It is a Year 12 English class and the text is The Wife of Martin Guerre. The stakes are high, exams are just weeks away and we really have to get this essay writing under our belts. We have to be confident and fearless in our approach to the text and the topic, and most of all we have to have our own voice on the novel, our own interpretation. We have to show that we have mulled over the text and wrestled with it to make meaning. In other years, and with other students, I have stood there at the front of the room, leading the students through this process and I have felt fairly sure that there are teachers throughout the country in classrooms doing precisely that.
But not me, not this year. After several years of implementing Literature Circles in various literature classrooms over the last three years and wrestling in my own way with the pedagogical implications of constructivism and the role of student talk in students making meaning from texts with each other, I just found myself doing this with the year 12s. I didn’t consciously think that that’s what I was doing; I didn’t call it that in my head, but when it came to giving the students experience in planning text response questions on the novel, it just naturally fell out that way.
“Form groups of three” I said, in the manner of a magician about to perform a trick. The students moved reluctantly. When they were in distinct groups, I gave out sheets of paper with six essay topics on the text and set each group to work on one of the topics. I also handed out a sheet of A3 paper per group. “Now let's make a plan for the topic as a group,” I said, “You need to come up with your contention as a group, the first sentence of your introduction and three or four reasons for your contention. Then write the topic sentences for your paragraphs and include some appropriate quotes.”
I went on, “You will be presenting your for your class next lesson.” I listened to the buzz of conversation. I heard Bertrande, Arnaud and Martin being referred to knowledgably. I heard references to the nature of the feudal society and its implications. The students were using vocabulary they had been exposed to in the course of reading and discussing the novel in class. And then I realised what I was trying to do in using this pedagogical strategy in the study of a literary text in a Year 12 class. All that I had learnt and reflected on in the last years was being honed in this class and the learning the students were doing was apparent. The intensity of the work they were doing on a Friday afternoon would not have been matched in individual work and, even worse, listening to a teacher up at the front of the room would have robbed them of the satisfaction of doing it themselves. Students learning, especially in Year 12 is inherently social, and this bit of learning is one I will not forget.