Friday, October 29, 2010

Cultural Historical Activity Theory as Applied to Literature Discussion Groups

"Well," said Pooh, "we keep looking for Home and not finding it, so I thought that if we looked for this Pit, we'd be sure not to find it, which would be a Good Thing, because then we might find something that we weren't looking for, which might be just what we were looking for, really." (Milne, 1928, p. 121)

What makes an effective literature discussion? What place does gender have in small group discussions? How can teachers best support student discussion of literature? What is the role of the teacher in literature discussions? Questions like these tend to be focus of research on the use of small group literature discussions. Investigators have tallied and analyzed the content of discussions, traced the changing roles of students and teacher, and created taxonomies of the type of talk that happens in literature discussions. However, by using these approaches, which are too narrow to address the scope of the entire activity as it is occurs in a cultural, historical, and social setting with complex and sometimes competing goals and purposes, we loose sight of the forest for the trees . I propose that, by using a different theoretical framework for studying small group literature discussions than has been used thus far, we can achieve a broader understanding of both student and teacher development within this context. By using Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) we can understand how the individuals within the activity setting influence and are influenced by the other individuals, contexts, and tools used to achieve a learning objective. “Because then we might find something that we weren't looking for, which might be just what we were looking for, really.”

Although book clubs have existed before, in the late 1980s adult book clubs became a hot commodity for libraries and bookstores and women across the country began publicly acknowledging the importance of book clubs in their lives. Researchers jumped on the band wagon to investigate the social and cultural meaning of book clubs and generally found positive results – in both generating personal and emotional support through the group and in encouraging adults to read more. Educators, many who were in book clubs themselves, attempted to translate that same atmosphere into their classrooms.

In the early 1990s, several models of literature discussions were published, including Daniel's (1994) Literature Circles using role sheets, Peterson & Eeds' Grand Conversations, Beck, McKeown, Hamilton, & Kugan's (1997), Questioning the Author and Raphael & McMahon's Book Clubs. Most of these models focus on student choice of text, preparing for reading through some form of note-taking, having discussions generated through student questions, and supporting collaborative meaning making from text. In a educational culture of “best practices”, language arts teachers have now encouraged to use small group literature discussions as it embodies many of the tenants of Best Practice (Daniels & Bizar) such as cooperative, student-centered, active learning with an emphasis on higher-order thinking skills.

Each model has a specific purpose and structure that guides the development of the discussion. In Literature Circles, the goal is to help students generate personal responses to the text – or an expressive stance. In Collaborative Reasoning, students are guided to take a critical or analytic stance on the text. Using Questioning the Author strategies, students search the text for for information and take an efferent stance toward text. Each of these models support a specific type of inquiry and purpose to the discussion. Without a clear articulation of one's purpose to the discussion, teachers may find themselves implementing a structure that runs counter to the vision they have for the discussion.

This is where cultural historical activity theory (CHAT) can help us understanding the complex environment of a literature group discussion. “Activity theory (Cole, 1996; Leont'ev, 1981; Tulviste, 1991; Wertsch, 1981) is predicated on the assumption that a person's frameworks for thinking are developed through problem-solving action carried out in specific settings whose social structures have been developed through historical, culturally-grounded actions. . . Activity theory also calls attention to the goals of development (telos) and the ways in which environments are structured to promote development toward these goals (prolepsis) . . . A central concern of activity theory, then, is to understand the kinds of culturally defined futures that motivate people's activity and the sorts of tools they develop in order to help mediate one another's progress toward those futures.” (Grossman, Smagorinsky, Valencia, 1999, pp.4-5 ).

Literature discussion groups are nebulous creatures to understand. There is a tangled interaction of teacher, students, texts and context, where most of the meaning-making is invisible. In this paper, I will attempt to apply the theory of CHAT to better untangle the interactions and reweave the various aspects of literature discussions in the attempt to better understand how the teacher directed use of tools, such as pre-discussion note-taking, influences the process of meaning-making from text at both the individual and group level.

Friday, October 15, 2010

My Life in Seven Stories

Life is like a patchwork quilt, with experiences being stitched together to create the quilt as a whole. Here is a small part of my life’s quilt.

The Green Sheet
The Green Sheet was the 4-page comic strip section of the Milwaukee Journals when I was a child. Before I could read, I would be able to find the Green Sheet in the stack of news and pull it out before my parents would read the events of the day. Lying in the sunshine on the floor of the living room, I would follow the panels and try to figure out the story. But, I couldn't read the words. I would ask my older brother, but he wouldn't be interested in reading to me. When my dad was home on Saturdays, he would sit in the arm chair and read to me. Although I loved the comfort of being on my dad's lap, I couldn't wait to be able to read the comics to myself. To this day, Dad and I continue to discuss Prince Valiant, even when hundreds of miles apart.

Being a farm girl, I would sometime invite my friends to a sleepover in the hay mow of the barn. It was filled with the scent of fresh cut alfalfa and the chirp of crickets. Yet, one night, it was punctured by the bleat of a lost kitten. In the light of day, my brother and I searched the loft until we found a very small, very lost kitten – all white except for his gray tail and one gray ear. Fitting in one hand, we carried him home and pleaded with our parents to allow us to keep him – in the house. After several days of bottle feeding and mid-night comforting, it seemed the poor creature would live. Like many other rescued animals before him, he became Lucky and part of our household for 18 years. Furry critters remain an important part of my life with my shetland sheepdog, Rasa, and as a Feline Friend at the humane society.

Where the Buffalo Roam
One of the stereo-typical family trips for Mid-westerners is a car trip out to the Blackhills of South Dakota, with a stops at Wall Drugs, Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse, and Custer State Park. After years of hearing about the massive herds of the majestic American bison, I was determined to be in the midst of the herd. My family drove around the park for three hours, but couldn't find a single buffalo – nor did we see any for the entire 7-day trip. Once home, my mother wrote to the tourism board and requested a small buffalo stuffed animal to fulfill my desire for a Dakotan buffalo. Hence, my obsession with the American bison – the symbol of abundance – and I have been abundantly blessed.

My First Classroom
My first team meeting was frightening. One teacher told me he was just hoping to survive the two years before retirement. Another told me I was hired because I was in the army and therefore would bring discipline to my classroom. The third one told me she was very happy with what she was doing and didn't want to change anything – all the new technology seemed a waste of time. Like many first year teachers, I had dreams of changing the world and making a difference in the lives of the children - this wasn't the way it was supposed to go. I faced a very traditional school and curriculum and choose to make small changes, such as purchasing a class set of novels and approaching my team about doing some interdisciplinary work. I exchanged classes with the science teacher and taught his least favorite unit – rocks and minerals. He taught his favorite story to my English classes – “Rip Van Winkle”. The other team saw some of the unique lessons we were doing and decided to try some new things too. I learned that leadership and change didn't need to come from mandates, but rather from strong relationships with colleagues and a focus on student learning.

I'm a Medic. I can help.
A passenger airplane crashed in a corn field in Wisconsin and I was part of the team called to triage the injured. The scene was chaotic and scary – even knowing it was a training exercise. People cried out in pain and their moulage makeup wept bright red blood and certainly looked real. The fast pace of making potentially life altering decisions was both exhilarating and sobering and I liked it. As a medic in the Army National Guard, I not only learned medical skills but confidence and resilience.

Road Trip in Brazil
Part of the thrill of being an international teacher is the chance to live in a different country and see the things only locals tend to see. The Itiquira Waterfall was just a few hours north of Brasilia, Brazil, yet few non-Brazilian have the opportunity to see it. My husband and I had been teaching at the American school for just over a year when a group of friends decided to take a road-trip to the Falls. We packed a cooler full of sandwiches and homemade brownies (as ready made foods were not available) and made the trek to the largest free falling waterfall in Brazil. The roar of the falls could be heard before the entrance of the park. The rainbows generated by the spray was not damped by the chilliness of the water. Although there were many challenges living overseas, both personally and professionally, experiences like this highlight the reason I choose the adventure.

Connection to the Past
“Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it." - Winston Churchill

When other kids spent their summer vacations swimming or going to the park, I spent it at museums, historic sites or reading about the Ancient Egyptians or inspirational historic women such as Florence Nightingale, Clara Barton, Elizabeth Blackwell and Sacagawea. Growing up in my family meant growing up immersed in stories of the past – family, local, state, nation and the world's stories. Oral histories gave flesh to the written histories I read. I've walked the school aisle where Clara Barton first taught. I've crept through the dark corridors of the Giza Pyramids to the sarcophagus of the kings. I've knelt in the battlefield of Gettysburg which ran red with the blood of the soldiers. These tangible remnants of the past inspire me to remember the lessons of the past, treasure my present moments and think deeply about the future.