Two of my favorite novels growing up were
A Catcher in the Rye
by J.D Salinger and
A Separate Peace
by John Knowles. Looking back, I wonder how I could have identified so strongly with two upper class white male characters that went to elite prep schools. I grew up in a very different world. Nevertheless, the experiences of these two characters resonated with me. Like Holden, I was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the many “phonies” around me, and, like Gene, I was beginning to suspect that I had a war going on inside myself. Spending time with these two fictional characters offered me solace and at the same time held a mirror up to aspects of myself and of the world that were painful to look at. Witnessing someone else’s journey to adulthood gave me the chance to make some sense of the messy business of growing up.
The coming-of-age story is a genre that invites readers to reflect upon themselves and upon their relationship to the world. In
, librarian and author Nancy Pearl asserts that “coming of age novels describe a search for understanding, not only of oneself, but of the often mysterious, contradictory and sometimes frightening adult world. They help readers reflect on their own experiences and offer a (sometimes minimal) consolation that one’s feelings are not unique.” (Pearl 207) These stories cross cultures and historical periods. While individual characteristics such as race, gender, ethnicity or family background will influence one’s story, certain aspects of growing up are universal. The journey from innocence to experience is well documented in literature. There are many stories about losing a false sense of security, discovering injustice in the world and searching for one’s authentic identity.
Typically, the protagonist of the coming of age story doesn’t fully articulate or even recognize his or her own transformation. However, as witnesses of the character’s journey, we can understand on an emotional and intellectual level how he has grown up. On occasion, the reader can even see something in the fictional world that he is blind to in his own life. Ironically, reading fiction can help him or her to “read” the real world more accurately. I’ve heard friends joke about how they wish someone gave them the “manual” for adulthood. Perhaps, in part, the coming-of-age story can serve this function.
As a new teacher, I was surprised when many of my thirteen, fourteen and fifteen year-old students would read one of these stories and dismiss it as something “boring” or that they couldn’t “relate to.” I soon discovered something that I probably should have known-many of my students were inexperienced readers. In part, reading was unsatisfying for them because they hadn’t yet come of age as thinkers. They did not automatically make inferences about characters, recognize themes, make connections between life and literature and evaluate the author’s craft. I needed to make the processes that experienced readers use visible to them. I found the work of literacy theorists, Carol Booth Olson and Kylene Beers, particularly helpful as I developed practical strategies for my classroom and my practice as a teacher has been shaped by their work. Both of these women incorporated a Reader Response approach to literature which I have found to be an effective starting point for fostering independent thinking.
Reader Response theory assumes the stance that meaning is actively constructed by the reader. In other words, meaning does not reside solely within text, but is the result of the interaction between the reader and the text. Levels of interaction include: forming an understanding, developing interpretation, making connections, and generating a critical stance. Reading is no longer looked upon as a passive act of receiving someone else’s meaning. However, I have noticed that many of my students are reluctant to give up the idea that all authority resides in the text. They believe that their main task is to prove that they “get it” by correctly answering the questions at the end of the story or parroting back what the teacher has said. Many are frustrated when I won’t point to the answer in the text.
One exercise that I use to help students recognize what I call their “literal level, fill in the blank, worksheet type thinking” is to give them a “test,” similar to one I took at a professional development workshop. This test was filled with nonsense sentences like the following:
For the snagdoodle to work properly, all of its lombos must work together. The corresponding test question was: Why might a snagdoodle work improperly?
This exercise helps students to see that it is possible to get a good grade on the test while learning nothing of value.
My students’ reluctance to move on to higher order thinking may be reinforced by what educational philosopher Paulo Freire (1970) calls the “banking model of education.” (Maureen McLaughlin, Glenn L. DeVoogd 149) In
The Pedagogy of the Oppressed
Freire describes a teacher/student dynamic where teachers view students as bank accounts where they deposit facts and withdraw information when tests are given. He goes on to describe how students don’t use the “deposits” because they don’t seem to relate in any way to the students lives. Students are not taught to be critical readers because they are seen as “objects to be acted upon rather than subjects who make decisions about how and what they learn.” (Maureen McLaughlin, Glenn L. DeVoogd 149)
As a teacher in New Haven, I work with students from social, racial and ethnic groups that traditionally have been marginalized in our society. Thus, Freire’s metaphor frightens me. Often I feel tremendous pressure to push my students to a higher level of thinking. I see that there are issues of power involved and I imagine that the children in the wealthy suburbs are engaging in challenging inquiry, while my students believe that “doing work” is passively filling out worksheets. I want to pound the desk in frustration and exclaim, “If you don’t start thinking for yourself someone will do the thinking for you,” or “how are you going to ‘stick it to the man’ if you can’t construct a cogent argument?” However, I continually need to remind myself that abstract thought is really quite new to my students. They, like their suburban counterparts (whom most people would consider the non-oppressed) are coming of age as thinkers.
According to the classic work of developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, these early adolescents have just entered the formal operational stage which begins at around twelve years of age and continues into adulthood. It is characterized by the acquisition of the ability to think abstractly, reason logically and draw conclusions from the information available. During this stage the young adult is able to understand such abstract concepts as love, recognize that when making moral decisions there are shades of gray, make predictions, concieve of logical theories and recognize the values that shape human behavior. This is quite a cognitive leap from what Piaget calls the concrete operational stage which typically occurs between the ages of seven and eleven.
Most children under the age of twelve do not view the world or literature in all its complexity. It is difficult for them to see and accept the contradictions that are inherent in human behavior. For example, the idea that Huck Finn defies the racism in his culture even though he calls his friend Jim “the N-word,” is problematic. It disrupts the notion of an orderly, well-defined world where people and things are either good or bad, fair or unfair, right or wrong. Likewise, students can not fully consider the role that culture, social norms or the character’s personal history play in his behavior.
It is not surprising that coming-of-age as an abstract thinker is a key task in developing into a mature thinking adult. However, such thinking demands entry into a world that is filled with contradictions, ambiguities and multiple perspectives. Sometimes there are more questions than answers and this world requires that one become an independent thinker in order to navigate it. Ideas need to be less fixed as new information is constantly assimilated. Things are not always as they appear to be. Being a mature thinker is hard work. It’s frightening to leave the safety of childhood where things fit into clear categories and trusted adults can be relied upon to supply
Although traditionally we see adolescence as a time when students begin to challenge authority and question conventional wisdom, many early adolescents are ambivalent about becoming independent thinkers. Part of the answer might be that they have become accustomed to the banking model of education. They get extremely frustrated with the idea that I, as the teacher don’t supply the
answer. They believe that
teachers give true and false tests and assign lists of vocabulary to memorize and rote grammatical exercises to complete all pedagogical strategies that have been found to be least effective in promoting critical thinking and strong insightful writing.
Researchers in critical literacy encourage teachers to help students to “problematize” issues. This involves asking questions that move students beyond superficial answers. For example, if students were asked to examine the problem of lack of motivation in teenage readers, they might suggest that the answer was to punish students that don’t read and reward students that do. However, problematizing would mean to look at the complexity of the situation. Students might discover multiple factors that lead to lack of motivation: poor quality texts, students’ past reading experiences, classroom climate, lack of choice in reading materials.
Growing up as a thinker and as a human being means entering into undiscovered territory. In doing research on the development of critical literacy, I’ve come across a quotation by Antonio Machado, the Spanish poet, who said, “Caminante, no hay camino, Se hace el camino al andar”-”Traveler, there is no road. The road is made as you walk.” I believe that my job as a teacher is to provide the tools that children need to chart their own course as thinkers and to create a safe environment, rich with opportunities to practice critical reading and thinking.