as the math class I observed, not just the same
window dressing. I’d like to highlight the
three structural qualities that I believe link the
two lessons at this deeper level. I arrived at
these three by considering what was unique
about this English lesson compared to the way
English classes are usually run. In other words,
what genuine value-add was I getting from the
problem-based learning math approach?
The first parallel is that, like my math colleague, I gave the students time to work on their
own before sharing their answers. Such a practice
is not unheard of in English classrooms, but I
think the common tendency in language arts is
to go almost directly from questions to answers.
Seminar-style discussion is in many ways the
default format for an English class, and in that
kind of discussion, silence is usually brief and
sometimes even awkward. The expectation is
that there will be a constant give-and-take of
opinions. My lesson was different. The students
worked for a solid ten minutes on their answers.
This kind of reflective work, I’ve found, can get
more students engaged, better accommodate a
range of student abilities and personalities, and
push students toward deeper thinking, both by
giving them the time they need and by acting as a
reminder that literary texts are seldom simple.
The second parallel is that I forced students
to present their answers, not just speak briefly
from their seats. Again, this is not how seminar-style discussions usually work. The presentation
format encourages students to craft an argument
with evidence. In discussion, arguments tend to
be attenuated and fragmented. Reasoning and
evidence may get shared, but often in bits and
pieces from various speakers as the discussion
develops. Presentations force students to be both
better listeners and more strategic thinkers.
The third commonality with the math class is
The Challenges of Literary
that we were working with a question that had a
right answer. This is rare in English classes. Most
of the literary questions worth discussing and
writing about are open-ended. We want to train
students to recognize better and worse answers,
more interesting ones and less interesting ones,
more convincing ones and less convincing ones,
but the strict sense of right and wrong that
exists in high school math doesn’t usually exist
in literary interpretation. I’m generally a big fan
of my content area’s bias toward open-ended
interpretive questions, but critical reading isn’t
a matter of “anything goes,” and sometimes stu-
dents need a reminder of that. English teachers
hear crazy misreadings all the time. Right
answers, if they’re the text’s right answers and
not just the teacher’s, can help ensure language
arts remains a rigorous and logical discipline.
I wouldn’t want to do this kind of a lesson every
day. The strength of this method is the way
it complements and balances other teaching
methods, especially discussion. And it’s not
without its flaws. I got lucky with that first
question. It turns out that literary questions
with right answers are often too simple; most of
them end up being basic comprehension questions that don’t work with this method. They’re
just not complicated enough to count as genuine
“problems.” In fact, as I’ve worked on refining
this instructional strategy, I’ve had occasion to
worry that for our most talented students, all
literary questions with right answers might be
too easy. Wasn’t there at least one student in my
class who knew at a glance that Rosa was talking
about social class? Wouldn’t the whole exercise
seem boring and misguided to her?
But teaching an 11th and 12th grade poetry
class this past semester has given me new hope.
Many great poems are perfectly suited to be
treated as “problems,” and they work well for a
wide range of students. The problem to be solved
isn’t necessarily a poem’s deep meaning, which
shouldn’t be taught with “right” answers in
mind; it can simply be the surface-level meaning.
Who is the speaker and what is their situation?