The majority of my students are reading below grade level; that is MY reality in the classroom. The good news is that they are capable of critical thinking! I am often amazed at the higher level thinking my students display during class discussions
when I read to them
. Even my severely struggling readers are eager to join in conversations about various literary works….
as long as they don’t have to read these selections themselves.
I find that my CMT-based language arts curriculum prescribes skills and strategies that are necessary for my students to learn; however, the recommended selections found in our textbook create a barrier for student learning. My level one readers are capable of learning to distinguish between implicit and explicit themes, but when they are required to comprehend Greek myths in order to grasp that specific skill, they falter. The mountain of READING looms too great and so the critical thinking falls by the wayside.
My hope is that with this unit, I can create a way for struggling seventh grade readers to “conquer” a piece of literature and then feel confident to explore and critique that work. I have chosen to focus on the works of Dr. Seuss because 1) they are at an elementary reading level that all of my students can read and comprehend, 2) they are thematically written with both explicit and implicit themes that will invite discussion, and 3) Dr. Seuss is a well-known author to my students, but many of his works (especially the ones we will read) are much less well-known to them. Therefore, the students will begin the unit feeling confident with the author and his style, but will soon encounter new stories, new questions, and new ways of looking at his works.
The strategies and activities forming the basis of the unit will take place over a three-week period. After discussing the literary concept of theme (implicit vs. explicit), I will introduce the books of Dr. Seuss by challenging my students to “look beyond the simplicity.” Of course this challenge will initially be met with eye-rolling and audible sighs. It is here that I think I will need to give my students a kinesthetic way to become literary critics, a way to initially transcend the excuse of “been there… done that… read that before…” while at the same time make use of these literary prejudices as a jumping off point for later discussions.
My idea is to simply change the seating in my classroom. I have a feeling that if (for the three weeks of our unit) we push the “student” desks against the wall and bring in “adult” folding chairs, we will create an environment where the students can break out of the student mold and form a new literary identity. Instead of having the familiar elementary classroom where the teacher is sitting at a higher level reading to children in desks, we will have a true literary circle where both students and teachers are sitting at the same level in a circular arrangement conducive to sharing, evaluating and discussing literature -- not “learning Dr. Seuss.”
Once we have overcome this first challenge, 7th grade condescension, we will begin by looking at the man behind the books. The students will need a framework for distinguishing the various themes prevalent in each book. By focusing on the literary concept of
, students will be able to read the biographical sketch of Theodor Seuss Geisel and pick out the conflicts that shaped his own personality and sense of morality. This exercise will hopefully expand their knowledge base allowing them to find historical and personal connections within many universal themes. This particular critical thinking activity corresponds directly to the strategy of connecting put forth by the Connecticut Writing Project. The CWP encourages students to connect to literature in three ways: text to self (How does it relate to me?), text to text (How does this relate to other things I’ve read?), and text to world (How does this relate to historical or world events?)
One of the over-arching goals for this unit will be to instill the value of interpretation into my students by giving them the tools and the opportunities to practice within a literary environment. Because we will be focusing on “children’s books”, I believe the students will confidently point out the obvious theme within the basic plot, but it is also my belief that they will just as easily see a second or third theme come through within the initial readings of the stories. By developing another interpretation so quickly and finding that others in their group have done the same, the students will learn that multiple interpretations of the same book are possible. Then, of course, the question will arise as to how each person developed his or her own interpretation if each person heard the same story -- same words, same plot, same characters. Hopefully, the realization will hit (or come in the form a teacher hint) that it must come from each individuall’s background knowledge and experience. Interpretation relies on the merging of one’s own individual experience with the experiences of others: the author, characters, historical figures, etc. Because interpretations start within each individual, each individual has a voice and an interpretation to share! This break-through in thinking will not only set the stage for quality discussions and active participation throughout the unit, but it will also validate the experiences of every student. Every problem, trial, tribulation, and success that they have experienced allows them a unique way of looking at things. Each and every student should emerge from this literary experience saying, “If my own experiences helped me uncover a new layer within a simple Dr. Seuss book, I can find new ways of looking at everything: literature, history, science, art…” The interpretive opportunities are endless.
This pedagogical belief was corroborated by former teacher Rita Roth in a 1989 article titled,
On Beyond Zebra with Dr. Seuss.
Because of its potential, children’s literature can be a strong vehicle in the effort to stretch our students, to move them toward critical literacy -- a literacy that goess beyond decoding and comprehending, what the author says. Critical literacy entails reflection -- connecting the printed text to our personal experience and prior knowledge. It entails relating the meanings evoked by a text to the practical world; questioning, confirming, rejecting.1