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by Lorri Horn Santa Monica High School Santa Monica, California
One of the greatest accomplishments of AP English students is in navigating challenging texts. In my work with students in their early high school careers, I focus on preparing students to meet, greet, and get concrete with challenging texts. I also help students work with texts that are deceptively simple in order to see their complexity.
Making the Challenging Text More "Simple"
Meeting and Greeting a Complex Text I begin the ninth-grade year by having students read Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The work is short, but the language dense and challenging. Our first step is to "meet" the text. After presenting some background information on Stevenson's life and times, I have students go home and read the opening chapter of the novella, marking it for big ideas we've discussed. The next day, before I ask them about the content of the reading, I discuss with students how it feels to read such a challenging text. We brainstorm on the board about what they feel and do when a text feels "too hard." Students offer up responses such as: "I feel dumb and stop reading"; "My mind wanders and I don't really remember what I've read, and I feel bored"; "I feel mad at my teacher"; "I feel mad at myself." Sharing this way provides important information for students -- namely, that others have the same feelings that they have. The message I convey is that good readers struggle; they hang in there when the reading gets tough. I share with them my own personal reaction to reading a text that stretches me to my limits (e.g., I feel dumb, question my very right to be an English teacher, have catastrophic fantasies), and tell them that I am going to help them develop strategies that good readers employ when they face challenging texts. This lesson is one we come back to throughout the year as students continue to lay the groundwork for the perseverance and dedication required in facing challenging texts. Getting Concrete with a Complex Text Brave enough to now face the text, students need an arsenal of strategies to get through complex literature. I take students back through the opening chapter of the book and model one such strategy: summarize, clarify, question, comment, and predict. I read aloud, "Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow loveable." Then I model the strategy: Summarize: What does this part seem to be about? It describes a man named Utterson -- what he is like, his job, and his personality. Clarify: What parts confuse and obstruct meaning? What does "countenance" mean? What does it mean to be "lighted by a smile"? What is "scanty"? We try to guess what the words might mean in context and look up the ones we really can't proceed without. Question: Then, I model deeper thinking questions. Why does the story begin with Utterson instead of Dr. Jekyll? Why is he embarrassed when he speaks? Comment: Here, I show students how to make observations about what they have read. I observe the predominance of negative diction, but note how the author still claims Utterson is "somehow loveable." I find this contrast curious. Predict: Maybe Utterson had something bad that happened to him in his past. Maybe Utterson is going to work with Dr. Jekyll as his attorney and somehow both hurt and help him. As we work through the first paragraph, section by section, students begin to comment on how long it takes to read this way. We talk about the difference between reading for pleasure, which one can curl up on the couch to do, and reading to learn, which one must be alert to do. Reading a challenging text is a lot like solving a difficult math problem; it takes focus and time. As next steps, students work in small
groups on other paragraphs from the opening chapters, and as we get farther along in the story they begin to employ these strategies for themselves. Facing challenging texts and learning the strategies to navigate them serve as important Pre-AP habits of thought for students.
Making the "Simple" Text More Challenging
Another way to help students prepare is to help them recognize complexity in texts that they perceive as simple. Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street seems "easy" to students. In fact, Cisneros's themes and use of language make this piece quite sophisticated -- figurative language, repetition, and the artful use of syntax (varied sentence length, parallelism, periodic sentences, etc.) are all devices students at this level are ready to grapple with and interpret. As we read through the vignettes, students look for and mark examples of rhetorical strategies. It's fun for them to pick out her similes, metaphors, personification, and alliteration. The next step, however, is where the real depth and rigor begin. I talk about how authors craft their writing to achieve some desired purpose or effect (the very stuff AP prompts are made of). We brainstorm the themes in Cisneros's book and begin to analyze how her style conveys her message about poverty, abuse, sexism, and coming of age. The end of the unit culminates in students working together on a style analysis. I give them 8 ½-by-11inch pieces of paper with houses drawn on them with room inside for them to write. The prompt is: How does Sandra Cisneros's use of language in The House on Mango Street help her convey a particular theme? Each group member creates a "house" that has specific evidence and analysis to support their group's thesis. One group wrote, for example, "Sandra Cisneros uses similes and metaphors in order to convey her message that poverty causes suffering." Students also draw images on each house that represent the theme they argue the language choices convey. Students peer edit one another's houses and make suggestions for clarity, explanation of ideas, and mechanics. When they assemble and present their houses, they have worked with the foundations of a style analysis essay and have grappled with the kinds of demands and skills AP students face daily in a literature class.
Lorri Horn has taught AP English at Santa Monica High School in California for the last six years of her 13-year career. She chaired the English department for five years, and is a 2003 National Board Certified Teacher. Her article about teaching in a time of scarcity recently appeared in Phi Delta Kappan (April 2004). This article is copyright © 2004 by Lorri Horn and is reprinted with permission.
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