cheesemonkey wonders

cheesemonkey wonders

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Intermezzo - summer reading seminar on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

One of the things I sometimes forget that I love about teaching English is the fact that I get to get adolescents talking and thinking about issues we all feel deeply about. The cool thing about sparking these conversations with young adolescents (by which I mean secondary students, as opposed to college students) is that most of them are just waking up to these issues for the first time in their lives, which means passions run deep. And that means they are ripe for thinking deeply about these issues — more deeply than we often give them credit for.

In my seminar this afternoon on The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I wanted to get students to develop for themselves a question that I think is fundamental to citizenship in a functioning democracy — specifically, who is it who, in different contexts, gets to decide what is to be considered "normal," and therefore acceptable?

The Curious Incident is an interesting reading choice for incoming 9th graders because the narrator, Christopher, is a young man on the autistic spectrum who easily qualifies in students' eyes as an outsider. In spite of extremely high math and science aptitude and achievement (preparing to take his maths A-levels at age 15), he is prevented from attending a mainstream secondary school. Instead, his social and emotional impairments have caused him to be marginalized into a special needs school where even he can see that most of the students are far less socially and emotionally functional than he is.

The students in my seminar are outgoing 8th graders I have known for a full year now. Because I teach both math and English, I have actually taught most of them for at least one period a day, and in many cases, for two periods a day. Which is to say, I know them unusually well for a casual summer reading seminar. I also know the ELA curriculum they have all just finished working through because I helped to develop some of it, and this gave me a lot of touchstones to draw on in our discussions. However, I would like to point out that this kind of lesson could work well with almost any group of students, since it centers on one of the main issues in adolescent life: namely, issues of fairness.

The activity I set up for today involved small groups doing "detective work" on five related thematic issues in the novel and then sharing out their findings with the rest of the group. The five thematic areas were:

  • Belief systems: conventional religious beliefs versus Christopher's own unique belief system
  • "Normal" behavior and how we judge differences in the behavior of others
  • The nature of human memory: Christopher's beliefs about his own memory and other people's
  • The significance of Christopher's dream in the novel
  • The interrelated issues of truth, truthfulness, and trust
To get things started, I modeled the investigative process using issue #2 - what is considered "normal" behavior and who gets to decide whose behavior in a society will be considered "normal" and whose will be considered "deviant" (or sub-normal). Students needed a little more context on what autism is and how it can affect a young person socially, so we did a little quick internet-based research (thank you, iPhone!) on the autistic spectrum and what it means to be higher-functioning or less-high-functioning. Students zoomed in on the exact contradiction I had hoped — but have learned never to expect— they would target: the question of varying standards of "Behavior" that govern the judgment of and consequences for actions of adults (such as Christopher's father) and those of a kid like Christopher himself. Fairness is something that most adolescents feel strongly about, even when they are generally treated quite fairly, as most of these students usually are. [SPOILER ALERT: stop reading here if you haven't read the novel and don't want to know what happens as it progresses].

The kids were really quite exercised about the fact that while Christopher was the one labeled as having "Problem Behavior," his father committed a number of acts that we all agreed had to qualify as "Problem Behavior," including (a) killing an innocent dog, (b) lying to his son about the boy's mother being dead, and (c) hiding her letters to him to maintain the lie of her having died of an improbable illness. These were just the big issues.

So we circled around until we needed to land on a word they did not yet have in their vocabulary: arbitrary. Our dictionary manager looked the word up and read its several definitions to the group while we tried it on for size. "Arbitrary" definitely seemed to fit the contradictory categorizations of behavior of adults versus of Christopher in the novel. There was no way around the fact that the rules seemed both arbitrary and easily manipulated by the adults — far more easily than by Christopher himself. The notion that society's rules are subjective constructs, influenced by the personal beliefs and opinions of human beings, struck them as a significant new insight.

This part of the discussion led to a second insight I'd been hoping we might arrive at: the fact that whoever is in power gets to determine what will be considered normal. The idea of differences in power is something most of these students have not encountered much, except in the context of adults/parents versus adolescents/children. So for many of them, it was a new idea to think that these inequities could extend outside of families to other social relationships and interactions.

Their investigations and presentations were rich and quite thorough. To save time, I provided more scaffolding in the worksheets (chapter and/or page references) than I would have if we had been doing the project over several class periods. Still, I was pleased that they were able to reread their sections closely, draw on their annotations and notes, and quickly assemble arguments about each of these thematic areas that were supported by evidence from the text.

Having just come back from Twitter Math Camp, and still being immersed in rich dialogue about math pedagogy and equity, the conversation reminded me that every subject area in which we teach is a powerful opportunity to engage with students. At Twitter Math Camp, I loved being able to drop directly into the middle of an ongoing conversation I've been having with colleagues in the Math Twitterblogosphere for months or years in the virtual realm. In our seminar today, I loved being able to drop directly back into pretty advanced investigation with these students because I had already done so much formative assessment with them over the past year in this same kind of context.

These conversations are a gift of deep teaching and learning, and they are a reminder of what gets lost when policymakers become enchanted with the kind of magical thinking that allows them to chase the illusions of quick fixes and silver bullets such as plopping kids down in front of a giant library of videotaped lectures. Developing a library of tutorial videos may be a worthwhile archival goal, but it is no substitute for the magic that can happen when good and authentic teaching connects with a ready student.


  1. >Having just come back from Twitter Math Camp, and still being immersed in rich dialogue about math pedagogy and equity, ...

    Can you tell me more about the discussions about equity?

  2. Sue - My session on intrinsic motivation had a heavy emphasis on how to get the less engaged kids as immersed in flow in doing math as the kids for whom math comes naturally. This started numerous dialogues about a whole range of equity issues, from gender to socioeconomic. Most of our conversations happened in between the rest of the formal sessions.