One thing I know about my ninth grade students: They come to high school with an extensive background in formal English grammar. They have spent countless hours in elementary school and middle school singing songs and doing worksheets. I'm confident that they passed their grammar tests.Reading Ms. Simmons' article, I am making my own powerful inference, which is that apparently, inside K-12 English classes, "reader response" means "generating" a list of questions because the teacher told you to.
My students were actively making meaning from their reading [of The Odyssey] by using rhetorical grammar;* they were engaging with the text, making connections among words and phrases, and making powerful inferences....
But the progress students were making by charting action and character for difficult passages was not carrying over into their reader-response journals. In spite of my constant admonitions and frequent modeling to "use context--before and after your passage--to read for the answers to your questions," the students were still generating lists of questions without any indication that they were reading for the answers....
In desperation, I pulled out some passages for a directed-response exercise. I gave them a two-column sheet--text in the left column, with a blank right column--and asked them to write their responses in the right column. Once again I told them, "Don't just write questions. Read to find the answers to your questions. That means finding the passage in your book, reading into and out of the passage.** When I read their responses, I was appalled. Their responses had only a tangential connection to the reading.
Curious, I went back through the stack of papers and a lightbulb went on.
Pronouns. They weren't connecting the pronouns to their antecedents.
Back in the classroom, I announced my discovery and asked students to list personal pronouns I didn't want case, person, or number--just a list of pronouns In all four ninth-grade classes, the room became deathly still. Students looked at me with terrified eyes. Grammar 4 was rearing its ugly head.
"Think about the grammar songs you learned in middle school," I said.
In this case, generating a list of questions about a work of literature -- The Odyssey -- you can't begin to fathom.
Here's the way things worked back on my home planet:
- Teacher assigns reading
- Students do reading
- Teacher asks comprehension questions
- Students answer comprehension questions
- Teacher checks answers & makes sure students understand the reading
- Students ask questions about things in the reading they don't understand
- Teacher answers questions about things in the reading students don't understand
- Serious discussion and analysis begin when the preceding activities have been successfully completed
The students in Ms. Simmons' class clearly are not prepared to read The Odyssey. I'm not prepared to read The Odyssey, and I am a person who scores 800 on SAT reading. I read The Odyssey along with Chris, the summer before he entered his Jesuit high school. I loved the book, but I didn't have an easy time of it.
* By "rhetorical grammar," the author means picking out the 'action verbs' in a passage (mostly, but not always, the action verbs in the independent clauses) and figuring out who (mostly who, not what) performed the action.
** Do students know what this means?