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Tuesdays with Morrie: Reading and Reflections

I was taken with Barry Lane’s “Sad Art of Closed Reading” this weekend. His Kenny anecdote is one that should all of us taking a closer look at the differences between what our readers “get” and what they “come away with.” I am of the opinion that writing always does a better job of capturing  the readers’ “takeaway.”  The traditional approach to assessment only gives us one more chance to see the readers’ taking a test.

Rather than post a very long post on a Sunday morning, we’ll take this week to describe how we create a wrap-around reflection and response to the traditional research report in AP English Language and Composition. This “wrap-around” packet approach to the response actually rivals most traditional research “end reports” by way of page-count and allows the writer and the teacher to work together as we approach a response to the reading we have done together.

To this end, we see Tuesdays with Morrie as our collective “anchor text.” We could use the more familiar terminology like “whole-class text” or “in-common text,” but I have always been a little leary of terms that seem to try to limit the impact sharing a whole work together–as a group–at the junior level–can have upon the reader, the readers, and the room (lead reader included).

Now, Tuesdays with Morrie becomes our “anchor text.” It is the book we can use to give our response a place to tether itself to even when the idea of the report is so large as evidenced by what the discourse community has already put out there. I think we need to see research and responding the way our readers and writers see it. Imagine walking into a large, national conference where you don’t know a single soul. You don’t know what rooms to enter. . .or even to peek into to get a sense of what is being shared.

This is what entering into the discourse community can look like for students whose collective experience has not been with non-fiction articles, essays, or reports. It has a certain largeness to which the upper-level student feels a need to respond and comes away wanting. The initial attempts to try to write back to the world comes back like a whisper. The report is graded and we move on to the next lesson.

In Room 407, our approach to this response has been a pre-search packet. Our pre-search packet comes in ten parts. If each page of the packet were one page, one can see that our students–by way of reflecting in mulitple modes of exposition–are drafting more than we we might see within the traditional expectations for research. After having taken a break from this approach for a couple of years, we are returning to this modality again this fall and spring. Students are responding to a purposeful, toss-off question I posed at the end of our reading of Tuesdays with Morrie:

“What is the ‘glue’ that holds humans and humanity together? What has it been? What will it be in the future?” For our next class, bring back one word or a very short phrase that sets to answer the question at least in the short term.

If you see what has happened here, we have invited students to come back with their quick answer to the question. Isn’t this what we see in the social media today? Quick answers to difficult, nebulous questions and concerns? I wanted to see what they would bring back without qualification and without consulting the sources. In essence, I wanted them to see what their “X” could be (we’ll talk about thesis formation later this week and how having a good sense of “X” helps us to see the largeness and the need to limit subjects).

Using the “classical invention” approach, we ran the conceptual part of the question through the schema. Then students began to run their own words through the schema to see what questions led them to a sudden sense of a need to respond. Slowly our one word answer became an idea. My “essential question” to the group became the “individual question” for the respondent. This is an exciting time in the reflecting and early writing.

In order to build in early successes to the research and response, we begin with a Title Page. As each element the packet counts for ten points of a hundred, it is nice to be able to give students ten points right off the bat. This is the most compliant piece of the packet and I can compliment the group for having this piece finished. Here is where compliance ends though.

The first element of the packet is what we call “The Narrative Approach to Research.” For me, as the lead reader and respondent, this can be one of the most beneficial elements of the research packet. You could do this tomorrow with your students with very little description in regard to what we do in Room 407. You simply ask students to tell you on the page:

“How did you get here?”

Narrative writing is one of the three suggested by the Common Core State Standards and it still within the standards of the states not adopting the CCSS. Narrative is our “anchor text” for the response. It is within the narrative piece that I get to see something in the writer’s response that gives me something by way of a conferring point when I talk to that writer later about his or her subject. Friends, I do not get this when I send them to the library to watch them walk around for two or three days while they try to find a “subject.” Subjects abound in our world. What we are looking for is “topic” and within the narrative I am able to find little windows into what the writer wants to say or might even need to explore further based upon his or her experiences with the subject already. These narratives often point back to Tuesdays with Morrie and in these references back to the reading, I can see what the student “got” from the reading and what “stuck” after having read it. I get to see the writer posing questions regarding the subject they have brought for consideration. Narrative does this and this is why narrative is essential to our pre-search.

I said I wouldn’t go long. And I have gone long. For today, we have talked about:

Anchor Texts (There are many from which to choose).

Title Page (Early Successes/Early Insights into Student Thinking)

Narrative Approach to Research

Tomorrow we will talk about  the next two elements of the packet:

NARRATIO: Background, Definitions, and Limitations

Thesis Formation

I hope that this series of posts will be helpful to those looking for a new way to approach research that keeps most of the work in the expository while honoring as well the other modes of writing asked for by the standards. And friends, we haven’t even gotten to the Formal Research Paper yet.


One Comment

  1. Jennifer Sniadecki
    Posted December 6, 2015 at 12:27 PM | #

    Thank you for sharing your thinking and lessons that come from students’ thinking. One thing I know is that the “lead” reader working WITH the students helps, and the engagement is built in. Wonderful!

    A simple question? No. But a simple way to start thinking? Yes! “How did you get here?”

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