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Making Meaning in Literature Grades 6-8
Conversations in Literature — Workshop

About Making Meaning in Literature: A Workshop for Teachers, Grades 6-8

Individual Workshop Descriptions

1. Introducing our Literary Community
2. Encouraging Discussion
3. Going Further in Discussion
4. Diversity in Texts
5. Student Diversity
6. Literature, Art, and Other Disciplines
7. Assessment
8. Planning and Professional Development
9. Starting in September...




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The Process of Literary Understanding

My work suggests that for pedagogical purposes it is unproductive to conceptualize the teaching and learning of reasoning in general terms. In fact, there are basic distinctions in the ways readers (and writers) orient themselves toward making sense when engaging in the activity for literary or discursive purposes. In both cases readers have a sense of the local meaning they are considering at the moment, and also an overall sense of the whole meaning they are reading, writing, or thinking about; but they orient themselves differently to the ideas they are creating because their expectations about the kinds of meaning they will gain or create are different.

Horizon of Possibilities

A literary orientation involves "living through the experience." It can be characterized as exploring a horizon of possibilities. It explores emotions, relationships, motives and reactions, calling on all we know about what it is to be human. For example, once we read and think we understand that Romeo and Juliet really love each other, we may begin to question how their parents would really feel about their relationship if they took the time to understand its depth, and this begins to reshape our understanding of the entire play. And then as we read on, we might begin to question whether Romeo and Juliet are bigger-than-life tragic figures, with their destiny somehow controlled by forces beyond even their parents' control - more so when we try to make sense of Juliet's decision to die. How, we ponder, could someone have prevented this from occurring?

Even when we finish reading we rethink our interpretations — perhaps at one time taking a psychological and at other times a political and at still other times a mythic stance toward the characters' feelings and actions. Thus, throughout the reading (and even after we have closed the book) our ideas constantly shift and swell. Possibilities arise and multiple interpretations come to mind, expanding the complexity of our understandings.

In a literary experience, reading proceeds at two levels; on the one hand people consider new ideas in terms of their sense of the whole, but they also use their new ideas to reconsider the whole as well. There is an ever-emerging "horizon of possibilities" that enriches the reader's understanding. Readers clarify ideas as they read and relate them to the growing whole; the whole informs the parts as well as the parts building toward the whole. In a literary experience, readers also continually try to go beyond the information. From the moment they begin reading, they orient themselves toward exploring possibilities — about the characters, situations, settings, and actions — and the ways in which they interrelate. Readers also think beyond the particular situation, using their text understandings to reflect on their own lives, on the lives of others, or on human situations and conditions in general. In doing this, they expand their breadth of understanding, leaving room for alternative interpretations, changing points of view, complex characterizations, and unresolved questions — questions that underlie the ambiguity inherent in the interpretation of literature.

Thus a literary orientation is one of exploring horizons — where uncertainty is a normal part of response and new-found understandings provoke still other possibilities. It involves a great deal of critical thought, but it is different from the kinds of thinking students engage in for their other academic coursework, where the focus is primarily on the acquisition of particular information (whether that information is cast as memorization of low-level "facts" or the understanding of complex theories and arguments).

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