Thursday, April 17, 2014

Notice and Note- does a text have a single meaning?

When I was a junior in high school, my English teacher gave us the freedom to write a literary essay about our recently completed book, Ethan Frome. A friend of my suggested that I could reasonably write a paper about anything, even the relationship between the cat and Zeena. I took up the challenge, reread a book that I did not like the first time, located every reference to the cat and began crafting my argument. While I did not believe that this was a reasonable assertion, I did my best to carefully defend my ridiculous claim with support from the text. My long suffering English teacher did not know what to do with this paper. It was clear I had read the book carefully and I supported my claim with evidence from the text, yet my claim was absurd. She passed it around the English department, none of whom had anything helpful to add to her dilemma of what grade to assign to the work.

A few years back, I was working with an English teacher who shared that the analysis of Cliff notes regarding a particular symbol was wrong. She knew what the symbol meant and the students needed to arrive at her answer, not any of the assorted other thoughts that other scholars had arrived at.

These two stories highlight the idea that a text can be interpreted different ways. This challenge of how to use text dependent questions is explored by Kylene Beers and Robert E. Probst in Notice & Note: Strategies for Close Reading. They share their interpretation of David Coleman's (leading author of CCSS and now President of College Board) idea of text dependent questions- one right answer found in the text. Using Coleman's thoughts multiple choice questions can clearly be answered, computers can evaluate short responses and determine if the student found the correct evidence to support the claim.

Beers and Probst, however, suggest something else. That a text can mean something different to different people depending on their background knowledge and how the reader interacts with the text. Having highlighted two incidents involving different interpretations of the text supported by evidence, I know that I would argue that there are multiple understanding of a text, all of which can be potentially correct, even if diametrically opposed so long as the assertions are guided by reasonable logic and the text. The authors refer to Rosenblatt's work in which she defines two criteria for validity of interpretation:
  1. it cannot be valid if there is no verbal basis in the text
  2. it cannot be valid if it can be clearly refuted by the text (p. 43).
Using this criteria multiple choice questions and computer evaluations of short answer responses with evidence listed are far trickier. For gifted students who have a tendency to look deeper into questions than other students, multiple or diverse understandings of texts and the questions posed by adults lead to challenges when a teacher, evaluator or computer "knows" the correct answer and it differs from what the gifted child thinks. For students of different ages and experiences, Animal Farm can be a story about animals taking over a farm where power makes them bad or a satire about the Soviet Union. Both are correct, but different learnings lead to different understandings.

Beers and Probst propose a structure to get students to ask the questions and then explore answers- inquiry learning- rather than posing the questions when the teacher knows the correct answers, as a way to increase interest and ability to use rereadings and references to unravel the meaning of a text. Students may bring their background to the text, view the text through that lens and then use the text to support or refute their understandings. Using the authors's structure is more authentic in that eventually we want students to be able to interpret text on their own, not only in the vicinity of an expert. Students must be able to independently create questions and search out answers. Merely relying on the teacher for confirmation of correctness is a dependence we cannot afford.

We must think about how we want to evaluate students and be cautious to ensure that their deep thoughts and wonderings are supported, even if they veer from where we think they should be going.

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