Why I’m Not Answering My Students’ Questions about Faulkner

This post was also published on The Paper Graders.

My AP Lit students and I are wrapping up our adventure together with William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. (You can read more about how this text fits into the year’s curriculum here if you’re interested.)

This is the most challenging text they’ve read so far this year. Beloved is still coming in April… so I’m hoping they will be able to approach Morrison’s novel with a bit of confidence after surviving Faulkner.

If this is my goal, why then did I tell them on our first day with this tough text that I was not going to answer their questions about it? Why wouldn’t I guide them through it to make sure they understood all of it?

Enter Sheridan Blau:

“I realized in the midst of my own teaching one day that as long as I was the one who had the responsibility of preparing for my teaching prior to each class by solving the most difficult interpretive and conceptual problems that might trouble my students as readers of the texts I had assigned, then I was the one who was doing most of the learning in my English class.”

From The Literature Workshop by Sheridan Blau, p. 55

Exactly. If I’m the one who’s constantly explaining, unpacking. translating difficult language for students, if I’m the one planning how to guide them through a difficult text by figuring out for them what’s going to be difficult or tricky, then I’m the one who is learning and my students are just watching me learn. There can be some value to that kind of observation as learning, but unless my students actually practice making sense of a difficult text themselves without me telling them how to do it, they won’t build the skills they’ll need to make sense of their lives beyond school. Blau explains:

“If my job was to ensure that my students were learning as much as possible, then I had to find ways to switch roles with them, to have them take the kind of responsibility for such tasks as making sense of texts and figuring out textual and conceptual problems that I regularly undertook in my role as the teacher. I undertook these tasks in order to help my students learn the texts I was teaching them. But as long as I was engaged in the task of teaching them what my efforts to construct meaning had yielded for me, all I could do was show them what I had learned. What they would know, therefore, was that I had learned it, and their notes would record some of what I had learned. But the experience of learning was mine, not theirs. They were to a very large extent merely witnesses to it.”

From The Literature Workshop by Sheridan Blau, p. 2

I hope to come off as a helpful teacher to my students, so the day I told them that I wasn’t going to answer their questions about this text, I think a few of them didn’t quite know what to make of it. And instead of addressing that right away, I threw them right into the first chapter.

Following a process outlined in Blau’s book in chapter two–a “workshop” he calls it that he uses to develop autonomous, disciplined readers–I read the first chapter aloud to the students, asked them to pay attention to what they noticed, and at the end, rate their understanding of the text from 0 to 10. Then I read it aloud again–same process (pay attention to what you notice and rate your understanding from 0 to 10). Then I had them read it silently a third time, this time pausing on any parts they wanted to ponder. After that, they rated their understanding again. Then I had them write a short account of their experience as a reader through the three readings focusing on how their understanding changed from reading to reading.

They were ready to talk. I invited them to share their reading journeys with their table group and also share the questions they had about that first chapter. After a few minutes, I brought them back together and asked for students to raise hands if their understanding of the text improved from reading to reading to discussion with each other and to reflect for a moment why it improved if it did.

My students indicated that their understanding improved for these reasons:

  • Rereading gave them the opportunity to revisit the text again and again to solidify understanding and to focus in on the parts they needed to think about more to make sense of them.
  • Talking with other readers was a good opportunity to check understanding and share ideas.

And these were exactly the things I was hoping they would see from this activity. I told them that they possessed, with those two ideas, everything they needed to make sense of a difficult text. They did not need Spark or Cliff or Shmoop. They could do it on their own. And to prove it–I invited each group to share out one question they had or one thing they were wondering about that first chapter.

I did not answer any questions they put out there. Instead, I pointed to the careful reading they were doing to even have the questions to begin with, and I asked the rest of the class if anyone had any ideas about answers. I encouraged them to continually go back to the text to reread for insight. I said things like, “maybe keep that question present in your thinking as you continue to read–I bet you’ll figure it out.”

Then I gave them this, which I asked them to tape into their writer’s notebooks:

Credit for “WTFaulkner” goes to NCTE. Of course I also proudly wore that day my WTFaulkner t-shirt that I picked up from the NCTE annual conference in St. Louis a couple of years ago. The page numbers refer to Blau’s book.

I talked through the document as they taped it down, making an argument to them about why they should feel okay to sit with their confusion with this text, why they should persevere to interpret it on their own, why it matters to them as humans to put in the work to understand something complicated. Then I invited them to make a few notes on the document themselves to capture what they wanted to remember.

And then we dove back into the text. I read the next chapter aloud, they talked for a few moments with their table groups, they shared thoughts out to the whole class, and we talked. I framed this conversation by asking them what they were wondering about and what the second chapter helped them figure out that the first chapter left them wondering about.

And that is it, very simply, my entire approach to this text. Read. Pay attention to what you notice. Talk about it with your table group. Share your ideas out. Tell us what you’re wondering. Tell us what you’ve figured out that you were wondering before. Point back to the text to show us how you figured it out.

With this, we were following the three principles that Blau suggests should underpin literary study in classrooms:

1. Reading is a process of constructing meaning or composing a text, exactly like writing. The reading of any difficult text will entail drafting and revision (largely in the reader’s head) […]. Just as writing may be defined as rewriting, so is any reading worth doing essentially a process of rereading.

From The Literature Workshop by Sheridan Blau, p. 53

Yes, I could see the drafting and revision happening every single day in my students’ thinking about the book. For example, I told them nothing at the start about the characters, the setting, the situation the family is in. All they got was Darl and what he talked about, and then Cora and what she talked about. They thought there might be a coffin being built and someone maybe dying? They slowly started piecing together who these people were and how they connected to each other.

I could have given them from the start details about the family but instead, as they read they had to write and rewrite in their minds how they understood everyone to fit together. They made character charts. They pointed out text details that helped them figure out who all the Bundren children were, for example. They were grateful for Addie’s chapter because finally she explains the birth order of her five children–by that point they had pretty much figured it out, but they used her chapter to confirm their understanding.

2. Reading is, and needs to be in classrooms, a social process, completed in conversation. Students will learn literature best and find many of their best opportunities for learning to become more competent, more intellectually productive, and more autonomous readers of literature through frequent work in groups with peers.

From The Literature Workshop by Sheridan Blau, p. 54

We read 15 to 20 pages per day with 10 minutes in class and the rest read outside of class. After the silent reading time (vital to make sure everyone sank back into the book after whatever they were doing before they walked into class), we would talk. Small group talk. Whole-class talk. For the first week or so (we spent four weeks total making our way through the book together), I designed a simple discussion protocol to structure our conversation. I collected these, and then I turned conversation facilitation over to table groups, one per day. They would use the silent reading time to talk in the hall about how they wanted to guide their classmates’ conversation for that day, using a page listing the discussion protocols I had already used with them to give them ideas for how to structure it. I sat each day with a different group of students, participating as just another voice in the room. And I watched them work together to make sense of the book. They posed questions, they wondered, they pointed back to the text. We stumbled through it all together.

The simple discussion protocols I designed and modeled for my students. When groups facilitated conversation, they used one of these or came up with something similar on their own.

3. Literary reading and literary study, as they are ordinarily sponsored in rigorously conducted English classes, teach students an intellectual discipline that defines critical thinking in every field and fosters academic success in every subject of study.

From The Literature Workshop by Sheridan Blau, p. 57

I love this principle. We have to keep reminding our students of this. We aren’t just teaching them how to think literary thoughts about literary texts–we’re teaching them vital critical thinking skills that have relevance beyond our ELA classrooms and beyond the walls of our school buildings.

I tell my students frequently that the most complex text they’ll ever have to read is their own life. Studying literature gives us practice in that. If I’m always answering their questions for them about literature, then they’re not practicing how to navigate a difficult text to find meaningful answers to their questions on their own. This is reading. This is literacy. This is the foundation for ownership of one’s own life story and agency in one’s own life journey.

Tomorrow is the day I’ve asked my students to read the last 20 pages of the book. A few finished it early, and they’ve been having hushed conversations with me to run through their ideas about the final actions of Anse Bundren. One student told me she read the last sentence and thought that surely couldn’t be all there was, and she dropped the book in frustration upon discovering there was no more. We’ll have so much to talk about in class. Though I anticipate that more–maybe even most–of my students will have a similar exasperated response to the ending, they built the understanding that enables them to have such a response. They own it. It’s theirs. They constructed it slowly on their own and together. They asked questions, talked it out, reread and reread and reread, they got somewhere interesting.

And they honed skills that translate to navigating the complexity of a human life.

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