The Tarzan Theory of Reading
Teaching a Long Document without a Set of Reading Questions:
A Student Led Lesson
By Jeff Schneider
Common Sense, Federalist 10, Frederick Douglass's 4th of July Oration, the Webster - Hayne Debate, the Cooper Union Speech and the First Inaugural of Abraham Lincoln, and the Seneca Falls Declaration of 1848. Teaching with documents was a literal description of a key to my classroom methods in both high school and college. I had discussions of these foundational works of the US canon three times every two months. My method was to have them read at home in the AP classes and senior colleges, Hunter and City college. They held my classes together by their intellectual strength and created excitement by their complexity especially when the students discovered they were the warp and woof of their classroom experience. All this kept me engaged in class after class and year after year.
This article is a description of the method I used in class. In high school I called it the Tarzan Theory of Reading, but I did not use that name in college. I have described this method before in my article on African Slavery in America elsewhere on this site, but I realized it would be convenient for me to describe the lessons in a standalone article to aid the teachers among my readers so that each document I post does not have to contain a reiteration of the description. I should also point out that I often varied the assignment in my AP class by asking the students to write a 400 word essay that would prove a thesis about the document. They uploaded the essays to Turnitin.com and brought them to class for discussion. These were homework assignments not graded essays. They were practice in writing. The class discussions were just as good, but having them write essays came later in the year once the students got the sense that their contributions were valuable, and they felt comfortable talking about ideas. Both these methods worked very well.
When I was in the 9th grade I read books that were very difficult for me to comprehend. I was interested in the topic, but the language and the ideas stumped me. I realized that I could understand them better when I chose sentences that I could grasp something about. I underlined two or three sentences per page and re-read them at the end of the chapter. Then I re-read the chapter and learned more. After a few chapters, the ideas in the book became clearer. The lessons that I learned as a teenager are the basis of the method I used to teach. I found that 11th graders and college freshmen who might never have read complex essays or arguments could share their ideas by contributing sentences from a speech by a politician or an article by an historian. When the whole class made a series of stabs by choosing sentences they deemed important or striking, we could discuss them and come up with a usable set of ideas that made the piece cohere. This was a fail-safe procedure that kept the discussion from lagging because there were always new sentences to consider. If one person did not understand one sentence or an idea, someone else might and if the second student did not understand another idea the first student might. Part of the introduction to the Tarzan Theory of Reading was my demonstrating the idea of Tarzan grabbing on to the sentences. I would start at the window in the front of the classroom and raise my arms one by one swinging on the sentences from one end of the room to the door. It covers the territory.
As I have said there were no stakes in these analyses. The key was to make everyone feel comfortable contributing. I told the students that we were exploring the document to get an idea of what it said. All I asked is that each student try their best to move the discussion forward. The class was not a test: the students would be tested on the work we did, but not until I was reasonably sure that the discussion had been clear. All my tests in AP were essays that were literally from the discussions we had in class. There were never any surprise questions. There was always a choice of essays on the tests so that the studying was transparent. They had to write two essays in a period with a choice of one out of two and another one out of two. I told them they would be rewarded for studying. And they were. I waited for them to catch on to doing the work on their own then participating in class to clinch their understanding. As they improved, their grades on their report cards reflected that. They could start out failing or getting 70s or 80s, but they could end up with 80s or 90s if their test grades and work kept up with the assignments. They were rewarded for learning how to think. The only caveat was that they could not get above 95 without having that average. The grades at the top of the class were too competitive for that.
One problem with testing is that students rarely feel that they know what to study. In my classes, if they learned what we did each day, they would get an A or a 99. The documents always treated ideas the students were learning at the time, giving the students a context for their understanding. I discovered that the words in the documents were the key. It is not obvious to many students that the learning comes from the words because the words created the meaning. That was the project. The answers were in the documents themselves. The poet, John Ciardi, asked,"how does a poem mean?" In French it is explication de texte. That, combined with an idea I gleaned from Eric Hobsbawm's teaching in an historiography class at the New School: Complexity is one idea stacked on top of another. When the ideas worked together, that was complexity. My students would use the building blocks in the documents to develop an understanding of American history. My philosophy of teaching was less is more. We would go into depth on specific topics and connect with the narrative in subsequent classes.
The documents I assigned in AP were 5 to 20 pages or so. Each one took up a whole class. I would ask the students to read the the piece and choose 8 to 12 sentences spread out over the whole: 2 from the beginning, 2 from the end and four or 8 from the middle. They would underline the sentence and write it down and then explain in a sentence or two underneath why they thought it was important, striking, interesting or terrible. It is important to make clear that the students comment about each sentence separately. Then the college students and the high school gifted or Regents students would bring the sentences and comments to class and I would collect them. The AP students had to underline them and then upload their sentences and comments to Turnitin.com. They could print out their upload and bring it to class along with the document itself. The AP students' uploads would produce about a 50% plagiarism rate which was fine as long as it was not much more than 60%. I would letter or number the paragraphs on long documents to make them easy to find.
I began the discussion by asking if anyone had questions or comments in general about what they had read. This would usually lead into a 10 minute discussion which could serve as a good introduction but it is important to get to the meat of the document with the sentences before too long. That transition can happen without my asking for sentences. The questions I would ask were never about specific aspects of the document, because the students were leading the discussion. If the spontaneous questions or comments ran out, I would ask who had a favorite sentence or did anyone find an idea with which they agreed or disagreed. Near the end of the period if we did not get to an important idea in the piece, I would ask if any one chose a particular sentence and we would discuss those. Often there were one or two key ideas that we had left out.
When a student offered a sentence to discuss, they had to explain where it was in the document and read it slowly and clearly so that everyone in class could follow along. I asked all the students to find the sentence and read silently along with her. It was then that I would ask what they thought about that sentence. If the student explained what it meant, then I would ask why they chose it. It is not worth getting into a fight about that. I would ask someone else to comment.
In the descriptions of my lessons elsewhere in on this site, I have been suggesting groups of related ideas to write on the board and commenting about them. Especially in the beginning of the year it is necessary to make those groups so the students get notes. Later in the year it is not so important. The discussion coming from the choices of the students is usually so clear that I rarely wrote on the board later in the year. But that is up to the individual teacher. As I discussed those groupings in Substack, I also explained the thoughts I had teaching the documents to give a background. Since you do not know what is coming next in the students' choices, it is crucial to know the document and its historical context inside and out. Answering the great majority of questions makes the students more comfortable in asking them. I have seen teachers asking questions that force students to forage in pages trying to find the answer to what the teacher asked. It is a waste of time and reduces the input of the students and their willingness to contribute. My method avoids that by letting the students lead the discussion by bringing up ideas as they feel the need to participate. It is the teacher's job to make all these comments cohere by questioning them about their choices. How do you think about that? Or why did the author say that? You make sure they understand what they have chosen. When you reach an important idea, make sure that the sentence becomes clear. Can you explain more? Does anyone else have a comment about this?
An example is "There is not a man beneath the canopy of heaven, that does not know that slavery is wrong for him," in the Fourth of July Oration of Frederick Douglass.* Have someone try to explain that. The students must know the word canopy and who is underneath it. How do you translate that sentence? Everyone is under the canopy. You are not done until someone says, "No one wants to be a slave." It is the words that explain themselves. The students are not used to paying such close attention to the words -- they do not read their science or math books. The teachers are reluctant to let them. They lecture or give them work sheets instead. Here is what I call a chemistry sentence, you have to read every word to understand it. It is Article VII of the Constitution:
The Ratification of the Conventions of nine States, shall be sufficient for the Establishment of this Constitution between the States so ratifying the Same.
At first blush the students understand that 9 out of 13 states must agree to the Constitution for it to go into effect. For whom? for those 9 or 10 or 13 states. And if 8 ratify, does the Constitution go into effect? No. But who votes? The states? No. The conventions of the states. What were those? A convention is a body of specially elected delegates to perform a particular task. How many conventions were there? 13. What was their task? To debate and vote on the Constitution. Do the states ratify the Constitution? No. The Conventions of the states ratify the Constitution. How were the delegates chosen? They were elected by the people of the states. Madison wanted the people to ratify because the Articles of Confederation was based on the states so the state legislatures chose the delegates to the Articles Congress. That is, they had a vested interest in the Articles. So he went to the people by calling for conventions in the states. And now we can understand the Preamble of the Constitution: "We the People ... ordained and established this Constitution for the United States of America." The people of the United States became sovereign by voting for delegates to the conventions of the states. Ratification was done by the people not the legislatures of the states.** When you look up Article VII in Google, the sentence does not come up at once. An explanation of the sentence comes up first. It seems that few people really want (or can) understand the sentence by reading it.
At the end of the class the students have their notes: The sentences they chose and the sentences other members of the class chose. The way we went in the discussion the territory covered by the document became clear. It is not necessary to go into every idea as long as the students can explain the key ideas and how they relate to each other.
In my Regents classes or the classes I taught comprised of students with a wide range of abilities in Great Speeches, we would often use the black board to write the beginnings of the sentences the students chose, especially if the document were long like the "Fourth of July Oration" by Frederick Douglass or the "Letter from Birmingham Jail" by Martin Luther King. (After the first or second time gifted classes did not need the sentences on the blackboard.) I would choose students to put up the first three words of the sentences they had chosen by saying you put up your first sentence, you put up your 5th sentence, you put up your 4th sentence skipping around the room from one side to the other until we had two of each of the 12 sentences they had chosen. At the beginning of the class I had divided the board into 12 long sections and then drew a line through the all of them cutting them in half, so we would have 24 sentences. I also wrote the sentence number in each vertical box, and made sure that there were two pieces of chalk in the tray for each vertical box. The students had to check that no one else had chosen their sentence and then they would write their name and then we could start in the same way as the AP classes by discussing their questions or comments about the document.
In all the classes whoever read a sentence had to read it slowly and clearly. so that everyone else could follow along. Each student had to know where their sentence was in the document, so we did not waste time finding it. It was obviously necessary that the students bring their document with them. When everyone in the class became used to the routine of choosing sentences and discussing them, it was only necessary to write sentences on the board in long documents. I want to re-emphasize that collecting the sentences in the Regents classes and the gifted classes was a priority, because copying homework in class was not uncommon.
Over the years I taught many classes this way. You must recognize that it takes a lot of energy and thought to jump around the documents following the suggestions of the students. You have to be ready from the first minute to the last. You can elicit an aim, if you want, but it is certainly necessary to ask the students to summarize the lesson at the end. Remember that this method is based on the idea that the classroom is a place for inquiry not only for correct answers. The students have to feel they are free to think, ask questions and comment. The documents themselves are the motivation. They are famous for their serious interventions into the politics and culture of their time and ours. My students were proud that they got to read Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln at home and then come into class and discuss it with their peers. It will keep you going as a teacher.
*I have corrected the quote from the 4th of July Oration.
**In other words it is unconstitutional for states to pass laws opposed to the Constitution because the states did not ratify the Constitution, the people did as a whole. (See the current Texas Law on abortion. It is a classic case of John C. Calhoun's theory that the Constitution was just a compact of the states, therefore a state could nullify a federal law.) In 1830 in his Second Reply to Robert Hayne Daniel Webster said, "It is, Sir, the people's Constitution, the people's government, made for the people, made by the people, and answerable to the people." This is the origin of the final sentence of the Gettysburg Address.