Abstract: This paper will discuss how to use a novel to develop and facilitate critical thinking in a literature class for English second language learners. This will include a discussion of Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy and how these different levels of thinking can be scaffolded in a course through quizzes, discussion questions, and student presentations with examples from Truman Capote’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea, and George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Furthermore, there will be a discussion of Elaine Showalter’s list of critical skills derived from the benefits of literature and how they are demonstrated in the final stages of Bloom’s levels of thinking.
There are a number of ways to use literature to increase the English ability among English second language learners. For this instructor the basis of the course, as noted teacher trainer and research Wilbert McKechie (1999) has stated, “…is not to cover a set of topics, but rather to facilitate student learning and thinking.” Thus, personal involvement is the key factor in the process that will encourage critical thinking among the students. By personal involvement, Joanne Collie and Stephen Slater (1987, p.5-6), authors of the useful Literature in the Language Classroom: A resource book of ideas and activities, suggest that inhabiting a text over time allows students to move beyond mechanical aspects and grapple with moral or aesthetic issues, which can give them a feel for codes and preoccupations, that structure foreign societies. This is to say that the assumption is that the most important factor to consider is what is going on inside the heads of the students, which suggests that most of the learning that will take place outside the classroom as students engage with the text and prepare for quizzes, class discussions, and small group presentations on the text. And this is where students can engage in critical thinking in regards to the themes and issues presented in the narrative and apply these themes to their own culture and experience. Therefore, a student-centered approach to the study of literature is the foundation from which the literature course discussed here is built upon.
It will be useful to discuss Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy (Overbaugh and Schultz, 2012) and how these different levels of thinking can be scaffolded in a literature course. In addition, there will be a discussion of how noted Princeton professor Elaine Showalter’s (2003) list of critical skills derived from the benefits of literature and how they are demonstrated in the final stages of Bloom’s levels of thinking. The focus of the approach will concentrate on using specific novels (Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea, and George Orwell’s Animal Farm) to facilitate and promote critical thinking through quizzes, discussion, and small group presentations. A brief discussion of considerations for the novel selection is a useful starting place.
The starting point for creating a curriculum comes from the choice of a novel to inhabit for the course. Considerations for a text should be made in terms of length, difficulty, and thematic content. Thus, with these concerns in mind, the first time this course was taught the novels for the two respective semesters were George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The second time this course was taught, the respective noels were Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea plus an additional three short stories by the author, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. After having used four different novels, it gives the instructor the option of pairing different novels in future courses.
The stories of the above mentioned novels will be briefly discussed for those readers who are unfamiliar with them. Animal Farm, written in 1945, is the story of an animal uprising at a farm in England. The text paired with it, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, set in 1943 and published in 1958, is the story of a young New York socialite named Holly Golightly told by her unnamed gay neighbor and friend. The first text of the second pairing, The Old Man And The Sea, written in 1952, is the story of an old fisherman named Santiago’s struggles with catching a giant Marlin. And The Great Gatsby, set in 1922 and written in 1925, is the story of a mysterious, rich man named Jay Gatsby, as told by his neighbor and acquaintance Nick Carraway.
Next, it will be useful to look at each year’s pairings of novels in terms of the three areas of consideration; the first area of consideration is length. As a general rule the text should be no longer than 250 pages and a shorter novel is probably even better. It seems that students can keep up with reading assignments that are 30 pages or less weekly. Here are the lengths of the novels mentioned above: Animal Farm163 pages, Breakfast At Tiffany’s 119 pages, Old Man and the Sea 114 pages, and The Great Gatsby 237 pages. There have been few complaints from students over the lengths of the texts mentioned.
The difficulty of a text is a somewhat subjective judgment, however, there are some guidelines to consider when evaluating a novel for difficulty. The instructor started by evaluating the Kodansha English Library series, because the books give a suggested TOEIC base level on the book jackets. These volumes also contain a glossary of difficult words (including page number) and expressions with the Japanese equivalent in the notes section at the back of the books. The TOEIC base levels for the novels in discussion are as follows: Animal Farm is suggested for readers with a TOEIC score of 400 and up, while the three other novels (Breakfast At Tiffany’s, The Old Man and the Sea, and The Great Gatsby) are given a TOEIC base level of 470 and above. However, other considerations should be made in regards to the amount of dialogue, colloquial language, and subject matter of the novels in question. Dialogue is usually easier to read than complicated descriptions of actions and events. Students might struggle with outdated slang or unfamiliar colloquial expressions and texts that have too much of either are best to be avoided. The subject matter also can affect the vocabulary used in the text. Thus, consideration should be given to whether or not students might be familiar with the vocabulary of the subject (e.g. fishing in The Old Man and the Sea) in question of the text. Although these guidelines are somewhat subjective, they can be useful in text selection that influences the curriculum and classroom activities of the course.
Using Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy to Scaffold Thinking Skills
At this point, it will be useful to discuss Bloom’s revised taxonomy of the six stages of thinking in relation to scaffolding student levels of thinking in a literature class. Specific examples of these type of activities and questions will follow a brief discussion of how different levels of thinking are broached through novel-related activities and questions. The most basic stage of thinking is remembering. This involves the students recalling or remembering information. This can be done in class with quizzes based on each weeks reading or having students retell the events of the week’s reading. Students will be able to answer basic questions like “who are the characters?” and “what happens in the story?” The next level of thinking is understanding. This is where the students can explain ideas or concepts and this can be seen in how they answer discussion questions or comprehension questions based on the reading. After that the next level of thinking is applying, and at this stage students use information in a new way. For example, they demonstrate or apply information through classifications, diagrams, or organizations. From here students move on to the analyzing level. At this level students distinguish between different parts. For example, students appraise, compare, contrast, criticize, or distinguish. This type of thinking can be promoted within the regular discussion questions as well. Evaluating is the next stage that follows and can be engaged through discussion questions as well. This is the level where students justify a stand or decision. Therefore it is necessary to judge, defend, evaluate or support an opinion. The highest level of thinking is creating. At this level students create, design, or develop. Again this can be elicited through discussion questions, for example, by asking students to create an alternate ending for a novel. However, there are a number of other activities that can used to spark the create instincts such as creating posters related to the text or performing a dramatic rendition of a scene from the novel.
It is effective to use a variety of activities that promote the use of the Bloom’s six levels of thinking in a literature course. Therefore, it is also essential to design lessons that engage and promote active thinking. This involves using a variety of activities that allow students to take ownership of content through guided activities related to the four language skills. It is also vital to model the expected outcomes as well as bring and cultivate intellectual standards into daily use so students are aware of what is expected of them. These activities in turn are derived from the novel.
Activities That Promote Critical Thinking
Each introduction to a novel set the stage for discussion about the specific relevant themes and issues for each novel. The introduction of the novel and/or author varied from novel to novel due to content. In the case of Animal Farm students were introduced to the terms satire, allegory, irony, and fable and there was a discussion of Animal Farm being similar to and different from fables and fairy tales. The second stage of the discussion focused on historical allegory with a brief reading of the history of the Soviet Union from 1917-1944. However, the introduction of Breakfast at Tiffany’s called for a different approach that focused on the author Truman Capote and the role of the book and film versions of Breakfast at Tiffany’s in American cultural society. The introduction to The Old Man and The Sea focused on Hemingway, the novel’s reception, and the inspiration for the character Santiago. The Great Gatsby introduction spotlighted the author and the novel itself. The introductions helped frame future discussions of themes and motifs within the novels.
The critical thinking activities for the course after the novel introductions were relatively uniform in the student-centered classroom approach. Each week students were given discussion questions based on the week’s reading for preparation for the following week’s discussion. These questions are designed to have students focus on themes and motifs as well as help them inhabit the world of the novel. Marton and Saljo (1976b) have found that study questions intended to guide the student are helpful. Here’s an example of the discussion questions for the first section of The Old Man And The Sea:
- The use of the number forty in the next sentence is the first of many religious allusions in the novella. We are told that after forty days (the length of time it took Christ to subdue Satan in the desert). What does the next sentence say about his luck?
- How is the old man described? Do you think it sounds like he should be a capable fisherman? Why or why not?
- Describe the relationship between the old man and the boy. How do they know each other? How do the feel about one another?
- What’s the old man’s house like? What things does he have? What does it tell us about him and his life?
- What are the various ways marlins and sharks are treated on shore? What are they to man?
- Hemingway also peppers the novella with numerous references to sight. Can you find two references to sight in this section?
The following week’s class begins with a quiz on the content of that week’s reading in the form of short answer, matching, or true and false questions. This helps ensure students complete the required reading and can be a baseline for students remembering and a way to check their understanding of the text. For example, here is the first quiz for Breakfast At Tiffany’s:
- In what city does this story take place?
- What does the narrator do for a living?
- Who is Joe Bell? What does he do?
- What is the name of their friend in common?
- What does Y.I. Yunisoshi do for a living?
- Mr. Yunioshi is from Japan / California.
- Where did Mr. Yunioshi see the carving?
- Who does the African carving look like?
- Does the narrator and Mr. Bell know where their friend is now?
- Madam Sapphia Spanella still lives in the brownstone. T / F
The quizzes were corrected and collected. In pairs, students recounted the week’s reading and the instructor had a student recount the story to the class. Sometimes the instructor would add information about the reading that the student overlooked in his or her retelling. For example, when a student recounts the first section of Breakfast at Tiffany’s the student might omit details about the rumors of Holly in Africa going from character to character, which is important because it highlights her enigmatic nature.
Once the students have finished reading the novel, there were several post-reading activities that students engaged in. This provides an opportunity for cultural enrichment as suggested by Collie and Slater (1987, p.4-6). It also gives students opportunities to engage in Bloom’s levels of critical thinking through analysis, evaluation, and creation. Specifically some of the skills they employed through the discussion questions that were elaborated in the final projects included the following from Showalter’s list (2003, p.26-27):
2. How to read figurative language and distinguish between literal and metaphorical meaning.
3. How to seek out further knowledge about literary work, its author, its content, or its interpretation.
4. How to detect cultural assumptions underlying writings from a different time or society, and become aware of one’s own cultural assumptions.
6. How to use literary models as cultural references, either to communicate with others or clarify one’s own ideas.
9. How to think creatively within and beyond literary studies—making connections between the literary work and one’s own life.
10. How to work and learn with others, taking literature as a focus for discussion and analysis.
The final projects are a culmination of skills that students had been developing throughout the semester during the discussion sessions.
The students were randomly assigned to groups of five or so for the week’s discussion questions. Five seems to be a good number in case of absentees or students not being prepared for the discussion. This insures that there are usually at least three students prepared to lead the discussion and fill in the other students on the main points of the reading. In fact, Gruber and Weitman (1962) found that students taught in small, student-led discussion groups without a teacher did as well as students who heard the teacher lecture and were found to be more curious (as measured by question asking behavior). This student-led small group discussion was followed by a large group discussion where the instructor elicited answers from the students and added observations or information that students missed in their discussions. For example, students tend to have different cultural associations with the color green, which is a significant symbol for hope in The Great Gatsby and it needed to be pointed out to the students.
The final projects are culmination of skills that students had been developing throughout the semester during the discussion sessions. For example, after completing Animal Farm, the student groups were responsible for choosing one of the themes (on a first come, first served basis) of the book and citing examples and explanations of the theme from the novel. This is an example of Showalter’s tenth item, in which she suggests that students learn how to work with others taking literature as a focus for discussion and analysis. This provides an opportunity for elaboration by putting material into one’s own words as well as a chance to use new vocabulary gleaned from the text and or discussions. This involves alternating from listening and summarizing or explaining and reduces the chance that a participant is simply a passive recipient, which is better for motivation and learning. There is much evidence that peer learning and teaching is effective for a wide range of goals, content, and students of different levels and personalities (Johnson et al., 1981).
The theme presentation for Animal Farm will be discussed in detail. The theme choices were: “The Soviet Union under Stalinism,” “Intelligence and Education as Tools of Oppression,” “Propaganda and Duplicity,” “Violence and Terror as Means of Control,” “Exploitation and the Need for Human Rights,” and “Apathy and Acceptance.” The students were expected to find two or three scenes from the book that reflected the theme that they chose. At this stage students are utilizing several of Showalter’s skills like the second point (how to read figurative language and distinguish between literal and metaphorical meaning), the fourth point (how to detect cultural assumptions underlying writings from a different time or society), and the sixth point (how to use literary models as cultural references to communicate with others or clarify their own ideas), as they have throughout the small and large group discussions during the reading of the novel. The students had one full class period to collaborate and prepare for the small group presentations. They were supposed to give page numbers and briefly summarize the scene and how it reflected the theme that they chose. It was suggested that they might have to research the historical details that Orwell was alluding to, so that they could explain them to their partners. By doing this they are employing Showalter’s third point by seeking out further knowledge about a literary work, its content, or its interpretation. For example, if the theme was “The Inevitability of Totalitarianism,” then a student might prepare an example like the following: “Napoleon essentially becomes Jones just as Stalin becomes an autocrat after pretending to espouse equality and freedom” (and cite the pages near the end of the book in which this takes place). They were also expected to write two or three discussion questions related to their theme. Thus, a student might prepare a discussion question like this: “Do you know of any other totalitarian countries today? Do you think Orwell would be surprised that there are still totalitarian countries in the world?” This where students exhibit Showalter’s ninth point in which they think creatively within and beyond literary studies by making connections between the literary work and one’s life. At the end of the class, the instructor collected the notes and discussion questions in order to evaluate how well the students prepared for the presentations.
The themes presentation activity was essentially used with all novels, but sometimes with variations. In addition to the theme presentations for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, there was a compare and contrast activity between the film and book in consideration to the popularity of the film version. The fact The Old Man and the Sea is shorter than other novels used in the literature course made room for supplementing the novels with three short stories by Hemingway. There was a general discussion of themes related to both units and then students we responsible for giving examples from the novel and short stories related to one of the overall themes in Hemingway’s writing. The final project for The Great Gatsby was a comparison and contrast between The Great Gatsby and the classic American film Citizen Kane.
The stated goal of using novels in this context has been to facilitate student learning and thinking through a variety of activities. Students inhabit a text to move beyond surface level exploration to engage in high level critical thinking. These activities ranged from simple comprehension based questions on quizzes to complex judgments of novels with films. The pattern has to been to scaffold these different levels of thinking with the activities in order to give students a foundation on which to hone their critical thinking skills. It is assumed that by citing specific examples from the novels, Truman Capote’s Breakfast At Tiffany’s, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man And The Sea, and George Orwell’s Animal Farm, a clear understanding of how these activities promote critical thinking should emerge.
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