What are they describing? What actions occur?
With much poetry, basic comprehension
questions aren’t so basic. And although there is
room for a diversity of interpretations in a poetry
classroom, even on this surface level, there is also
a need to identify and discard misreadings. Most
English teachers could attest that the wackiest the-ories we hear tend to be in poetry discussions. And
it does more harm than good if the teacher simply
shuts down or dismisses the wackiness. Better to
let the students argue it out using evidence.
For example, there is a poem by Mark Jarman
called “Descriptions of Heaven and Hell” that I’ve
taught many times. The first stanza reads:
The wave breaks
And I’m carried into it.
This is hell, I know,
Yet my father laughs,
Chest-deep, proving I’m wrong.
We’re safely rooted,
Rocked on his toes. 2
What is the father doing to or with the son or
daughter? This is an introductory-level poetry
problem, a good starting point for many classes.
For some readers, it’s too simple. For others,
it’s tricky and divisive. Many students get stuck
imagining the father throwing his child into the
ocean. The hyperbole of “And I’m carried into
it,” exposed by the later correction of “We’re
safely rooted,” escapes them. Some students don’t
imagine a beach scene at all.
Scratching the Surface
As I mentioned, the first thing that struck me
about problem-based learning math was the slow
pace. Problem-based learning literature is no dif-
ferent. At best, you could finish two rounds of
literary problem solving in one class period. The
process is slow partly because of time set aside for
individual work and presentations and the insis-
tence on arriving at a correct answer. But another
reason it’s slow is that comprehending literature,
reading carefully for deep understanding, is a
challenging and complex process.
Of course, the problem-based learning approach
can be made even more broadly applicable in
English classes if used with more open-ended
interpretive questions. In other words, teachers
can get rid of the “right answer” requirement
and still use problem solving in their lessons.
They could still go at a slow pace with a focused
question, give students ample reflective time to
craft a response, and require them to present their
responses. But I wouldn’t want this to totally supplant the full “right answer” method that I adopted
in my classroom. There’s a shock value to the full
method (and to a playful emphasis on the math
parallels) that I’ve found extremely valuable. It’s
an engaging hook as well as an important corrective to common misconceptions about literary
Overall, my literary problem-based learning
method only scratches the surface of what is possible when it comes to a problem-solving approach
in English or language arts classes. Again and
again, I’ve been reminded that so much of what
might seem deeply traditional when it comes to
studying literature, including writing assignments
and class discussions, can and should be implemented in a cutting-edge way. As I’ve grown in my
practice, my aim is to make my classes all about
student-centered problem solving. The method
described here is actually fairly teacher-centered
compared to the full spectrum of practices I’ve
experimented with. The point is to make my class
a more intellectually rigorous and exciting place.
For the most part, that means students don’t need
to worry about my interpretation of a work of
literature. But, every once in a while, they do. EL
1Ozick, C. (1990). The shawl. New York: Vintage
2Mark Jarman, excerpt from “Descriptions of Heaven
and Hell” from Bone Fires: New and Selected Poems.
Copyright © 1981, 2011 by Mark Jarman. Reprinted
with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc.,
on behalf of Sarabande Books, www.sarabandebooks.
Dan Sussman ( firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches
10th, 11th, and 12th grade English at Moorestown
Friends School in New Jersey.
The math class I’d observed had
been problem-based, so my
English lesson would be, too.