Thursday, 20 April 2017

For teachers: how to assess and analyse ways in which pupils respond to stories, poems and plays

(This is an update of a previous post.
You can copy it, use it, circulate it, adapt it, select parts of it etc etc. It would be nice if you acknowledged that I wrote it!)

Over the last 5 years, I’ve been involved in supervising students doing a single term’s module on an MA, in which some have chosen to analyse their pupils’ responses to literature. Frequently, the issue that has arisen: exactly how do we as teachers evaluate what the pupils are saying or writing? We can of course accept the criteria required by the test and exam systems. Or we can draw on reader-response theory and a long history of talk analysis to draw up our own criteria.

My own impression looking across a wide range of references, there isn’t anything which does this job exactly. There are various breakdowns of the process of reader-response and various breakdowns of children’s talk , mostly with teachers and on occasions on their own, but nothing that I could find which covered both.

As a result, I’ve produced what is in effect a 'matrix' for use by teachers or anyone else wanting to do just this: analyse the kinds of talk and writing that pupils do in response to literature. It’s not intended to be a strict, fixed matrix; some of the categories overlap. Not all of the categories fit all situations. It’s intended to be both a work in progress and part of a process in which teachers and researchers adapt and refine what I've written as part of developing their own ideas in practice.

The matrix

When we make comments about literature (or when children or school students are in pairs or groups in a classroom) it's possible to evaluate those comments, notes or passages of writing.

One way to do this is to make transcripts of what they are saying.

These can be when they are in conversation with the teacher or with each other in pairs or groups.

The nature of the conversation will depend greatly on how it is set up: what kinds of questions the teachers set, or indeed if the questions originate from the students themselves.

This is worth experimenting with along the lines of what seems to be the most useful and fruitful way to set things up so that pupils do the most amount of engaged reflection.

When you look at a transcript of how the students talk, it's possible to categorise the comments. Here are some suggested categories:

1. Experiential - this where we relate what is in the text with something that has happened to me or to someone I know. One useful trigger question for this is simply: ‘Is there anything you’ve just read which reminds you of something that has happened to you, or someone you know? - Why?- How?’

2. Intertextual - this is where we relate what is in the text to another text. One useful trigger for this question is: ‘Is there anything you’ve just read which reminds you of something you’ve read, seen on TV, online, at the cinema, a song, a play, a show? - Why? How?’

3. Intratextual - this is where we relate one part of the text to another part. One useful trigger for this question arises out of a moment in a piece of literature where we ask: ‘But how do we know that, using something or anything that came before?’ (I have a nickname for this which younger children enjoy: I call it ‘harvesting’ - that is, collecting up information or feelings from other parts of the text.

4. Interrogative - where we ask questions of the text and voice puzzles and are tentative about something. One trigger question for this is, ‘Is there anything here we don’t understand or are puzzled by?’ This can be followed up by, ‘Is there anyone here who thinks they can answer that?’ And ‘Does anyone have any ideas about how we can go about finding an answer to that?’

5. Semantic - where we make comments about what something in the text means.

6. Structural - where we indicate we are making a comment about how a part or whole of the piece has been put together, 'constructed'.

7. Selective analogising - where we make an analogy between one part of the text and something from anywhere else (e.g. as in 1, 2, 3). There will be an implied 'set' or 'series' being constructed here around a motif or theme or feeling. This process of analogising is extremely important even though it is often masked by seemingly trivial comments like, ‘I remember a time when I was sad...’ The importance lies in the fact that the pupil at this point is in fact creating an unstated abstraction. It is halfway (or more) towards abstract thought. Perhaps, it becomes fully abstract when the pupil(s) give that ‘set’ a name: eg ‘Sadness’ or ‘Emotions’ or some such.

8. Speculative - where we make speculations about what might happen, what could have happened. This is any kind of comment in the category of ‘I wonder...’ or ‘What if...’

9. Reflective - where we make interpretative statements often headed by 'I think...’ ie more committed than ‘speculative’.

10. Narratological - where we make comments about how the story has been told e.g. about narrators, methods of unfolding a story, what is held back, what is revealed. ('Narratology'). It may include an awareness of how stories have episodes, and sudden 'turns' or 'red herrings', flashbacks, flash forwards etc.

11. Evaluative - where we make value judgements about aspects of a text of the whole. These can be comments about significance, ‘what the author is getting at...’, or ‘why someone in the text said ‘x’’.

12.. Eureka moments - where we announce that we have suddenly 'got it'.

13. Effects - where we sense that an 'effect' has been created in us (or in others we have observed) because of the way something has been written. ‘This made me jump..’ ‘This made me sad...’ Response journals, or post-it notes on poem-posters and the like can ‘grab’ these very well.

14.. Storying - this is where we make a comment which is in essence another story. This is not trivial. As with ‘analogising’ (above) will almost certainly involve the making of a 'set' or a 'series' ie something has been selected from the original text in order to trigger off the new one. This is an implied generalisation.

15. Descriptive, - where we recount aspects of the text. This may well be more significant than it first appears because we can ask, why was this moment selected for the recount? Again, this may well be part of ‘analogising’ and/or ‘storying’.

16. Grammatical - where we draw attention to the structure of sentences - syntax, or how individual words are used grammatically.

17. Prosodic - where we draw attention to the sound of parts of the whole of a piece ie the 'music' of it. I have outlined in my book ‘What is Poetry? (Walker) how you can invite pupils to determine this themselves by using what I call ‘secret strings’ ie finding links between parts of poems whether linked by sound or by meaning.

18. . Effect of interactions: where we draw attention to how people interact ie how people (any character) treats another, how they 'relate' and what is the outcome of how they relate. In my experience, this is more valuable than simply trying to describe ‘character’.

19. Imaginative - where we move to another artistic medium in order to interpret what we have been reading or viewing....this may well involve more 'generalising' or 'abstract thought' than first appears because it involves 'selecting' something from the original text and creating some kind of 'set' or 'series' with it in creating something new. If pupils are asked 'why' this can be teased out.

20. Emotional flow: these are comments which show how feelings towards the protagonists change. Some people have invented 'flow maps' where you can draw up a kind of graph or chart, with the key moments in the plot along the bottom axis, and emotional states on the vertical axis...then you can label the line on the graph.

21. 'Author intention' - this might come partly under the category of 'speculative' - above - ie what the author could have written. Or it might be part of 'effect' ie how has the author created an effect. Word of warning: if this is separated from 'how it affected me' or 'how it affected someone else', this is of course speculation. The routine of a good deal of 'criticism' is to assume precisely the opposite ie because there is a certain literary feature - e.g. alliteration using a 'hard' sound, that it has a specific 'effect' - e.g. being insistent or heavy - and that the author intended these, which may or may not be the case.

22. Contextual - every piece of literature comes from a time and place. The person reading or spectating it will not be in exactly the same time and place. Many responses and critical ideas and thoughts go on because of this 'gap'. Students may well know or speculate about the gap, or the context ('They didn't used to do that sort of thing in those days') and of course, may ask questions and/or we offer them information or they are encouraged to research the context(s).

23. Representational or symbolic - where we make comments about what we think something 'represents'. This might be about 'character' where we say that a person 'represents' the class or type he or she comes from...'typical x kind of person'. It might be about parts of the landscape or the nature of the landscape - as it represents a particular kind of challenge to the protagonist. It could be a feature in the landscape/cityscape ie a particular kind of tree or building. It could be a single object that represents something more than itself - a torn piece of paper. And so on.

24. Extra-textual - comments that have apparently nothing to do with what's in the text and are about what's going on in the classroom or they are about pupils' interactions. Often these are as they seem to be but just occasionally they may well relate to how the pupils are interpreting e.g. a personal comment about 'You always say things like that...' may well be an indirect comment about this text and others.

In terms of teaching, we may want to emphasise one, some or several of these responses. We may want to develop one, some or several. We may want to induce the students to ask 'why' about any or all of them so that we can advance their ability to reason and rationalise. We may want to compare any of these with how the teacher or critics have responded in order to take the comments and thinking to a new level.

Michael Rosen 20.04.2017