INTRODUCTION: In the fall term, I teach writing in a learning community that links College Composition 1 and U.S. History 1. The first history homework is reading the prologue to James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton’s book After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection, which Sam, the history prof, has placed on reserve. In this intriguing teaser, the authors explore an unsolved historical mystery, “The Strange Death of Silas Deane,” to illustrate that history is not merely what happened.
The first composition homework is fastwriting a 500-word summary-response essay on the “Strange Death” piece. In past years, I’ve observed students struggling to understand the prologue and articulate its message about the nature of history. The three-paragraph introduction merely hints at a thesis, and many students get off track. The somewhat-cryptic thesis doesn’t appear until the very end of the piece. While I’ve always helped students navigate this maze with pre-writing and post-writing discussion, I’ve been dissatisfied with the results. So I created “The Pre-Reading Throwdown.”
Suitable for any course—sociology, mathematics, ESL, biology, reading, philosophy, orientation, engineering—this activity helps students anticipate issues they’ll face in reading a challenging assignment and nudges them towards the practice of reading more attentively. I used the “Throwdown” on the first day, but the 40-minute activity can be used anytime.
- To maximize students’ success in comprehending a challenging reading assignment
- To help students develop their ability to read attentively
- To foster interaction and interdependence
- Copies of the challenging reading assignment (textbook or photocopy)
- Copies of the instructions: “The Pre-Reading Throwdown” (appended in SUPPORT MATERIALS below)
1. Introduce the reading assignment, acknowledge its potential difficulties, and explain the purpose of the in-class activity: to help students prepare to read successfully.
2. Invite students to form groups of four (or five).
3. Hand out copies of the reading or invite students to find it in their book.
4. Hand out the instructions (see SUPPORT MATERIALS) and invite students to follow them.
5. During the group work, keep an eye out for questions or problems, yet allow students to find their own way.
6. When it appears groups are finished, invite each spokesperson to report to the class.
7. After reports, ask the class “So what is history?” (or whatever question seems appropriate for the reading at hand). An alternative is to ask each student to take five minutes to write an answer.
8. Optional: Invite students to write their reflections on the activity.
Students embraced the task and persisted actively. One group, though completing the assigned work, admitted apologetically that they spent much time exploring nuances of meaning and potential misreadings in just the first paragraph. I smiled and applauded their curiosity. The whole class demonstrated attentiveness and interactivity that thrilled Sam and me. After the “Throwdown,” the old curmudgeon whispered, “That worked great.” Of course, the proof is in the pie, preferably rhubarb.
While delighted with the groups, I was less than thrilled with the group reports. Two groups of five reported their detection of no possible misreadings. Two groups reported two. One group reported three. I learned from questions asked during the group sessions and from talking with students later that a few students weren’t sure what “misread” means.
During the group work, I overheard a student declare, “Okay, so we know history is more than just what happened in the past, but we don’t yet know what more is, right?” Later, she said, “Okay, guys, let’s get back on task.” In another group I overheard, “Why don’t these guys just say what they mean?” In yet another, a young man called me over: “We understand the introduction just fine, but we’re having a hard time picking out ways to misread it.” I replied, “Consider the first sentence of the second paragraph: ‘History is what happened in the past’.” (In the piece it has quotation marks.) He said, “Well, it’s got quotation marks because it’s not true. It’s what a lot of people mistakenly think history is.”
Sam and I enjoyed seeing such intense interaction and productivity on the first day, especially given the focus on first assignments for history and comp. No one stared at the wall. Several weeks later, when I asked Sam about that first day, he said, “I can’t imagine a better way to start the class and get them involved in the history and writing.”
Each spokesperson’s oral summary of the prologue’s introduction was thoughtful and instructive, really quite good for the first day of a college class, especially given an introduction that implies rather than states its thesis. (The actual thesis doesn’t appear until the very end of the long prologue, which they had yet to complete.)
I feel certain the activity helped prepare students to read the assigned piece and fastwrite their summary-response essays. Their 500-word fastwrites, submitted the next class period, showed considerably more grasp of the “Strange Death” prologue than such fastwrites from previous years. The exceptional quality of thought may have stemmed in part from their being such capable fledgling students.
I also feel certain the activity helped plunge students into meaningful group work, which is essential for success in my writing courses. They appeared to work productively together, and their responses on the survey (below) indicate such.
A few weeks into the term I administered a survey. It invited students (1) to rate, on a scale of one to five, the usefulness of the first-day group work on “Silas Deane” in helping prepare them to understand the reading and complete the fastwrite successfully, (2) to explain their rating; (3) to explain what history is not and what it is; (4) to rate, on a scale of one to five, the usefulness of the group work on “Silas Deane” in helping them get to know one another; and (5) to explain their rating.
One student was absent for the survey, and one had not been present on the first day of class. Of the twelve who completed the survey, nine gave either four or five on the two rating questions, indicating their support for the activity as a useful preparation for reading “Silas Deane” and writing about it, and for working together.
Here are four students’ comments explaining their ratings:
“I recall the ‘Silas Deane’ prologue being a challenge to fully understand what the article was getting at. I think to be challenged on the first day of class is encouraging and very rare. I feel it was a good icebreaker and a suitable introduction to classmates. [. . .] I think this is a good idea to be put into groups from day one—reminds me of my dad who went to the Naval Academy and was put into his company on day one, and that’s who he worked with for 4 years. Best to do it up front.”
“The exercise was particularly useful because it forced me to properly understand the meaning behind the writing—For those of us who ‘skim’ while reading, it’s helpful to really understand what is being said. [. . .] Trial by fire—It was a good way to quickly meet my group. I very much like my group now, so I support this method.”
“Even though I believe my group discussed each paragraph in detail before we concentrated on each sentence individually, the thorough investigation of the article’s introduction gave me a really helpful example for how to go about examining the rest of the article. By having specific parameters to concentrate on, we focused on the overall meaning and the importance of word choice, both helpful in writing my paper. [. . .] I think it was a fine assignment but I didn’t think it was meant to help us get to know each other. We did relax and have good conversation which was helpful, but it didn’t really introduce my group as people.”
“I think it was very helpful. We got to get a head start on reading it, and some different perspectives on difficult material. It was also nice because we got to know our group mates better. The only bad thing was that we didn’t really have enough time to do it completely. [. . . The group work] was really nice. We were able to learn about each other as we worked. Everyone was nice and it made for a very enjoyable atmosphere.”
The “Throwdown” produced tasty apple pie but not quite rhubarb.
I’ve already tweaked the written instructions (below). I’ve defined the word “misread.” And when I do the activity again, I’ll prep students more fully by demonstrating how unintentional misreading is integral to the reading process—how as active readers, we anticipate a certain meaning and then, reading further, correct our inaccurate guesses or confirm our accurate guesses.
I’ve also added a step inviting the groups to read the three paragraphs silently, to establish context, before reading each paragraph aloud and then commenting on each sentence and the whole. Perhaps they’ll notice and later tell the group how they anticipated a certain meaning and then corrected or confirmed it.
To construct meaning for each paragraph and for the three paragraphs together, students needed to concentrate. Their deliberate search for possible misreadings perhaps distracted them. Even so, I continue to subscribe to this the two-pronged approach, because it helps them see the challenges college readers face and the sinkholes they’ll often wander into and drag themselves up out of (while trying not to end sentences with prepositions except for intended effect).
The Pre-Reading Throwdown
Purposes: To help you prepare to read “The Strange Death of Silas Deane” (for history) and complete your summary-response fastwrite (for comp). To help you get to know one another. To provide experience working in a group. To help you develop your ability to read attentively.
GROUPS OF 4 (or 5)
1. Introduce yourself briefly to your group.
2. Select your group’s facilitator, who invites participation and keeps the work going.
3. Select your group’s notemaker-spokesperson.
4. Invite everyone to read the three-paragraph introduction silently.
5. Paragraph 1
a. Invite a volunteer to read the paragraph aloud.
b. Invite a volunteer to explain the meaning of sentence one as well as ways, if any, that it can be misread (taken the wrong way).
c. Invite other group members to add their thoughts.
d. The note taker writes down each way, if any, that the sentence might be misconstrued.
e. And so on, sentence by sentence, to the end of paragraph one.
6. Paragraph 2: Same process as for paragraph one.
7. Paragraph 3: Same process as for paragraph one and two.
8. As a group, reach consensus (group agreement) on the overall meaning of the three paragraphs together. Also reach consensus on the probable thesis (main idea, claim) of the prologue.
9. The note taker writes this overall meaning and the probable thesis of the prologue in no more than three sentences.
Each group’s spokesperson, addressing the class, (1) reads the group’s consensus on the overall meaning of the three-paragraph introduction as well as the probable thesis and (2) explains how any sentences or paragraphs might be taken the wrong way.
—Dick Harrington, Faculty, English (Emeritus), Piedmont Virginia Community College, VA