What is a text?

I just started a new quarter at school, and I’m attempting a new approach to my American Literature course. Inspired by Meg Donhauser (a real visionary!) and what she’s doing in her British Literature course, I am using her learner-centered framework and adapting it for a 1-1 computing environment. We are using web 2.0 tools like Google Docs and social bookmarking to collaborate and individualize learning. I also joined forces with our school’s Head Teacher-Librarian, Heather Hersey. As an expert in the information search process, she is a brilliant educator committed to authentic inquiry in the classroom.

Meg’s class is run like a choose-your-own British literature adventure! Students move through literary eras together, but they choose their own texts and areas of focus. Students track their learning by basically writing their own learning plans. They identify standards they work toward, they write their own questions, and they identify their own understandings. Meg conferences with them, monitors their progress, and teaches them to question and reflect. I love this whole concept. It makes learning collaboratively differentiated and amazing! I wanted the same opportunities for my American Lit kids, so Heather and I started them off thinking about the American literature not as static, but as something they could help define.

Heather came in to help the class through a model of the information search process as Carol Kuhlthau describes it. We explained a very basic plan for the class’s exploration; they would be figuring out how people will define our current literary era 50 years from now. Before they began exploring and choosing texts for independent reads, we wanted to first define a “text.” Below is the class brainstorm from that day.

What is a text?

What is a text?

We recorded both the processes they went through to answer the question as well as the potential examples of texts. We examined the definitions and they added to the examples list by building off of the idea that texts are “organized” and “create a story.” What happened as we talked was really cool. Heather and I asked genuine questions we were formulating and became part of the inquiry process with them. We wanted to know if visuals or images could count. Heather reminded them that some video games tell stories and wanted to know if those counted as texts. We let them discuss, and one group of five was adamant that a text had to be written. But, most other groups disagreed. One wanted to know if “subtexts” counted like body language and hand gestures. I asked if a sign language conversation could count as a text. A group of three shared three different opinions and began challenging each other in the large group discussion. One defined a text as an artifact that had an analyzable story or message, but didn’t initially think that a painting could be considered a text. His classmate convinced him otherwise by explaining purposes and messages behind some artwork.

After about 15 minutes, several people were frustrated, and a couple even thought we were “thinking about this too much.” That’s when Heather brought us back to the Information Search Process. She asked how many people were confused, frustrated, or doubtful. Almost every hand went up. According to Carol Kuhlthau, she explained, that was normal. And in fact, according to Kuhlthau, that exploration (and associated feelings) are a necessary early step in the process. Because initial beliefs are often challenged during this stage, she says that people may even feel inclined to abandon the research.

Of course, we wanted to avoid abandoning the question, and so our next step was to try to make some meaning from our initial discussion and create individualized learning plans of attack. We asked students to write down questions that they want to explore and ways in which they want to start to explore it. We had successfully modeled the first few stages of the ISP, ones that are often overlooked in a mad rush to gather as much information as possible without really thinking and questioning. Now, the students would be responsible for taking Heather and I through their own inquiry.

Since that day, students have come up with extremely unique approaches to the literary eras. One wants to know how elements of horror have developed in America, another is examining the way illustrations have influenced writing throughout American history (everything from political cartoons to graphic novels), and a third is looking at myths and legends and the way that stories spread in American societies. I cannot wait to see what all of our students come up with!

As part of my own inquiry during this project, I will be blogging about our progress. Please let us know what you think, ask us questions, or give us suggestions for improvement!

3 thoughts on “What is a text?

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