Inside summer reading: Tools to expand young minds
Teachers, professors collaborate on a vision for meaningful writing about literature
It’s summer break. Most high school students haven’t so much as cracked open a syllabus to check on assigned summer reading. But soon they will.
The novels they’ll read all pose one critical question — the same proposition at the center of much social media ranting and dinner table dialogue: What does it mean to be human?
A team of researchers at the College of Education and Human Ecology has spent nearly 10 years working with high school teachers to help students answer that question — by reading literature and writing about it in meaningful and powerful ways.
“We have debated the question of what it means to be human in our country since our foundation,” said David Bloome, EHE Distinguished Professor of Teaching and Learning and part of a team studying dialogic literary argumentation. “It is at the core of the ongoing experiment in democracy in this nation.”
People of African heritage were considered three-fifths a person until the 13th Amendment. Women were denied voting rights until 1920. Japanese Americans were interned during World War II. And the debate about humanness continues.
Themes of personhood are woven throughout literature, and are a staple of English language arts classes: Piggy’s worth is undermined in The Lord of the Flies. Janie struggles with racism and demeaning gender roles in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Okonkwo dies challenging the abuses of European colonialism in Things Fall Apart.
In those and other novels are all the prompts necessary to get young minds thinking about and debating measures of humanity. Does every person have the right to thrive and defend his or her particular personhood? In this merit-based society, is the one true merit simply that we are human?
“The approach to dialogic literary argumentation that we have taken places this question at the very forefront of the reading of literature,” Bloome said. “It is not just a matter of knowing the plots of a bunch of literary texts, understanding the vocabulary of literary analysis and literary tropes or trying to find what students refer to as ‘the hidden meaning.’”
“The purpose of reading literature is to get us to engage in dialogues and inquiry about what it means to be human.”
Refining the process
The group received its first Institute for Education Sciences grant in 2010 to launch the Argumentative Writing Project. The unprecedented endeavor helps students achieve deeper learning by first engaging in rigorous dialogue with classmates around those very human issues they find in literature, and then building written arguments from the interaction.
Funded since 2010, the Argumentative Writing Project has spawned multiple studies, journal articles, research books, practitioner guides, teacher-research collaborations and teacher trainings. It has also helped put two of the college’s areas of study — Adolescent, Post-secondary and Community Literacies and Language, Education and Society — on the academic map.
Bloome, Professors George Newell and Alan Hirvela, Associate Professor Tzu-Jung Lin and current and former doctoral students make up an award-winning research team that has spent an estimated 4,000 hours embedded in the back of high school classrooms. They watched and documented as expert teachers lead students in the art of dialogic literary argumentation.
Key to the process is getting students to hear one another and incorporate others’ positions as they craft and share their writing — the “dialogic” piece of literary argumentation.
“You want a sense of democracy and collaboration among students to learn to do things together,” Newell said. “Not necessarily does everyone have to agree, but the different points of view, different voices, different perspectives are not just articulated and heard but are seriously considered as one way to think about one’s own position.”
In today’s post-truth landscape — and throughout history — that’s not just an academic skill.
“It is a life skill,” Hirvela said. “They’re hoping that students will transfer it to situations well beyond the school building, because at its core is argumentative thinking, not just argumentative writing: How to analyze situations and claims people make and the evidence they use.”
Lin, whose expertise is educational psychology, said the lessons of dialogic literary argumentation help students live fuller lives and become better citizens.
“Nothing that students are dealing with in their lives and social groups is simple,” she said. “Argumentation gives them a tool to consider multiple perspectives, to weigh the pros and cons of everyday decisions and to reflect on their own personal life decisions.”
Some teachers studied by the researchers have a natural inclination to engage students in dialogue, Newell said. The best help students see issues in complex and varied ways. They lead students to unearth the underlying assumptions made by people voicing different positions.
If students disagree about the treatment of an African village by a “human rights agency” in Things Fall Apart, the teacher encourages students with differing views to embrace the tensions within various interpretations. She leads them to reflect on the thinking being done — to move beyond surface-level response to complex issues concerning racism, power and what it means to be human.
Learning to critically read, explore new thinking
Shelly Mann, ’06 MA, teaches accelerated English to sophomores at Franklin Heights High School in South-Western City Schools, and is among the teachers the researchers observed. Her students do deep exploration of texts — MacBeth, Things Fall Apart, Animal Farm and even other students’ writing — sifting through the issues in small group discussions.
“We started picking up on power within relationships, and different dynamics, whether it’s husband and wife, a leader and his people, communities, politics, governments,” Mann said.
The students capture essential questions and explore alternative perspectives. When reading feminist writers, they ask, “What does it mean to be a male? What does it mean to be masculine?”
“I say, ‘What would you like to explore based on these texts that we are reading?’ They compile a list of questions that is deep enough, and say, ‘I want to do my paper on one of these topics.’”
The topics aren’t given to the kids. Students create them themselves by considering ideas emerging from discussions.
And that’s where the real learning takes place, Mann said, when teachers quit giving students the questions and students generate them themselves.
A journey to understand our lives
When students turn to their writing after dialogic inquiry, Newell said, the best teachers help them link those thinking practices to their writing. The development of argumentative thinking and writing is framed as a “journey over time.”
“They’ve taught us an awful lot about what we meant theoretically by the dialogic,” Newell said. “They have acted it out for us, demonstrated it for us. And that’s been important part of our work.”
The teachers are regarded as experts. “We work with them from the very beginning till the end of the curriculum so that teachers feel comfortable implementing something new,” Lin said. “I see this as the perfect project for researchers and practitioners to collaborate and to discover new instructional practices and new ways of learning.”
In a recent pilot study, the team found that its dialogic argumentative writing curriculum and instructional approaches improved students’ argumentative writing performance more than those of a comparison group. Lin, Newell and doctoral student Seung Yon Ha presented findings at the 2019 American Educational Research Association annual meeting.
In addition, the project will soon publish a research monograph, Dialogic Literary Argumentation in High School Language Arts Classrooms: A Social Perspective for Teaching, Learning, and Reading Literature. A practitioner book on dialogic literary argumentation will follow.
The nearly 10-year study, conducted in 61 classrooms across the region, fostered collaboration between the university and Ohio teachers. The teams spent entire school years in most of the classrooms.
“We put Ohio State University in these classrooms, in these school buildings, presenting some very different ways of looking at argumentation,” Hirvela said. “That’s been great for the college. We’ve worked with so many teachers and students from all sorts of different backgrounds” in urban, suburban and rural settings.
The team shares those ideas with area teachers through outreach projects. The Columbus Area Writing Project takes research findings to area teachers in the form of classes and summer workshops. Mann and her former classmate, Amy Klepscyk, ’07 MA, an English teacher at the Delaware Area Career Center, have attended three.
The classes push the teachers to explore, share and write about the reasons behind their teaching approaches. Mann said the process validates what the teachers have believed for years was the correct teaching approach — not just trying to achieve scores on state tests.
“When kids are writing and they’re writing well, we’re asking them to use inquiry. We’re asking them to come up with their own questions. We’re asking them to look at things from a more inductive and questioning perspective,” she said.
“Everything Dr. Bloome and Dr. Newell have done is all around that. That’s all-encompassing of the work that they do.”