Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Home by Toni Morrison

Knopf, 160 pages

Reviewed by Sharon Crowley

Most readers have authors' names, not just book titles, on their reading lists. Anticipating a new work by a favorite writer is one of the finest pleasures a reader enjoys, and when that writer is prolific and rarely disappointing, anticipation of the next book is that much greater. Toni Morrison has yet to prove undeserving of my high hopes, and while her tenth novel, Home, isn’t as linguistically grand or meaty as her master works, it reaffirms my resolve to read whatever she writes.

Home starts with Frank Money, a drifting, emotionally wounded 24-year-old Korean War veteran restrained in a psych ward for an offense he can’t remember. He’s been back in the United States for a year and he’s plagued by who he has become after surviving a war that killed his two closest friends. He’s lost his girlfriend, apartment, job, and in spite of his surname, the little money he possessed, and he's often overcome by uncontrollable rage. His skin color may not have mattered much in Korea, but Frank is quickly reminded that it’s what matters most in segregated America and he finds no societal welcome-home mat for black soldiers. Since his return Frank has avoided his hometown of Lotus, Georgia, but a letter from an unknown woman implores him to come home to save his adored sister Cee from an unidentified danger. He’s told to come fast, that she’ll be dead if he doesn’t. The request pulls Frank out of his detached daze and he heads south with the help of kind strangers and the weight of memories he can barely carry.

No one will envy Frank’s experience of home. His family fled their Texas home when he was four after hooded men told them and other African American families they had 24 hours to go or die. They settled in Lotus, a place Frank despised, and there’s no knowing if he could have ever grown fond of the town given how he arrived. His parents worked nonstop and then died young, leaving Frank and Cee in the care of grandparents who responded to their own hard lives by embracing cruelty. Cee sought solace in a boy who used her for a car and Frank escaped to the Army with his best friends. Now, twenty years after the first time he was forced from his home, Frank is running again, this time from himself and what he’s done.

Home addresses Morrison’s familiar themes—loss, redemption, memory, identity, and coming home. More brutal than beautiful, Home is abrupt and unembellished. Readers accustomed to Morrison’s gorgeous indulgence and slow build-up to emotional plateaus may not like Home’s brevity and the matter-of-fact delivery of shattering character revelations, but her storytelling reflects Frank’s predicament. It’s now or never for Frank. His sister’s life depends on him and he needs her crisis to force him to claw his way out of his own. By begrudgingly going home Frank takes the first tentative step toward moving beyond mere physical survival, and Home reminds us that what and how we survive are as unique as our experiences of home.

Sharon Crowley works in K-12 marketing at the Great Books Foundation.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Shared Inquiry™: An Opening Note for New Leaders

Many of us start with a degree of self-consciousness when we first lead discussion. We wonder whether participants will understand and respond to our focus question and whether we will understand their responses; we worry about whether we will easily think of follow-up questions and whether we will be able to keep discussion focused on the problem of meaning we have raised. Leading is not an easy task and it requires practice. But while there is no substitute for experience, there are things you can do to establish good conditions for thoughtful discussion.

The first thing you can do is to educate your students about shared inquiry. In advance, they must read the selection twice and think carefully about it. Trying to understand what is not immediately evident in writing requires effort, patience, and the exercise of imagination; a student's quick "It's boring" is often simply an excuse for not wanting to work at the interpretive process.

Faced with bad reading habits, you have to use discussion time to engage your participants in the selection by reading it aloud and providing good note taking strategies, for example. If students are not helped to go through the looking glass to discover that what is at first hard can become manageable through persistence they are unlikely to ever learn to read in a meaningful way.

Stress that your participants have to observe the five guidelines of shared inquiry. The guidelines are there to make discussion a learning opportunity for you and for your group, to help you make the best possible use of your discussion time. They act as a fence, confining discussion to what everyone has read and, for a brief period, keeping out all distractions.

Your participants must also learn to approach discussion in a spirit of open-mindedness. Discussion should be an opportunity to broaden one's own perceptions of a story by sharing thoughts and listening to new ides. It is not a time for participants to hoard insights, either because they are trying to compete with other members of the group or because they are afraid to offer a tentative opinion. In shared inquiry, we can build solid interpretations even from views that are half thought through or inadequately expressed.

Finally, your students must learn to weigh their opinions, and those of their fellow classmates, against the evidence in the selection. When they begin to express in their own words what they think the author was trying to say, and can point to evidence to support their views, you will know that real interpretation, the act of thinking through and individualizing an author's meaning, is taking place.

What about your responsibilities as the leader? Of course, there is equal need on your part for strong preparation, the avoidance of quick judgments, an open-mindedness towards disparate ideas, and the insistence on evidence in support of opinions. But, in addition, there must be the desire to push towards resolution because you care about your basic question. By asking questions about what you want to know and by demonstrating your interest in pursuing answers, you will provide your participants with a model of reflective thinking and of what it requires, genuine curiosity about a problem, the flexibility of mind to consider the problem from many different angles, and the willingness to question, probe, reevaluate, and sometimes change the way one looks at things.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Getting Students to Talk to Each Other

Question from the Classroom

My students always direct their answers to me during discussion. How can I get them to talk more to each other and get a real discussion going?

When first starting your Junior Great Books program, it's natural that students will respond to your questions just as they do in the regular classroom setting. That is, you ask a question and they direct their answers to you. They don't know what a good Shared Inquiry™ discussion looks or feels like. Just as you might have to change gears from your usual teaching habits when acting as a discussion leader, your students have to change gears too. You can help them become good participants by explaining to them what makes a good discussion, by modeling good follow-up skills for them, and by encouraging them to interact more.

Before each discussion, remind your students that they are free to add to each other's ideas, to agree and disagree, and even to ask questions of each other. Preface the discussion activity with comments like: "Joe, if you agree or disagree with one of Whitney's ideas, you can just say so. Sarah, if Hector says something and you want him to explain further or show you where he got the idea, just turn to him and ask him your question."

Besides telling your students that they are free to interact, you can show them that you want more interaction through your follow-up questions. For example, once a student has give you an answer, ask other participants whether they agree or disagree with that answer. Ask them if they understand the answer or if they see evidence for it: "Does Jason's answer make sense to you, Madison? Jason, can you explain to Madison what you were trying to say? Ray, can you help Jason find evidence for his answer?" Asking these kind of questions helps make an individual's answer the property of the group, the answer out on the floor for the whole group to consider.

After your discussion, praise the group for the times they did interact and let them know that you hope they do more of it the next time. Once students do interact and see that it is something you encourage in discussion, they will start working together as a group. Remember that the other Junior Great Books program activities, especially Prereading, Directed Notes, and Vocabulary, also provide opportunities for students to practice the same skills they use in Shared Inquiry discussion. These activities give students specific interpretive issues to talk about and help them become more comfortable with examining ideas as a group.

Sharing their opinions with their peers, considering others' viewpoints, debating issues, and asking lots of their own follow-up questions is what makes Junior Great Books so much fun for students. With that kind of interaction, you can be sure that they have really improved their listening and critical-thinking skills. Teaching students to become good Shared Inquiry participants is a process that might take some time, but soon you'll be commenting on how difficult it is to get them to stop talking to each other about the stories and the issues they raise.