School of Education professor Susan Hynds examines how middle-school students develop an appreciation for literature in her award-winning book, On the Brink: Negotiating Literature and Life with Adolescents.
Susan Hynds understands why there are people who love to read, and why there are people who can't read. What she wants to understand better, though, is why there are so many people who know how to read, but don't. "What makes some people capable of creating an inner dramaa theater of the mindthat allows them to experience and interpret literature, while others have only a literal level of understanding of what they read?" Hynds asks.|
The question is one of many the School of Education's director of English education sought to answer when she began the 1989 research project that led to the publication of On the Brink: Negotiating Literature and Life with Adolescents.In the book, a qualitative study spanning three years in a middle-school language arts classroom, Hynds examines the relationships between a teacher and her students and explores the teacher's role in developing literacy.
Referring to the project as "The Little Study That Grew," Hynds laughingly calls herself "The Little Researcher Who Grew" as a result of the experience. She began the project with questionnaires, observations, and interviews, working with a teacher (called Meg in the book) at a Syracuse middle school. "At the end of the first year, I realized my research hadn't revealed much, and I went back to the drawing board," Hynds says. She returned to the classroom the following year to work with a group of seventh-graders who, as part of a "looping" pilot project at the school, would stay in Meg's class through eighth grade. This arrangement allowed Hynds to study these students in their crucial middle-school years as they read and responded to a variety of literary texts. "Equally important," Hynds says in the book, "the two-year extension would allow me to follow one teacher as she attempted to create a learner-centered, constructivist classroom."
Five group members became subjects of in-depth case studies, agreeing to participate in follow-up interviews four years after they completed middle school. Hynds credits themAngel, Luis, Jason, Kianna, and Samanthawith teaching her that instilling an appreciation for literature in adolescents is more complicated than anything she could learn from a questionnaire. "The book tells the story of Meg, me, and the kids as we worked together to unravel what it means to become literate, including how race, class, and gender play themselves out," she says. "It is about more than literacy. It's about the need to look at kids' lives, and the kinds of social and political contexts in which they're learning."
Published in 1997, the book recently received the National College Teachers of English Richard A. Meade Award, presented annually in recognition of outstanding research in English education.
"Like earning a doctoral degree, the publication of a book is a life-changing experience," Hynds says. "It makes you vulnerable in a wayyou don't know what you know until you write it." She values the impact this research has had on the way she works with her SU students, most of whom are already teachers. "I share with them that the experience of teaching is different with each kid," she says. "I try to give them a fishing polenot a fish: I teach them to assess situations on the spot, make themselves flexible, adaptive, and caring. My real job is to help them understand adolescents; to let them find a Luis in their classrooms, and not let him gonot let him become mediocre because the system doesn't meet his needs."
Hynds hopes to return to Meg's classroom during a sabbatical next spring, this time as a co-teacher. "I hope to take my research to the next level," she says, "to begin addressing the issues raised in On the Brink,and to examine ways we can use literacy to make a differenceto change the world." She sees our society as being at a crossroads in youth education, and cites the Columbine High School tragedy in Colorado as evidence of a national need to change what happens in our schools. "No big picture, top-down intervention from a bureaucrat will solve our problems," she says. "If I take just one lesson away from my work, it is that we must begin one person at a time to make a difference."