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Snorkeling and Scuba Diving in an Undergraduate General Education Literature Course: Diving into the Educational Theory Behind “Next” Practices*

 by Mary Buckelew

Student Voices
“Before choosing
The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney for my self-selected book, I figured that I’d be reading aesthetically as I wanted to read for entertainment.  After reading, I can say I read mostly with an aesthetic lens, but I did read efferently at times to soak in new information regarding my major.” (Ethan, undergraduate criminal justice major)

“I wish I’d known about the different stances of reading long before this, and I wish my high school teachers hadn’t focused solely on the efferent aspects of reading and books. I only read books in high school to pass tests, write required papers, and other test oriented stuff . . . I don’t think my teachers knew that the aesthetic stance existed. Even summer reading was always selected for us and then we were tested – efferent all the way.” (Sarah, undergraduate biology pre-med major)

“I now like to think about how I am reading, why I am reading, and I even apply efferent and aesthetic to other classes and life in general.” (“Honest Anonymous Feedback” from the end of the semester evaluations, Lit. 165 2:00)

Sarah, Ethan, and the anonymous student were enrolled in my Literature 165 classes this past spring semester. They shared these ideas in their final reflections and in final evaluations. 

Literature 165 & Student Population (Spring 2017)
Lit. 165 is not a required course but it fulfills a general education undergraduate writing emphasis requirement at our University, so it attracts students from a wide variety of majors. After checking my rosters, I noted 20 different major areas of study which included physics, biology, criminal justice, nutrition, business, accounting, political science, athletic training, chemistry majors and many more. Students also ranged in levels from freshman to graduating seniors.

Questions & Gurus
One of the many questions I pondered as I planned my syllabus this past January was whether I should introduce reading theory that is typically reserved for teacher education courses to general education students enrolled in Lit. 165?  I didn’t want to lose them from the start, but I’d taken to reading Donald Murray’s “Teach Writing as a Process Not a Product” with students in my writing emphasis classes with success, so why not introduce reading theory in my general education literature class? The professional reading I had been doing was pointing me in the direction of parting the curtain.

In the book Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for ALL Learners,  authors Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karen Morrison  write, “With the learner at the center of the educational enterprise, rather than at the end, our role as teachers shifts from the delivery of information to fostering students’ engagement with ideas.  . .When there is something important and worthwhile to think about and a reason to think deeply, our students experience the kind of learning that has a lasting impact and powerful influence not only in the short term but also in the long haul.  They not only learn; they learn how to learn” (p. 26).

With my question in mind and standing on the shoulders of a few gurus, I was feeling more confident that sharing theory would be more than appropriate and important and worthwhile. Rather than just share activities inspired by Louise M. Rosenblatt’s transactional literary theory, I would share the theory behind the strategies, scaffolding activities that would hopefully engage students in reading Rosenblatt’s seminal article “Literature—S.O.S.!”   In the essay, Rosenblatt defines the efferent and aesthetic stances for reading and the importance of understanding our purposes for reading. Rosenblatt’s very brief essay captures these important elements and more from her transactional literary theory — a theory that she thoroughly explains in her books The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work and Literature as Exploration (must reads for anyone who teaches ELA at any level).  Heinemann editors write, “No one has contributed more to our understanding of the relationship between readers and texts than Rosenblatt . . . . The implications of Rosenblatt’s theory range from ideas about instruction methods to ruminations on authority in the classroom, on the page, and in our everyday reading lives.”


Snorkeling and Scuba Diving
Even though I felt there was value in sharing Rosenblatt’s thinking, I was concerned that students wouldn’t take the time to immerse themselves in her theory, missing the value of her thinking and its application to their readerly lives. Questions continued to swim around in my thought bubble like a school of fish without direction.   What if students simply snorkeled, skimmed the surface? As I pondered fish, an interesting memory arose from my own experiential reservoir.


The memory that surfaced came from a conference session that I attended many years ago at the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) annual conference. Thank you, NCTE! In this particular session, the presenter shared a story about a teacher who displayed snorkeling apparatus (goggles and flippers) and scuba diving equipment (wet suit, mask, empty oxygen tank) at the front of his English Language Arts classroom. When conferring with his high school students about their writing, the teacher would use these props to make a point about a piece of writing that might need more specific and illustrative details or more background; for example, he might say, “You are snorkeling/skimming the surface, when you need to scuba dive. You need to dive deep, perhaps do more research, interview the person involved, Or you need to snorkel, give the big picture, more background, the snorkeler’s eye view.” Since this was many years ago, I know I am not doing the analogy or the teacher’s use of the diving gear justice. I do apologize; however, I am grateful the imagery stayed with me because I have used the metaphor to discuss the development of ideas, content, focus, and more with my students. I digress and those who know me expect as much. J  The snorkeling and scuba diving analogy also came to my aid in thinking about theory; specifically, the value of introducing educational theory to students who aren’t education majors.


Just leaving the shore or boat, means we’ve taken a risk, we’re curious, interested, engaged, and perhaps empowered. Both snorkeling and scuba diving deepen understanding of aquatic life while also yielding aesthetic rewards. Sometimes we’re ready for snorkeling and other time’s scuba diving.
I hoped that if students did more than experience reading  strategies and had a deeper understanding of what was behind some of the strategies their “engagement, struggles, questions, and explorations” (Making Thinking Visible, p. 26) would ultimately build deeper cognitive connections. These connections would help them to transfer their understanding and learning about reading theory to other subject areas whether the takeaways were broad/snorkeling or deep/scuba diving, they would learn something more than if I’d left them standing on the shore.

Rosenblatt’s words resonated: “Confusion about the purpose of reading has in the past contributed to failure to teach effectively both efferent reading and aesthetic reading.  Why not help youngsters early to understand that there are two ways of reading?” (Rosenblatt, p. 446-447).  So why not teach students the theory behind the teaching and strategies?

Our Journey
At the start of the spring semester, we read Literature—S.O.S.!”  Students summarized Rosenblatt’s salient points. They responded in their reader/writer notebooks, they discussed and applied Rosenblatt’s language throughout the semester.  Rosenblatt’s nomenclature became a normal part of our conversation in class.  Students would discuss how they read their textbooks with a more efferent stance but also noted that there were moments of aesthetic appreciation. For example, when discussing one of her astronomy texts, a student shared her appreciation of the metaphor used to describe the cosmos, citing it as an aesthetic moment in her reading.

What happened when I introduced Louise Rosenblatt’s transactional literary theory to students enrolled in a general education Literature course?  We developed a common language to talk about reading which reinforced a community of readers.  Many students felt they developed a richer understanding of themselves as readers and a deeper understanding of books. Also, we had fun using Rosenblatt’s nomenclature and the Six Traits + 1 to talk about our self-selected text during the end of semester talk shows.

Student Reflection
In her reflection, Emma (freshman, undeclared major) wrote: “Something I liked about the self-selected book project was that when we got into our groups for the talk shows we all had such different books and it was interesting to see what kind of books my peers wanted to read.  Even though the books were so different, I noticed that most of us read with more of an aesthetic stance but there were definitely efferent purposes for some too. I think that listening and watching someone talk about a book they enjoyed reading is so amazing because of the excitement that is so clearly visible on their faces and in their voices as they talk about their book.  I think the culture behind a group of people talking about books and why they liked them or chose to read them is a nice universal connector.”

More Questions
How early is too early to introduce theory? What if my undergraduate students came to the University having read a wide variety of seminal and current educational theory? Because of time constraints, I chose not to introduce literary theories (postcolonial, Marxist, deconstruction, etc.). Did my students miss out?

*Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters by Kylene Beers & Richard Probst

Dr. Mary Bellucci Buckelew is the Director of the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Mary Buckelew 3.29.17Project and Professor of English at West Chester University. She is co-author of Reaching and Teaching Diverse Populations: Strategies for Moving Beyond Stereotypes. When she’s not facilitating workshops, leadership gatherings, and institute meetings; visiting youth sites for Young Readers & Writers; or teaching undergraduate and graduate courses – you may find Mary composing a poem about life in New Mexico, taking long walks with her husband Paul, visiting with family and friends, or reading a good book!

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