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Running a Text-Centered Classroom

By George Evans
Running a   Text-Centered  Classroom

It’s amazing how few things you need in order to have a great lesson: a text, a controversial question, and the ability to shut up (though this last one might just be the hardest).
One of the more powerful shifts I’ve made in the past few years is moving away from a “strategies and skills-first” style of teaching English to one where text reigns supreme.
That means in our class we don’t organize our day-to-day goals around finding the main idea or focusing on text structure. Instead, almost everything we do in class is centered on reading texts, annotating and analyzing them, writing about what we’ve read, and then talking (and preferably arguing) about what we’ve written.
This recursive style of teaching and learning is simple. But simple isn’t easy. I think we undersell the highly complex work that goes into analytically reading, writing, and debating, and if we use our time wisely and put almost 100 percent of our focus and intention into these things, the payoffs are huge.
Take for example a debate we had recently in our Grade 11 English class. We had just read and annotated The Giver and were investigating the overarching question: “What are the costs and benefits of conformity?”
Students were given time to research and come up with a position, as well as find texts that backed up their ideas. Letting students choose their own texts here is important because it allows them to take ownership of the process. They might choose a literary example or some statistics from The New York Times, or even seize on an anecdote from their grandmother.
Then we had a nice collegial discussion in which everyone brought their ideas to the table, backed with evidence and ready to argue their position. After the debate was over and both sides had made their points, students used the notes they took during the debate to steelman the other side’s position (that is, give the strongest, most charitable interpretation of their opponents views) and then write about whether they were convinced by them or not.
Now this might seem like a routine, ordinary, everyday, run-of-the-mill lesson. And it is, which is the point. We do something like this day-in and day-out, week after week, and month after month. Skills like analytically reading a text while looking for the strongest piece of evidence aren’t easy to master. Holding one’s own in a respectful debate by making logical and coherent claims takes practice. Steelmanning your opponent’s argument and then reflecting on whether or not the person has a point is an all-too-rare occurrence these days. And so, the beauty here is not in a single lesson; rather, it is in the repetition of analytical reading, writing, speaking, and listening throughout the entire year.
Back to our Grade 11 class for a second. This was a particularly interesting discussion, because some of the participants used news articles and statistics highlighting the low crime rates in Japan versus those in more ruggedly individualistic countries, such as the United States, to point out the benefits of social conformity. The debate raged on well after the class was over, which is another routine occurrence when we use controversy, choice, and texts to drive the class.
Isn’t this kind of class boring? Far from it. Our class is centered on texts, but what drives those texts is controversy and choice. Students love to argue (ask any teacher), and so we tap into that argumentative spirit and read, write, talk, and argue our way through the year. Students get to select their own texts as they research and analyze, and they are driven to self-correct when their arguments are less than persuasive because, well, they want to win.
While it does take some preparation, particularly in terms of scanning the news, as well as setting up consistent routines, norms, and guidelines, repetition and simplicity are some of the most powerful tools we can use in both our classroom management and our curriculum and instruction. Setting up consistent, simple, and routine aspects of a class helps students form expectations and reduces the cognitive strain on both the teacher and students in having to process new directions rather than using that mental energy to do the work.
Great things happen when we center our classroom around texts, give students choice, and let the students do the talking. Try it, and you might just find the hardest part of it all is holding back and declining to participate in the fascinating discussions your students come up with. l
George Evans is a high school English teacher working at an IB World School in Japan.

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