Think it through: Fostering aesthetic experiences to raise interest in literature at the high school level


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Scientific Article, 2015

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Think it Through: Fostering Aesthetic Experiences to Raise Interest in Literature at the High School Level AMÉLIE LEMIEUX McGill University This research was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada. “I don’t really like to read, but if I read a novel that pleases me, I won’t put it down,” wrote a student during this study. Herein lies one of the most challenging tasks of the literature teacher: finding the magical book that will get students to read. Common sense tells us that it is nearly impossible to satisfy each student’s reading preferences, unless we opt for moderating individual reading choices. A more viable possibility lies in using teaching methods that develop readers’ sense of subjectivity and Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies Volume 12 Number 2 2015


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Think it Through: Fostering Aesthetic Experiences to Raise Interest in Literature LEMIEUX foster aesthetic responses that constitute aesthetic reading, i.e. “the only type of reading that is truly educative” (Lebrun, 1997, p. 56). In light of this suggestion, I set forth a pedagogical strategy to increase interest in reading by highlighting aesthetic responses of female senior high school students to Incendies, a French Quebec play written by Wajdi Mouawad (2003). This mixed methods study provides both qualitative and quantitative indicatives of the pedagogical implications of aesthetigrams, which are participant-generated maps that record responses to artworks (White, 2007). An example of a student’s aesthetigram is provided to contribute to a fuller understanding of the study’s research outcomes. This article stresses the necessity of aesthetic responses in literature education and clarifies the often obscure bridge between aesthetic experiences and reading engagement. In so doing, I demonstrate how the use of aesthetigrams helps strengthen students’ interest and participation in literature classes. White’s (2007, 2011) study of aesthetic experiences in response to visual artworks has proven to help students reflect on their values and develop interest in paintings. The present research is based on White’s method, and explores responses to Quebec drama. Few studies linking aesthetic education and French Quebec literature have addressed students’ engagement in reading, though the issue of low engagement has been identified and partly solved by pedagogues working in the field of literature. For instance, Lebrun (1997) points to the problem of a third space in which readers evolve: “in an era of instantaneousness, books scare adolescents; even more so, the common stereotyped questions on 67


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Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies calibrated and manipulated texts bore them” (p. 68). Numerous literature pedagogy experts (Atwell, 1987; Lebrun, 1997; Parsons, 2001) view literature journals as a solution to counter students’ low engagement in reading. Other researchers (Dias, 1992; Rogers, 1990) who use reading/thinking-aloud-protocols (RAPs) in lieu of written responses argue that their pedagogical tool is equally effective in engaging students in reading. The main difference between aesthetigrams and the tools suggested by Dias (1992) and Rogers (1990) is the ability of aesthetigrams to record immediate responses to artworks that will be mediated later by peers through class discussions. In other words, aesthetigrams allow students to write their responses instead of voicing and negotiating them instantly. Thus, they represent a viable solution for students who are uncomfortable speaking up in class immediately after reflecting on an excerpt. When students construct their aesthetigrams, they are also solicited to see the patterns of their encounters. This reflection process fosters holistic learning (White, 2011). The mapping procedure also brings forth the innovative concept of tracking immediate experiences and, therefore, differs from writing journals in that very sense. While response journals provide a medium for written reactions to a given text, they do not explicitly provide students with questions and categories that guide them in expressing their opinions on stylistic and emotional aspects of a text. To this end, aesthetigrams help those students who initially least connect with the text by giving them guidelines for their responses, thereby revealing the double-function of aesthetigrams as a pedagogical tool for teachers and a learning resource for students. 68


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Think it Through: Fostering Aesthetic Experiences to Raise Interest in Literature LEMIEUX The strategy I developed takes into account the need for individuality and subjectivity highlighted in the aforementioned research. In contrast to those studies, aesthetigrams include a tangible aesthetic dimension, a necessary aspect of reading as stated by Lebrun (1997): “Literature education assumes aesthetic implications” (p. 69). My contribution to the field is thus a proposed manner of implementing aesthetigrams in the literature classroom, as they allow students and teachers to observe immediate responses to artworks. Teaching French classes in Quebec high schools is a difficult task (Viau, 1998), as students generally do not attribute much value to the subject. In fifteen years, the situation has not evolved positively, especially since students’ attention tends to be directed towards electronic tablets and cellphones (Lebrun, 2012). The focus on reading must prevail because it “takes on an increasingly prominent role in learning during high school, as the ability to acquire, synthesize, and evaluate information becomes a deciding factor in who will succeed academically” (Fisher & Frey, 2012, p. 588). If reading takes on such a determinant role in students’ success, we should perhaps empower students in their learning through reader subjectivity. Empowerment might accentuate students’ crucial role in the reading act, all the while allowing them to connect with their values. Since the links between values awareness, subjectivity and reading are vital, we should aim to answer questions that pertain to that sphere. In light of this perspective, I formulated the following research questions. 69


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Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies Research Questions Aesthetigrams have been proven to investigate students’ awareness of their values and, in so doing, develop their subjectivity (White, 2011). On the other hand, countless studies (Beach, 1990; Franzak, 2006) found that readers need literary models that reflect their identities in order for them to be active readers. To be engaged, readers further need to develop their subjectivity: “subjective reading gives space to individual and collective interpretation dynamics that favour students’ interest in reading” (Lacelle & Langlade, 2007, p. 63). This elaboration calls for the question: Does the implementation of aesthetigrams in literature classes help raise students’ interest in French Quebec literature? For the present study, I worked with female high school students given that the majority of studies addressing interest in reading involved male participants. Indeed, much more emphasis seems to have been put on young males’ interest and performance in reading at the high school level (Brozo, 2010; Fisher & Frey, 2012; Henry, Lagos, & Berndt, 2012; Royer, 2010) than on those of girls. As such, girls are often “left behind” in this type of research, since their performance in reading has been said to be superior to that of males of the same age (Brozo, 2010; Royer, 2010). In these circumstances, adolescent females were the appropriate participants for my study. Why Aesthetigrams? Though aesthetigrams are a mapping procedure, they differ from concept maps in that they are not constructed to grasp a particular concept. 70


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Think it Through: Fostering Aesthetic Experiences to Raise Interest in Literature LEMIEUX Novak’s (2010) definition of concept maps as representations of “an integrated set of propositions that show how the meaning of that concept is related to other concepts” (p. 45) contrasts with the pedagogical aim of aesthetigrams. The latter indeed serves as a mapping process but, according to White (2011), it “visually represents a specific experience of aesthetically mediated meaning making and the discrete moments that contributed to it” (p. 6). In other words, aesthetigrams seek to meet immediate aesthetic and pedagogical goals: render students aware of their reactions, have them reflect on their experiences, and discuss these choices with their peers. Indeed, with aesthetigrams, researchers and educators are provided with concrete data with which to study students’ aesthetic responses. These experiences benefit from being explored through this tangible method, as a record based on student memory alone would be unreliable, evanescent, and would dismiss an immense array of details (White, 2007, 2011; White & Tompkins, 2005). In literature classes, some teachers will ask for student interpretations, but few realize the importance of students’ first impressions. The mapping procedure and subsequent investigation of experiences permit to transcend immediate reactions at which point students begin to make sense of the work, whether consciously or inadvertently. This practice further allows teachers to recognize the pedagogical contributions of conflicts between readers’ first impressions of a literary work. The discussions that arise in the literature classroom position the self as a central sociocognitive reader (Rouxel, 2007) who generates and negotiates meaning. Subjectivism is therefore at the core of this endeavour and needs 71


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Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies to remain a focus in the mapping of immediate personal experiences. The ability of aesthetigrams to record information pertaining to students’ first impressions and understandings of a text make this mapping procedure ideal for the literature classroom. Theoretical Framework The links between literature education and aesthetic experiences are complex, yet useful in literature pedagogy. Many studies (Karolides, 1992; Probst, 1981, 2004; Tice, 2008) highlighting responses as mandatory criteria for learning literature were inspired by Rosenblatt’s (1978) transactional theory of reading. Evidence suggests that the groundwork for this theory was laid years before. Drawing heavily on Dewey (1934/2005), Rosenblatt (1938/1968) discussed the gap between teachers’ interpretations of literary texts and students’ responses in Literature as exploration. She explained that perceptions of a text differed drastically: “There is an unabridged gulf between anything that the student might feel about the book, and what the teacher, from the point of view of accepted critical attitudes and his adult sense of life, thinks the pupil should notice” (p. 61). Rosenblatt (1938/1968) thought that this lacuna resulted in a lack of interest, which was most likely due to the categorization of literature as an entity detached from the self: “This often leads the student to consider literature something academic, remote from his own present concerns and needs” (pp. 61-62). Rosenblatt’s work opened the way for approaches to literature that incorporate students’ aesthetics responses as part of meaning-making strategies. In light of this perspective, I further argue that 72


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Think it Through: Fostering Aesthetic Experiences to Raise Interest in Literature LEMIEUX integrating aesthetic education into standard curriculum might be an effective way to invigorate students’ interest in literature and help them connect meaningfully with narratives. The present theoretical framework stems from the notion of aesthetic education as a measure for values awareness. White (2007) remarks that “aesthetic encounters bring to initial awareness the values—personal, cultural and societal—prompted by the encounter” (p. 5). For instance, experiencing a play touches on expressing, through responses, our values as well as the artist’s, as represented in the artwork. White’s aesthetigrams track specific experiential moments and open the path for teachers to suggest directions for future encounters. This study ties in with numerous concepts of this response-based model including, but not limited to: constructing aesthetigrams, charting response moments in different categories, implementing this process in a research setting, and discussing the educational implications of this implementation. Engaging Readers with Incendies According to Probst (2004), “we should choose literature for its potential to interest students” (p. 67). Incendies was selected for its cultural relevance to the participants and for its contemporary narrative elements. Since many students were themselves immigrants to Quebec, they were likely to identify with the play, which presented characters who immigrate to Quebec from a fictional Middle Eastern country. In the play, twins Simon and Jeanne journey to find their father in a country whose political past is similar to that of Lebanon. They soon discover that their deceased mother, 73


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Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies Nawal, was imprisoned for the murder of an influential political leader. The twins later learn that, while in prison, Nawal was raped by her other son, Nihad, a prison guard. Nawal bore the twins as a result of the numerous rapes endured at the hand of Nihad. In scene 37 (Letter to the Son), Nawal writes Nihad she was one of the numerous women he sexually assaulted in prison. She expresses the tension between the love and hate she has for him, adding that he is the father of the twins, who are also his half-siblings. I chose scene 37 because of the emotional complexity (plot content), depth and richness of the narrative (thoughtful prose and metaphors), potential for interpretation (“were the twins born out of love?”), and opportunities for personal identification (ties with a country similar to Lebanon in the 1980’s, parents’ struggles, need to understand one’s roots). Methodology The study took place in three classrooms of a private high school in Montreal, Quebec. A total of 71 female participants aged 16 to 17 years old were involved in the project. Students were from varying cultural backgrounds including Greek, Italian, Egyptian, Iranian, Haitian, Lebanese, Franco- and Anglo-Canadian. This heterogeneity made for rich exchanges, and enabled distinctive responses in the pre-tests, aesthetigrams and post-tests. Participants were grouped according to their respective classrooms, which were indicative of their academic specializations. There were 29 social science students in 5A, 24 science students in 5B, and 18 science students in 5C. 74


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Think it Through: Fostering Aesthetic Experiences to Raise Interest in Literature LEMIEUX Incendies was used as a literary tool to which students had to respond, and drama was utilized as a read narrative as opposed to a performed act. At the time of data collection, the play was not showing in any local theatres, thus eliminating this possibility. The data collection took place over a two-week period, once a week for 105 minutes in the first week, and 50 minutes in the second week. As students had a time restriction, they were not asked to perform the play in the research setting. The research was conducted as follows: students had one month to read the play, after which they were asked to complete a pre-test detailing open-ended and five-point Likert scale questions that pertained to their interest in reading French Quebec literature (e.g. “I would rate my interest towards French Quebec literature as: 1) very low, 2) low, 3) moderate, 4) high, 5) very high”). Other questions pertained to students’ reading habits and metaknowledge of French Quebec literature (e.g. Can you name French Quebec literature novels you read in high school?”). The preand post-test design was meant to primarily see whether the aesthetigram activity lead to an increased interest in French Quebec literature. In itself, the aesthetigram intervention consisted of several steps. First, I selected a student at random, and asked her to read scene 37 aloud. I then proceeded to read the same scene in an alternate tone. This procedure allowed students to identify with the version they preferred, thus giving them various possibilities to interpret, engage with, and respond to the scene. Subsequently, I asked students to fill out a form outlining their impressions, or moment-by-moment responses. These dispositions dictated how students would draw their own aesthetigram (Figure 1). 75


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Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies During the second session, I gave students time to complete their aesthetigram. Students were then given time to discuss both the activity and their responses during an in-class discussion. Finally, they completed the post-test, which focused on the number of categories used in the aesthetigram (e.g., “which categories did you draw in your aesthetigram?”) and on students’ interest in reading French Quebec literature, repeating the same question as in the pre-test (i.e. “I now rate my interest towards French Quebec literature as: 1) very low, 2) low, 3) moderate, 4) high, 5) very high”). I analyzed students’ pre- and posttest quantitative responses using a paired samples T-test to examine the influence of aesthetigram-making on students’ interest in French Quebec literature. I set the ƿ value of .05 as a cut-off for statistical significance. The second section of the quantitative results includes a Wilcoxon’s signed rank test to evaluate each group’s pre- and post-test results in terms of their interest in French Quebec literature. The third and final section shows a table highlighting the mean of each aesthetigram category. These indications are meant to present the areas to which pedagogical attention should be given (i.e., if the means of the emotions category is low, then teachers, in this case, should address responses in that area). These quantitative details could not constitute the sole results of this study, hence the need to explain qualitatively the pedagogical and research implications of the aesthetigram. Within their map, participants placed their responses in the categories I had previously devised (emotions, stylistic analysis, interpretation, and personal meaning). The organizational categories function as clusters for 76


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Think it Through: Fostering Aesthetic Experiences to Raise Interest in Literature LEMIEUX charting data for further analysis (White, 2007). This procedure allowed for analysis consistency. I analyzed the 71 completed pre-tests and posttests and verified whether the activity lead to an accrued interest in French Quebec literature. I share an example of an aesthetigram as well as qualitative data in the next section. Aesthetigram Sample and Qualitative Data The following results depict a 5A social sciences student’s experience. In her pre-test, Lynn1 noted that her interest in French Quebec literature was ‘weak’, mainly because reading is a passive activity. She wrote: “I read sometimes but not often, because I prefer activities that make me move.” Nevertheless, she indicated that she enjoyed reading French Quebec novels, plays, and short stories within the context of French classes. As such, Lynn might categorize her interest in French Quebec literature as ‘weak’, but she is not necessarily reluctant to read such literature in her French classes. In her aesthetigram (Figure 1), Lynn illustrated three elements in three of the four categories. Each element is represented by roman numerals (iiii), and the categories are defined as follows: (A) emotions, (B) stylistic analysis, (C) interpretation, and (D) personal meaning. The circles’ different sizes represent the importance of each element, as determined by the student. The colours illustrate the distribution of the different This pseudonym was attributed to the student for confidentiality purposes. 1 77


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Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies categories. Her observations show that she provided three elements in the first three categories, and dismissed the fourth one (personal meaning). This mapping exercise indicates that the personal meaning category was either not important to the student, or that she could not identify with any element of that scene. The arrows represent the links the student outlined between the elements and categories. These relationships demonstrate Lynn’s understanding and exploration of the scene, and can help her teacher understand where the discussion can be oriented. For example, Lynn drew an arrow between iA (“your brother and sister love you”) and iB (“repetition of love – love forever”). This illustration shows the discovery of a relationship between elements of different categories (i.e., (A) emotions and (B) stylistic analysis), which can help the student achieve a holistic understanding of the scene, and inform the teacher on the importance of discussing these connections in class. Lynn’s aesthetigram also illustrates links between elements of the same category iA (“your brother and sister love you”) and iiA (“preserve love”). This can further spark a discussion on the relevance of exploring a large spectrum of examples within a given category. For example, the elements in the emotions category can serve as examples to show other students how emotions are understood and represented in the scene. These teacherstudent and student-student exchanges can contribute to a multi-faceted understanding of the scene, and foster interest in reading as student responses are valued and discussed rather than ignored and tossed away. 78


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Think it Through: Fostering Aesthetic Experiences to Raise Interest in Literature LEMIEUX Figure 1. Lynn’s Aesthetigram in response to scene 37 of Incendies A discussion can also emerge from isolated elements found in the aesthetigram. For instance, Lynn categorized the third element of the stylistic analysis (iiB, “Rhyme in lines”) as an isolated aspect of the scene. This setting can be addressed in class by discussing with students whether the element can be linked to others in the remaining categories. These rich talks can lead to identify relationships and even gaps in responses, thus encouraging students to explore different angles of the narrative and deepen their understanding of the text. 79


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Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies In her post-test, Lynn indicated that her attitude towards French Quebec literature changed in a positive way following the aesthetigram activity. She noted that she discovered a new analytical method to understand the scene, and that she felt more motivated to read in her French class than prior to the activity. Lynn felt more motivated to know more about French Quebec plays, categorizing her interest in French Quebec literature as “moderate.” This shows an increased interest of one level in comparison with the pre-test. Lynn expressed that the aesthetigram activity helped her “highlight the things that touched [her] most as well as the most important elements.” She emphasized she could use aesthetigrams again in her French or even English literature classes, and concluded: “I will certainly use aesthetigrams when preparing for school exams.” These answers suggest the benefits of aesthetigrams to her learning in multiple settings (French and English classes) and point to their potential use in preparation for future examinations. Quantitative Results Paired-samples T Test Results: Interest in French Quebec Literature Three paired-samples t tests (one per class) were used to see if the aesthetigram activity led to an increase of students’ interest in French Quebec literature. The null hypothesis was: “aesthetigram making does not raise interest in French Quebec literature.” In contrast, the alternative hypothesis was: “aesthetigram making raises interest in French Quebec 80



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