One challenge of teaching high school occurs when students need to read difficult texts but they don’t have the tools to do so. This lack of reading strategies was one of the greatest shocks of my beginning teaching years. I’m pretty sure I just assumed that if I were teaching adolescents, the work of teaching reading would largely have been done for me.
High school students have an incredibly wide range of reading abilities. On the one hand, I have taught students who read Tolstoy for fun. In the world of literature teaching, I would bet that threatening to assign War and Peace is a fairly standard hyperbolic statement. It was for me until a student responded in all seriousness, “I LOVE War and Peace!” A couple of years later, another student had the Tolstoy tome on his desk and explained “I just don’t like small books.” Okay then. I retired that joke.
On the other hand, I also teach students who tell me versions of the following:
“Miss, I finished a book this year. I haven’t finished a book since fourth grade!”
“Miss, I’ve never finished a book in my life.”
“Miss, I hate reading. I read so slow!”
“Miss, whatever you do, don’t make me read out loud.”
With these realities in mind, what can teachers of adolescents do to improve the literacy skills of all students, especially older students? To try to answer this question, I took graduate courses in reading and attended conferences when I could. As much as all these experiences helped me, I still felt that the help for teaching older adolescents (especially grades 10-12) was somewhat lacking. And then I found the books of Jim Burke.
Jim Burke, a high school English teacher from California, has written several books that specifically address the issues of high school literacy. He is also the founder/master of the English Companion Ning, an online community of English teachers. I pulled the graphic organizer for the following lesson out of his book Tools for Thought: Graphic Organizers for Your Classroom.
Before my English 4 classes read Hamlet and grapple with issues of identity and leadership, I want to introduce them to the ideas of Niccolo Machiavelli, ideas that have been controversial since the time of the writing of this treatise. If you aren’t familiar with Machiavelli’s ideas, just understand that the idea that “the ends justify the means” pretty much sums up what he’s saying here.
In my classes we read chapters 17 and 18:
Chapter 17: “Of Cruelty and Clemency, And Whether It Is Better To Be Loved Than Feared”
Chapter 18: “Concerning The Way In Which Princes Should Keep Faith”
In these chapters, Machiavelli outlines the most desirable relationship between a prince and his people. He argues that princes should strive to be feared rather than loved, but that they should avoid being hated.
Note that, even in modern translation, this is a difficult text. It’s also in the mode of argumentation, which tends, in my experience, to be more difficult for developing readers than narrative modes.
Step One: An Intriguing Question
To get students thinking about Machiavelli’s ideas before we read the text, I ask them to quick-write in their notebooks about leadership. Some students hold leadership positions at school, so they are able to think through the ideas as they might apply personally. I ask them some version of this question: “As a leader, is it better to be feared or loved?”
Step Two: The Text and the Reading Strategy
After they respond and have some discussion, I pull out the text and give some context for Machiavelli. I also hand out a copy of one of Jim Burke’s graphic organizers, called “Think in Threes.”
I ask the students to write “Leadership” in the middle circle and explain that Machiavelli has some thoughts about the discussion we’ve just had. I ask them to write “Fear” in one of the three spaces and “Love” in another side.
As we read the text, we annotate together what he is saying about leaders who rule by fear and leaders who rule by love.
Then, we notice that he introduces a new response some leaders evoke: hatred. Machiavelli introduces this concept by way of qualification. He says that while leaders want to be feared, they do not want to be hated. At this point, I ask students to write “Hate” in the last of the three blanks.
We annotate for what he says are the habits of leaders who are routinely hated by their people. His observations are incredibly cynical on this point, but it does inspire some reaction from my students. For instance, Machiavelli argues that a leader can kill subjects as examples, as long as he avoids taking any of his subjects’ land or women: “The property of his subjects he will leave alone, for a man will sooner forgive the slaying of his father than the confiscation of his patrimony.”
Step Three: The Response
After we read and annotate the three ideas of fear, hate, and love, I ask the students to respond to Machiavelli’s ideas. They write their responses and reactions at the bottom of the page.
Here are some of their completed sheets:
Step Four: The Ongoing Application
We generally read The Prince either right before reading any of the play or right before reading Claudius’ first monologue in Act I, scene 2. Claudius’ speech and his general behavior in the play exemplify Machiavellian behavior and contrast with Hamlet, who “know[s] not seems” (at least until he starts deliberately pretending to be something that he’s not, which leads into all kinds of great discussions).
Later in the semester, we read Brave New World and return to Machiavelli’s ideas as we evaluate Mustapha Mond as the Controller of the World State. In his long conversation with John Savage in chapters 17-18, he demonstrates Machiavellian thinking.
Have any of you used The Prince in class? Any other difficult nonfiction texts? What are some of your strategies for breaking down difficult texts with high school students?
Burke, J. (2002). Tools for Thought: Graphic Organizers for Your Classroom. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Print.