Addendum #4: Literature + Reader-Response Questions + Google Classroom Can Restore Some Sense of Relationship

As my seniors finish their reading and response work with Octavia Butler’s Kindred this week, I’ve especially appreciated the spot for private comments on student postings in Google Classroom. With the platform and with student postings, I can get the gist of how students are reading and thinking about these last parts of the novel, but I’ve also found that with current conditions of social distancing, Google Classroom combined with the right kind of question can be conducive to moments of genuine connection

In our “normal” mode of school before the COVID-19 crisis, it was typically the end of the week before I would get time to attentively look over my customary assignment of about two postings per student per week. In such a typical week, I tend to use face-to-face interactions, questions, and classroom discussion to check for student understanding and to grow relationships with and among students. Clearly, conditions have changed. 

So far this week, I’m having senior students work through the sort of close-reading, text-focused, analytical responses that reflect the commendable aims of Common Core, College Board, and AP instructional approaches. (The recent video support for AP English and other courses has been consistently excellent, thoughtful, and personal. One instructor just emphasized literature’s role in “our connections with humanity” and the ways that literature can remind us that “we are not alone.”) 

Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate the appropriate role of reader-response criticism and questions. Reader-response theory and practice varies widely, but basically the theory focuses on how readers process texts and how readers compare their own experiences to that of characters or narrators from any given text. I often look for ways to use these sorts of questions as follow-up to the more analytical responses, so that students have alternative ways of connecting to texts they read and for thinking about the current world beyond the text. (For later, there is much more to explore concerning literature and social-emotional and academic integration.) 

So, here is the reader-response question that I posed for Kindred: Dana and Kevin experience many “jolts” throughout their experience of time-shifting. What are some of the jolts that you’ve experienced or that you’ve especially noticed others experiencing during the COVID-19 crisis? (Kindred is a fascinating and well-crafted novel about an African-American woman’s bizarre and unpredictable experiences of being transported back and forth from her 1976 setting to the early 1800s culture of the Antebellum South. It’s rich with academic, social, emotional, philosophical, and spiritual themes.) 

As students have been turning in their assignments, I have been reading their responses, and I have felt a slight return to relational normalcy as I hear about the many “jolts” that they have been experiencing and about their often compassionate notices of other people’s struggles. It’s been great to have time to respond with my own comment on their struggles and insights while also sharing some of my own. (One pattern of response that I’m noticing is the challenges of dealing with “forced-family-time.” Perhaps, I should offer a Flipgrid assignment in which they develop PSAs for coping strategies?) 

Although not quite as good as being in person, these interactions through Google Classroom remind me of the importance of Dave Stuart’s notion of genuine connections, even at a distance. Dave recently posted a distance assignment about “twenty details from daily life” for social studies or ELA that also has the personal-experience-reflection feel that can be found that I’ve found in a reader-response approach, perhaps even paired with readings from a source such as the New York Times on Photos From a Century of Epidemics

As I was finishing my drafting of this Addendum, I could hear my wife in the kitchen having a Google Meet session with ELL students, encouraging them personally, socially, and academically. A reminder of another simple way that we can keep making connections, even in a time of social distancing. 

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