In her new book Adolescent Literacy and the Teaching of Reading: Lessons for Teachers of Literature, author Deborah Appleman relies heavily on the pedagogical metaphor of scaffolding to describe the support we can offer students as they develop as readers in our literature classrooms.
Appleman notes that while “primary school teachers may not as easily question the need to explicitly model and scaffold reading processes, teachers of adolescents all too often assume that their students already possess the knowledge to become successful readers” (16-17). As a secondary English teacher, I have come to understand the need for such support, but I’m afraid that I’d never really thought too much the implications of the metaphor behind that word scaffolding. I hadn’t considered the limits—the rigidity, uniformity, and linearity—such a “building” metaphor might imply, leading to one-size-fits all, teacher-directed support in the classroom.
It’s fitting then, that it’s a paper by Anne Haas Dyson—whose work focuses largely on early literacy development—has recently challenged my understanding of scaffolding and helped me appreciate more fully the challenge and promise of supporting adolescent readers in the ways Appleman describes in her new book.
In “Weaving Possibilities: Rethinking Metaphors for Early Literacy Development,” Dyson explains that “[w]hile scaffolding is a vertical metaphor, one that represents how more skillful others support [students’] progress within one activity, weaving has a more horizontal dimension. It suggests how [students’] progress in any one activity is supported by their experiences in varied activities.”
Many of the excellent examples of scaffolding that Appleman describes benefit from being re-thought in Dyson’s terms. When Appleman describes an American literature teacher who responds to students’ interests in digital literacies by having students explore war-related blogs and complete an assignment called “The Apps They Carried” before reading a short story by Tim O’Brien, she is acknowledging the nonlinear, student-centered ways teachers can support students as readers across a variety of contexts.
When Appleman discusses a group of students reading the short story “The Boy without a Flag,” she tells of students performing a close reading of The Pledge of Allegiance, writing their own pledge, and composing collaborative poems based on the sentence frame “I am a ___ without a ___,” she’s exploring another model of support that is enhanced by metaphorical re-examination. Enacted ineffectively or without clear intention and purpose, these activities may end up seeming disconnected from the reading activity. In the carefully managed, responsive classroom Appleman depicts, these activities “allow us to see and allow space for the diverse intentions and resources of [students]” as they grow as readers and interpreters of text (Dyson).
When I first read Dyson’s critique of scaffolding, I didn’t know quite what to make of it—after all, the unchallenged term has become a staple of the teaching lexicon. But as I read each of Appleman’s cases of teachers tapping into linguistic and non-linguistic resources, school-sponsored and out-of-school literacies, and diverse life experiences of our students, its value started to make sense.
It’s not a rigid set of “before, during, and after” activities—and certainly not scripted curricula and more oppressive standardization (even that which nominally includes “scaffolding”)—that our students need. They need teachers who are supported and encouraged to learn more about their students and more about the ways to match their students’ needs with effective pedagogical practice that will give us a chance to weave success with adolescents as they face increasingly challenging text in and out of school.