Dealing with Difficulty

At IBD, all of our studies are designed to provide encounters with engaging and difficult texts. Students read, think, talk, and write their ways through tasks tailored to texts that are carefully selected and sequenced.

Our Dealing with Difficulty modules for secondary students, for example, offer an excursion into difficulty that is important in and of itself, but that is also valuable because it supplies a basis for reflection and comparison in subsequent experiences with difficult texts.

Writing and talk support one another

Each Dealing with Difficulty module features a general pattern that remains consistent across each module: students move back and forth between writing and talking about what they are reading. Forums for some of this writing and talk are small, for example, taking notes and discussing a text in pairs or trios. Other contexts for writing and talk are more public, such as when students share the charts they make in small groups with the whole class or when students compose a formal interpretive paper that will be read and evaluated by the teacher.

This design is intentional: writing and talk support one another1. Writing and talk are also reciprocal: writing ensures more productive, thoughtful discussions; discussion supports development in writing. Cycles of work marked by multiple opportunities to write and discuss help students learn to do better and more careful text-based work.

Goals of the modules

  • To introduce teachers and students to the idea that difficulty is a scaffold for understanding.
  • To introduce the idea that there are payoffs for working with difficulty: a deeper understanding of what and how one reads; and a flexibility of mind that can eventually be useful for working through difficulties without the assistance of a teacher.
  • To continue to underscore the idea that by “reading” we mean “doing intellectual work.”

To achieve these goals, students move through a set of tasks:

  • They notice (and write down) what they find hard in a text.
  • They think and theorize about these difficult moments, saying why they might be difficult and speculating about what they might mean.
  • They test these meanings with their peers and refine their thinking through conversations and writings that culminate in formal interpretive papers.
  • They step back and reflect on work with that particular difficult text and consider how that experience might prepare them for future encounters with challenging reading.

It is only through recognizing difficult moments as difficult, as moments to work on rather than as impossibilities to quit over, that students can learn to see the strange, the confusing, or the opaque as places to begin, as things that can be worked with.

1 From research conducted by Martin Nystrand:  “Class talk promoted students’ writing development, particularly when characterized by uptake.  Coherence among writing, reading, and talk also improved writing. Another key here was the student’s own contribution: Controlling for writing skills and other background conditions at the beginning of the year, our analyses found that students who complete their written work, as well as classes where fewer students are off task, exhibit better writing at the end of the year.”  P.30

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