I remember well during my first year of teaching middle school when an experienced (and intimidating) colleague reprimanded me for “stealing” a popular poem he claimed was “his” to teach. I was mortified—and confused. And embarrassed. I quickly agreed that I’d been out of line and wouldn’t touch that particular poem in my classroom. Ever. And you know what? I didn’t. Even when I moved to teach in another district, I didn’t touch “his” text.
Although I still disagree with his approach, with time, I’ve at least come to understand how he was feeling. Language arts teachers can easily get territorial about the pieces we use in our instruction, particularly if we love—really, really love—a particular text. It becomes ours. We know it and believe in it and feel, deep in our teacher souls, that we’re the only ones who can really teach it right. We think, The students will be able to properly know and love this text only if it’s me—me and only me—who first exposes them to it. We get frantic and weird if we think a student might not get our (obviously superior) guidance on a particular text. To have someone else teach it is almost worse than the students not ever seeing it at all. And if someone else teaches it first? So we can’t anymore? That’s the worst. Right?
When we have planned exposure to a particular text and learn that some or all of our students have already read it, we may abandon our plans. We assume it will be a waste of everyone’s time to study a text another time.
But what would happen if a student did “learn” a text twice, within a short period of time, from two different teachers? Would it be so bad?
Of course, it could be. But only if it’s taught in the same way, studying the same literary elements, and having the same discussion about the author’s purpose, the theme, and the meaning. But it’s more likely that another look would deepen a student’s understanding of the text, because it would expose a different way of looking at it. It would offer an alternative point of view or interpretation.
Here’s the thing: There’s a big difference between “replicating” and “deepening” when looking twice at a text. Think about seeing a movie with a young friend, and then going back the next week with your mother, and then again the next week with the elderly next-door neighbor. The conversation that follows the movie would probably be very, very different. Each person would offer different perspectives on what happened and why. And each conversation would help shape your feeling about the movie and your perceptions of it.
What if we learn that our students have already been exposed to a text we’d planned to introduce? Should we abandon our plans?
Not necessarily. Rather, we should consider how much value there might be in working with our students to take another look. There are three questions we might ask to determine if further study will be helpful:
Will my students grow? When deciding whether to expose students to a text they’ve already studied, it helps to think carefully about the intended outcome—student growth. If my students delve into this text again, will they become stronger readers? Are they at a place in their learning where they are ready to move beyond simply enjoyment and comprehension? Will they gain skills they can apply to similar or more difficult texts? Will I, as their teacher, strengthen my relationship with my readers?
Will it be enjoyable? If the students had a negative experience with the text previously, and you’re not confident you can change their perception of it, it’s probably best not to dive in. But if you feel pretty confident that it will be a positive experience, there’s no reason to avoid it. Just like when we reread a beloved book many times, students can benefit in many ways from another study of a text. They can bond with it more closely and become stronger, more confident readers. It can be fun, much like it’s fun to watch a favorite TV show multiple times.
Will I be able to offer something new? Without knowing how the text was delivered to students previously, it’s difficult to determine if we can present it to them in a way that offers something new. We can ask them, though, and figure out if our perspective would be fresh and different. Here are some of the questions we may use to begin:
- When you first read this text, how deeply did you study it?
- What do you remember about it?
- Do you have questions you weren’t able to answer when reading the text the first time?
- Was it within your level of comprehension and understanding, or were there parts that eluded you?
- Did you love it, hate it, or feel ambivalent?
Depending on how students answer these questions, you’ll know if you have something to offer in your instruction to help increase their understanding and experience of the text.
If you decide to go ahead and visit a text again with students, you may find it particularly rewarding as you discover, with them, original and inspiring things about a familiar text. And that’s a very good thing. After all, revisiting a story or poem several times rarely does damage to the student or the work; it simply offers varying perspectives for students to consider. Even better? It virtually guarantees a closer study and better understanding of the piece.