Teacher and Student Uptake of an Affect-Based Approach to Literary Interpretation

Submitted by: Sarah Levine
Abstract: Keywords: Affect, Literary Interpretation, Classroom Discussion, Professional Development

In classroom discussions of literature, students often struggle to see past the “one right interpretation” they believe teachers seek, and teachers, despite their best intentions, find themselves defaulting to such “one right interpretation” discourses in the classroom. Consequently, discussions about literature tend to be teacher-led and focused on “known-answer” questions (Nystrand et al., 2003) and students may not experience the rich, personal literary transactions and nuanced interpretations that many teachers wish for their students. To address this challenge, this study examines the degree to which one affect-based approach to literary interpretation supported students in various aspects of literary reading, and supported teachers in different aspects of literary discussion facilitation. This study followed a cohort of U.S. secondary English Language Arts teachers through a summer professional development program and an academic year. Teachers learned an affect-based approach to literary interpretation, called “up/down/both/why,” where readers learn to make subjective evaluations of textual tones and moods to develop textual interpretation. The approach draws on research on the relationship between affective response and “literariness” (e.g. Miall & Kuiken, 1994) as well as transactional and reader response theories (e.g. Rosenblatt) and attempts to address both cognitive and discourse challenges of literary interpretation. The study asks: To what extent did students apply the approach to different aspects of literary interpretation, such as building connotation, evaluating characters, and developing thematic inferences; and to what extent did teachers use the approach with different texts and question types? The research team examined transcripts of nine teachers’ classroom videos before and after the professional development to analyze teacher and student uptake of the strategy. We used emergent and collaborative coding for all coded transcripts. As compared to the pre-PD class discussions, students made more interpretive statements, while teachers asked fewer questions overall. Student participation was significantly higher in post-PD classroom discussions, as compared to baseline discussions.These findings indicate that affect-based interpretive approaches are flexible enough to be taken up across various aspects of interpretation, inquiry, and text type. The study also surfaces the complexity of classroom instruction during discussions of literature.

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