I recently attended an inspiring seminar, with Jess Mason and Marcello Giovanelli, looking at Text World theory and the way that it can help structure classroom activities.
At the beginning of the seminar we were asked to picture how we would visualise a short piece of writing and draw this on paper. The extract was taken from The Mist in the Mirror by Susan Hill and it was interesting to compare our drawings with other members of the group and see the elements of the story that we each, individually focused on. There were many similarities with the drawings and these occurred most frequently in the same groups. For example each individual in my group did not use the whole sheet of A2 paper and focused on smaller images instead; whereas other groups used the whole sheet with much larger drawings. Marcello then explained that this comes from our mental representation of a text as we are more likely to create similar images to those who are near us and may influence our decisions.
This would be a fantastic task to use with a class as it would allow pupils to build an individual mental image of a text that can then be shared and discussed with their group. It would also be interesting for pupils to think about why they focused on certain words in the story and why they discarded others. There will be words in the extract that some pupils may have vocabulary gaps with. For example, in the extract we were given, the word ‘London’ triggered mental pictures such as Big Ben and the London Eye; however if a pupil has little/no knowledge of London they may not choose to focus on that word. This, therefore, highlights the important connection between comprehension and interpretation: if there is a lack of understanding then it may make it more challenging for pupils to think critically about a novel and create their own interpretation.
Quick minute drawings to create a mental representation of an extract from The Mist in the Mirror.
This task also tied in well with Jess Mason’s thoughts on personal preference. As we read more we start to gain an understanding of what we like and dislike. Due to our own experiences we may also be more likely to focus on certain elements of a text. This was made evident in a whole group discussion. Some members of the seminar stated they enjoyed rich character description and voice, whereas others preferred descriptive setting and landscape. Interestingly, this reflected on the drawings we created in our groups. Certain words in the extract created an individual trigger for each of us and we focused on that element of the story. This, perhaps, indicates the influence our personal preferences can have over what we focus on in a text and the mental image we create.
This idea of personal preferences led Jess into a discussion about pupils and their experiences with novels in a classroom. This was really insightful for me as Jess explained the difference between a teacher’s experience with a class novel and a pupil’s. Teachers will, normally, read a novel before they begin it with a class. This means that a teacher experiences an authentic reading of a text and, therefore, can create their own interpretation of the novel. However, pupils often only experience a class novel within a classroom. They might read some of it with the class for 15 minutes of the lesson and then start tasks in groups and this may potentially result in the pleasure of reading being denied for these pupils. There will be pupils in the class who wish to read at a slower pace or those who read ahead and we must ask ourselves how much this disjointed experience of reading is influencing the pupils’ enjoyment of a novel.
Furthermore, because the teacher has their own interpretation of the text they can, consciously or not, influence the way the pupils perceive a text. This means that pupils are experiencing a manufactured reading of a novel and are being denied the right to engage. If we think about sharing our thoughts with someone on a TV series we have watched, we expect to have similarities and differences in terms of likes and dislikes and we expect to interpret characters in different ways . Yet, because teachers have already had the experience of a novel , they are more likely to encourage pupils to create their mental representation of a text rather than allowing pupils to have the freedom to create their own.
As a result of teachers having a natural reading experience with a class novel, it may influence the tasks chosen for a class. This perhaps highlights the potential dangers of learning intentions if teachers feel the lesson cannot take another direction. There is also a danger in waiting for the ‘right answer’ and then moving on when that has been given. This can, therefore, exacerbate the issue with pupils experiencing a manufactured reading of a text as they may switch off if they feel that their views are not important or lose confidence if they feel they are wrong. However, viewing something differently often has real value and this led Jess to a discussion on the idea of a character being perceived as a ‘villain’. A teacher Jess was working with asked the class to think about what makes the Warden in Holes a villain. Jess then asked a group of pupils if they thought she was a villain and after some hesitation one boy suggested that the Warden was only doing what she knew and following in the footsteps of her family. Therefore this highlights the importance of the way we ask questions, as teachers, as it can lead pupils to share their personal view of a text.
This was a thoroughly enjoyable seminar and I have gained loads of ideas to use with my classes over the next few weeks. It is always interesting to consider the differences individuals can have in terms of their approach to a text and the way we can, as teachers, utilise these differences to create uplifting critical discussions.
Giovanelli, Marcello and Mason, Jessica (2015) ‘Well I don’t feel that’: schemas, worlds and authentic reading in the classroom. English in Education, 49 (1). pp. 4155. ISSN 1754-884