Move From What to Why!

We and our students are immersed in media today. Look at the numbers:

Arguably the most frightening statistic is that 95% of the media is owned by five companies (Time Warner, VIACOM, Vivendi Universal, Walt Disney, and News Corp). So, how do we teach our students to wade through this morass of information, this new world of constant persuasion?

We teach them to be discerning, critical readers. We teach them to be rhetors.

However, an important shift must happen in our classrooms, especially for those of us teaching high school English students. Our students are pounded over the heads with setting, character, and theme from the time they enter elementary school and on into high school. They get the basics, but we sometimes drive the kids to look only for those ideas, ideas that can be found almost literally on the page.

We need to move from what and where to why.

What I mean by this is that we often ask students what the meaning of a literary term is (the what) and then to find examples in the text (the where), at times actually having the students touch the page for the location of the term’s employment. This is a basic skill, a rudimentary skill at the lower end of a taxonomic scale (usually Bloom’s or Marzano’s).

Let’s move kids beyond this and get to the why. Why did the author choose this setting? Why was alliteration used in that name? Why was this the best metaphor to use (or was it)? Why is the paragraph structured this way? Why is this sentence structured in such a way?

This leads the kids away from searching the text for answers and towards searching the text for meaning. This allows for nuance, not black and white assignments and activities. This moves the kids towards true analysis.

Ultimately, I want to see my students understanding the reasons authors make choices. Whether I use a novel, short story, editorial, advertisement, virtually any text, I want my students discussing the whyย when we analyze a text and this requires a close textual analysis. This means I have to move my students from defining and locating to analyzing.

It’s a daunting task at times but a necessary one if I want my students to become successful navigators and explorersย in this Information Age. If I want my students to become citizens who contribute to our democracy, I need to help them critically read, question, and discover the nuances of argumentation and the means of persuasion.

3 thoughts on “Move From What to Why!

  1. Mr. B-G

    Well said. Thanks for the reminder about what truly matters and what will most benefit students in the future. Teaching students to read critically is an invaluable skill in this information age that you describe.

    Too often I see students settle for the first Google search result without even thinking about questioning the validity of the source or the credentials of the author (if there even is one). Students need us to model critical reading and surfing for them, and then they need us to travel with them as guides until they have the skills to navigate the digital jungle on their own.


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