What’s the difference between teaching a text in the context of critical thinking course and teaching it in any other way?

I’d like to explore the answer to this question by looking at a specific text. I’ve chosen a poem that appears near the end of our anthology, one that I am not familiar with and have never taught. I am going to try to think through how I would go about teaching this poem in a regular English class, and then how I would go about teaching it in a CT class. I must admit that the longer I teach with CT in mind, the more I tend to think of everything in CT terms, so it may not be easy for me to separate the two. But for the sake of the exercise I’m going to try.


I prove a theorem and the house expands:
the windows jerk free to hover near the ceiling,
the ceiling floats away with a sigh.

As the walls clear themselves of everything
but transparency, the scent of carnations
leaves with them. I am out in the open

and above the windows have hinged into butterflies,
sunlight glinting where they’ve intersected.
They are going to some point true and unproven.

First of all I would ask the students to attend to the surface features of the poem: what it says, how it is shaped. I would encourage the students to articulate what they know for sure about the poem. Their responses would probably include things like the following:

It’s three stanzas long.
It consists of four sentences.
It announces itself as a poem about geometry and uses diction of geometry (theorem, intersected, prove, point, unproven)
The poem makes reference to a house which undergoes surprising transformations.
Some things happen in the poem which seem unlikely or impossible.

At this point I think I would call their attention to the logic of the poem: how many parts the poem seems to have, and how those parts are connected. If I go through the process myself, it comes out something like this:

The poem consists of a series of assertions, a series of events, a plot, if you will. It starts out with an apparently literal assertion - “I prove a theorem” - and jumps immediately to what I think we can only read as metaphor - “and the house expands.” Since there is no necessary logical connection between these two events, and the expansion of the house is something which could not be literally true, we are encouraged almost from the start to think in analogical terms: the expansion of the house is a way of describing, or creating an analogy for, something else. Any attempt to interpret the poem will therefore have to provide a plausible explanation for what that “something else” might be.

Lines 2 through 8 continue the sequence of events arising from the first event, “proving the theorem.” In essence these lines are an elaboration, a detailing: the house expands, the windows move, the ceiling floats away, the walls turn transparent, the scent of carnations (I wonder what the carnations are doing in this poem...) disappears, and the speaker is “out in the open.” The windows themselves have transformed, “hinged into butterflies.”

Having made the attempt to trace the logical trajectory of the poem this far, I somewhat better prepared to offer a tentative interpretation. It seems to me that at its most basic level the poem might be read as an attempt to describe, and perhaps to celebrate, a certain set of feelings or sensations that are kicked off inside the speaker’s head by the successful move that opens the poem: proving a theorem. The sensations are reported as if they were taking place outside in the literal world, but, as I suggested above, it’s apparently all by way of analogy, an analogy that might be loosely paraphrased as “This is what it feels like in my mind when I have succeeded in solving a difficult problem.”

Another way of looking at the poem would question whether or not “I prove a theorem” itself might not be read as metaphor rather than literal fact. Brainstorming might lead us to consider the possibilities: that “proving a theorem” might be an analogue for any successful act of cognition, and, by extension, for any intellectual or personal breakthrough. Following this line of reasoning, even the title “Geometry” might be read as metaphor in progressively abstracted senses: as patterns of lines, as patterns of thought, as patterns of behavior, as patterns of connectedness within the universe itself and the universe of the imagination.

The logic of the poem encourages us, I think, to read it in this way. The poem’s progress down the page enacts a movement from inner consciousness to outer consciousness, from more literal to more figurative, from grounded to more ethereal. The objects of the poem are displaced vertically - the windows move upward, the ceiling floats away, the attention of the speaker is directed upward. The poem ends with an assertion that something new is about to be revealed. The constraints of literality have dropped away, and the stage is set for a new, unanticipated and unpredictable revelation.

(Read this way, the poem calls to mind Emily Dickinson in her epiphanic mode:

And then a plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down -
And hit a World at every plunge,
And Finished knowing, then -

The comparison is instructive, however. Dickinson renders extreme states of mind in a way that convinces us of their extremity, and of their momentousness. “Geometry”, like many of Rita Dove’s poems, seems by contrast both bloodless and cerebral. It’s a poem which challenges the mind, but which does not convey the passionate intensity that Dickinson’s poems do. To the extent that we are encouraged to care about the poem, it’s in a second-hand way: the speaker is reporting on something which happened which was apparently significant to her, but the poem does not give us sufficient access to the emotional intensity of the experience to make it significant to us. But that is a judgment I would withhold from the students. I’m not even sure I have earned the right to make it myself yet, but that’s where I am at this point in my reading of the poem.)

All of the discussion of the poem so far seems to me to be based on traditional English-teacherly and English-readerly moves. I think any teacher would encourage the students to read the poem, to try to account for its visible features, to try to come up with a plausible interpretation of the poem which would account for and not be in contradiction with what the words of the poem say. The goal of the lesson, however designed and however presented - through small group discussion, Socratic questioning, teacher talk, or some other set of pedagogical moves - is to help the students understand the poem, or at least to be able to articulate what they do understand and what they have further questions about. All of this of course involves asking the students to think critically: to be careful readers, to make good observations and inferences, to build plausible interpretations. But none of what we have been talking about so far gets to the heart of Critical Thinking as I understand it and as we have been using the term at Punahou.

To teach this poem from a Critical Thinking perspective, I might do any or all of the above as groundwork. But the ultimate goal of the lesson, and therefore the means by which I approach that goal, is different. The goal of the lesson from a CT perspective is to get the students to engage the question “What kind of thinking is this?” This is the key question to which I find myself returning, no matter what text is under discussion.

One question that arises here, is whether the thinking of the narrator and the thinking of the author are one and the same. This leads us immediately to a host of other questions. What information do we have about what the speaker thinks? About how the speaker thinks? About how the author thinks? Does this way of thinking make sense to you? Do you ever think this way? If so, when? If not, why not? Questions like this encourage students to see the poem not as a static entity containing a “hidden message,” but as a manifestation of thinking, the product of a process of thought that can be compared to one’s own process of thought, with results that cut both ways: learning something about Rita Dove’s thinking and, probably more importantly, learning something about one’s own thinking as well.

To the extent that you as the teacher want the students to become more mindful of their own writing capabilities, you can ask a parallel set of questions about the thinking behind the writing process: Can we make any inferences from the observable features of the poem about the thought process of the author as she was creating it? If you wanted to write a poem like this, what would you have to do? How is this writing different from your own? Where did this writer do something you would probably not have thought to do?
You will notice that this part of my discussion has not been focussed on the issue of interpretation at all. We’re talking less about the text, and more about the processes surrounding the writing - and the reading - of the text. We are not in the business, at this point, of trying to decipher what the poem means. We’re discussing how it means. We’re thinking about the thinking that went into the poem, and the thinking that the poem produces in us.

That’s the difference, as I see it, between traditional teaching of English and teaching English with a CT emphasis. We’re using the same materials, but we’re having a different kind of discussion, and one which I think offers the students the chance to become more reflective and self-aware about their own reading, writing, and thinking skills. I care about Rita Dove’s poem, to a degree. But I care a lot more about what’s going on inside the minds of my students, and how I can help them understand their own thinking and the thinking of others. So that’s what I keep bringing the discussion back to.