By Wendy Tronrud
On the first day of class, I like to end with the “Explode the Text” exercise detailed below. As a strategy, “Explode the Text” requires all students to participate aloud and to collaborate in the meaning making process with a complex and challenging text; it opens up interpretive possibilities, rather than directing students to answers, and it builds in differentiation and student-choice. Thus as a first-day exercise it models so much of what we want students to do for the semester as a community and as individuals, and it is perfect for a class that does not know each other yet.
Step 1: For the “explode the text” exercise, I begin with a poem that is complex but relatively brief (I’ve used Hayan Charara’s “Elegy with Apples…” or Seamus Heaney’s “Digging“). It is helpful to have a poem around 20 lines or so. The teacher reads the poem aloud in this exercise, while students have their own specific tasks.
Step 2: Once all students have a copy of the poem before them, I introduce the activity, explaining to students that as I read aloud, they should underline any line(s) that stand out or speak to them in some way. This ensures that students have a choice as to their entry point into the poem and allows them to appreciate and respond to a smaller section of language without the pressure of having to immediately grasp the poem as a whole. For a class of students with varying skill levels, this choice of entry point is essential; each student can choose a line whose language s/he feels more comfortable working with given my expectation of whole class participation.
Step 3: After I’ve read the poem aloud for the first time, students are given 3-4 minutes in which to freewrite using their choice of line as a starting point. I explain that the freewrite should and can take them wherever it needs to as the “explode the text” exercise is about opening up the complex language and connotations of a given poem through the images, associations and personal responses students bring to it. I encourage students to freewrite directly on the poem handout.
Step 4: I then read the poem a second time, and this is where the text is “exploded.” As I get to the line a given student chose, the student interjects his/her free-write aloud to the class. When I get to the end of the poem, every student in the class has “exploded the text” with his/her associations, ideas, images, etc.
Step 5: After this collective experiment, I open whole class conversation around any observations or reflections students have about the process, experience or poem. For instance, a number of students may choose the same line to freewrite from or a number of students may bring similar or conflicting connotations to various lines and all of this makes for great discussion. This part can take a more directed exploration of the text (perhaps you have questions you want students to consider), but I think what’s important is to first ask students to reflect aloud or in writing about the process of this strategy and what they noticed and learned from it.
Wendy Tronrud is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the Graduate Center and an instructor at Queens College and a Writing Associate at The Cooper Union.