A Leap of Faith

Michelle Bulla, November 2018

Sometimes, the hardest thing to do is to take a first step. First serious interview, first day of a new workout, first step out of bed, first foray into that committee you joined.

The first step in front of an audience counting on you is scary, especially when that first step is going to require a lot of work.

I understand your uneasiness. It requires a huge commitment to make a change, and aside from there being no guarantee of success, the act of getting from 7am to 2pm (yes, my school times are REALLY early) is, honestly, already nothing shy of exhausting. We’ve got all manner of alphabet soup to decipher and deal with: APPR, 504s, SWDs, ENLs, SpEds, De-class, AIS, SSC (Student Support Center a.k.a. alternate testing site in my building), APs (both the admins and the classes), and…well… I bet you can add to this list pretty easily. And let’s not forget the actual classes we’re teaching and the lunch we’ve missed and the bathroom we haven’t seen since the shower this morning and … it’s draining both physically and emotionally.

So to try something new requires a dedicated person, a personal commitment to excellence, and a really good reason to take a risk.

I understand you, and I want you to know that I see you.

What I want to do is help you to make things easier.

By easier, I mean working smarter to get your students working harder so that in the end, all that work is working toward something larger than a perfectly-delivered lesson or your upcoming assessment. I’m talking about directing your power in the classroom into students’ hands so they choose the vehicles that help them practice and hone the skills embedded in the standards and/or your local curriculum.

This blog post is dedicated to breaking down a process I have used with success to transition from using all whole-class texts to incorporating student-chosen texts in my classroom.

The payoff will be worth the effort.

I’ve been using this process for several years now, but was just recently re-introduced to Simon Sinek’s “The Golden Circle” concept – WHY – HOW – WHAT, and am going to frame it in his terms here. Imagine them in concentric circles with the WHY in the center, HOW in the next circle, and WHAT in the outside circle. Essentially, the parts mean this:

• Why – What do we believe? What do we value? Why do we do what we do?
• How – The strategies, principles, activities to practice
• What – What do we make / create / manifest?

Hang with me! I’ve got an example following to illustrate the process below.

1. Identify the WHY of the lesson / unit that you love and have had success with.

a. Why do students need to read X text?
b. Can you articulate this in a way that is detached from that particular text? Think about the “takeaway” you want students to retain; i.e., the life lesson, the theme, the skill, etc.

2. The WHY leads to the HOW of the lesson.

a. What is the concept / skill, theme / ism, or craft move, etc. they need to learn or practice in order to get to the “why” noted above?
b. This item becomes the central focus / essential “question” around which you design your unit.

3. Now you can move to the WHAT. The WHAT is the approach to unit design that facilitates student exploration, and the text(s) you / they choose for immersion / analysis.

WHY:
My general “why” is to facilitate students identifying themselves as capable and competent readers (and writers, too, but I’m zeroing in on the reading portion for this post), and to help them to grow those skills through authentic and engaging thinking-based activities in my classroom.

HOW:
I want them to understand how existentialism – and the existentialist dilemma – can lead to a Faustian bargain in the quest to identify what gives one purpose. So, I use the psychological novel in order to help students understand the purpose of authors / narrators examining the inner psyche of a character, and how that helps readers navigate the complexity and turmoil of their decision-making. Moral ambiguities and controversies in characters’ decision-making processes drive student discussions as they track mores, behavior patterns and influences, working to understand decisions and sacrifices. This enables students to evaluate characters in the context of their worlds.

WHAT – Two Approaches to Unit Design:
One way is that you keep that one whole-class text, and use it as a model text for the concept / ism, etc. which becomes your focal point.

To do this, you transition your unit introduction from a sole focus on a single, whole-class text:

“Now we’re going to read Oscar Wilde’s famous psychological novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

To either A. Using the whole-class text as a jumping off point:

“Now we’re going to read and discuss Oscar Wilde’s famous work The Picture of Dorian Gray to learn about the concept of a psychological novel. Then, you’ll choose another novel to read in book clubs to explore the subtleties of the genre classification.” (Or you can have students explore the concept in an independent text they’re reading.)

Or B. Using a short text to introduce the concept / skill, theme / ism, or craft move:

“Together we’re going to read and discuss X (X is a short, model text – for this I use either “The Devil and Tom Walker” or “The Devil and Daniel Webster”) to learn about the genre classification of a “psychological” text, and then you’ll choose a novel to explore that genre concept in greater detail.”

As I circulate among book club discussions, I often reference previously-read texts which then become points of reference as they deepen their thinking about an already-known text as well as the concepts. For example, I might prompt them to consider the psychological journeys they as readers embarked on in previous years while reading The Crucible as they followed John Proctor’s dynamic evolution, or the choices made by Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter that simultaneously liberate and incarcerate her. I ask students to revisit our earlier text of Life of Pi, analyzing the choices Pi makes in his quest for survival from this new lens.

CHOOSING TEXTS FOR APPLICATION / EXPLORATION:

Once you identify the “why” and the “how” for a unit or lesson, the actual text selection can be really fun! I learned that when I started to think of my unit objective in terms of a concept I wanted students to learn rather than a specific text to read, I no longer had any reason to choose one single text over another.

The concepts, while sophisticated, are actually quite plausibly found in many texts, as is the case for many literary concepts. In this case, what story doesn’t have a character that deliberates their purpose, sacrificing things in the quest for the promotion of someone / something / themselves? For my unit, I went into our bookroom and looked at the various works that could fall under the category of “psychological novel” and piled them up for students to shop from, forming book club groups based on their reading choice preferences.

In the event that you’re curious, the titles I put in front of students are varied, and have included The Bell Jar, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Color Purple, The Book Thief, Bee Season, The Kite Runner, Atonement, Snow Falling on Cedars, and of course, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Even a simple Google or Goodreads search can be very helpful here once you’ve identified the why and the what. If you’re doing this with individually student-chosen texts, work with the short text for a whole-class discussion and modeling of application, and then turn students loose to analyze their current book, armed with increasingly sophisticated concepts to name their thinking and to deepen their understanding of the craft of the writer, the universality of the story-creating concept, the norms of human behavior that unite us. And not incidentally, this is a major way to make independent reading something not just done for fun – though that’s good enough reason – but something that can be done to meet the standards and objectives of your local curriculum.

Have to teach a specific text? Use something in that text as your jumping off point. For example – if Of Mice and Men is your required piece, focus on foreshadowing as your “concept” for the why – what portion of the transition. Then, once your your readers identify elements of foreshadowing in that text, they’re ready to apply that knowledge to other texts they’re reading.

Need further advocacy to support your interest in trying this out? Our NYS Next Generation ELA Standards does not mandate specific texts. SED recognizes that different students and communities present different needs, and that there is no end to text options to fulfill those needs while meeting the standards, noting specifically in the Lifelong Practices of Readers and Writers that the individual grade-level standards are all intended to be met through a “wide range of global and diverse texts.”

The Results

Granted ownership in their reading and thinking, students are equipped to use these skills to deepen their reading of future texts. I find they are far more apt to do so when they’ve built the knowledge themselves rather than following my analysis via lecture or in discussion topics driven by me.

Each year it seems I replace another old, “tried and true” unit with one in this model, and while it requires me to let go of the myriad “necessary” concepts I ensured students of yesteryear knew about Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray, I know with their application of the skill – the why – I now see without prompting, that the work is well worth it.

For more information, and a worksheet that can help you navigate these steps in greater detail with tips on how to identify a range of texts for students to choose for book club titles, email me at mbulla@mw.k12.ny.us.

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