ALAN v28n3 - Placing Fictional Facts on Imaginary Audiences: Using Adolescent Literature to Teach Lesson-Planning in Secondary Methods Courses

Volume 28, Number 3
Spring/Summer 2001

Placing Fictional Facts on Imaginary Audiences:

Using Adolescent Literature to Teach Lesson-Planning in Secondary Methods Courses

Maryanne R. Bednar and Francis J. Ryan

One of the challenges confronting teacher educators is devising productive activities that will help their students understand how pedagogical theory informs practice. Courses in educational psychology and in methods of teaching frequently include assignments that expect students to generate lesson plans which address the needs of "imaginary learners." Oftentimes, such classes have field components that require students to spend time in "real classrooms," engaging learners in tutoring, small-group instruction, and eventually large-group teaching-all in an attempt to illustrate how theory should guide practice.

All of these approaches are beneficial preparations for the student teaching practicum, where student teachers are finally confronted with the daily demands, frustrations, and rewards of the teaching enterprise. Despite the thoroughness of methods course instruction as well as the richness of pre-practicum fieldwork, many student teachers still become perplexed when required to address the needs of specific learners. The "imaginary audiences" that functioned well in methods courses fade in contrast to these real demands. For example, methods professors, when teaching lesson planning, might restrict the proposed lessons to the "imaginary audiences" of "Advanced Placement Senior English" or of "Basic Business Writing," but these activities are helpful in providing prospective teachers only a general context for constructing theory-driven lessons. These "imaginary audiences" do not have specific personalities that would force student teachers to examine the psychosocial, behavioral, motivational, and overall instructional needs of these learners.

At La Salle University in Philadelphia, we have had considerable success using "adolescents" from young adult fiction as a way of placing "real faces" on the "imaginary audience." In general, our secondary methods course, "The Art and Science of Teaching," covers topics such as decisionmaking, planning, instructional strategies, questioning techniques, assessment, management, and discipline. A two-hour per week field component in a secondary classroom also provides opportunities for students to observe, examine, and actually "test through practice" the fine points of these topics as each student moves from individual tutoring and smallgroup instruction to large-group teaching. Students record these activities in journals, and once back on campus, they share their experiences in focus groups with their peers. About mid-semester, after our students have struggled with planning various activities for real students, we provide a common experience for all of our students-an experience that requires them to build on their most recent field-based activities and to draw from the principles of pedagogy. The following phases demonstrate how we put into operation the fictional faces activity. The activity occurs over two class periods, totaling four instructional hours.

Placing Fictional Faces on Imaginary Audiences

Phase I

We asked our students to read closely a common selection from young adult literature. We have found Joyce Carol Oates's "Boy and Girl" especially effective. This short story portrays two adolescents who are struggling with numerous personal and family problems. We asked our students to read this story and to come to class prepared to discuss the characterization of the two protagonists.

Phase II

In class, the students brainstormed the fine points of the characters and generated a series of observations from which three general classifications surfaced: physical attributes, emotional attributes, and setting.

Boy Character, Alex Girl Character, Doris
Looked fifteen
Colorless, fluttery
Powdery mouth
No real friends
Bad Skin
Physical deterioration
Saliva around mouth
Needs to feel special
Attracted to the abstract
Acting out to get attention
Felt something was wrong
"Druggy" demeanor
Disassociated from his body
Manic, nervous
Held onto rejection
Goal oriented
Retained feelings
Recognized influence
of his changing suburbs
Liked to change partners,
and different music

From this brainstorming exercise, the students concluded that the girl, Doris, was "worldly but flighty, outgoing and possibly overly aggressive, and wannabe popular." In addition, they felt that she demonstrated "lack of awareness of self and lack of empathy for others." The most common trait presented was that Doris was a "risk taker." The students characterized the boy, Alex, as a "shy, reserved, nerdy intellectual who was uncomfortable with social situations" due to his embarrassment about his perceived physical shortcomings, primarily his pronounced acne and slight build. They emphasized intellectual curiosity and inventiveness as the character's strong points.

Students were quick to caution that there was a danger of inferring too much about the characters' inner lives, especially their feelings and motivation, based solely on a few narrative descriptors. This observation prompted a lively discussion that focused on stereotyping "real students" in classrooms based upon inaccurate, incomplete or misleading information. Students pointed out basic concerns with use of informal and formal labels that categorize, and possibly dismiss, learners. For example, M., an English education major, questioned the validity of using Myers-Briggs ( Lawrence, 1993 ) type preference and teaching style labels, extraversion/introversion, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling, judgment/perception, or Gregorc mind style labels: random, abstract, sequential and concrete learners. She posed: " Don't these labels also limit our understanding of the individual in his or her world?" Several students argued that labeling, either using educational terms or informal stereotypical terms, would ill serve the teacher in the specific case of "Boy and Girl" as well as in real secondary classrooms. S, a German education major, presented herself as a case in point. She explained that most people assumed that she was a math or science major because she is Asian-American, and they expressed astonishment when she informed them that she was a secondary education German major. "They put one and one together and came up with an Asian-American who excels in the science and math world. They didn't see me at all. I'm rotten in those fields." Most students acknowledged the possible shortcomings associated with assuming too much, too quickly from the limited fictional snapshots provided by Oates. But they also countered that educators, as well as most individuals, tend to form and then rely upon snapshots of people whom they encounter daily. For instance, P., a social studies education major and S., an English education major, added that as Dean's List varsity athletes, they continue to be irritated by those who are surprised by their academic achievement. The students noted that such people retained the stereotype of the university-athlete as someone who cuts class, needs extensive tutorial assistance, and rarely excels academically.

These cautionary comments seemed not to provide any resolutions to these issues, although the entire discussion did reveal insight into the students' development as readers and as teachers. Attesting to several features and effects of readerresponse theory ( Tompkins, 1980 ), almost everyone in the class exhibited a greater awareness of themselves as individuals and a heightened appreciation of their own identities. They registered, too, a sensitivity to the uniqueness of their peers' personalities, as well as a realization of the needs of their students. In this latter context, they especially responded to the shortcomings of prematurely categorizing their prospective students and, in some cases, with the destructive effects of any type of psychosocial labeling.

Phase III

The students were then grouped into teams representing the academic concentrations present in the seminar: two English teams, two Social Studies, and one Foreign Language team. The student-teams were asked to develop activities and instructional methods to meet the needs of one or both of these two fictional characters. They were also asked to identify effective methods of assessment for these activities. Students were required to connect their selected strategies, activities, and techniques to major pedagogical principles and theories discussed in coursework. Some of these strategies and theories included learning style (e.g. Gregorc, Myers- Briggs), information processing theory (e.g. Bruner, Dale), multiple intelligence theory (e.g. Gardner ), moral development (e.g. Damon , Kohlberg), cognitive development (e.g. Piaget, Vygotsky), and psychosocial development (e.g. Erickson).

Phase IV

Teams presented their lesson plans with accompanying rationale and justification on an overhead transparency. When appropriate for clarification or extension, the teams responded to questions by their peers and the instructor. The student teams addressed the fictional characters in a range of ways. Each team was able to supply clearly the theoretical reasoning for their instructional or assessment decisions.

Social Studies Team One . The first Social Studies team targeted Doris and developed an interesting lesson to "utilize Doris's risk taking extroverted personality to get her involved in learning." They proposed that Doris become a co-presenter of the teacher's set induction highlighting the role of photojournalism during the Vietnam War. They intended for Doris to be a member of the photojournalism team scouring Vietnam for human interest and conflict stories. They stated that this "acting opportunity" would capitalize on Doris's interpersonal intelligence and outgoing style. They explained that "she likes to have attention so why not use it for positive purposes - get attention for academics. Maybe it will help to win her over." Furthermore, because Doris seems to reflect some of the characteristics of Erikson's ( Good & Brophy, 1990 ) "identity confusion," students argued that this activity might help her to find a vocational focus that would actually cause a chain reaction in her personal life, resulting in more responsible behavior and overall improved academic achievement.

Social Studies Team Two . The second Social Studies team used a similar approach when they proposed to have Doris become the central figure in a segregation activity that was part of larger unit on human rights. Again, this team proposed a role-playing scenario to "get the students motivated, especially Doris, to learn about civil rights." Such a role-play or re-enactment would prompt her " to recognize the importance of consciously being aware of actions and their effects on others." Here, they emphasized that the character Doris lacked empathy for others. Based on Damon's ( 1995 ) model of the moral system, this role-play would provide Doris an opportunity for experiencing empathy for others, an emotion that is a primal building block for pro-social behavior and ultimately for moral conduct.

English Team One . This team developed a culminating assessment for a literature unit on a local color artist, such as Twain, Cather, or Runyon, that would address Alex's and Doris's respective learning styles and social development as suggested by Erikson ( Good & Brophy, 1990 ). The group's goal was two-fold: first, to "create an activity that would help Alex to become a more versatile thinker and learner . . . , an activity that would invite Alex to tap into an 'abstract random' learning style" [as described by Gregorc ( Guild & Garger, 1985 )] ; and second, to construct a way that would "allow Doris an academic moment to shine" by appealing to her outgoing personality and her interpersonal intelligence ( Gardner, 1983 ). The assessment activity involved an eightto- ten minute group presentation highlighting the connection of at least two of a targeted author's works to the author's region and/or personal life. For instance, Alex would be encouraged to create the scene and the dialogue for the presentation, whereas Doris would be one of the actors.

Because Alex has a propensity for abstract theorizing [as represented in the short story by the English paper he wrote on reality], this team believed that this form of assessment would permit him to use his intellectual abilities to theorize about the possible connections between an author and regional issues. In addition, they felt that it would help Alex to be part of a group and to stretch his interpersonal skills ( Gardner, 1983 ) in a positive social situation where he would have a strong possibility of success because of his abilities to write and to abstract.

Other presenting groups voiced concern about Alex's forced participation in a classroom social activity that afforded him neither physical nor emotional escape. The presenting group clarified its position, claiming that they anticipated this to be a low-stress situation for Alex because the teacher would provide ample support while monitoring the group work. Reflecting their concern for Alex's emotional well-being, many students speculated on whether they were teachers or social workers, and they then questioned the degree to which their lesson plan objectives should go beyond the cognitive and include the affective and perhaps even the psychomotor domains. This was countered by comments that to meet more of the students' needs, more of the time, teachers need to be able to individualize learning tasks and materials. The balance of the discussion revealed their overall concern about accommodating their students' learning needs in a realistic way in a real classroom, while tending to the instructional constraints of the curriculum.

English Team Two . In a lesson that introduced satire, this team developed a lesson format designed to address each of the fictional student's learning styles as presented by Gregorc ( Guild & Garger, 1985 ). Using a video clip from Saturday Night Live that satirized President Clinton's eating habits and his ability to wordsmith to fit any occasion, the lesson introduced the basic elements of satire. After some direct instruction to present definitions, students were provided with political cartoons and other examples of satire in everyday life. To reinforce satirical concepts, students could choose to demonstrate their understanding by selecting from a menu: roleplay, political cartooning, or short essay satire. The group believed that Doris would benefit from the video clip because it presented an abstract concept in a more concrete and entertaining manner. In addition, they felt that the extroverted risk-taker Doris would be drawn to the role-play option possibly as a way to use her love of music and dance- Gardner's musical and bodily- kinesthetic intelligences- to demonstrate her content knowledge. Similar to the other groups, this team recognized Alex's introspective nature, his desire to work on his own, and his abstract learning style. They believed that the cartooning and/or satirical essay would enable Alex to use his specific learning style effectively.

Foreign Language Team . This team also attempted to use Doris's strengths, her extroverted style and risk taking, to help complement Alex's introverted style and lack of comfort with his peers. Citing Myers-Briggs' ( Guild & Garger, 1985 ) introversion-extroversion polarities and Erikson's ( Good & Brophy, 1990 ) social developmental principles, they proposed to pair the two characters as "grammar and conversation partners." While "Alex knew academically about Spanish, he may not be able to demonstrate his knowledge due to his introverted nature. Doris could help him bring this knowledge to the conversation level." In turn, they believed that Alex would help "to strengthen Doris's understanding about the structure of the Spanish language." Here, the group pointed out that the reciprocating dynamics of each character's personality would activate their respective "Zones of Proximal Development" ( Good & Brophy, 1990 ), resulting in academic improvement for both Alex and Doris. This assertion prompted questions from other groups regarding the limits of Vygotsky's construct. Could the "Zone of Proximal Development" be understood as describing emotional growth as well as cognitive mastery of a skill or concept? How would this work? What would count as growth? How would this be measured?

This discussion then shifted into the characters' moral growth, with the presenting group claiming that this "pedagogical pairing" could be used to assist Doris in moving from Kohlberg's ( Good & Brophy, 1990 ) conventional level to a more principled stage of moral awareness. This ignited controversy, with other students questioning Alex's position on the Kohlberg Scale. Others doubted Alex's maturity and strength of personality to influence Doris's moral development. Others reminded the presenting group that, to effect moral growth, the "pairing" of the characters should focus not on Spanish grammar and conversation, but on Spanish literature that contains some sort of moral dilemma. All groups contributed to this debate, resulting in the Foreign Language team not having sufficient time to present their measures of assessment.

Conclusions and Implications

This fictional character analysis provided students from various academic disciplines the opportunity to examine the nuances of adolescent motivation and behavior that, through fiction, is "clinically freeze-framed" or "arrested in time on the printed page" and to use this examination as a base-line to construct appropriate lesson plans based on pedagogical principles. It also revealed how these nuances of behavior within the fictional characters frequently generate variations of interpretation, thus leading to variations in selecting teaching strategies and methods of assessment. This reality reinforces the perspective that teaching is both an art and a science-a process based on personal understanding of specific students in particular learning contexts and judicious application of researched-based pedagogy to these contexts. This approach can be used with all prospective student teachers, although for English education majors, the process provides additional opportunities for applying and refining their skills of literary analysis. Equally important, this approach can be used with poetry, drama, and film. In short, we have found the practice of placing fictional faces on imaginary audiences an engaging, synthesizing, and helpful activity. While it may lack the control and design features of a clinical, psychological case-study, this approach nonetheless can clearly guide students to appreciate the richness of adolescent life and to construct meaningful lessons that can penetrate and utilize this richness in relevant and pedagogically sound ways.

Works Cited

Damon , W. Greater Expectations: Overcoming the Culture of Indulgence in America's Homes and Schools . New York: The Free Press, 1995.

Gardner , H. Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences . New York: Basic Books, 1983.

Good , T.L. & Brophy, J.E. Educational Psychology: A Realistic Approach (4th Ed.). New York: Longman, 1990.

Guild , P.B. & Garger, S. Marching to Different Drummers . ASCD: Jarboe Printing Company, 1985.

Lawrence , G. People Types and Tiger Stripes: A Practical Guide to Learning Styles . (3rd Ed.). Gainesville, FL: Center for Application of Psychological Type, Inc, 1993.

Oates, J.C. Boy and girl. In J. Loughley (Ed.). First Sightings: Contemporary Stories of American Youth . New York: Persea Books, 1993.

Tompkins , J. An introduction to reader-response criticism. Reader-Response Criticism from Formalism to Post-Structuralism . Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Maryanne R. Bednar is an Associate Professor of Education at LaSalle University, Philadelphia, and her colleague, Francis J. Ryan, is a Professor of Education at LaSalle University.

Reference Citation: Bednar, Maryanne R. and Ryan, Francis J. (2001) "Placing Fictional Facts on Imaginary Audiences: Using Adolescent Literature to Teach Lesson-Planning in Secondary Methods Courses". The ALAN Review , Volume 28, Number 3, p. 14.