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"I started teaching fresh out of an accelerated MA program. I had plenty of coursework in English but no pre-service pedagogy classes. I had some experience teaching dance but my first time in the English classroom, I was the teacher--not the student teacher, not the graduate observer. With the help of a generous chairperson and collegial faculty, I found my way. But I owe a lot to ReadWriteThink. Whether you’re new to the profession or a seasoned teacher, these lessons are invaluable. I’ve been teaching for several years now and earned a MST in Adolescent Literacy. But I don’t think I’ll ever stop scouring ReadWriteThink for new ideas."
Kristin Sample's Story
The Pitfalls of Reader Response
I was doing some volunteer work recently with Women’s Storybook Project and found myself in the midst of retired and currently working educators. The combined experiences of a Texas Education Agency program coordinator, an Ethics professor at the local community college, and a retired English professor provided the backdrop for a rich conversation about teaching in the secondary and college classroom. While the conversation was mostly about virtual and hybrid classrooms, one woman relished the discussion that happened in the real classroom. “Oh, the discussions were great. That is, once I got them to forget all the touchy-feely stuff they learned in high school,” she noted with a tinge of sarcasm. Of course she was referring to reader-response theory, the dominant method for teaching literature that took hold of classrooms all over the nation in the late 20th century and is still widely used today. While reader response is a viable teaching tool for literature, it has been misused. Appleman in her 2009 book Critical Encounters in High School English offers several anecdotes of students misunderstanding, misemploying, and downright abusing reader-response theory. She states the main problem here: “They do have a tendency to oversimplify the concept of reader response as simply personal meaning...That is, they conflate the concepts of personal meaning with the identification of personal characters that may affect their response” (52). I’m sure you’ve seen this problem at work in your own classroom, particularly if you teach secondary school. Students do the reading but assume that only their own interpretations matter. Moreover, students dismiss texts that don’t have an immediate application to their own experience. Appleman goes on to discuss teaching Native Son to a group of predominantly white, upper-middle class students. Female students empathized more with the female victims of violence than with the main character Bigger. And while many students could understand how racism figures into Bigger’s rage, they had trouble delving deeper. (Incidentally, here is a great calendar activity on Richard Wright’s Black Boy that uses a reader-response writing prompt.) I’ve witnessed the pitfalls of years of poorly implemented reader response. I’ve taught Pride and Prejudice, Beowulf, and The Canterbury Tales in my British Literature class. Many of my students dismissed the work as “stuff written way before I was born” and others engaged in discussion purely to stay on the better side of my gradebook. I would assign what I thought was “reader response” writing prompts and think of clever ice breakers for starting discussion. But students would rather use this opportunity to focus on their own problems and when it came to connecting to the literature, their responses were largely shallow. Thankfully, ReadWriteThink provides some excellent examples of Reader Response at work in real classrooms like this one that asks students to make a personal connection to pieces of literature with a strong sense of place (i.e. The Bean Trees). The lesson developer gives students multiple opportunities to demonstrate both their knowledge of the literature and their ability to work within the framework of reader response. Moreover, the methods and activities of the lesson could be adapted to fit other pieces of literature. Furthermore, one of my favorite tools on ReadWriteThink is the Webbing Tool. This tool can be used with almost any lesson as it helps students organize their ideas using free-form graphics and color-coding. Students can allot one bubble for their personal reaction to the literature on the left side, one bubble for an example from the text on the right, and one bubble for meaning in the middle. That way, students can see how their impressions and the text’s intentions interact in a clear, organized way. Appleman notes the importance of such a graphic, “The reader diagrams forced students to think explicitly about the mechanic of their responses and to map those factors in relation to what belonged to them and what belonged to the text. They made their transactions explicit to themselves, to their teacher, and to their classmates” (47).
Grades 9 – 12 | Lesson Plan | Standard Lesson
Students write a narrative of place, a character sketch, an extended metaphor poem and a persuasive essay then link all four texts to quotations they have selected from a novel.
Grades 3 – 12 | Student Interactive | Organizing & Summarizing
The Webbing Tool provides a free-form graphic organizer for activities that ask students to pursue hypertextual thinking and writing.
Grades 7 – 12 | Calendar Activity |  September 4
Students read an appropriate excerpt from Black Boy, discuss the incident in which Richard gets into trouble, and write found poems.
After studying English and receiving both her BA and MA from Fordham University, Kristin Sample taught high school in the Bronx for four years. Her husband’s job relocated to LA and Kristin decided to take this opportunity to write. While in LA, Kristin wrote her first novel North Shore South Shore and worked for AOL TV as a blogger and editor. After Kristin returned to New York, she went back to the classroom and pursued her MST in Adolescent Literacy. She also began work on her second novel Stagecraft and co-wrote the pilot for North Shore South Shore. Kristin is passionate about British literature, creative writing, media literacy, and helping struggling readers. She currently lives in Austin, TX with her husband C.K., her son Jackson, and her daughter Darcy.