"CULTURAL CAPITAL": VERSUS "GETTING IT DONE:" AN ADOLESCENT READER'S EXPERIENCE WITH GOTHIC TEXTS.
Upon reflecting on what he got out of an experimental unit on Gothic texts, seventh grader Ray (all names are pseudonyms) has the following to say during an interview:
There's so much I learned [in the Gothic studies reading unit]! It's really like cultural capital, that's what my parents would call it. My head's exploding with it right now [laughs]! I got it from so many nooks and crannies in this unit, just learning about diverse people, like all the different characters and my classmates. I got a lot of cultural capital.
Within the context of this reflection, Ray discusses the 'capital' or personally meaningful understandings he derived from participating in a sixth month Gothic literature studies unit that I designed and was implemented by his classroom teacher. The significance of this admission is that the reflection is an atypical reaction. Ray admits to "doing what I have to do" to "get it done" in reading class as his typical response to reading instruction prior to the unit implementation. This evaluation is shared by his English Language Arts (ELA) teacher, Mrs. Carson, who describes him as "having a very creative mind, but is lazy" prior to the implementation of this design unit. Commonly, teachers ascribe labels to their students in order to make sense of their environment. The problem lies in that these labels rarely paint an accurate picture of something as complex as an individual's response to literature. The process of assisting students in becoming engaged readers who comprehend academic texts in meaningful and enjoyable ways is a challenging and complex task for adolescent reading teachers. In Louise Rosenblatt's (1994/1995) view, such engagement is the starting point of a "literary experience and the construction of meaning" (p. 8).
This notion lies at the heart of what Rosenblatt first deemed reading 'transactions,' or the meaning that is created when a particular text and individual come together at a specific time and place (Rosenblatt 1994/1995/2005). Rosenblatt (1994/1995/2005) was particularly concerned with the promotion of aesthetic transactions, which she defined as attitudes, feelings, associations, ideas, and sensations that occur within the reader during and after a reading event, as she felt that aesthetic experiences are not given enough priority in academic reading (Rosenblatt, 1994/1995/2005).
Aesthetic transactions are concerned with dynamic, personal, and imaginative interaction with texts (Dickson & Costigan, 2011; Rosenblatt, 1995). While aesthetically transacting with a text, reading is "living through" not simply developing "knowledge about" texts (Rosenblatt, 1995, p. 38). In order for students to have such experiences, texts must hold some link to readers' interests, values, feelings, and experiences as they occur within their current phase of development. Such parallels form the basis of 'high-interest' reading materials. These materials hold the potential to engage readers; textual engagement paves the way for aesthetic transactional reading experiences to occur (Rosenblatt, 1995).
The crucial first part of Rosenblatt's (1994/1995/2005) aesthetic transactional theory involves careful consideration of academic texts in that they contain potential links back to the adolescent reader. However, academic reading does not occur within a vacuum (Rosenblatt, 1994/1995/2005). The reading-related activities surrounding texts influence readers' aesthetic transactional experiences. In Rosenblatt's (1994/1995/2005) view, texts and the surrounding context (related activities) must work in tandem to nurture aesthetic transactional reading experiences.
This study explores a resistant reader's journey in constructing aesthetic transactions with texts within the reading classroom. I designed a reading unit that was implemented in a seventh grade reading classroom. The unit texts are of a genre that is prevalent in adolescents' out-of-school literacy experiences: Gothic literature (Coats, 2008; Del Nero, 2017/2018/in press). In considering a genre prevalent in adolescent students' leisure reading practices, this study explores how Ray aesthetically transacts with Gothic texts when those texts are brought into the reading classroom in the form of contemporary and traditional texts.
Despite well-documented resistance and disinterest in 'school' reading, both male and female adolescents have an abundance of out-of-school reading experiences with the Gothic literary genre (Del Nero, 2017/2018, Borgia, 2014). This is evident in the popularity of Gothic texts such as the Harry Potter and Twilight series (Blackford, 2012). As is often the case, a text can encompass multiple literary genres. Though the texts mentioned above contain themes and elements consistent with the Gothic genre, they also contain elements of other genres such as science fiction, fantasy, and dystopian literature. For the purposes of this study, I focused on Gothic traits and themes of these and other texts, and the aesthetic transactions Ray constructs.
Though a more comprehensive exploration of the Gothic genre is discussed in a later section, in general, the Gothic genre involves exploring the societal 'other' or 'thing' existing on the borderlands that both fascinates and horrifies; although this 'other' is initially repressed, it ultimately manifests in some mode that permanently changes the text's reality and 'Truth' (Farnell, 2009). The 'thing' can be located inside or outside one's home, family, or self, and gives rise to ambivalent senses of pleasure and horror, or beauty and disgust, in confrontations with the unknown (Farnell, 2009). Exploring a way to incorporate students' out-of-school reading experiences in the classroom is critical. However, despite its popularity with adolescent audiences, "Surprisingly little critical attention has been paid so far to the Gothic" despite its "mainstream" position in young adult literature (Jackson, 2008, p. 1). Combining popular culture with canonical literature in the classroom is underresearched (Bowmer & Curwood, 2016). Consequently, this study intends to shed light on this topic.
I conducted this inquiry under the belief that meaningful knowledge arises from studying the interaction between people in social contexts (Burr, 2003). Drawing on the work of Rosenblatt, (1994/1995) and Greene (2001) this study assumes that aesthetic transactional experiences are a necessary component of reading. The following questions guided this research:
1. What aesthetic transactions does Ray construct in response to a Gothic studies reading unit?
2. How, if at all, does Ray's experience with the Gothic studies reading unit compare to his experience with traditional reading units?
Adolescent Disengagement with Academic Texts
As Burnett & Merchant (2015), Cassidy, Ortlieb, & Grote-Garcia (2016) note, the closer academic reading curriculum aligns with the interests of students, the more likely students will be engaged in the material. Yet, student engagement is not given enough priority in many adolescent reading classrooms.
Lenters (2006) asserted the following damaging effect on students' growth as readers and their level of academic reading engagement when their out-of-school reading practices are devalued:
As these [adolescent] students explore identity themes, they don't look to school-assigned literature for help but instead use out-of-school literacies to accomplish this purpose. Thus, when schools fail to validate these literacies, students often perceive this lack of acceptance as personal rejection, (p. 3)
Providing students with 'interesting' material (defined by their standards) is an effective vehicle for nurturing reading engagement, thereby expanding the possibility for student to aesthetically respond to texts in the academic setting.
The job of a reading teacher is to create settings that make aesthetic experiences possible (Rosenblatt, 1994). This study is situated amongst adolescent reading research documenting the importance of relevance (Hinchman & Moore, 2013; Glaus, 2014). Relevant texts link to students' lives, fit the emotional needs of students, and become a way for students to work through personal difficulties (Glaus, 2014). Underneath the topic of relevance includes respecting students' out-of-school literacy practices and finding a place to weave them into the daily fabric of classroom life (Francois, 2013; Rush & Reynolds, 2014). This dynamic sends adolescents the message that what they care about matters. It also aids students in finding relevance in more dated texts. Tatum (2014) implores us to "honor the voices of adolescents, who can provide valuable insights on the types of text they find meaningful and significant" (p. 11). This study sought to pay adolescents that respect in considering a genre prevalent in their out-of-school literacy practices and bringing it into the classroom as a means of encouraging their aesthetic transactions with texts. Relevant texts is the first step to cultivating aesthetic transactions, however, the classroom context must also promote such experiences.
Efferent questioning, where the conversational 'ball' passes back and forth between student and teacher (and rarely between students) dominates classroom practices (Beers & Probst, 2013). Ironically, in teachers' zeal to direct students to particular text information, students often lose the sense of what the text means to them and serves to impede their construction of aesthetic transactions (Rosenblatt, 2005). Consequently, I made a conscious effort to minimize efferent questions during unit design. Time afforded for student-led discussions was another feature of this unit. Academic reading is socially constructed (Connell, 2008; Pike, 2003). When students aesthetically transact with a text, they are eager to share these experiences. Communication and trust amongst students improves when they are able to share their aesthetic transactions as the text moves from an individual to a shared experience (Rosenblatt, 1994). Listening to other students' aesthetic transactions compels students to reflect on their own. Consequently, students deepen their initial transactions and construct new ones collectively (Connell, 2008; Pike, 2003).
With regard to the unit activities, this study relied on literature that examines practices that promote meaningful and sustained text inquiry (Greene, 2001; Rosenblatt, 2005; Vasudevan, 2010). In addition to open-ended prompting, this unit utilized multimodal forms of knowledge expression in means that promote creativity and afford agency (e.g. Dickson & Costigan, 2011; Vasudevan, 2010). These qualities encourage students' aesthetic transactions with texts. It is within these various contexts that this study is situated.
This case study illuminates the aesthetic transactions Ray constructed within the context of a particular unit (Merriam, 1998). I designed the plans for this Gothic reading unit, which Mrs. Carson (the teacher participant) executed. This study also utilized design-based research to simultaneously observe and transform the status quo (Lamberg & Middleton, 2009).
This research was conducted at Hillside Middle School (pseudonym), a suburban public school in New Jersey, where I was a past ELA teacher. Hillside was selected for various reasons. The nature of this study required significant alteration to curriculum. Consequently, the rapport I developed with the district, as well as insider knowledge of the curriculum, were site advantages. Mrs. Carson was my teaching colleague. Our rapport supported the design-based nature of this project.
Unit instruction occurred over a sixth month period in Mrs. Carson's seventh grade ELA classroom. Preceding instruction, Mrs. Carson and I consulted over curriculum choices and activities (see Table 1). I purposefully selected a mix of both traditional and contemporary Gothic texts. Additionally, 1 designed all of the related unit activities to nurture (rather than stifle) students' construction of aesthetic transactions with the texts. Mrs. Carson executed the lessons; I situated myself as a participant observer (Merriam, 1998). All of the students were given partial disclosure of the study goals (they were not aware that I designed the unit) in order to encourage candidness during interviews.
Data sources and analysis
In keeping with case study design, multiple data sources including field notes, interview transcripts (pre/during/post unit implementation), and artifacts were collected. I utilized Ryan and Bernard's (2003) guidelines for thematic analysis of the aesthetic transactions participants constructed throughout unit implementation. Coding was inductive, as I designed codes based on what the data illuminated. I employed Ruona's (2005) stages for analyzing qualitative data: data preparation, familiarization, coding, generating meaning, and finally, reporting. Multiple measures were used to ensure validity including triangulation, member checks, and maintaining a researcher's journal.
Ray is a twelve year old Caucasian male in Mrs. Carson's seventh grade ELA class. He walks into class with the hood of his sweatshirt over his head, and wears shorts year-round. He typically sits sideways in his desk, pen in mouth, and bouncing his leg up and down, as he admits he has trouble sitting still. Having developed a reputation as a self-proclaimed 'rebel,' Ray frequently gets into trouble. However, these offenses are relatively minor and typically are a result of teachers' frustration due to his lack of attention. Ray dreams of becoming a movie producer and considers Alfred Hitchcock the greatest filmmaker of all time. Ray is critical of the texts typically assigned in school. During the pre-unit interview, he insightfully recognizes the underlying purpose of academic texts: "They're obviously tailored to our age where the main character is really good and we're supposed to learn from them. It's just pretty predictable." He also discusses how the primary purpose of academic reading is to "analyze what the author means," suggesting that neither the text choices nor the reading-related prioritize his potential to construct aesthetic transactions. These statements, coupled with the fact that his favorite book is Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, (a contemporary Gothic text), led me to believe that Ray might construct aesthetic transactions with the Gothic unit texts. Additionally, I desired to talk to him in greater depth because of his self-proclaimed resistance to traditional reading instruction. My goal was to gain understanding behind the resistance as well as see if the experimental unit influenced his perception of school reading. I interviewed a number of students during this study, the findings of which are in other publications (Del Nero, 2017/2018; in press). This article focuses on the experience of one participant in rich detail. Such in depth study of a particular case can shed light on not only an individual, but other individuals as well (Merriam, 1998).
What I found is that Ray is a very articulate and intelligent individual with keen perception as to why the Gothic unit resonated with him in ways that typical reading instruction does not. His impressions paint a portrait of his literate world and how this unit merged his in and out-of school literacy experiences in a way that had not previously occurred. His story potentially sheds light on other adolescent readers' resistance of traditional reading instruction and ways teachers can work against this dynamic.
Ray's Aesthetic Transactions with the Qualities of Gothic Texts
External forces: Whether it is as dramatic as stranded in a haunted house or something more commonplace such as lost Internet connection or electricity, Gothic texts often feature characters grappling with physical isolation. For example, in the contemporary, popular culture Gothic text Down a Dark Hall, the main character (along with three other girls) is physically isolated at a boarding school with no connection to the outside world. Such a state represents a common human anxiety that the genre exposes (Cross, 2008). During interviews, Ray details aesthetically transacting with this trait as he believes that physical isolation heightens story suspense and awareness where he is vicariously transported into the story: "With isolated settings I feel everything else just goes away and you are focused on the story. You're out there in the wilderness." For Ray, such isolation draws him further into the story. His use of the word, "you're" suggests that he has moments of vicarious text transport.
Another suspense element comes from the death and destruction that permeate Gothic texts, whether it be physically killing another individual (such as the 'monster's killing of his creator, Dr. Frankenstein, in Frankenstein) or mental destruction (the narrator's decent into madness, becoming 'monstrous' in "The Yellow Wallpaper") (Del Nero, 2017). Ray notes in his post-unit interview, "I can't really say why, I just enjoy it [fictional death and destruction]." Upon further reflection, Ray says this trait is enjoyable because it's "different." This statement aligns with the research noting adolescents' affinity for fictional violence despite recognition of why this is the case (Cross, 2008; Del Nero, 2017; Jones, 2002).
Wilhelm and Smith (2014) in their study of adolescents' recreational reading patterns, offer up the possibility that horror appeals to adolescent readers because such moments afford readers the vicarious opportunity to "try things they would not ever want to really experience and they could try out response and reactions in a contained and protected liminal space" (p. 147). Ray constructs an aesthetic transaction of imaginative contrast with these texts, which differs from his experiences with traditionally assigned texts.
Internal forces: Gothic characters often grapple with spiritual isolation as a result of certain distinctions, or as Ray insightfully notes, "in Gothic texts, characters battle themselves" (Cross, 2008; Del Nero, 2018). For example, the monster in Frankenstein repeatedly looks for connection amongst the human race, which he never finds. Gothic characters exist outside societal definitions of 'normalcy' (Del Nero, 2017/2018).
Likewise, concern with 'normalcy' is powerful in adolescence (Del Nero, 2017). Developmental changes physically occur at a rapid rate, which can make teens feel unstable and 'monstrous;' it is also a time when individuals often lose the confidence of childhood and become paranoid and self-conscious about how they are judged by the outside world. Likewise, during an interview, Ray shares, "So many teens have angst like these [Gothic] characters. It's a trait that speaks a lot to teens because they don't feel normal." Thus, Ray forges an aesthetic transaction of meaningful connectivity to this Gothic text trait.
Not all of the characters in Gothic texts succeed in overcoming their internal issues; however, many pieces showcase characters fighting these obstacles, and sometimes succeeding despite them. For example, despite his internal anxieties and existence as a liminal 'other,' Harry in The Harry Potter series ultimately, finds happiness and a sense of self-worth by the series' conclusion. Ray discusses how seeing participants fight against personal shortcomings was something that gives him hope and serves as a model for real life. This realization illustrates another transaction Ray constructs. He notes that in the Gothic, "You see a bunch of protagonists overcoming obstacles and feeling different or like an outcast, but they prove themselves to be special in some sort of way." In his mid-unit interview, upon reflecting on what he enjoyed about Gothic texts, Ray shares, "Teens always have problems to overcome. People in Gothic stories overcome something. Like Harry, he's different, but doesn't let that stop him. So I guess they [readers] feel empowered? There's usually a sense of hope that probably a lot of teenagers like."
In sum, Ray expresses that he enjoys the Gothic genre because of the many moments of imaginative contrast and meaningful connection inherent in the qualities of these texts. Additionally, Ray details how he appreciates the balance of traditional and contemporary/popular culture texts in the unit.
Ray's Appreciation of Unit Hybridity: Canonical and Popular Culture Texts I purposefully incorporated a mix of popular culture and traditional Gothic texts in the reading unit as a means to promote alignment between students' academic and leisure reading experiences (Hagood et al., 2010; Lenters, 2006; Wohlwend, 2013). The unit fused as Rosenblatt (2005) deemed 'moderns amongst masterpieces' in an attempt to show students that their literacy identities outside of school were respected in school. The unit commenced with a reading of excerpts and a discussion on the popular culture series Twilight and Harry Potter. The unit novel was the popular culture text Down a Dark Hall, by Lois Duncan, and nonfiction excerpts (The Secret History of Vampires) and the short story, "Cat in Glass," are contemporary pieces.
On multiple occasions Ray details his appreciation of this hybridity. Specifically, he discusses how he enjoys seeing how Gothic characters, such as vampires, evolve over time from something that is feared (as the vampire portrayed in Dracula) to something that is almost a 'Gothic fad' such as the romantic intrigue of the vampire, Edward, in the Twilight series. Examining both popular culture and traditional vampire texts affords Ray the opportunity to construct this aesthetic transaction of comparing and contrasting a Gothic trope [the vampire] as it manifests through time and throughout various texts. As he reflects in his post-unit interview, "We got to see Gothic from all different time periods. Instead of just reading old Euro-ethnic texts, we also read the popular culture pieces, so we were more engaged."
As a result of Ray's construction of numerous aesthetic transactions of meaningful connection and imaginative contrast, the texts were meaningful to him. He notes in his post unit-interview "When you're interested [in textual content], it keeps you into your learning and makes you want to learn more. I'm taking stuff out of the literature that I'll hold onto." Unfortunately, Ray discusses how such units that incorporate contemporary and popular culture texts are rare in the reading classroom. This sentiment aligns with the literature discussing the rarity of such a fusion of modern and traditional texts in reading curriculum (Del Nero, in press; Hagood et al., 2010). His critique of traditional text choices and his resistance to these decisions may shed light on other adolescents' resistance as well. Aesthetic transactions were prioritized in not only the texts, but the related unit activities.
Ray's Aesthetic Transactions with the Text + Context of the Gothic Unit Discussion. Ray stated in his post-unit interview that the often lengthy class conversations that took place during the unit illustrated that everyone had many ideas to share as a result of the aesthetic transactions they constructed with the Gothic texts: "It means we're really into the learning," he shares during an interview. This reader-text dynamic, in conjunction with the pedagogical strategies Mrs. Carson utilized, resulted in discussions that Ray recounts as pleasurable and meaningful.
Ray specifically reflects on the unique discussion dynamic of the Gothic unit in his post-unit interview:
Everybody was so into the [Gothic] texts that everyone was contributing all of their different experiences and stories that enriched this class. It was just a different experience because everybody was so much more into it [the texts] then they usually are.
As Ray notes, the aesthetic transactions students constructed with the texts served as the basis for the engaging discussions (Pike, 2003; Rosenblatt, 1994).
In any context, the most meaningful discussions are born out of a natural desire to communicate ideas with others (Connell, 2008; Pike, 2003). The aesthetic transactions readers construct with texts are the first ingredient required for a high-quality text discussion; the more aesthetic transactions they construct, the more likely they will want to share and communicate them in a discussion (Rosenblatt, 1995). Regardless of the strategies instructors utilize to promote meaningful reading discussions, they are likely to be forced and shallow if the texts do not hold aesthetic transactional potential for readers (Rosenblatt, 1994/1995). As the previous section illustrates, Ray constructs many aesthetic transactions with the Gothic unit texts. Naturally, readers wanted to share these transactions, or feelings, sensations, attitudes, ideas, and/or images with fellow readers (Rosenblatt, 1994/1995). This desire set the stage for his participation and appreciation for the many student-centered discussions that were encouraged throughout the unit.
An example of such a conversation occurs after a discussion about ghosts (a common feature of Gothic texts) and whether or not they actually exist following the reading of the short story, "The Ghostly Little Girl" featuring a girl who drowns and comes back as a ghost:
Mrs. Carson: This story makes you think about spirits. Do ghosts exist? Do spirits linger on Earth after death? What do you guys think?
Ray: My granddad past away and my mom was in the basement where there was no wind and one of the basement windows popped out. So, I think I believe in them.
Mrs. Carson: Wow! These stories are almost like family legends!
This vignette illustrates how Mrs. Carson's open-ended questioning regarding the existence of the afterlife spurred Ray to construct aesthetic transactions of meaningful connection where he felt the presence of the dead, as well as consider it as a philosophical issue. Ray, in latter reflection on this conversation, states, "Since I was little, I really liked thinking about this stuff [spirituality]. It [the conversation] made me think about, "What is the purpose of all of this? Of life?" Ray appreciates the opportunity to consider these issues within the context of reading-related discussions on the Gothic texts. This excerpt highlights Ray's critical thinking about the issue. This aesthetic transactions, constructed collectively, illustrates how open dialogue encourages readers in further developing their "lived through" or aesthetic experience of a text (Pike, 2003; Rosenblatt, 1994/1995). Ray discusses appreciating the opportunity to share, enhance, and construct these moments of meaningful connectivity between his in and out-of-school literacy practices in a later interview:
It's really good to have these talks because everyone knows about something different. Some people bring up a [Gothic] TV. show, movie, or video game. So, everyone has a chance to share and then we can pick out the Gothic attributes. It's good to have those student-initiated discussions.
Ray details how student-initiated discussions provided the class with opportunities to share and construct additional aesthetic transactions with the Gothic unit texts (Pike, 2033; Rosenblatt, 1994). Mrs. Carson facilitates this environment by allowing students to lead some of the discussions and in demonstrating respect for students' out-of-school literacy/popular culture connections (Knoester, 2009). Not only did Mrs. Carson allow such conversations to take place within the classroom context, she also demonstrates respect and interest for these aesthetic transactions of meaningful connection in her discussion commentaries. Consider the following conversation that occurred after Mrs. Carson's acknowledgement that the Gothic short story they were about to read ("Lavender") is considered an urban legend:
Ray: "Oh! Like Slenderman. "
Mrs. Carson: Who's "Slenderman?"
Ray: It's an urban legend videogame where someone's in the woods preying on people. It's really creepy and fun to play in the dark.
Mrs. Carson: Oooh! You guys might want to jot down some of these ideas in your journals! This [Gothic] theme comes up later!
This vignette illustrates Mrs. Carson's inquiry about a 'text' that resides in Ray's out-of-school literacy experiences that she was unfamiliar with. Additionally, she gave this aesthetic transactional moment of meaningful connection merit by suggesting that students write down these ideas for possible later use.
In reflecting on this discussion in his post-unit interview, Ray shares that Mrs. Carson shows "she's really open-minded to whatever we like to share. It just helps us work better. A lot of teachers wouldn't let us talk about that." Mrs. Carson demonstrates respect and interest in Ray's out-of-school literacy practices as they emerged through moments of meaningful connectivity during the Gothic unit; thus, his out-of-school literacy identity is respected within the classroom. Yet, he points out that many teachers may minimize or even dismiss his out-of-school literacy practices.
Ray eloquently summed up the nature of the Gothic unit discussions in his post-unit interview:
Usually in reading the teacher asks questions like 'Can you give us some detail about the piece we just read?' I'm just forced to say something. Whereas, with the Gothic, it's like a bunch of artists collaborating on a piece. There's a real sense of community.
This comment reveals a number of points. Ray details how teacher questioning is frequently efferent in nature, which aligns with the literature discussing overemphasis on the efferent reading spectrum (Eisner, 2002; Greene, 2001; Rosenblatt, 1994/1995/2005; Vasudevan, 2010). This dynamic makes the reading experience feel impersonal and forced, which contrasts the fluid and organic nature of the discussions that took place in the Gothic unit. Ray also notes that such aesthetic transactional discussions encourages the feeling of a classroom "community," aligning with the literature suggesting that discussions capitalizing on the aesthetic transactional reading experience aid in the building of rapport (Connell, 2008; Pike, 2003).
Finally, Ray draws a distinction between the typical dynamic of the reading classroom within the context of his past experiences where the conversational 'ball' passes from student to teacher, and the Gothic unit experience where the power lines are equal and students become "artists." Coincidentally, the artist analogy is also used by Rosenblatt in her assertion of the ideal relationship between readers and texts where aesthetic activity is at its peak because readers are actively co-creating meaning with the text and one another (Rosenblatt, 1995). Ray also has the opportunity to showcase his other artistic inclinations in the corresponding unit activities.
Activities. Reading activities that promote creative thinking and expression (where complex and personal interpretation and exploration of a text are prioritized over a task requiring a specific answer) nurture aesthetic reading experiences and the construction of aesthetic transactions (Eisner, 2002; Johnson & Vasudevan, 2010; Rosenblatt, 2005). Secondly, assignments that capitalize on the aesthetic reading spectrum are open to students selecting a medium for representation (Eisner, 2002; Rosenblatt, 2005). For instance, following the reading of the popular culture Gothic novel, Down a Dark Hall, students were asked to create a tangible product of their novel interpretation; they had the option of choosing any means to portray this representation. This degree of choice gave students the opportunity to express and further construct their aesthetic transactions with this Gothic novel in a form that aligned their in and out-of-school literacy practices and reflected their multiple literacies (Rowsell & Casey, 2009). Within the context of the Gothic studies unit, Ray used multiple activities to merge and explore his love of the Gothic genre, specifically, the "atmospheric" qualities of Gothic story settings, and his love of film production. Following the opening unit lessons, Ray verbalizes how the Gothic permeates popular culture, particularly in the film form, "You really see it [the Gothic] everywhere in a lot of movies," he announces to the class after these opening lessons.
Ray furthers this aesthetic transaction (connecting the Gothic genre to popular culture visual texts) on the cover of his Gothic journal. Upon receiving their black and white marble journals following the introductory unit lessons, Mrs. Carson instructed the students to decorate their journals with both written and visual images they felt represented the Gothic genre. This assignment capitalized on the students' aesthetic transactional experiences, as it encouraged them to explore their initial personal interpretations of what constitutes 'Gothic' This reading-related assignment validated their individual interpretations of the genre (Rosenblatt, 1994). Additionally, students had the agency to utilize both written and visual mediums in their journal decorations.
The following is an excerpt from my field notes during Ray's journal presentation (1):
Ray walks up to the front of the classroom with his journal in hand. He holds it in front of him as he points to the various visual images on his cover. "Hey peoples. So, this is my journal cover. This is a pic from Thirty Days of Night, a really cool movie. This pic [pointing to a black and white image on his cover] is from an early Frankenstein movie. Over here's [a picture] of Kristen Stewart from Twilight, and this [pointing to another illustration] is from Silent Hill" [another film].
This excerpt reveals how Ray used this assignment to enhance his initial aesthetic transaction of recognizing the Gothic as it manifests in various traditional and contemporary films. His artistic interpretation reveals his aesthetic transaction of creatively mixing both popular culture and classic films.
This particular aesthetic transaction of connecting the Gothic as a genre to film manifested in written form in subsequent journal entry following Mrs. Carson's open-ended invitation for students to jot down their thoughts about the genre thus far: The Ring Saw (cheap thrills) Pop outs Sound Bible
This excerpt from Ray's list in his Gothic journal reveals how he uses this open-ended, free-form assignment to further his aesthetic transaction of connecting the Gothic to film. However, the excerpt also discloses how this aesthetic transaction evolves. The list illustrates how Ray organizes Gothic films into further sub-categories. He places Saw into the "cheap thrills" category of Gothic movies. The list also contains special effects (pop outs) and an Internet site used to obtain various sound effects (Sound Bible). These reflections show how Ray moves from thinking about the Gothic as a consumer to considering tools that would aid him as a Gothic film producer. Thus, continued reflection on the Gothic genre in reading-related activities in a means that is personally significant results in Ray enhancing and deepening his initial aesthetic transactions with the unit texts. The evolution of Ray's aesthetic transactions surrounding meaningful connections between the Gothic settings he is exposed to in the unit texts, popular culture and traditional Gothic movies, and Gothic film techniques culminates in Ray's final project for Down a Dark Hall where he and fellow peers created a "teaser trailer" depicting their story interpretation. (2) Ray directed his classmates (the actors in the film) and produced the video. The trailer (one minute and twenty-two seconds in duration) is entirely black and white, which Ray thinks adds to the "atmospheric nature of the trailer," as he explains to the class. Before he plays the video, he explains, "I use a lot of somber music and images that are sometimes blurry at first. I was trying to make it [the film] almost poetic." Thus, in his presentation, Ray distinguishes the setting (mood and tone) of his film as "poetic." This explanative also reveals Ray's strategic choices as a filmmaker (accompanying music and distorted black and white images) to create a visual setting that he feels is representative of the written text. The film commences with a black and white image of a hand rapidly playing piano keys, representing the novel's main character, Kit's, possession by a famous dead pianist. It then moves to an initially distorted image that eventually zooms out to reveal a bloody hand frantically writing on a piece of paper, representing how another character in the novel is possessed by a famous writer. A final significant motif of the film is a black and white visual of birds on bare tree branches, which Ray described to the class as he saw "the setting of Blackwood [the school in Down a Dark Hall]."
The movie ends with an eerie cliffhanger: "Will Kit and her friends escape the horrors that Blackwood holds?"
This film is a visual representation of Ray's aesthetic transaction with a specific text in the Gothic unit as it illustrates his interpretation of the novel, particularly, in the setting that defines it. However, the film is also the culmination of earlier aesthetic transactions where Ray meaningfully connected the Gothic genre to various movies and movie-making techniques. Its eerie black and white atmosphere makes it is reminiscent of classic horror films like Frankenstein. Ray appears to have internalized the aesthetic qualities of this genre of moviemaking in becoming a producer of his own Gothic film. In sum, the open-ended nature defining the reading-related assignments of the Gothic unit allowed Ray to continuously return and refine an aesthetic transaction, which eventually yielded a product Mrs. Carson describes as "the most high-quality assignment I've seen in a long time. It rivals the quality of professional films." Mrs. Carson is particularly surprised by the time and effort Ray invests in this particular assignment: "He's a very smart, but usually looks for ways to get around doing work," she reflected in an interview. In fact, Ray continues work on this film, once the school assignment ends. Taken together, Ray describes the Gothic unit experience as the most enjoyable academic reading experience he has engaged in thus far. When I asked him to elaborate on what he meant "It felt like it was made for us. The readings talked about stuff we like. We had time to talk about the readings in cool ways. We also got to choose ways to show how we learned." Ray articulates that the text and context of this experience allowed him to cultivate aesthetic transactions that he was then able to deepen as a result of student centered discussions and activities that did not impede, but rather nurtured aesthetic transactions.
In response to Ray sharing this information during class, Mrs. Carson later reflected in her post-unit interview with me, "Our lazy kid is opting to do more work because he's inspired!"
Ray elaborates on why the activity was personally relevant and meaningful in his post-unit interview:
Ray: The Down a Dark Hall project was great.
Me: How so?
Ray: You don't have to do a certain thing. You could use whatever medium you wanted. You could make a trailer, you could make a poster, or whatever. I think that's why everyone really enjoyed it because they can choose. I was able to get really creative with my camera and editing software. Whenever I can do that, I'll enjoy what I'm doing and I'll work on it because I want to.
Me: Is using film and editing techniques something you've gotten to use before, in any school projects?
Ray: Not really. Never for reading. I've never been able to do that before. It's usually like 'pick out the facts and write them down' or something like that. With this, I really got to show what I was thinking with a book I really enjoyed.
This interview transcript excerpt reveals how to Ray, the project transcends "work" in becoming a personally meaningful endeavor where he is able to use a choice medium in which to explore his aesthetic transaction (interpretation of Down a Dark Halt).
As Ray reflects, utilizing an untraditional medium, in which he aligns an in-school assignment with an out-of-school 'passion,' on a text he finds particularly pleasurable is intriniscally meaningful; therefore, he does not view it as "work." Unfortunately Ray asserts that such opportunities are not typically possible in the reading classroom, which aligns with the literature asserting how students' out-of-school literacy experiences are often not valued or captilalized upon within the classroom. In fact, in Ray's view, the usual reading assignments are more or less the same efferent task of passively picking out "facts" and recording them, which Ray discusses as an obstacle in preventing him from expressing his aesthetic transactions.
Ray candidly reflects in his post-unit interview: "I'm not even sure if I ever thought school reading could be fun, but it can. It can be very fun." Such sentiments suggested that the pleasure, derived from attaining personally relevant knowledge through the construction of aesthetic transactions with texts, was rare in the academic setting. This view is so deeply embedded that it did not even occur to Ray that academic reading experiences could, in fact, be pleasurable. Thus, it is possible that what appeared to be passive "laziness" by Mrs. Carson might more accurately be described as active resistance towards assignments that in Ray's view, lacks connectivity, relevance, and importance because they fail to capitalize on his "lived through" or aesthetic experience of the text, where he furthers his aesthetic text transactions in a means that is personally significant and meaningful (Rosenblatt, 1994/1995). This study sought to understand the aesthetic transactions Ray constructed in the context of this design unit implementation. The findings illustrate the numerous personal, social, and global understandings Ray cultivated as a result of the unit prioritizing conditions that foster aesthetic transactions in both the text choices and related context. Regarding the secondary inquiry, analysis of the data reveals that this unit experience was in stark contrast to Ray's typical academic reading experiences, which do not serve to help him construct meaningful aesthetic transactions. The implications suggest that Ray's apparent indifference and laziness to his typical academic reading experiences are better categorized by active critical resistance to texts and related activities he fails to see relevance in. It is paramount that educators actively prioritize students' construction of aesthetic transactions when selecting academic texts and in the design of the related context.
The novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her TED talk "The Danger of the Single Story," warns, "The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story." Adichie believes that such single stories deprive us of our humanity by curtailing our full understanding of another person, place, or situation. By all accounts, Ray is a "lazy" student who often does the bare minimum, even by his own admission. However, as the findings illustrate, this is only one piece of Ray's story. When reading and related activities became relevant to Ray, his dedication to the texts, his classmates, and his own work were astounding to witness.
Mrs. Carson is a wonderful educator with a love of literature and her students. However, she is not fallible and within the context of this study, ascribes labels to students like Ray in attempt to understand and make sense of her classroom experience. However, as this study illustrates, it is not that Mrs. Carson's labeling of Ray as "lazy" is untrue, but it fails to portray an accurate understanding of the complete picture of Ray as an ELA student and as an individual.
My hope is that by sharing Ray's story, we (as a fellow educator, I certainly include myself) might renew our zeal to consciously and continuously resist ascribing these negative labels to the students in our charge with the understanding that they are never the sum of an individual's whole story, that, in using them, we miss out on critical teaching and learning opportunities for both our students and ourselves.
Limitations and Future Directions
This study is limited in that it only illustrates the experiences of a single study participant, within the confines of one classroom, under the direction of one teacher. These factors greatly limit generalizability of the findings. Additional classroom studies are necessary to obtain more diversification in response to the inquiries posed in this research. Future studies, where researchers would partner with other teachers to implement a Gothic studies reading unit across various reading classroom contexts, would yield cross-case studies. These studies would allow for comparable analysis in order to obtain more complex and collective information in regards to the research inquiry. The Gothic genre was selected for this study due to its potential to resonate with adolescent readers. However, it cannot be assumed that this (or any one genre) will resonate with all students, or that adolescent readers should be constrained within a particular genre. Additional research in other texts that engage adolescents and spark adolescents' construction of aesthetic transactions across multiple modalities are greatly needed.
Below is an excerpt from one of my journal entries after my post-unit interview with Ray:
As I pack up my interview materials, I thank Ray for being a study participant and for teaching me so much throughout our talks. He thanks me in return, looks me in the eye, smiles broadly, and tells me how it's great because now that the study is done, I can tell everyone how well it went and things will change. This statement causes me to pause in my tracks. I return eye contact, smile, (though I'm sure not as broadly), and promise to tell 'everyone' what I learned. He tells me goodbye, places his hood over his head and walks out of the conference room. Despite Ray's mature and 'cool' attitude he typically exhibits, this moment reminds me that even though he is on the cusp of adulthood, in this moment, Ray is still beautifully a child, in his optimism that everything can change.
It is common for teachers to post inspirational quotes in their classrooms. One that I frequently see in classroom visits is: "Be the change you wish to see." Ray did not outwardly advocate for change within the classroom context. However, his story beyond the confines of the classroom shows a deep yearning for change, but, as one person in a complex web of school instruction, he knows no other way to advocate for change beyond passive resistance of books, talks, and tasks he could not derive any meaning from. I cannot help but wonder for how many other denoted "lazy" adolescent students might Ray's story resonate with? As I drove away from the school that afternoon, I renewed my promise to Ray, that his story, as it unfolded during this experience, would be told. And perhaps, even if only in modest ways, his story could spark change he wished to see, but was unable to advocate for.
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The College of New Jersey
(1) Unfortunately, due to heavy use, all of Ray's decorations on his journal cover fell off by the time I collected the participants' journals at the unit's conclusion. Consequently, I rely on my field notes during his journal presentation as opposed to an actual visual image of his journal.
(2) There are many identifying features of the students in this video including their faces and names. In order to protect the identity of the participants, I use visuals obtained from Google images that are similar in nature to some of the images that are in Ray's film in lieu of the actual media footage
Table 1. Gothic Unit Texts: (*) denotes excerpts read Traditional & Contemporary Texts Asbjornsen, P. (1987). The midnight mass of the dead. In San Souci's Short and Shivery: Thirty Chilling Tales. New York: Doubleday, pp. 53-58. Etchemendy, N. (1996). Cat in glass. In Oates, J.C. (Kd.) American Gothic Tales. New York: Penguin Group, pp. 486-499. McKissack, P. (1992). The woman in the snow. In The Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural. New York, N.Y.: Random I louse. Poe, E.A. (1843). The tell-tale heart. The Pioneer 1(1). Reinstedt, R. (1987). The ghostly little girl. In San Souci's Short and Shivery: Thirty Chilling talcs. New York: Doubleday, pp. 48-53. (*) Shelley, M. (1818). Frankenstein. New York: Simon & Brown. Scott, M. (2002). The girl in the lavender dress. In Applebee, A., Bermudez, A., Blau, S.,Caplan, R., Elbow, P., Hynds. J., Eanger, J., & Marshall, J (Eds.) The Language of Literature. Boston: McDougal Littell, pp. 951-953. (*) Stoker, Bram. (1897). Dracula. Westminster: Archibald Constable & Co. Popular Culture Texts (*) Collins, S. (2008). The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic Press. Duncan, L. (2011). Down a Dark Hall. New York: Hachettc Book Group. (*) Meyers, S. (2005). Twilight New York, N.Y.: Little Brown & Co. (*) Rowling, J.K. (1997). Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. New York: Scholastic Press. Various media clips
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|Author:||Nero, Jennifer Del|
|Article Type:||Case study|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2019|
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