What does this mean for literature instruction?
For the past six years I have also been studying the new kinds of knowledge and strategies teachers rely on as their focus shifts from a primary concern with text-content and received interpretations to ways in which their students contemplate, extend, reflect on, and defend and hone their own growing understandings. However, even teachers who wish to support such thinking in their classrooms are often guided by their more long-lived notions of teaching and learning as they work with their students on a day-to-day basis.
For example, at an earlier phase in the project work, we reported that the teachers had made it quite clear that learning to listen to their students' attempts at sense-making and to base instruction on their students' responses is a difficult shift for them to make — even though they wish to do so. All of the project teachers were highly experienced, each with more than 10 years of teaching behind them. Yet the reliance on lesson plans that had been a mainstay of their training (and remains one way in which performance is reviewed by their supervisors) often worked counter to their student-based goals. They felt lesson plans required them to become text-based, determining the scope and sequence of activities and ideas within a particular lesson or unit in advance. Thus, when their students responded in ways they didn't expect, the teachers felt torn — as if departing from the plan involved digressing rather than engaging in good instruction. It was for this reason, as well as the teachers' more general requests for a bank of teaching "options," that we studied the kinds of instructional strategies used during thoughtful lessons — to provide frames of reference (and eventually models) for teachers who wish to internalize a more comprehensive conception of ways to help their students develop as literary thinkers.
Over time, ten Research Assistants from the Center (who are all experienced teachers), more than forty teachers from a diverse group of suburban and city schools, and I have been working collaboratively to find ways to help students engage in the kinds of reasoning that literature can provoke — to arrive at their own responses, explore possibilities, and move beyond initial understandings toward more thoughtful interpretations. We have also been studying the classrooms carefully, analyzing the lessons that work, noting how the classrooms change over time, and coming to understand what underlies the contexts where rich thinking occurs (see Close, 1990, 1992; Langer, 1991, 1992a, 1992b; Roberts & Langer, 1991).
In addition, we have been studying the instructional strategies teachers implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) use to plan, develop, and carry through their lessons, and to move from one lesson to another. The findings were developed through macro- and micro-analyses of the following data sets: audiotapes and fieldnotes of discussions held during weekly full-project team meetings, including the teachers' discussions of their lessons; fieldnotes of collaborative planning and post-lesson reflection sessions between teacher and research assistant; fieldnotes and audiotapes of class lessons; fieldnotes and interviews with collaborating students; and relevant artifacts from the lessons. From these, we derived a set of patterns that underlay the teachers' decision-making. After these patterns had been searched and researched, they were presented to the teachers to reflect on, critique, and use. Then they were reworked and refined through a recursive pattern of teaching, observation and analyses of the lessons, and reflections on how they worked in practice, from the teachers' and students' as well as observers' perspectives. Each time the patterns were revised, the teachers provided additional feedback, leading to the development of a two-part outline the teachers felt could be shared with others to provide visions for change as well as options for planning and teaching.
During last year, the project team continued to refine descriptions of the strategies by "testing" them against past lessons and teacher feedback. Each teacher (grades 1-12) developed a complete "demonstration" unit that was carefully studied. Audiotapes and fieldnotes (as well as instructional artifacts including all student writing and other work) were collected for every aspect of the entire unit. Then, the teachers' understandings of the strategies were used to underlay informal interactions and more formal presentations to their colleagues and student-teachers about the ways in which they supported students' thoughtfulness. Reflective interviews with research assistants and full-project discussions focused on the communicability of the strategies and the role they played in helping the teachers convey the ways in which they supported students' involvement and thought, leading to the outlines that follow.
The first section briefly describes the overall goal of response-based instruction from this project's perspective as well as some general guidelines that underlie the ongoing ethos and interaction of the classrooms. As presented in this first section, the earlier principles (see Langer, 1991) have been incorporated into a framework of strategies that captures the teachers' instructional focus. These are the strategies they relied on to plan their lessons, make decisions about instructional support, and mark student progress. The strategies are presented in a way teachers felt could be shared with others as the basis for professional discussions about planning and decision-making during the course of ongoing lessons.