California English Journal
The Zone of
Whatever does not spring from a man's free choice, or is only the result of instruction and guidance, does not enter into his very being, but still remains alien to his true nature; he does not perform it with truly human energies, but merely with mechanical exactness. -Karl Wilhelm Von Humboldt
We teach in a time when the "truly human" seems overwhelmed by "mechanical exactness." Whatever their original intents, high-stakes tests and mandated academic standards are now being used to determine what all students must know as well as when students must know. As a result, classroom inquiry and "free choice" are increasingly "alien" to our students and us.
However, an alternative to this "skill-and-kill" drudgery is being forged. Called the Omnilog Framework, it is a blend of several progressive practices into a flexible classroom model. Among these are
While a complete exploration of the Omnilog Framework is not possible in this article, one segment can be considered. This is the "zone of proximal interest."
What is the Zone of Proximal Interest?
Nearly 70 years ago, the
Soviet psychologist L. S. Vygotsky developed "the zone of proximal
development" [ZPD]. He defined this as
Put another way, Vygotsky's ZPD is the difference between what a student or group of students already knows and what that student or group can learn through the wide range of interactions called education.
While the zone of proximal development is valuable, the Omnilog Framework's zone of proximal interest (ZPI) may be even more vital. It may be defined as the distance between the original interest level and the emergent interest level developed through educational interaction.
Within the Omnilog Framework, this ZPI acts as a kind of curricular road map guaranteeing that students will be both engaged and challenged. This is because the students themselves have direct input into topical and textual selection.
Why is the Zone of Proximal Interest of value in any classroom?
The recognition that students learn little when the curriculum is forced on them is as old as Plato. In The Republic, he writes that "knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind."
Likewise, today there are many educators who advocate student involvement in classroom management and instruction.
In Best Practice (1998) Zemelman, Daniels, and Hyde write that "the best starting point for schooling is young people's real interests."2 They later urge teachers to incorporate "kid-driven curriculum"3 into their classrooms.
Ted Sizer's Coalition for Essential Schools movement has consistently emphasized the importance of student input. For example, the CES National Student Forum rewrote the Coalition's "Nine Common Principles." According to these students,
should be guided by the aim of thorough student mastery
Certainly, for nearly two decades Socratic seminars practitioners have called for a greater student voice. Dennis Gray, an early proponent of seminars, wrote that seminars "join participants in a collaborative quest for understanding" which "work best in an atmosphere of respect for the contributions of all participants."5
In short, curriculum decisions based on actual student interest make sense. However, the zone of proximal interest recognizes that it is the teacher's job to move student interests toward richer, more challenging texts, concepts, and fields. Thus, while great teaching stays within the ZPI, it cultivates the students' emergent interest levels.
How is the ZPI utilized in a classroom?
The first day in my classroom is NOT devoted to a presentation of rules, expectations, syllabi, etc. Instead, it is a day in which students are surveyed, pretested, and asked to provide valuable information that will be used to plan their course.
One of the surveys students are asked to complete is the ZPI Inventory (See Figure 1.) Before students begin, I first explain to them that if they have a specific type of literature or topic that interests them individually, they may "nominate" it for class consideration. Students will then enter it on one of the "Other" blanks and rate it the same as the teacher-generated items.
The completed survey does more than give me an approximate idea of what individual and group reading interests are. More important, the ZPI results enable each class to begin its first major project the Community Anthology Project (CAP). Along with several other data analysis groups formed to report on their opening day surveys and pretests, one group tabulates the ZPI results and translates them into the class's "Top Ten" list of its favorite types of literature. For example, one freshmen English class identified these genres as their favorites.
Students are then asked to form nine 2-4 member teams. Each team will prepare one section of our Community Anthology. I make an anthology section for whatever genre is not selected (in the above class I did the Mythology segment). First, I give them a background handout explaining the specifics of the project (Figure 2). After going over this and answering student questions, I then give the kids their "CAP Rubric" (Figure 3).
Several things must be noted about this project.
In conjunction with these anthology segments, we periodically have "Connections Fridays." On these days, students are asked to bring in clips from movies, TV shows, songs, reading selections, etc., that they have connected with something we have read. These connections not only help students to make personal connections with our texts, but they also broaden our entire community's awareness of potentially great art, videos, or music. Again, as a teacher, these connections help me reassess and redefine the class's ZPI.
At the end of a course year, I re-survey the students using Figure 1 again. Usually, the movement made is pronounced and positive. I am particularly interested in how students' original interests have enabled them to discover new, emergent interests. For example, students who earlier rated "horror" highly but "science and technology" low often increase their interest levels on the latter as the course year proceeds and the connections between the two are developed. This broadening will alter their ZPI's, and possibly their ZPD's, in future science as well as English classes.
For nearly all of my students, this is one of the first group projects they have had to complete in school that requires creativity, attention to details, and quality. In addition, it establishes the class community's ownership of their own educational experiences. And for me, it helps me constantly discover great new writers and texts. In this respect, the Community Anthology Project meets one of my primary classroom goals it pushes me to grow and broaden professionally and personally.
Student reactions to the ZPI survey and the Community Anthology Project indicate why student find this classroom activity challenging and worthwhile.
I enjoy having the class fixed for our preferences; it helps my learning.
I like the Anthology process because if you mess up on something, you can always revise it and resubmit it.
I like the ZPI idea because it's about what we like, not something dumb.
The Anthology project is cool because as long as you try there is no way you can fail.
The Anthology project can get annoying, but it's good for us.
The Hindus believe that most of the world is illusion, or "Maya." Similarly, much of the "education" we force down our students' throats is "Maya." We bombard them with facts they do not want, texts they find dull and disconnected from their own experiences, and then we expect them to sit quietly and attentively while we bore them with trivialities. This is often done to better prepare them for a standardized test that is itself largely "Maya."
The Omnilog Framework's reliance on the Zone of Proximal Interest's values students and their unique educational journeys seeks to unleash their "truly human energies" rather than deaden them with "mechanical exactness." The students we teach are not cogs, wheels, nor stanine scores; they are flesh and blood. To invite them to participate in their own curriculum is to recognize this reality and allow them some much-needed "free choice."
Doctor De Soto,
a Master of Literary Terms
Doctor De Soto charmed me the very first time I met him. He is a man (or I should say-mouse) of honor. Even though the sign outside his dental office clearly states that he will not treat cats and other dangerous animals, he cannot resist helping those in pain. I wanted my students to meet Dr. De Soto also. I wanted them to visit his dentist's office, meet his assistant /wife, and watch as Dr. De Soto tricks the fox who has "a rotten bicuspid and unusually bad breath." I wanted them to enjoy this enchanting story written and illustrated by William Steig. So, I read the story aloud one day to my eighth graders showing them every picture as I walked among them. They were not offended by this picture book because I have made it quite clear that picture books are for all of us no matter what our ages. I have a large collection in my classroom that students frequently read during silent sustained reading to catch up on what they have missed since they were very young. Some students read my picture books in appreciation of the illustrator's beautiful art work, and others read them because I have convinced these eighth graders that they must read to their own children some day.
Enthusiastically receiving Dr. De Soto, they, too, were charmed, laughing at the wicked fox dreaming of eating the De Sotos "with just a pinch of salt, and a ...dry...white wine" while the resourceful Dr. De Soto props the fox's mouth open with a pole. As they laughed, sighed, and exclaimed, "Ohhhh!" I realized that more was happening than just enjoying a good story. My students had easily recognized the high point of the story when Dr. De Soto out foxed the fox. I knew then they would understand when I used the term-climax. Dr. De Soto, it turned out, is not only a very good dentist; he is also a master teacher.
Since then, every year I begin with Dr. De Soto. The fox wails in pain outside his office and Dr. De Soto and Mrs. De Soto decide to risk it. They let him in and the conflict begins. Doctor De Soto quickly determines that the fox's rotten tooth must be pulled and a new one made. The fox, despite his misery, realizes he has a "tasty little morsel in his mouth" and begins to wonder whether or not he should simply eat the De Sotos. That evening as they make the fox his new tooth, Dr. De Soto worries about his decision to trust the fox. Talking far into the night, he and his wife come up with a plan to protect themselves. The fox, of course, has a plan of his own. The next morning Dr. De Soto inserts the fox's new gold tooth.
At this point in the story students are eagerly listening leaning forward in their chairs. I stop and ask, "What are you waiting for?" They tell me that they're waiting to find out what Dr. De Soto is going to do. I have them make and share predictions with a partner keeping their voices secretive. I read on. Dr. De Soto explains to the fox that he has developed a secret preparation that will prevent the fox from ever having a tooth ache again. The fox eagerly agrees to let Dr. De Soto apply the preparation thinking all the while about how he is going to eat the De Sotos with his brand new tooth. I can tell by the expressions on the faces of some students that they are beginning to figure out just what this preparation is, but most students are surprised by Dr. De Soto's jug of glue. They share their predictions and a few students proudly proclaim that they knew what Dr. De Soto was going to do all along. I name this as the climax of the story. Now I read the end of the story so we can see how it is all resolved. The fox, with his mouth glued shut because the "secret formula must first permeate the dentine" stumbles down the stairs trying to maintain his dignity. Doctor De Soto and his wife kiss and take the rest of the day off.
Next we look a second time at the pictures discussing the setting of Dr. De Soto's office. The images of the story, created by William Steig's clever paintbrush amuse students-the hot pink sofa, the potted plants and pictures on the wall of bovines, and especially the hoist used to get Dr. De Soto into the mouths of the big animal patients. Students like the homey feeling of the office and imagine that it doesn't smell like Novocain like their own dentists' offices. Some students wish they were patients of Dr. De Soto whose "fingers were so delicate, and his drill so dainty, they could hardly feel any pain." I stop at the page where Dr. De Soto decides to treat the fox so we can talk about the conflict this creates. Dr. De Soto and his wife risk their lives to treat the fox. Why would they make such a decision? There is an atmosphere of danger when the fox is in the office. Even under the effects of gas, he mumbles about, "how he loves them raw." We continue to read to the climax looking for clues about Dr. De Soto's plan. Does the fact that he has a bucket of secret formula suggest that the contents might be glue? Finally, we again enjoy the resolution looking at the surprised and perplexed expression on the fox's face.
Now we're ready to look closely at the character of Dr. De Soto. I ask, "Why did Dr. De Soto let the fox into his office? What does William Steig let us know about Dr. De Soto's personality or character that allowed him to make that decision?" We create a class t-chart of words and phrases that describe Dr. De Soto. (See the character t-chart.) Because the story is so short and the pictures reinforce student's understanding, they are able to support descriptors with direct evidence from the story. I turn the pages at their request to find the exact words they want for evidence. Finding evidence is important work they will do later as they read The Call of The Wild or The Diary of a Young Girl: Anne Frank.
As we work on the chart, I encourage students to name Dr. De Soto's feelings as well as his character traits. How did Dr. De Soto feel when he decided to treat the fox? How did he feel when he realized the danger of the situation? How did he feel when his plan worked? When we are studying core literature like The Diary of a Young Girl, I want students to be aware of Anne's feelings so that they can combine their own experiences with emotions with hers. I probe further asking, "What would you have done if you were Dr. De Soto? Have you ever had to figure out a plan to solve a problem?" Asking students to have empathy for a character will help them determine the character's motivation, and also help them predict events of the upcoming plot.
In one class period, Dr. De Soto has taught my students essential literary terms. The book becomes a touchstone. After our visit to Dr. De Soto's dentist office, I only need to say, "Remember Dr. De Soto? Remember how you followed the plot of the story, identified the conflict, sat on the edge of your chairs anticipating the climax, laughed during the resolution, and charted character traits?" Although this is just an introductory activity, that first, "A-ha!" about the climax of the story, opens a window of understanding for students to use later as they analyze grade level appropriate text. Therefore, I am forever grateful to the resourceful Dr. De Soto.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
The Students In Front Of
Start with the premise that a book is much more fun than a movie. Teach that to the students in front of you everyday. Smile and be dramatic as you explain to each student the protean differences between film and the printed word and then wait for the reply. The reply was probably not to your liking. All too often, films are seen as the substitute for books.
Many of my students have gone and rented film versions of books, completely confident that they would get the same educational value from them. It did not matter that some of the plot was removed or changed. It did not matter that the characters did not resemble the novel's characters or that perhaps even some of the themes had been revamped or so watered down that they were hardly recognizable. It had the same title and that is what was important. But film can be used to teach literature and even literary terminology. We expect our students to read actively, to soak up what the author has written and to interpret it, analyze it and consider its worth. Active reading needs to be transformed into active viewing and active viewing can reward 21st Century students with a wealth of literary knowledge.
Much of the best literature has been translated into very fine films. Michael Shaara's The Killer Angels became Gettysburg, a 4-hour made for TV movie that won critical acclaim. Pride and Prejudice, The Grapes of Wrath, Snow Falling on Cedars even Shakespeare's best known plays have turned out beautifully under recent interpretations and skillful direction. Using these film versions and allowing students to interact with them the way they do with their book counterparts is a richly rewarding experience. What I have found is that showing small bits of the film at a time during the reading can help students understand the symbolism or imagery presented. In this way, a lecture about allegory is replaced by a beautiful and artfully rendered cinematic moment that is indelible to a teenage mind.
When teaching The Grapes of Wrath, I often find resistance to the term "Christ-figure" as it relates to Jim Casey. Whether because of religious attitudes or because of lack of understanding, there is often an inability to connect with who Casey really is in the novel and therefore the meaning of this important character. In Casey's death scene, however, the film version starring Henry Fonda does an incredible job bringing the Christ-figure imagery together. Steinbeck is no slouch himself, of course, but the film gives the viewer a gritty look at this runaway itinerant preacher sitting with a group of men in a tent discussing how to help as many people as they can by striking against the California land owners for better wages. As he is tracked down while talking with Tom Joad in the tent, Casey stands in a creek ankle high in the water and the lighting on him is bright, over his head and in his face. At this point as he turns to face his attackers he says, "you don't know what you're doin'! You're helpin' to starve women and kids!" Crack! The axe handle takes him over the eyebrow and he is gone.
I turn off the VCR and open it up. What happened? What's the image? Where's the symbolism? The answers fly back rapidly now: "Well, he's standing in the water, almost walking on it." "He's a preacher, but he's an outsider and he is one because he thinks people ought to care for one another." "His face is really bright. There's always a light on him in every scene." "He thinks people are all equal and that they ought to be treated that way." "Well, he kind of has a speech like Jesus's. That whole 'you don't know what you're doing' thing kind of sounds like 'They know not what they do.'" Imagery, symbolism and allegory are registering now. The re-reading of that portion of the novel now jumps out at students as they continue reading.
Shakespeare's Hamlet has never enjoyed so much success in the senior year of high school as it does now with Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film version. It's 4 hours, however time consuming, contain every word of the original text and setting it in a much more "photogenic" era, the 1800's, Branagh has created not only a brilliant and insightful version of the play, but one that is visually stunning as well. Irony, an elusive literary term, becomes painfully apparent as Hamlet sits brooding over the skull of Urich, the former court jester to his father and slowly, Claudius, Gertrude and Laertes come marching into the graveyard with Ophelia, herself dead by a mysterious drowning and Hamlet is caught between sorrow and rage. The words crafted by Shakespeare are skillful enough, but the scene with soft music and melancholy mood, dark clothing and purple and blue lighting make the play literally come to life, and with it, the literary devices employed by the author. Students respond now with a sense of understanding the dynamics of the play. They have a feel for Hamlet's troubles and his emotional state and they see how he is driven to the point of madness during the struggle for the Crown of Denmark.
Teaching to the students in front of us means taking advantage of the latest research, technology and updates. We cannot hope to reform education and raise our standards if we are practicing techniques designed for students who never knew what a CD-ROM was. Contrary to what many seem to believe, old is not necessarily good. Indeed, Shakespeare's plays are good precisely because they are alive with meaning and moment for each reader and for each age. If literary terminology is the life of a book, then teaching that terminology must be updated for the 21st Century.
Literature: The Business
of Madmen and Heretics
Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin wrote that, "True literature only exists when it is created by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels, and skeptics; not by reliable clerks just doing their jobs. One has only to think our own country's literary giants: Poe, Twain, Hemingway, Morrison to be persuaded by Zamyatin's argument. I wonder, then, why English teachers so often treat works of genius like corpses to be dissected. Maybe it is because we see ourselves as reliable clerks just doing our jobs.
What is the job of an English teacher anyway? Is it to take a list of literary terms and teach students how to spot metaphors and imagery, alliteration and allegory? Is it to lecture teenagers on the difference between Romantic readings of a text and Marxist-Feminist readings? If I thought that, I would quit tomorrow. While recognizing that teachers don't have the professional latitude to be madmen or heretics, skepticism is a positive virtue in a teacher is as is a gift for dreaming. Call me a dreamer, but I believe an English teacher's job is to help students become thoughtful readers.
Thoughtful reading requires discipline as well as structure which is where the teaching of literary terminology comes in. Terms should help students better understand what they have read, not create barriers to passing the class. My students find it easier to talk about poetry when they have words in their vocabulary like metaphor and imagery. Just as a carpenter would be frustrated trying to build a shelf without tools, students who haven't learned literary terms often struggle when they go to write about literature.
The National Council of Teachers of English has recently published a book by an Australian high school teacher, Brian Moon, called Literary Terms: A Practical Glossary. The volume offers ideas about how to make the shift from teaching terms for the sake of identification to teaching literary concepts as tools for thoughtful reading. Instead of viewing literature as a body of objective knowledge to be mastered, Moon considers it a field of social practice within which readers and writers act. The redefinition works for me.
In the chapter on imagery, for example, Moon quotes Samuel Taylor Coleridge from The Ryme of the Ancient Mariner, "Day after day, day after day, / We stuck, nor breath nor motion: / As idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean." The questions that follow do not ask students to identify the imagery but instead invite them to think about whether the mental pictures Coleridge's words create have been generated by the words themselves or by a combination of these words and the reader's own experiences and memories. Moon then asks whether one can ever be sure that the images they "see" are the same as another reader.
This is the kind of teaching that helps students become thoughtful readers. It also avoids the dissection model of literary analysis. Each chapter in Literary Terms: A Practical Glossary offers an opening problem that brings the concept into focus followed by a brief theoretical discussion. Moon then provides a sample student activity where students can apply the concept to a piece of literature and closes with a working definition of the term. It is a useful model for any teacher, novice or expert.
Even Yevgeny Zamyatin who declared literature the province of madmen and heretics believed in the use of literary terminology as a vehicle for talking about what we see when we read. Identifying himself as a neorealist, Zamyatin explains, "While neorealism uses a microscope to look at the world, symbolism uses a telescope. Pre-revolutionary realists, on the other hand, employ an ordinary looking glass." Without ever having read a word by Zamyatin, his comparison offers a picture of the kind of fictional world a reader might expect to find in one of his novels. It comes as no surprise that to painting this picture for us, the writer resorted to imagery.