by Douglas Grudzina
Here’s an all-too-typical scenario: you’re just back from a full-day in-service workshop (maybe it was the Friday of the Martin Luther King Day weekend, or it’ll be the Friday of February’s Presidents Day weekend) …
… in any event, you’ve just spend your day, rear-end pressed again the hard composite material of a student desk in an under-heated library (or auditorium or cafeteria), drinking bad coffee and eating stale donuts, listening to a guest lecturer who’s just converted his old overhead transparencies into a PowerPoint presentation and is telling you that you’ve got to get your kids beyond merely understanding the surface of the literature they read.
Higher Order Thinking Skills! the presenter advocates.
Analysis! Synthesis! Evaluation!
You’ve heard it all before. And you probably also agree that there’s more you could (and should) be doing with your literature students than reviewing plot and character facts, examining themes, and justifying why, if they were in Hamlet’s shoes, they would or would not have killed Claudius immediately, been so cruel to Ophelia, sent poor Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their unsuspecting deaths … and so on.
You know you want your kids to see the connection between the court of eleventh-century Scotland and the current White House administration (regardless of what year it is and who is in office!).
You’d love to get your kids talking about Harry Potter as Hero—not good-guy, protagonist “hero” but full-blown epic, tragic, Romantic … capital H hero, with a Quest and a Mentor and … (well, you know what I’m talking about).
You don’t want to have to point out every metaphor and explain to them why each bit of irony adds humor or suspense or quirkiness to the text …
You understand quite well what Bloom was talking about when he organized his taxonomy and proclaimed that real understanding … useful understanding … the kind of understanding that actually becomes a part of a person’s psyche … emerges during the process of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.
(You may also be frustrated by trying to teach literature to students who have previously been taught only to react and evaluate without ever really examining the text to know what they were reacting to or evaluating!)
You know you want your classroom to be that kind of challenging, academic environment, but the reality is you simply do not have the time to reexamine all of the literature you teach and revise all of the materials you use—and your school’s text book may not be conducive to the kind of literary study you know you want to perform with your students.
Well, Prestwick House has a secret for you: You don’t have to reinvent the wheel because we’ve done it for you!
Levels of Understanding: Using Bloom’s Taxonomy to Explore Literature is the tool you’ve been longing for.
Each specific Levels of Understanding guide contains five types of questions from the lowest level of Bloom’s hierarchy of skills (comprehension) to the highest (evaluation). The lower-order questions often provide scaffolding for the higher-order questions:
- Comprehension questions assess the students’ basic understanding of the text: plot facts, character identification, etc. To prevent the comprehension section from becoming a tedious “march through the text,” however, the questions point students toward surface facts that might be difficult to grasp or will prove to be important later in the work.
- Reader Response questions ask the students to relate the text to their personal experience or to present an opinion on a character or event.
- Analysis questions require students to examine how various techniques and literary or theatrical devices (diction, symbolism, imagery, metaphors, asides, soliloquies etc.) function in the text. For the most part, these terms are not defined in the question; nor do analysis questions ask the student to merely identify a literary or rhetorical device.
- Synthesis questions bridge the gap between analysis and evaluation, requiring students to look at other sections in the text and draw conclusions about themes, motifs, or a writer’s style. On occasion, a synthesis question will require students to draw on their knowledge of allusions, history, theory, or literary techniques to answer the question.
- Evaluation questions ask the student to make a qualitative judgment on the text and determine whether a particular aspect of it is effective or ineffective, necessary or redundant, worthwhile or not, etc.
Here are some examples from our Their Eyes Were Watching God Levels of Understanding:
What is the key surprise about Joe’s character?
Despite his surface slickness, Joe appears to be a solid man with genuine love and regard for Janie. He also has a completely different attitude toward life from anyone else we have met in the novel up to this point except Janie herself, and conducts himself in a more assertive, self-possessed manner—much like Janie herself. He actually proposes marriage, says he wants to treat her like a lady, and is waiting with a carriage when she flees her home and meets him.
What else stands out about Joe for Janie? How is he different from other men? Cite the passage.
He is a self-determining character, not content to work within the confines of a white-defined world. “Every day after they managed to meet in the scrub oaks across the road and talk about when he would be a big ruler of things with her reaping the benefits…but he spoke for far horizon. He spoke for change and chance…”
What is your first impression of Phoeby? Why?
Unlike the resentful, judgmental women who are overly critical of Janie and her life choices, Phoeby accepts Janie on her own terms. She even defends Janie to the other women, correcting their prejudices and misinterpretations. She also brings Janie some food, knowing she will be hungry from her travels.
How do you feel about Janie’s emotional response to Joe’s death? Is it appropriate or not?
- She is both saddened and relieved. The death is tragic, but also a release for both Janie and Joe. Both are released from the suffering of Joe’s illness; it also releases them both from the conflict and unhappiness of their marriage. While she feels genuine grief for Joe, she also knows that with his death comes a new freedom for her—something she has never experienced. This is understandable and appropriate, given the happiness and the turmoil that she experienced during her life with him.
- Other students, however, might cite all of the good things Joe did for the town and especially for Janie and argue that Janie should feel a stronger, more sincere grief and should remember Joe with gratitude.
At the end of Chapter 9, do you expect Janie to marry again? What kind of man would she be likely to marry?
It is an open question at this point in the narrative; on the one hand, she tells Phoeby how much she loves her freedom; on the other hand, she has yet to have the kind of fulfilling, loving relationship she has pined for since childhood. It seems likely that any man who would have any chance with her at this point would have to be romantic, loving, kind, and gentle, and more focused on her needs and the relationship than on anything else.
What element of Janie’s portrayal is reiterated and furthered in Chapter 5?
Janie has always been envied because of her beauty. In this town, she is envied for her beauty and for her position as Joe’s wife.
Where is Janie in her character arc at the beginning of Chapter 7? What should the reader be expecting to happen?
Janie seems to have reached a leveling-off period in her development. Through most of the book, Janie has been developing and growing (rising action). Now, she is not in falling action yet, but the upward slope does not seem as steep. At such a point, the reader should expect some crisis, some big event that will either propel Janie to the climax of her arc or to rouse her and return her to the rising action of character growth.
What is the significance of Tea Cake’s two disappearances in Chapter 13? Why does Hurston have this happen twice in the same chapter?
Tea Cake’s two disappearances from Janie emphasize the fact that she has left behind a safe, predictable existence for something wilder, riskier, and more dangerous. Tea Cake’s first disappearance is due to boyish impetuosity—he takes and spends Janie’s money just to see what it feels like to be rich, however fleetingly. But the second disappearance illustrates the implicit danger and uncertainty of the life he lives as a gambler; he comes back injured after having to fight another gambler angered at losing. In embracing Tea Cake, Janie now must embrace the risk of losing him, and possibly everything she has.
What theme is suggested in the first two paragraphs of Chapter 1? In what way might this be interpreted as a feminist theme? As a black theme?
The first two paragraphs convey the difference in the perspectives and lives of men and women. The first paragraph opens, “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board,” describing the relationship men, perhaps especially black men, have with their aspirations—a distant dream, perhaps to be fulfilled but equally likely not to be, with sorrow and resignation the result. On the other hand women, most specifically black women, are portrayed in the second paragraph as having an altogether different relationship with their dreams: “Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. They act and do things accordingly.” Women are seen as more resilient than men, less apt to break when confronted with disappointment. The author thus sets the stage for a story that will be centered on a strong heroine.
Compare the conversation among the men about Joe at the end of Chapter 5 and the townspeople discussing Janie in the opening chapter. What is the common thread or theme?
The men are respectful and grateful toward Joe, but also harbor secret resentment of his power and influence over their lives. It is said that “you kin feel a switch in his hands when he’s talkin’ to yuh”; he’s “a whirlwind among breezes,” and has “uh throne in de seat of his pants.” The episode echoes the gossip of the town folk about Janie in the first chapter, and underlines the theme of jealousy and resentment that lies beneath sanctimonious criticism.
Does Hurston’s manipulation of the narrative voice help further the story, or hinder it? Why or how?
As the novel progresses, the narrative voice becomes increasingly conversational and idiomatic, frequently reflecting the colorful, imaginative quality of the dialogue. This is effective in that the novel feels increasingly like a tale told to us by a specific onlooker, one who inhabits the same world as the characters. “Take for instance that new house of his. It had two stories with porches, with banisters and such things…And then he spit in that gold-looking vase that anybody else would have been glad to put on their front-room table. Said it was a spittoon just like his used-to-be bossman used to have in his bank up there in Atlanta. Didn’t have to get and go to the door every time he had to spit….”
Is Hurston’s portrayal of the Everglades—or “de muck”—simply a picaresque narrative, or is there a motif that is being furthered here?
Answer #1: “De muck” is colorfully conveyed as a boisterous, freewheeling and raffish way of life; but it is also a life that is close to nature, bonded to the cycles of the earth and focused on the momentary but concrete facts of existence, as farm workers must be. Janie, who has always had a particular connection with nature, as with her favorite pear tree during her childhood, takes to this life as a fish to water. Even the fact that the migrants refer to the Everglades as “de muck” shows a lack of pretense, and certainly an embrace of the earthiness of the lifestyle there. It also furthers another aspect of Hurston’s nature motif in the book: the true spirituality, in terms of a sense of self and peace with that self, that is found in being closely connected to nature. In choosing the life on “de muck” with Tea Cake, Janie claims not only her own voice and self determination, but her spiritual side as well.
Answer #2: Hurston spends a great deal of the narrative in this section detailing the lifestyle, characters, and hi-jinx of “de muck”; it seems to serve mostly as comic relief and entertainment for the reader, but doesn’t particularly connect to any important motifs or metaphors previously developed in the novel.
Is Phoeby a fully realized character, or just a structural conceit for the novel?
Answer #1: While Phoeby is utilized primarily as a framing device for the story, she is still a believable, sympathetic character and perhaps the one true woman friend Janie has throughout the whole book. She is also a foil for Janie; while a loving and empathetic friend, she is not as determined or brave as Janie, and sometimes counsels Janie to conform to the expectations of others rather than follow her own nature. Nevertheless, she is a steadfast friend, who defends Janie and her choices to any who criticize her. By the end of the book, it is apparent that she wishes to have Janie’s strength, and is inspired by it, making her the only character other than Janie and Tea Cake who experience a personal change by the end of the book: “…’Lawd! Phoeby breathed out heavily, ‘Ah done growed ten feet higher from jus’ listenin’ tuh you, Janie. Ah ain’t satisfied wid mahself no mo’. Ah means tuh make Sam take me fishin’ wid him after this. Nobody better not criticize yuh in mah hearin’..”
Answer #2: Phoeby exists primarily as a structural vehicle for Hurston to bring the reader into the story. As a character, she is too good to be true; too steadfast, too sympathetic, too adoring of Janie.
She never sufficiently challenges Janie; whenever she gives her advice Janie doesn’t want to follow, she accepts her reasons without question. Aside from serving as a window into the novel, she only seems to exist to point out how fine and strong a woman Janie is. She only appears at the beginning, once in the middle, and in the final chapter, and doesn’t figure as an active participant in the narrative.
So that’s how our Levels of Understanding works. Every chapter, act, scene, or however the text is divided has questions representing every level of Bloom’s taxonomy. Students who love to rush to evaluation—often dismissing the plot, characters, and theme—are still encouraged to evaluate what they’re reading, but the evaluation must be based on a careful reading and close examination.
Students who want to react, to agree or disagree, sympathize or condemn are still encouraged to make those subjective connections, but those connections are treated as the means to an end, not the end in itself.
It’s exactly what you’ve been wanting to do in your classes—all of your classes, to allow even your reluctant and challenged students to experience deep and meaningful inquiry.
It’s exactly what this morning’s in-service speaker was bellowing at you to do (bellowing in the sense of encouraging and motivating).
Can't wait to get your hands on a copy? Visit www.prestwickhouse.com to see a full list of titles and keep an eye out over the next couple of months as we create more.
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