Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Challenging the Metaphor of Scaffolding for Supporting Student Readers

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.


Franki said...

I guess I never thought about whether scaffolding was linear. I think of scaffolding is support when needed. The support to help a reader grow. This gives me lots to think about. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

N-L said...

Interesting. Scaffolding is an activity that has usually been carried out by men, weaving by women.

mj hollman said...

Scott, thank you very much for this post and for making the link between to excellent scholars' work.
Where is the Dyson article available?

Scott Filkins said...

@mj : You can read Anne Haas Dyson's paper at http://www.nwp.org/cs/public/print/resource/714.

Julie said...

Thanks for this thought-provoking post. I have never questioned the term "scaffolding" as it made sense to me as an elementary teacher who needed to support her readers and writers (and mathematicians for that matter). I'm going to go read Daas' article right now.

Julie said...

Oops! That's what happens when you try to do 2 things at once...I meant Haas Dyson's article. Sorry for not checking. :)

Jason said...

Excellent examples of reader response theory for the understanding of the term scaffolding. Each person has his or her own experience with a scaffold...or maybe a misunderstanding of one to bring to the discussion. I always thought that the most important part of the metaphor was that it was always intended to be removed. It is only a temporary platform for workers to stand and work from so that the building (reader) could stand on it's own. I don't think building it horizontally or vertically is as important as building it temporarily. If you intend for the scaffolding to support the building, the building will fall. You might be looking more for a skeleton as your metaphor if that is the case. I think the biggest danger here is the misunderstanding and misuse of a metaphor rather than the metaphor itself. Weaving, aside from the gender issue, is much more common and applicable to common situations than scaffolding. You may live your whole life without going onto or working from an actual scaffolding, but weaving is hard to avoid. Hair, clothes, blankets, baskets, rope, chain mail armor, steel belted radial tires, I think that's enough to cover the gender concern regarding things woven. With all the concentration on metaphor, the important thing not to lose sight of is the student, the person surrounded by the scaffold or the woven thing.

Susan Adams said...

Jason, I agree with much of what you say, but with one exception: the student is not surrounded by the scaffold, but instead stands on the scaffold to do the work he/she needs to do. The student is not the "project" as if we were working on the student, repairing, fixing, or building them, so to speak. The scaffold exists to allow the worker to reach parts of the building that are otherwise unreachable. Tapping into background knowledge which connects to new learning is a way of creating a platform upon which the students can build.

I absolutely agree that the scaffold is meant to be temporary. Close friends of mine spent many years slowly rehabbing an old Victorian house in our city. The scaffolding was up so many years that vines began to grow and their children thought it was the best playground equipment ever. In our metaphor, the most shallow interventions should be the first to be gradually removed (such as reducing test items, or having ELLs read dramatically below grade level).

However, I think most teachers who do a good job of scaffolding for ELLs are struck by the idea that there are often many students in the classroom who have gaps in their experiences, in their learning, and in their academic language development. In that sense, the scaffolding should always be re-adjusted so that all students have access to the new learning.
Thanks for a great discussion, Scott!

Pam said...

Susan and Jason,
Well said! My sentiments exactly!

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