merging technology (on-line discussion board) with Socratic or Paideia
seminars assist my students, especially the lower skilled ones, in enhancing
their book discussions, their visualization of the text, and their overall
engagement with the material?
This inquiry project is about
a fusion of three distinct strands:
- reader response theory,
- and Socratic seminars.
I have many lower-skilled
students, many of whom may not attain the required "threes"
to be promoted to the eighth grade. It was mostly for them that I launched
this inquiry. I wanted to find out whether or not meeting the students
on turf that was familiar and safe to them, i.e. on-line discussion
boards, would assist them in talking about, responding to, and picturing
what they read. Would on-line discussion boards do a better job of facilitating
discussions than would, say, the last four or five cycles of literature
circles I have used with my students? Would reader-response (Rosenblatt,
1983) and visualization techniques (Wilhelm, 1997) allow space to increase
if students could go on-line, respond to my prompt, and then reply to
each other's responses?
Flat Literature Circles
I first heard about literature
circles at the 2001 North Carolina Middle School conference in Greensboro.
A fellow Appalachian State University graduate, Kelly Sechrist (2001),
presented her techniques of literature circling based on the research
of Nancy Atwell and Harvey Daniels. I was immediately hooked. I borrowed
Sechrist's (2001) role sheets, introduction letter, project proposal
list, the entire package. Ahhh, I thought, students will love me for
this. They get to choose everything: the book they want to read, the
character they want to portray, the role they want to be, the project
they want to design - everything!
But soon, I found gaps. First,
being able to choose everything isn't always such a good thing. In the
Dave Matthews (1994) song "Typical Situation" there's a line
that says, "It's a typical situation of these typical times: too
many choices. It all comes down to nothing." Matthews' song echoes
the fourteenth century philosopher, John Buridan, whose "logical
ass" dies of starvation due to being placed between two equally
large and equally succulent bales of hay, but is not given any criteria
by which to chose one over the other. Many of my own students were caught
up in the Matthews/Buridan dilemma of choice paralysis: they viewed
reading a book and discussing it meaningfully as one succulent bale
of hay, and neglecting the book, ignoring it and goofing off as the
other. Soon it became clear to me that if I didn't do something soon,
starvation would soon ensue.
Also, questions soon arose.
I noticed that the role sheets were being completed haphazardly, with
students making little or no effort to go beyond the very basic, obvious
answers. And though I would meet with each group repeatedly and explain
that the discussion leader needs to ask open-ended, controversial questions
rather than factual, knowledge-based ones, the latter continued to dominate
most discussions. And so, I would say it again: "Open-ended questions,
guys, open-ended questions!" Things would be great and I would
Then I would eavesdrop on
the group behind me and hear those boring, factual questions springing
up like mushrooms on nice green lawn, poisoning the discussions with
a monosyllabic yes's or no's. They'll get better at this the more they
do it, I told myself. But after four circle cycles, the students were
still beginning and ending discussions with questions like, "How
did Billie Jo's momma get burned?" or "Where was Janie stolen
from?" And these were from the groups who were actually staying
on task long enough to ask the basic questions.
I knew things needed to improve
for everyone: Students needed to improve their handling of book discussions,
and I needed to improve my ability to come up with solid evidence that
real thinking and questioning was going on, I needed effective techniques
to facilitate meaningful discussion.
THE THREE STRANDS
Jeff Wilhelm (2000) refers
to research by scholar J. David Bolter, who suggests that "…if
our students are not reading and composing with various electronic technologies,
then they are illiterate…right now…". Wilhelm (2000)
goes on to say that the much more potent, revolutionary writing and
reading space known as hypermedia will soon replace print media. This
means that as the winds of change sweep through our schools and homes,
if we do not ready our students for this radical break from the old
paradigm, we do them a great disservice and send them into the future
ill-prepared for what they will inexorably meet. This factor intrigued
me and inspired me. I want my students to be prepared for the future,
to be able to move and breathe easily in the forest of the World Wide
Web, to be as comfortable composing on a word-processor as I used to
be with a blue medium-tip ballpoint bic pen and lined yellow legal pad,
my former favorite writing materials.
But Wilhelm's inspirational
ideas didn't end with the technology strand. I also have the perennial
struggle to teach my students how to read, how to interact with a text
and ways to make meaning from it. Low reading skills, I'm afraid, were
one contributing factor to my punctured and deflating literature circles.
Perhaps the main reason the literature circle discussions floundered
was that many of the students weren't struggling to make meaning from
the book, or weren't reading the book, at all. It seemed the higher
skilled students would succeed no matter what I did, and my lower skilled
students would flop no matter what I did.
then I read Wilhelm's (1997) You Gotta Be the Book. It helped
me see that readers who don't picture what is going on in the text,
can't relate to any of the characters or events, or fail to find any
method of accessing Benton's "secondary world," - these were
the readers who aren't getting anything out of the literature circles.
They don't "see" anything when they read, which is sort of
like watching a television show with the screen black; this "black
screen" in turn prevents them from identifying with any of the
characters, which shuts off their sense of interacting with different
roles, which excludes them from the conversation, which introduces confusion,
restlessness and boredom, which encourages off-task behavior in literature
circles, which starts the process all over again. Then I found myself
saying, "Get back to work; if you haven't done your reading, leave
your group, sit quietly and finish it up!" Talk about cycles of
perpetuated failure! But Wilhelm's (1997) work armed me with a fusillade
of reading methods, all of which I was confident would help me help
my lower-skilled students.
With the flat literature
circles I had been doing with my students, and with Wilhelm in mind,
I wanted both to prepare my students and encourage them to improve their
own discussions. But while it is true that we need to teach students
about these new avenues of technology, it is not true that many kids
aren't already technologically savvy. Many students couldn't tell you
the price of a stamp, since their primary form of communication is email
or chat rooms. And so I wanted to meet my students on their own turf
and use a means, which they are both attracted to and comfortable with
to create a space where they could work hard, yet have fun. And so I
proposed the on-line discussion board. Here my students could talk about
what they see, what they don't see, what they agree with, what they
don't, what they have questions about, what they have opinions about,
and what is happening to them as they read. Based on the philosophical
musings of Bernard J. F. Lonergan, 1904-1984, who points out that "Unless
one inquires, one does not give insight a chance to arise" (Carley,
1980), I reasoned that the students would have nothing to discuss if
they did not first have questions. This truth led me to introduce the
third strand of my inquiry proposal, Paideia or Socratic seminars. Perhaps
by winding together the technology and the reader-response methods with
the Socratic seminar, I could help my students to improve their reading
and book discussion skills. Here is how it all played out...