Going in Cold

Denise Earles

English teacher Denise Earles from Madison Public Schools, CT is part of an innovation project to experiment with standards based grading in a traditional school system.

I have probably read The Great Gatsby twenty times. With each reading I gained new knowledge to stack upon or blend with what I had already discovered. Each time I break out this text with a new class I want them them to come away with ALL that I have uncovered over the last ten years. When they don’t, I try— probably unsuccessfully— to hide my “disappointment face,” and then I “leak” info until my students get there.

What’s wrong with this picture? Everything.

Recently I was discussing with a colleague two options for working with a play in my AP/ECE course. I have never read the play. It’s Shakespeare. I’ve read at least twelve Shakespearean plays, but this one I have never cracked. We start in twelve days and between now and then exams happen and we start a new trimester.

“Should I,” I asked him, “binge read this play and everything I can find out about it on the internet, OR read the play, with them, cold- no rehearsal?”

“Well…,” he started, “you know how to analyze literature, so if you do it with them, organically, they will get a first hand view of how it’s done.”

So my role here will be as a reading yogi; I will act as a guide, inspiring ideas as I participate alongside my students. I will help them to position their thinking, to stretch a little further. I will provide them with a map to reading nirvana. Okay, maybe that’s a grandiose expectation.

I realized that my other option, binge reading and scouring the internet, is what my students do. Why? Because I expect them to know EVERYTHING after one reading: everything that took me ten years and many skills to discover. In a way I will be reincarnating my student self, albeit a student that has gained many new skills. I will have to be accepting of not knowing, of discovering, and of learning very publicly.

I haven’t experienced being a student for quite some time, so I am curious to see how this feels. Will I give in and read Sparknotes? Will I be open to more interpretations from students because I don’t “know” anything about this work? I wonder if there is something in my face that students read when I know “the answer” to my own question? Something that makes them not want to respond, to take a chance.

I’m excited and terrified and I’m going in cold in twelve days.

Four days in:

We started reading four days ago. I explained my position to my students and one young lady outstretched her hands to me, formed into a heart.

As we read aloud I frequently say, “Okay, hold on a minute I need to reread that part.” My students respond in agreement. After rereading we all participate in breaking up the text for meaning; someone gives their interpretation, I offer mine and neither is weighted more accurate or more important than the other.

We have been reading aloud parts in class and I have found that I need to go back and review afterward because I don’t always “get it.” I am not prepared to answer anything but the lowest level questions until I review and reread. I imagine my students feel the same way, and yet a common classroom practice is to read aloud and then question. Note to self: structure time to reread, discuss and reflect before questioning after a read aloud.

Nine days in:

I’m having a blast reading this with my students. We read together, we laugh together, we struggle together. It is so interesting how the shift in “power” has impacted the students. They still ask me the questions and frequently I say, “Hmmm….I’m not sure” and then they remember that I have never read this before and suddenly they are eager to fill in what I don’t know. Each student has had the opportunity to be the expert for a few minutes. So, much as Lear gave away his power at the start of the play I too have relinquished my lands, but with a much better outcome— at least that is how it appears; I have only read through Act III.

I was tempted once, when I was behind in reading, to forage online for facts to sustain me, but I didn’t. I had the fidelity of my experiment hanging over my head, something my students don’t have, so I completely understand why they turn to the internet when they get behind on the reading; they don’t want to fail and they don’t want to appear “stupid.”

Two Weeks in:

And…we’re done reading. I really enjoyed being “unprepared”— a word I would have used before this experience, but not one I will use now— now I know that I was prepared with my best reading strategies and pedagogy. Because I was not guiding the discussion in the direction I wanted, students were able to explore what struck them and there was no concern of not having the right answer (for them or for me) because no one was assessing the discussion. I did not use my “disappointed” face because I had no specific expectations for exploring the play; I did not already know the answers.

Below you will see a chart that outlines how my experience relates to the four attributes of personalized learning.


Voice Co-Creation
In my experiment students were encouraged to explore their own thoughts about the text because I was not driving the inquiry with preset ideas. The student voice was as loud or louder than mine, but we worked in concert.

My take-away: I wonder if I really ever hear student voice as clearly as I did during this experiment. If they know I know the “right” answer, aren’t I limiting them?

Going into this experiment with my students was a challenge for all of us— the challenge was that we did not have a resident expert in our midst and we had to be ok with that. We created meaning together. This was evident when we discussed the cliff scene near the end of the play. One student commented that she thought Edgar was tricking Gloucester because he was being so descriptive— I had not noticed that and thought they were actually on a cliff. By the end of our discussion we were all more aligned with the text and the discussion moved to why he would trick him. We created our learning plan each day, in the moment.

My take-away: We tell students they will have to collaborate in “the real world” and then proceed to tell them what to do without their input. Letting them in to the planning stages of a unit is real world!

Social Construction Self-Discovery
The relationships built through the experience of first time reading along with my students is a unique one. The experience from my perspective may be one that other teachers fear at first, but the experience from the student perspective is so worth the discomfort. My students found themselves on the same level with me— we explored together, they felt freer to make “less academic” comments that frequently led to interesting connections. Those connections may not have been made if I alone led the discovery.

My take-away: We are all social beings and the relationships built in a classroom are, in my opinion, the magic doorway that allows learning to happen.

The day that I discovered that I could not answer anything but surface level questions after a read-aloud prompted a discussion about each of our learning strategies and differences. Many students noted they could understand better when they heard the parts read in different voices, while still others said the only way they could comprehend it was to read it silently and reread often.

My take-away: My self-discovery, shared with students,  is important and can be the impetus for their own discovery.

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