Whose interpretations matter most – teacher’s or students?

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An Annotation by Laurie Walsh

The article begins with a comparison and contrast of two classrooms, each discussing the character of Queen Gertrude in Hamlet.  The two classrooms exhibit different “interpretive norms–patterns of interaction that occur when students and teachers discuss texts”.  The author references Townsend and Pace’s article and their questions for interpretive norms:

Whose interpretations matter most – teacher’s or students’?

Whose questions matter most?

Should textual events and characters be considered ‘real’?

How do students interpretations get validated?

What are students’ roles in a discussion – just listen?  Think?  Offer opinions?

Respond to one another’s questions?

What are teachers’ roles – partner in dialogue?  Interrogater?  Validator?

VanDeWeghe states that classroom one, a community college writing-about-literature course, is monologic.  The teacher takes center stage, controls the discussion, and interprets the literature.  He does not show interest in what the students are thinking.

Classroom two, an eleventh-grade college prep literature class, is diologic.  Participants must think, teachers value students’ ideas, and characters are viewed as real and complicated.  The seats are arranged in a semicircle, the teacher is one source of knowledge, and the discussion is real.

The author provides a practical section on implications for teachers:

  • Change the physical arrangement of the room, using circles, semicircles, and paired or small-group discussion configurations.Frame discussion topics ‘in ways that invite multiple perspectives – in ways that make issues problematic.’
  • Have students establish norms for conducting discussions.
  • Implement practice in ‘considering alternative viewpoints’ through such means as writing before and after discussion or using dialogue journals for shared written conversation.
  • Allow time before class for students to generate discussion questions and time at the end to write down continuing puzzlements that could be used for later discussions.
  • Pay attention to classroom discourse, especially to the ways we talk about our interpretations as well as our students (e.g. expressing uncertainty, valuing conundrums, praising intellectual risk taking).
  • Model the habits of mind we wish to inculcate in students – for example, tentative exploration of an idea, perseverance in the face of self-doubt, and willingness to listen to other points of view that may challenge our own”.

The author concludes,

“literary discussions may be about more than how to interpret literature.  They may also be about how to talk about life – in all its mystery and messiness.  Some would call this lifelong learning”.

This uplifting and inspiring article leaves me wondering which classroom is most similar to mine.

VanDeWeghe, R. (May 2006).  Interpretive norms in literature discussions.  English Journal.  95, 84-87.  Retrieved July 6, 2008 from ProQuest database.

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