T Sale's Blog

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

451: The Temperature at Which Minds Burn...?

I had a hard time deciding what to write about for my Take 5 this week. It didn’t help that I read Karl’s eloquent post titled “What If?” (complete with attached PowerPoint and Media Player files) and realized that I didn’t have anything nearly as thoughtful to offer. I toyed with writing about the PowerPoint we received in an email today, the one we’re going to see at the inservice this Friday (apparently we’re going to have Turbo meetings, which will not only determine our GAN but also help us reach our SIP, while teaching us how to hold efficient PLC meetings), but I decided to reserve judgment until Friday. Finally I thought about the book circles I’m starting in my English 10 Basic Skills class.

For you non-language arts teachers, a book circle is basically just what it sounds like – a student version of a grown up book club, where you get to choose the book you read and decide what you want to talk about as you read it. Very constructivist, no? To an English teacher book clubs are a little scary, because there are so many symbols and motifs in these books that we want our students to recognize and appreciate, and what if they just want to talk about what jerks the protagonist’s parents are? Nevertheless, with a little guidance, book clubs can be a great way to get students to take ownership of a book.

But in my basic skills class it isn’t the book circles themselves that I’m wondering about; it’s one of the selections I’ve decided to offer. Originally I lined up Of Mice and Men and The Pearl, both by John Steinbeck, and both pretty accessible for struggling readers, along with The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury, a little tougher read, but a beautiful book and one I’ve used successfully in my skills class before. And then, one student mentioned that a friend of his (who happens to be in my “regular” English 10 class) was reading Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, and that it sounded interesting. Now, in my experience, Fahrenheit 451 can be a challenging read for even “regular” 10th grade students (though the payoff is great once they wade through it). The vocabulary, the metaphorical language, and the tendency towards long, explanatory speeches by some of the characters can be daunting. I’ve never even considered trying Fahrenheit 451 with my skills class before. After all, “research says…” that if students try to read texts that are more than two grade levels above their reading level, they’ll only get frustrated and become more negative about reading.


When we previewed the books this week, several students choose Fahrenheit 451 as the book they wanted to read. I did warn them that it was the most difficult of the four selections, but let’s face it, a book about firemen who burn books sounds much more intriguing than the story of two men trying to make their way during the depression (“Mr. Sale, was this the sequel to Brokeback Mountain?”) or the trials of a poor Mexican pearl diver. We’ll see how it goes.

This has made me think, in more general terms, about this question: Where do we draw the line between student choice (which might just lead in a direction of greater interest, and therefore greater involvement), and giving students “what’s good for them?” Am I being irresponsible by letting students try to read a book that’s probably going to frustrate them? And if they are successful reading the book, is it OK if they miss all the deep symbolism, as long as they keep reading and find something to discuss?

And what if they don’t have time to voice all their thoughts in a 20 minute Turbo meeting?


  • At Thu Sep 21, 02:59:00 PM 2006, Blogger Karl Fisch said…

    I think your question regarding whether to allow students to try something that we would deem "too hard " for them, or choose "what is best for them" ourselves is one of the hardest questions we face as teachers. And I think it's a question that comes up a lot more often when using constructivist approaches.

    I guess I would err on the side of student choice - with appropriate guidance from their wonderful English teacher. Let them struggle some with Fahrenheit 451, and then help them get the most they can out of it. How horrible would it be if they missed some of the "deep symbolism," but pretty much got the overall point and - oh, by the way - enjoyed the book?

  • At Fri Sep 22, 06:03:00 AM 2006, Blogger mferrill said…

    I agree with Karl, Terry. Student motivation to read is such an important factor in understanding what they read. I'll never forget a basic skills class I taught at LHS several years ago--I decided to teach them Macbeth along with my "regular" students, and they couldn't wait to read a story about witches (okay-it was near Halloween and that was my pitch)! I didn't make them read every word (and perhaps you could summarize some of the difficult sections of Fahrenheit), but the sections we did cover were fabulous. At the end of the year one of my students wrote me a thank you note: "Dear Mrs. Farewell [sic], Thank you for teaching us Mr. Shakespere [sic]. No one would ever teach it us befor [sic] because they thought we were to dum [sic]. But I love Macbeth and I will never mess with whiches [sic]. Wow. That's why I teach!

  • At Fri Sep 22, 02:30:00 PM 2006, Blogger Lary Kleeman said…

    I think it's wonderful that the basic skills students can exercise the same rights as the other students. In fact, one of the strengths of the basic skills program, at least in the past, was that it allowed for smaller class size which, in turn, could accomodate the exploration of texts that might otherwise have lost these students in the more "mainstream" classes. I loved teaching Greek tragedies in basic skills years ago...the language of these is so "clean and clear" in the sense that it expresses thought with a muscular, minimal diction that most of the basic skills kids could read and understand. Your experiment is testament to the fact that these students can accomplish more, perhaps, than what labels allow for.

  • At Fri Sep 22, 02:36:00 PM 2006, Blogger lgaffney said…

    You told them that it was the hardest choice and they STILL chose it. Maybe this means they need more challenge, feel underestimated, and/ or are prepared to show you what they're capable of? I generally err on the side of cynicism, but my sophomores have knocked my socks off this year in terms of proving what I didn't really think they were capable of! I hope that this will be the case for you and, if not, at least you can say you tried and believed in them enough to give it a shot.

  • At Fri Sep 22, 02:42:00 PM 2006, Blogger jaredr said…

    This is a tough issue. As a teacher, you love to see motivated students want to extend themselves and take on a challenge. But this can backfire at times leaving the student not feeling successful and then not wanting to attempt other difficult challenges.

    Your knowledge of the books and knowing the students abilities can then help temper their high expectation for reading a challenging book. It's a hard choice, but like Karl said, I would probably encourage more student choice.

  • At Mon Sep 25, 04:24:00 PM 2006, Blogger C. Makovsky said…

    I'll echo what my colleagues are saying. I think it's very significant that the kids chose this book. I also teach basic skills (the seniors), and in my class we read Hamlet. Granted, I read huge chunks to them and we view many film clips, but the students seem to appreciate the fact that they are reading what all the other seniors are reading. Maybe you could skip sections that are laborious and didactic--or simply read those parts out loud. Or maybe let the kids take turns reading chunks to each other, in pairs. The important thing is that they be exposed to the ideas and the language.

    Good luck!


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