Guest Post: Natalie Gleeson – St Francis Xavier College

In this guest post Natalie Gleeson discusses how she has used Practical Reading Strategies with senior English classes to explore the deeper meaning in Twelve Angry Men and On the Waterfront. Students have created questions which connect their texts to the real world, and have used the Meaning Maps activity to interrogate the texts in layers of detail.

Practical Reading Strategies and Senior English

One of the greatest challenges facing an English teacher is teaching teenagers to read. Any English teacher will relate to common responses from “why do we have to do this,” “this is boring,” and perhaps my favorite of all “I don’t read. I don’t see the point.” The last comment is my favorite because it sums up what motivates me to teach the subject of English. I see it as my call to arms, the ultimate challenge, showing and in turn empowering students to “see the point” and to recognize that the skills they develop as readers are transferable to the real world and will help them to critically analyse the world around them. I teach English because of those students that might be totally disengaged at the beginning of a school year, switch on and light up all because we as teachers have planted the seed of curiosity and these students believe themselves to be truly capable. So the question remains, how do I engage my students in reading? How do I get buy in especially if I’m faced with a class of students that admittedly don’t read? This year, taking over a year 11 English class with those exact types of students led me to Leon Furze’s book. Practical Reading Strategies. The front title of the book says it all: “Engaging Activities for Secondary Students.” Leon has achieved exactly what his book claims to be. 

I have applied the strategies to the teaching of Unit 2 Area of Study 1: Reading and Comparing Texts with the texts Twelve Angry Men and On the Waterfront. I chose Rose’s play as the anchor text, so it was this that I had the students annotate as we read. For the first few lessons, the students made “Making Connections” and “Questioning” annotations. We paused regularly during the reading to share what observations students made. I was particularly pleased with some of the text to world questions students posed given that these lend to the key knowledge for this Area of Study. For example:

Student A: “If this reflects society in the 1950s, what would an adapted version of the play look like in contemporary times?’ ‘Would the same issues of prejudice and bias be in a play if it was written now?’ 

Student B: “Why are humans so easily led? Would I have enough strength to stand up against a mob?’

Student C: “If Rose was writing now, would our governments inspire the same criticism?”

Providing these students strategies such as connection making, and questioning was transformational. They essentially went from being mildly interested in the play, to actively engaged because they were thinking. Equally important is providing them with the validation when they share their questions. In the case of Student C, he conveyed how surprised he was that he could come up with something so intelligent. While the self-deprecating humor is common, it highlights how important it is to provide students with a way into the reading of texts but most importantly, an opportunity to have their voices heard and validated. 

As it is important for the students to understand the key themes and issues presented in two texts, we moved into completing Meaning Maps. Encouraging the students to work in pairs and not rushing them through this activity is crucial because it allows the students to share their understanding, at whatever level they are at without my interference. Stepping back and observing is difficult at times because I want so desperately to participate with them. However, giving the students the space to construct their meaning is where the true understanding happens. And while some students loathe the idea of sharing with the class out of embarrassment, I turn to their Meaning Maps and Annotations for evidence of their real understanding.

Sample Meaning Map Early stages of unpacking themes and issues

Practical Reading Strategies has reminded me that despite my years of experience (too many to confess) I can always improve in my teaching of reading. I can always learn something new in terms of strategies. The book is an outstanding resource, particularly useful for new teachers to the subject of English that are looking for meaningful and effective reading strategies that will engage students and empower them to read. In the case of the students I’ve been working with, they are starting to see the empowering aspect of the strategies. For some in particular, they can apply these strategies independently which they understand is crucial for next year when they undertake Year 12 English. 

Thanks Natalie for your kind words about PRS, and for demonstrating how senior English students can engage with their texts in a much deeper and more interesting manner than simple comprehension. If you’d like to stay updated on posts like this, or anything about reading, writing, digital and education, join the list:

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