Diving Beneath the Surface of Complex Readings: Jigsaw Discussions

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How can we encourage students to dive beneath the surface of complex readings? Each term I puzzle over this question and experiment with different responses. This year, the answer has been a puzzle itself: the jigsaw discussion.

I first encountered jigsaw classrooms almost twenty years ago, when I worked with a public elementary school as a teaching artist in creative writing. At the elementary level, the intent of the jigsaw is to enhance group learning. Each group works with a specific concept, and each group member focuses on a particular aspect of that concept. The idea is that students will cooperate in assembling the pieces of an intricate puzzle as they practice skills for cooperative learning.

This semester, I introduced jigsaw discussions for different purposes in College Writing 1 and College Writing 2. For College Writing 1, we worked together to analyze the film Black Panther. We had already practiced close reading through encounters with James Baldwin’s essay “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity” and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final speech “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” In order to create a synthesis essay, students needed to be able to find the interconnections. Part of the process of close reading of a popular film is to push past its popularity toward a deeper understanding of the many historical and thematic contexts of any cultural artifact. As I explained to the students, this was my intention for reading Baldwin and King, and watching Black Panther together for the same assignment.

Our first attempts to draw deeper thematic interconnections proved difficult. In particular we struggled with the concept of analyzing a scene from a film as one might a chapter of a novel. A film, the students reminded me, is not the same flat surface as a novel. There are sounds and visuals to consider, music and costumes, plots and characters. I wondered if jigsawing could help. Rather than trying to analyze a scene as a whole, we would break the scene into different categories, and from those categories draw deeper meaning and thematic interconnections to our readings of Baldwin and King. The students requested that we do this jigsaw as a whole class discussion, and asked me to take notes on their ideas. The first appendix shows the questions we asked, and the students’ responses.

In College Writing 2, our task was slightly different. In order to better understand the historical contexts of Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 drama, Raisin in the Sun, I invited students to read scholarship on the Great Migration and housing segregation in the northern United States. One of our readings was the introduction to Farah Jasmine Griffin’s 1996 scholarly work, Who Set You Flowin?: the African-American Migration Narrative. Nearly all of the students were approaching literary scholarship for the first time. Besides their introduction to a new genre, students would be dealing with unfamiliar references to literary sources.

For this jigsaw, we decided to break the class into groups of 2-4 students. Each student group was assigned to summarize two pages of the ten-page introduction. We opened a google.doc with blank spaces for each set of page numbers. When the jigsaw was complete, we had a concise summary of the article that we could analyze and discuss together. Students could experience for themselves the process of breaking down a complicated reading into its component parts, then reassembling the parts into a whole. The second appendix shows the directions for this assignment and a sample of one group’s brief summary (see example here).

In my college writing courses, students come together in the classroom through many varying intersectionalities of life experience, languaging, and college preparation. The conflicts and alliances that bring communities together-- and pull communities apart-- also play a role in how arrive in the classroom. Even with very hard work, it can be challenging to find common ground for class discussions across a multiplicity of identities, abilities, and needs, much less to learn to dive beneath the surface features of complex readings. Jigsaw discussions can help to experience the synergy that comes from the many voices present in the room.

*Spoiler AlertIf you have not seen the film Black Panther, you may want to skip Appendix 1.

About the Author
I am a writer and teacher living in Queens, New York. My book is "Teaching Developmental Writing" 4e. Other recent publications include “Theory in Practice: Halloween Write-In,” with Ian James, William F. Martin, and Meghan Kelsey in Basic Writing eJournal 16.1, “An Unconventional Education: Letter to Basic Writing Practicum Students in Journal of Basic Writing 37.1, “Occupy Basic Writing: Pedagogy in the Wake of Austerity,” in Nancy Welch and Tony Scott’s collection Composition in the Age of Austerity.