If I Stuck a Camera into Your Brain, What Would I See? Responding to Literature

In this series of lessons I attempt to apply Peter Elbow’s writing response techniques (previously mentioned in posts like this one) to help students respond to literature. Elbow’s response types require different modes of thinking; by combining them, my hope is that the final product helps students exercise a variety of aesthetic/cognitive muscles. The idea here is to train their attention to the creative world lurking beneath the material of the page. To try and guide each student’s perception to engage with an author’s words and ideas.

Below you’ll find a copy of my own response page. I chose to respond to Pedagogies of Kindness and Respect, a wonderful new volume of essays devoted to education and caring. Although my own students wouldn’t be able to access the text (I don’t know too many 7th graders interested in the ethics of neoliberalist ed reform), I didn’t want to phone it in. The more seriously I took the assignment, I figured, the more prepared I would be to help.


The Process
Students began this process by selecting a page from their independent novel. They spent time in class figuring out what it is they look for in a book. Students listed elements such as humor, action, character development, and interesting dialogue.

With this list front and center, students went off to read. I made sure to provide ample in-class time for reading. Every time students found a potential page to use they inserted a strip of paper as a placeholder and kept reading. After three consecutive days of in-class reading, each student had at least two options for choosing a response. Once students settled on a page, they shared it with me and I printed them out.

Students spent the next 2-3 days drafting their four response types. Again, although I’ve spoken about these response types before, here’s a short rundown.

1. Skull Penetrations: What word/phrase from the page penetrates your skull? Why? This is a good chance to work with students on summarizing (this is what the phrase is and means) and analysis (this is why it was so affecting).

2. Center of Gravity: What’s the main idea of the page? What idea or event seems to be at the center, pulling everything else towards it? What do a majority of the details lean towards?

3. Analogy: I love analogies. A lot. Students had to pick something to compare their page with. How is the page like a sport? What about an article of clothing or type of food? Students always struggle with analogies; and for good reason, they can get pretty abstract pretty quickly. Although they’re easy to scaffold on the spot (helping students list qualities of the page, then seeing what else has those qualities), analogies require a real mental leap of faith.

4. Mind Model: This is an illustration of what happens to a student while he or she reads the page. I tell them to imagine I’m sticking a camera into their brain while they read it. What would I see? The key here is differentiating between drawing the page vs. drawing your reaction to the page. This nuanced difference takes time to develop. I struggled with it myself.

Before students turned to their own page, we practiced each of the response types using a page from the fantastic Y.A. novel Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. I found a good page, cleaned it up a little, and added a few parts to make sure it was rich enough for each response. By using a shared text and practicing each response one at a time, every student in the class heard twenty different skull penetrations, saw twenty different mind models, etc.

After that, students worked on their own page. I spoke with them individually and did my best to push their thinking. I also created slides such as the following to help students think through the response types.

Help Page 1

The Results
Below are a handful of images I took of student work. I tried to capture a representative range of the abilities present in each of my classrooms.

The Rationale
Not every child takes immediately to the written word. Regardless of how exciting a book is, direct and sustained engagement with a text requires more than simply providing exciting books. I have many students who for various reasons struggle to sustain attention on even the most engaging of books.

I do think that sustained attention is something to be developed. Accessing words and images requires perception, cognition, and the ability to reciprocate with the page. To take what are essentially dead words, flecks of ink arranged in patterns on cheap recycled pulp, and pull them into ourselves. Smarter individuals (Rosenblatt comes to mind immediately, of course) have written much about reader-response theory, and I don’t want to unnecessarily muddy the waters. My point is that developing a relationship with a text is a give-and-take. I hope this lesson works towards that end.

Thanks for reading!


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