Friday, 10 August 2012

Teaching student teachers to teach literature

I taught PGCE (graduate teacher education) for only four years and keep thinking still, six years later, of how I might have done it better. I wish I’d had it clearer then how one might approach ‘teaching' a text like a poem, novel, part of a novel, story or non-fiction text treated as literature. Yesterday for some reason I started thinking how I might have laid it out in a session. Here’s a rough sketch.

Ask the group (the student teachers) the following questions about a text it’s proposed to teach in school:

  1. What do you think it’s important to notice, feel, mark, note or register about this poem etc? what noticings (etc) would in your view constitute an adequate reading or mean the kid has ‘got’ the poem?
Two notes to add here:

(a)        Distinguish between the noticings etc that a school student or reasonably responsive English speaker might be expected to come to on his or her untutored own, through such resources as a lay person brings to bear, and those that might result from concepts (‘scientific’ lit crit concepts) and knowledge that an English teacher might impart. Consider, as a possible general rule: should we be starting with the first sort? (A whole discussion is needed on this.)

(b)        ‘in your view’, I said above but you have to take into account that that might not be their view. See below.

2.        What would need to go on between you, the class and the text for those noticings to occur, those aspects or features to be felt? What processes and activities might you instigate?

  1. How then will you know what has been registered, noticed, marked or felt? How will you get those results, that learning, to show? This is a question about evaluation, in the sense not of grading but on ‘formative’ evaluation or getting the information by which to proceed effectively.
Now the only way a student’s experience can show, so you can be aware of it, is if it’s materially manifested in an overt sign, which may be anything from a smile or uneasy shifting in the seat to an essay. Whatever it is that’s happened in the students has to come out in the open and enter the ‘space of appearance’ in Hannah Arendt’s phrase. A whole lot of discussion is therefore required on the forms of productive activity that could be encouraged in the classroom which will indicate what has been going on in the student’s head.

I suggested in point 1 that teachers begin by identifying the things they think students should ‘get’ in the text but observed in 1(b) that students might well have a different take. Now you don’t want to preempt or cut off reactions that are different from the ones you think they should have that are the same as yours, or give the sense that yours are right and theirs somehow not legitimate. Devising forms of productive activity that will allow responses to appear that you’d no way of anticipating is a difficult matter and one of the hardest and most important thing English teachers have to learn to do.

        4.        There’s an extra complication: it may take some form of expression for the student to become aware of the nature of his or her response. For it to become known to the experiencer, the experience may need to be manifested out there, in the public (accessible to others) ‘space of appearance’, in, for instance, spoken or written words. Indeed, it may only be when ‘semiotically anchored’ or attached to signs that some sorts of experience may be said to come into existence at all, or at any rate definite existence as realities to be mentally entertained and contemplated. It may be in giving expression to the response to a text that the response happens ‘in the first place’.

And here we have to note that the notion of ‘expression’ is profoundly misleading, as if something that’s inside (mental, psychic) gets outside, by a process of ex-pression, pressing out. In fact there’s no way that what’s inside, a thought or feeling, can itself be made visible or apprehensible since what is perceptible is material and those inner occurrences aren’t. (Except that some thoughts are already ‘encoded’ internally in language to varying degrees….)
What actually happens in so-called ‘expression’ is that to whatever is ‘inside’ is added something else, something of quite a different, namely material, order.

As a responsible PGCE tutor I would want to supply references to articles and books in which the authors give serious thought to, and report their classroom experiments relating to, (a) forms of production to give ‘expression’ to responses, ones that could be set up without preempting those responses; and (b) the theoretically difficult issue of the disjunction between experience and the expression of it and the way in which it may only be in expression that experience may be said to come fully into existence at all.

But I'm now so out of touch with the whole business that no such references come to mind. But I'm also willing to bet that none of the main ‘method books’ on English teaching of the last, what, twenty years, at any rate in Britain, have anything substantial to say on these issues.

1 comment:

George said...

Honoring student response is crucial to any democratic progressive approach to the teaching-learning of English. But where does the student observe reading process which we might label primary as opposed to secondary? Thus is might prove useful to consider putting on display a teacher encountering previously unseen texts that students are encouraged to bring in. Following a "speak aloud" protocol as employed in writing process research, a teacher can show students just how she or he behaves in the presence of a text read for the first time, with all its false starts, circlings, referencing, etc. Thus might the graduate students see the Professor enacting such a reading to make the point dramatically on the first day?

G. Pradl