instead, they figured it all out on their own, taught each other, and know they can do the same thing independently with the next book they read. That’s empowerment.

This Enormous Business

For thirty-one years, my school year began with the opening sentence from Harper Lee’s matchless story of courage, compassion, and coming-of-age, To Kill a Mockingbird. It was nothing short of privilege to introduce 9th graders to Jem and Scout, their father Atticus, and their playmate Dill; to rural Alabama in the 1930s; to racism and injustice in the days of Jim Crow; and to the idea that in coming face-to-face with an unvarnished and painful reality, one comes of age.

Sometimes that moment of truth is called a “confrontation experience.”

When the trial is over and Tom Robinson is found guilty, Jem is confused and upset. He cries first, then broods, questioning Atticus intently as he puzzles through the injustice of the verdict. Miss Maudie, the children’s insightful neighbor from across the street, bakes a cake the next morning, but alters her custom of preparing three small cakes—one each for Jem and Scout and Dill—and makes only two. Jem’s portion is to come from the big cake. In this way, she signals her understanding that Jem has grown up: He has emerged from the experience of the trial, changed. Many students—as Jem himself does—miss the significance of that culinary symbolism.

So just after my students have read Chapter 22, the chapter with the cake paragraph that begins “It was Jem’s turn to cry,” I introduce this poem by Gwendolyn Brooks. I project it on the ENO board and read it aloud once, all the way through.

One Wants A Teller In A Time Like This

One wants a teller in a time like this

One’s not a man, one’s not a woman grown
To bear enormous business all alone.

One cannot walk this winding street with pride
Straight-shouldered, tranquil-eyed,
Knowing one knows for sure the way back home.
One wonders if one has a home.

One is not certain if or why or how.
One wants a Teller now:

Put on your rubbers and you won’t catch a cold
Here’s hell, there’s heaven. Go to Sunday School
Be patient, time brings all good things–(and cool
Strong balm to calm the burning at the brain?)

Behold,
Love’s true, and triumphs; and God’s actual.

Occasionally, a student will “get” the poem immediately, but the majority of my 9th graders are mystified. Why am I introducing this poem? What does it have to do with the story? Focused on the verdict itself—which they are eager to talk about even though they had predicted it—they don’t think of the impact of the decision on the children.

“Who in the story do you think this poem could be about?” I ask.

“Atticus,” someone always guesses. “He lost the trial.”

So. They got the gist of the poem. It’s about someone who is depressed.

“But Atticus knew he would lose—and he thinks they’ve taken a step forward because the jury deliberated for two hours,” someone else corrects.

“Tom? He lost and now he’s going to prison.”

“Boo.” Another guess.

“Miss Maudie.” A wilder guess.

Funny—if they’d examine their own reactions—shock, outrage, grief—when the verdict is announced, they’d see immediately that the poem points to Jem.

But Jem is not the “hero” of the story—or even an important protagonist like Tom Robinson or Boo. We’ve talked as a class about the symbolism of the mad dog and related rabies to the mental disease of prejudice. We’ve focused on character development and identified Atticus as the hero. We’ve examined Atticus’ definition of courage in the Mrs. Dubose chapter. But, besides noting that the children are catalysts for action and establishing that Jean Louise (the adult Scout) is a reflective narrator, we haven’t talked much yet about Jem and Scout. So far, they haven’t been a thematic focus.

I suggest that we take the poem apart, line by line. From this moment on, I am largely silent. I simply cover the poem and proceed to expose one line at a time. With its lovely “reveal” function, the ENO board helps me with this technique, but I used to do the same thing with an overhead projector. Baring even that, I could write the poem on the board, one line at a time. The strategy captures my students. They are good detectives, and they eagerly put their skills of observation to work.

First, the title: enigmatic, evocative, puzzling. Why the capitalized ‘One’? And then, it turns out, the title is the first line. The first line stands alone, the students notice. Why?

Then the phrase, “One’s not a man, not a woman grown.”

“So it’s not about Atticus.”

“But what is ‘this enormous business’?”

“It doesn’t say.”

“Whoever he is, he’s walking a crooked path.”

“He’s lost.”

“Unsure.”

“Confused.”

“He—or she—can’t find his home, maybe doesn’t have one.”

“Is this about a homeless person?”

“No, I think it’s about safety. Home is safety.”

“It’s about certainty. This person is uncertain.”

“Something terrible has happened.”

“Look at those words–‘if or when or how.’ Those are question words. This person’s questions are unanswered.”

“But why is ‘Teller’ capitalized in the next line?”

“He wants someone to answer his questions. To tell him the answers. A Teller.”

By this time, several students realize it is Jem’s reaction to the verdict that I am focusing on. I can barely contain them from blurting out their epiphany, and epiphany it is: They squirm in their seats; their arms pump up and down; their faces convey urgency. Others catch on. The class knows.

But what is this last stanza? Look: The font changes. And how are all those things connected?

“‘Rubbers’ are boots,” someone says. “What do they have to do with Sunday School?”

“’Heaven and hell’.” That’s Sunday School.”

“They’re opposites. Like black and white, or right and wrong.”

“Oh I get it! The new font is the Teller talking!”

“Yes! The Teller is telling the person what to do.”

“What to think.”

“How to behave.”

“That’s what he wants. A Teller.”

“Yes. A Teller makes things simple.”

But then the font changes back.

“What’s ‘balm’?”

“Like lip balm. A salve.”

“Oh! It’s ‘One’ again—questioning the Teller. It’s ‘One’ not finding an answer.”

“Not accepting an answer.”

“And the Teller speaks again, telling him everything is okay.”

“Except he doesn’t believe it. Whatever has happened is so bad, he even questions God.”

“Wow.”

And then, silence.

When we resume talking, students are quick to say—and confident now in saying—that “One” is anyone, so the poem can apply universally. “This enormous business” is unspecified for the same reason—and that means the poem can apply to many situations.

Too many of my students have already experienced tragedy, grief, and despair in their own lives. They make the jump to divorce, separation, untimely death, to betrayal by a friend, to abandonment by an adult—to myriad experiences that could force a person to confront an unpleasant truth—and come of age.

And then they know how Jem felt.

Silence again.

Quite often, someone in the class offers a final idea.

“You know, this may be about growing up, but even adults feel this way sometimes. My mom did when my dad left.”

How right that observation is. There is no time limit on innocence, no age limit on hope.

“So it could be about Atticus. He could have felt that way and then resolved his feeling by thinking the two-hour delay in the verdict was a step forward.”

It could be, indeed. Enormous business can level us all, even a hero.

I love teaching this lesson and the technique of “unveiling” a poem. As students pick out the clues, they build meaning and expand their understanding beyond the text. They see the relevance to the story we are reading, but they can apply the meaning of the poem to their own lives as well. They think deeply about an idea—in this case, the transformative effect of a confrontation experience.

What else is wonderful is that they figure the poem out for themselves.

I don’t tell them anything.