A Resonance Index: Harnessing the Affective in English

When thinking about English and English teaching I like the word ‘resonance’. It seems to me to capture so much of what good English teaching and thinking is about. 

When we read ourselves, no doubt, we traverse the texts for little light bulb moments, moments of insight and connection. We’ve all experienced this: ‘Ah, that reminds me of X’ or ‘Wow, isn’t that beautiful’. In other words, something has resonated with us. I like resonance as a model for thinking about textual experience because it seems to suggest not only this light-bulb moment of insight, but, even more crucially, the affective feeling that comes with it: if something resonates, it connects us to something we have felt, heard or read before. It moves us, but it is also, the word seems to indicate, a spontaneous or unplanned feeling. We can’t predetermine what will resonate with us, it just does. We may not even know why it resonates with us. 

Contained within the word ‘resonance’ then we have all the things that I think makes English a wonderful subject to study: 

  • the way a single text or image exists within a network of other texts or images;
  • the intellectual and affective experience of recognising, in the moment, such a connection;
  • the way the text moves us in the moment of us experiencing it;
  • the way it suggests something half-formed, a kind of splinter of feeling or recognition, not yet interrogated
  • that a resonance belongs to us individually and what resonates with one person may not resonant with someone else.

So, more and more I find myself talking about resonance with my students. Perhaps after reading a poem or a passage the first question I ask is ‘what resonated with you?’ Or I might begin a poetry lesson by asking them to underline or highlight five things that resonated with them. This provides a great starting point to then probe these initial resonances: why did it resonate? How does it make you feel? Does it connect to something else you have read or thought about?

This has been working really well and has increasingly become part of the lexicon of our classroom, but I also want to formalise this way of thinking about the texts we study. So, I’ve introduced a ‘Resonance Index’. This is a specific space in the exercise book or studied text exactly for this kind of thinking. We might, for example, turn to this ‘Resonance Index’ at the start or end of the lesson or indeed pause during class discussion, at which point I might then ask them to jot down anything that resonated with them. 

This is explicitly and by design non-directed and so I am not telling them what to include or even scaffolding it. The aim is to give them a space and routine in which they can reflect on and think about what has resonated with them, and given what resonates is affective and subjective, it is entirely up to them as to what they write down. They might add a line, image, idea, connection to another text, phrase, plot point: the only criteria is that is resonated with them, even if they don’t know why. We might then use this to prompt a discussion by sharing some of the things that resonated with them (why? anybody else write something similar down?) or we might not. Indeed, this is the perfect place in which to ask everyone to write prior to whole class discussion, with the ‘Resonance Index’ offering a conceptual shortcut to the kind of thinking I might like them to do.

The main aim is for each student to build over time and throughout the course a rich repository of some of the ideas, images, lines that resonated with them. It offers a space in which to reflect on what we have just read or discussed, a space that is completely their own to think about the text in whatever they want. It offers a space in which to begin to tease out of their initial resonances a more codified response. This also becomes a great way to connect across texts given all these resonances are listed one after the other as well as, any one of these, potentially providing material for further analysis. The Index could also become a future foundation for revision as students might take this list as a starting point to then curate, cut and expand the ideas contained within.

Resonance, then, is a core disposition we seek to engender in our students, capturing a kind of generative and synoptic thinking as well as placing emphasis on the affective nature of literature. The Index seeks to offer physical form to this disposition and embed it, in a practical way, into classroom routine.

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