You know the feeling? That floating-brain withdrawal time while your soul returns from the book’s world to the real world? Struggling, reluctant, and resistant readers don’t. They don’t, because they never enter that book world. To them, the task of reading is decoding words and, if necessary, getting the right answers to the teacher’s questions. No wonder they aren't excited about reading! This Jeffrey Wilhelm’s claim in “You Gotta BE the Book”: Teaching Engaged and Reflective Reading with Adolescents which I read last week.
It makes a lot of sense to me. I’ve noticed the difference between students who can describe with intricately inferred detail a scene in a reading, and one who just says, “I saw a car.” Envisioning images is the entry-level strategy into all critical thinking about the book—if you can’t see the characters, you can’t care about them, and if nothing inside the book matters in its own right, then there’s no motivation to ask questions, make connections, or synthesize and extend thinking. I just could never figure out how to give the second student traction on figuring out how to see.
Wilhelm has some ideas involving art and activity: “being the book.” One of the most intriguing he calls symbolic story representation. Students create cutouts for characters, the author, the reader, and props, settings, ideas, or forces that played a part in the reading (162-163). Then they use the cutouts to narrate what’s going on at a given point in a story. I’d never really thought about where I am in a story as the reader—or where the author is, unless she breaks the fourth wall in a really obvious way. I’m not sure whether I’d take the time to actually make the cutouts in a class, but I’ve been messing with them inside my head as I read.
So I monitored myself reading a text that doesn’t just automatically suck me in, but takes a bit of effort—my morning Bible reading of Genesis 39 (Joseph in Potiphar’s house)—and here are the moves I observed myself making as a reader:
First, I see pictures: a map with a dotted line from Canaan to Egypt. A slave market. I taste dust, squint in the sun, hear the lowing and bleating of livestock. I see Joseph “well-built and handsome”—shirtless like the pyramid pictures, but with the 6-pack of a movie star.
Then, I make connections: I remember Judah’s double standard and dishonest, manipulative behavior in the previous chapter, and contrast it with Joseph’s steadfast deflection of Potiphar’s wife’s advances. I connect her false accusation of Joseph with a false accusation in the book I’m reading, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, which intensifies my identification with Joseph, and makes me that much more upset with Potiphar’s wife and with Potiphar, who’s so easily duped.
After reading the chapter, I go back and read the study notes. This one catches my attention: “Though Joseph’s situation changed drastically, God’s relationship to him remained the same,” connecting vv. 2-6 with 22-23. I extend it to myself: my situation is drastically changing—from a school where I’ve been for 28 years, to my current nomadic 6-month sabbatical, to a brand new school and community in July. It comforts me to remember that God’s relationship to me remains the same. May I be a blessing wherever I go, as Joseph was.
Wow—what a lot goes on as a good reader engages in the world of a book. I want to continue trying strategies to help less skilled readers begin to feel that engagement and want to practice it more.
Reading Wilhelm’s strategies involving drama crystalized for me at least one reason my students have enjoyed Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream so much. I made sure to use drama in many different ways—a posed tableaux to help them think about each character in relationship to the others, inferring physical position, facial expression, gesture; a 1-minute silent, fast-forward scene to review; a performance of an excerpt at the end for assessment. And now that I know why those active strategies worked to deepen students’ comprehension, (1) I don’t have to wait for a drama unit to use them, and (2) I can help students be metacognitive about how they are entering the book world so they can try to replicate that experience with other text.
How do you enter and inhabit the book world? How do you help your students to? I might even try the cutouts next year….
Wilhelm, Jeffrey D., “You Gotta BE the Book”: Teaching Engaged and Reflective Reading with Adolescents, 2nd ed., NCTE: Urbana, IL. 2008.