What Does Learning Look Like?

My “personal narrative” class is going great.

We started by reading Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, and they seemed to like it.  A lot.  Most of them did the reading and participated actively in the group work, and after a little talk to them about “what to do if you HAVEN’T done the reading and CAN’T participate in the group work,” they mostly seemed to take responsibility and work together well.  We looked at the elements of literary analysis, and for each class, each group was responsible for analyzing a different part of the memoir.  When they got to the first in-class assignment (wherein they analyzed an unseen text using the elements we’d discussed), almost everyone did a good job.

Now we’ve started the second unit.  They have each been assigned a memoir from a list of eight; I asked them to give me their top three choices from the list, and I tried to give them one of the books they chose.  They are working with others who have read the same book, preparing a “book talk.”  I have given them a list of ten possible “book talk” topics, including things like “important themes,” “historical, geographical and social context,” “what I loved about this book” and “what I learned from reading this book.”  To practice preparing and presenting, they had to choose one of the topics and present on The Glass Castle.  These practice orals were the best I’ve seen; with a few exceptions, they were thorough, engaging and on point.

Then I asked them to focus on their second book, to divvy up topics among their group members (each of the four or five group members should choose a different topic), and to each prepare a five-minute presentation on their topic (for a total of 20-25 minutes per group).  The overall thrust of the “book talk” is to convince others in the class to choose the book for their third reading.  (I am indebted to Nancie Atwell’s The Reading Zone for giving me the term “book talk” and for helping me as I constructed these assignments.)

After the “book talks,” students must write a report in which they tell me which book they’re going to choose from the list for their third reading, and why.  They must write a paragraph about each of the seven books they saw presented and explain why they did or did not choose each one.  In the end, each student must write a comparative literary analysis of his or her second and third readings.

They really seem to be having a good time.  In their group discussions today, as they chose their individual topics and structured their group presentations, their level of engagement was the highest I think I’ve ever seen in a literature class.  They were sparring, writing, drawing diagrams, asking questions of me and of each other.  They all wrote tons of stuff on their worksheets and took lots of notes for themselves before handing the worksheets into me.

But here’s my question.

What are they learning?

I chose these activities because I thought they would be engaging.  And there is method and motive to my madness, but I’m not sure I can trust it.  So I’d like to hear your thoughts on this.  What are my students learning from this process?  And is it valuable?  Is it what they should be learning in an English literature classroom?

Let me know what you think.

Image by Sergio Roberto Bichara


11 thoughts on “What Does Learning Look Like?

  1. I believe the image you posted with your thoughts has some truth to it. Learning can be a building moment, where students come together and build upon common themes to reach a higher level of cognitions. However, sometime learning takes a different direction. I have experienced times where a concept has torn down or made me rethink years of learning. I then had to begin building on new thoughts and ideas, a more sure foundation. Others could argue that learning is not empirical but intuitive in nature. Maybe we can’t really pinpoint “learning,” but we can see the light come on and then we know.


    1. Mike: What an interesting and astute coment. I am taking a course on assessment right now, so am thinking a lot about ways to measure learning, but maybe it’s possible that sometimes learning is real but immeasurable? I wonder, if I asked my students, what they would say they are “learning” in this class…


  2. Analytical thinking. The ability to express ideas clearly. How to work effectively in a group. How to read human behaviour. Should I go on? 🙂

    Strangely enough, though these skills are not necessarily measurable and tangible, they are the very skills that will make everyday tasks easier when they enter the workforce. In my day-to-day, I don’t get the chance to analyze literature, but i do have to use all those skills I listed above.


    1. AD: Your comment is encouraging – I certainly aspire to help them learn all these things – but I remain uneasy. When you say, “…though these skills are not necessarily measurable and tangible, they are the very skills that will make everyday tasks easier…” I think this goes to the heart of my question. If these skills are not measurable and tangible (and I think they might be, but I’m not sure I’m measuring them in this case), how do I know they are “learning” them, as opposed to just “performing” them to the level of ability (or lack of ability) they already have?


      1. Listen to the groups as they work. If they’re breezing along like this is old hat, then maybe you’ve got cause … not for concern, but perhaps cause to ramp it up to ELEVEN 😉

        But one of the things that I’ll do is practice the skills I want them to learn with an easier text, and then use those skills to tackle a more challenging text. That allows them to develop those skills more thoroughly, and also gives them a different way of exploring a tougher work.


  3. I think that they are learning the importance of literature and focusing on key elements of the text. Students always learn more by teaching things to others. I like the activity! Oh and great choice with “The Glass Castle”. I did an excerpt and my kids loved it too. I might do the whole thing next year.


    1. “Students always learn more by teaching this to others” – this is true! I hadn’t thought of this aspect of it. Thanks, Cammy.


  4. Ah, yes, what to do if you haven’t read the assigned work. That may be the most important part of the lesson. I still remember most vividly when Mrs. Shekmar chewed us out for not reading the chapters in Gulliver’s Travels, and so had no concept of the satire. All of us were generally familiar with the book, or had read the Classics Illustrated version (practically the same thing, almost), so saw no need to actually read the chapters. She disabused us of that notion in no uncertain terms.

    She was my best teacher, and the one who had the most influence on me, in good part because of that lecture, way back in 1957. We remained friends for decades; she died a few years ago, and I remember her well.


  5. Teaching is a craft, not a science. Some things are just not measurable. How do you measure a Rembrandt?
    Follow your instincts. Trust your heart. If you feel your students are learning, they are. There is always room for improvement. I applaud your success!


  6. Close reading for a purpose. They practiced the skills with Glass Castle and you assessed it with a previously unseen text. What I would do next is ramp up the difficulty of the practice and assessment texts (my students love GC, too, but it isn’t very sophisticated). We’re supposed to be teaching them how to negotiate literature without an English teacher to point out the important bits with a “study guide” — ideally, they should be able to walk out of our literature classes with all the tools they need to read and enjoy nearly any piece of fiction or prose they care to. This takes committed practice. Viola! Good on ya :).


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