Best practices for teaching literatureKudos and many thanks to Amy Lepore for recommending that I use the Socratic Seminar in my honors English 2 class (and for going above and beyond by sending...

Best practices for teaching literature

Kudos and many thanks to Amy Lepore for recommending that I use the Socratic Seminar in my honors English 2 class (and for going above and beyond by sending me articles and how-to's). I used this method to review for a test on "Antigone," and the kids really enjoyed it. I altered it a little by creating two circles. The inner circle had ten or twelve students who had to answer questions. The outer circle was the remaining students, who were the questioners. To get out of the inner circle, the student had to answer a question correctly, and the questioner took his or her place.

When we finished "Julius Caesar," a couple of the kids asked, "Can we play that game again?" I couldn't figure out what they were talking about. We hadn't played any games. Then one said, "You know, that game where you get in the circles." Voila! They thought it was fun! If I had stood in front of the class and asked the same set of questions, they would have been bored to tears, but putting them in circles and letting them do the asking made it a whole different matter.

Thanks, Amy, for giving me a best practice that I can say works tremendously well for me.

Let's hear what works well for someone else. 

Expert Answers
Jessica Akcinar eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Speaking of Socratic Seminars or Symposiums, here are some great questions/topics I used with my 11th grade class when teaching Bless Me, Ulitma. Before we started, I went over the grading criteria that I was going to use. Surprisingly, everyone contributed substantively. I was so excited! This was a very shy inclusion class where most of the kids wanted to blend into the background. They were amazed that they could intelligently discuss literature with others and asked to do SSs more often.

1. The events of Bless Me, Ultima take place in the middle 1940s, during and immediately after World War II. How, if at all, is the war or this particular moment in history significant to the story the novel tells?

2. What role does the physical environment-the New Mexican landscape-play in Bless Me, Ultima? How do the novel's characters live in it and respond to it? Is the landscape used by the author to provide a realistic material backdrop to the events of the story? to carry particular symbolic or moral or aesthetic values? to do both?

3. Chapters 2, 4,7, 9, 11, 14, 20, and 22 of Bless Me, Ultima contain narrations of Antonio's dreams. What do these dreams tell us about Antonio? Do they develop or change significantly over the course of the novel? And what is the significance of the fact that dream sequences play such a large role in the novel's design?

4. Bless Me, Ultima may be viewed as a coming of age or rite of passage story, a story of a young person's education and development? Which aspects of Antonio's coming of age or rite of passage seem universal and which qualities or details are particular to his time, place, and culture?

5. Early in the novel, Anaya writes that the schoolhouse rose above the housetops to "compete with the church tower." Do you think that Catholicism or Christianity is in competition with other belief systems or sources of authority in Bless Me, Ultima? With secular education? Or with other sources of spiritual mystery and power such as those of the Golden Carp or of the curandera, Ultima, herself? What is the nature and purpose of these competitions, if that's what they are? Do you think the various sources of authority are reconciled or not? If not, what wins and what loses?

6. What is the significance of Antonio's friend Florence, the unbeliever, and of his death in the novel?

7. Is Rudolfo Anaya seeking in this novel to reflect on, or define, or recommend any particular understanding of or response to "good" and "evil" in the world? If you think he is not, why not? If you think that he is, what kinds of understandings and responses do you think the novel promotes?

8. Anaya's novel has also been viewed by some as not just reporting but reinforcing traditions of patriarchy and gender inequality in Mexican American families and communities? Is this a fair criticism? How are power and voice or voicelessness distributed among the male and female characters in the novel? Are traditional gender roles and power relations accepted by all or are they challenged anywhere or by anyone in the novel?

jenny444 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I am a firm believer in "active reading" and my students always kept reading journals that encouraged them to keep track of Character, Plot, Setting, Theme, Conflict (CPSTC) in writing.  I would post "Think Abouts..." on the board before classes that would vary between the 5 elements in an effort to give them a focus for their reading and writing.  Much class time was dedicated to giving them time to read and write in class, as many of my students worked after school, had children of their own (8th graders!) and/or did not have "educationally supportive" households.

In order to reach the vast majority of learning styles/abilities, I used much grouping, much discussion, student teaching, role playing, and they never knew when I would collect journals to scan for understanding and effort.  I focused more on writing about literature rather than testing, and would use any and all the resources available to teachers to get some useful ideas for the "Think Abouts..." and writing prompts. 

engtchr5 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There's a statistic that says students will retain 90 percent of what they have to teach to others, and so I agree with kwoo1213 that it is an effective technique.

Something else I use a bit more practically and regularly, however, is the standard "question ball." Most of us are probably familiar with this tool: A simple six-paneled beach ball is labeled with an interrogative word on each panel (who, what, when, etc.) and the ball is tossed around a circle of students. Wherever the recipient's left thumb lands, that question word starts the topic they have to approach: "Who are the main characters in this story?" or "Why did the author use iambic pentameter?" You get the idea.

Kids also love this strategy because it is both kinesthetic and active. It feels more like a game than a review. They also tend to retain what they learn from the activity, in most instances.

Michael Foster eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I've had great success in my AP English Lit class by establishing an anchor text, to which students compare the other books we read.  Last year I had a group that didn't have a lot of experience in textual analysis, so I showed them the program " The Legacy of Star Wars" from the History Channel.  It gives an excellent picture of what analysis "looks like."  It examines the story elements according to the Hero Quest, delving fairly deeply into all aspects of it.  It also compares other works of literature, mythology, the Bible, and history, which students need to be able to do on the AP English Lit exam.  Throughout the year, the students got very good of relating elements of our text back through Star Wars to the elements.  It peaked their interest from the start.

malibrarian eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I've been using the Socratic Seminar method with my Shakespeare & the English Renaissance class this year and the results are amazing!  I was highly skeptical, as I am such a control-freak, about letting go and letting them "just talk," but it is such an amazing way to make sure they actually read the material!  Having to write questions themselves, as well as be able to discuss other's questions, about the plays they're reading is forcing them to really learn the material.  It is also helping the shy students step up and participate, while at the same time helping the extroverts chill out a bit and let others participate.  I also love that it is dialogue, not debate - So far I'm just loving this whole method!

amy-lepore eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Linda,  I am so thrilled that it worked for you!  I firmly believe that literature circles and socratic seminars are great ways to get kids to think for themselves and to support with evidence from the text why they think the way they do.  I would love an in-depth explanation of how you altered it...I may want to use your ideas as well.

You are so welcome, and I am happy to help.  What is a community of teachers if not a place where we can beg, borrow, or steal from one another's best practices?  It's all for the betterment of our kids and the future of our country.  One day, when we retire,  the kiddos we leave behind will be taking care of us...we have a vested interest, don't you think?  Ha!

kwoo1213 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Great stuff!

I use small groups quite a bit in my classrooms.  This allows students to discuss the literature in an intimate setting without feeling intimidated about having to discuss it in front of the entire class.  Also, I assign different elements of a piece of literature to small groups and let them teach the class about their particular element or elements.  Students enjoy this experience.  They listen intently to each other, so by putting the responsibility on the student to teach the literature, they are more involved in it.

sullymonster eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In response to #8:

I have also had great luck with SIFT (Symbolism, Imagery, Figurative Language, Theme) and with SOAP (Subject, Ocassion, Audience, Purpose).

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swinter44 | Student

I love using Socratic Seminars too.  It's really a combination of SS and Lit.Circles. The key is the question process and the levels of questions.  Level 1 are on the line questions; level 2 are between the lines -inference; and there are level 3 questions which are beyond the lines.  What if type questions that make them think beyond the text.  My students , even from the school I taught at with very low level students - enjoyed this because it made them feel smarter than they whad been treated previously.  I barely used it last year with Pre-AP students - but they also seemed to dig deep and ask really great questions related to the novels we were reading.

robinwmson82 | Student

One great strategy that I've used with my students has been RAFT. R=Role, A=Audience, F=Format, T=Topic. This will work with Literature, especially if you're wanting the students to better understand a particular piece of work or certain elements of that particular work, or it can work well with writing assignments. It worked particularly well in my Creative Writing class. I would pass out PRE-MADE topics, giving the students their role, the audience they should address, and I gave them the opportunity to pick a format....(this channels their creativity)...(i.e. poem, song, short story, short play, etc), and sometimes I actually chose the format just to see if they'll be able to adhere to the specific guidelines of the strategy. The students enjoyed this assignment thoroughly, because they were able to work in groups, as well as be creative, funny (in some cases), and they have the opportunity to present the finished piece to the class as a group.

Below I've posted a good website that really gives you an idea of how this strategy works.

leeknapp | Student

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