National Writing Project

Book Review: The Write to Read: Response Journals That Increase Comprehension

By: Art Peterson
Date: August 4, 2010

Summary: Lesley Roessing, director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project in Georgia, has provided readers with thoughtful, sequenced, and creative strategies to direct students toward deeper and more personal responses to literature.

 

Some years ago Lesley Roessing had what must have been a major classroom epiphany.

"I remember congratulating one boy, Richard, for earning the highest grade on a test about a novel. I was mortified when he admitted to the class that he had never opened the book. He'd just listened and given back what I had said in class 'discussions.'"

Something wasn't working here.

Not long after, Roessing discovered the work of Louise Rosenblatt . From Rosenblatt she learned to abandon her concentration on traditional and formulaic methods of teaching literature. She learned that reading needs to be a creative experience for the reader, not a list of points that the teacher must cover.

For a reader molding a new experience from a reading, there are no right and wrong answers. In The Write to Read it becomes clear that Roessing has taken Rosenblatt to heart.

Scaffolding Is the Key

The key value of The Write to Read is that it moves beyond the "why" of reader response and pays minute attention to the "how."

For a reader molding a new experience from a reading, there are no right and wrong answers.

Roessing seems to be a natural born scaffolder. There is a seamless quality to the way her text evolves. Her students are absorbed in learning how to choose the right book; then anticipating its contents; then learning the skills of responding to literature, personal journaling, and double-entry journaling; and finally creatively applying what they have read.

While acclimatizing her students to the type of thinking required to respond insightfully to literature, Roessing never forgets she is teaching kids. She has her students read independently at least 25 minutes each night, then asks them to write a 5-minute response. In 5 minutes, she reasons, everyone will be able to write something and no one will feel overwhelmed.

Introducing her students to the double-entry journal, Roessing eschews the common major headings "Text" and "Response" and substitutes "From the BOOK," "From your BRAIN." Teaching the art of questioning essential to reader response, Roessing puts to work noncanonical texts like "Jack and Jill" (Jack broke his crown. "What's a crown?") and "Casey at the Bat" ("Why did Casey let the first two pitches go by?).

Found Poems, Note Passing, and More

While meticulous in her presentation of ways to bring students' intellectual responses up to speed, it is in describing creative uses for this thinking that Roessing is most dazzling. She suggests found poems ("students use words and phrases found in the text to create a poem")—narrative poems that retell the story in a poetic format (replacing the "and then . . . and then . . . and then").

She introduces students to writing poems with two voices in which, in parallel columns, they contrast the character and experience of two characters. She has them write an "I am" poem, for which she provides sentence stems (I am . . ., I wonder . . ., I hope . . ., I dream . . .), as a way to analyze a character. Her students write letters to friends and family about what they are reading.

Reading whole-class texts, they hold trials to test the guilt or innocence of major characters, or create a This Is Your Life show—once this rather archaic format has been explained to them.

The Write to Read is full of "Why-didn't-I-think-of-that?" ideas. One such is Roessing's "note passing" activity. Reading a challenging text like "Flowers for Algernon," students, grouped in threes, each write a response to a question such as "What is Charlie Gordon's idea of friendship?" and pass their "note" on to the next person, who in turn responds to that. Roessing sees this "silent talk" as "less disruptive than a roomful of small groups chatting, especially to those students who have fragile attention skills or limited focus."

Real Students, a Real Classroom

This and all the rest of Roessing's potpourri of wonderful ideas come off as practical and believable because every concept, every strategy, is supported by examples of student work. Through their writing we get to know Anthony and Aayna and Da'Sha and Matt and many of the other students in Roessing's class. As a bonus we even see photos of some of them, a feature that makes even more intimate this close look at students learning new ways of thinking.

After 30 years as a teacher, I have now been out of the classroom for a number of years. During my career teaching literature, I became increasingly disenchanted with what I came to call the "what is this symbol I am holding behind my back" game, the one-right-answer syndrome. I didn't understand that there were other possibilities, so I drifted into teaching composition and rhetoric. But having read Roessing's book, I am almost ready to reapply for a position as a literature teacher. As long as I can bring along The Write to Read.

About the Author Lesley Roessing has spent twenty years teaching eighth grade language arts and humanities in suburban Philadelphia. Prior to discovering her interest in teaching middle school students, she taught high school English. Over the past six years she has published articles in NCTE's English Journal and Voices from the Middle; NWP's Quarterly; and NMSA's Middle School Journal and Middle Ground. In addition, she has presented her articles and ideas widely in a variety of formats, from lecturing at annual conferences of teachers' associations to teaching workshops for local organizations and schools.

In 2002 Roessing became a writing teacher-consultant and in 2004 a literature teacher-consultant for the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project, where she began her metamorphosis from a literature teacher into a reading teacher who opens adolescents' eyes to the wonder of literature, and from a composition teacher to a writer who shares the gift of writing with her students, both for its own value and to enhance their reading experiences. She is now co-director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project.

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