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Teach Active Reading by Taking Away Students’ Desks

To give students agency in analyzing Brazilian literature, this professor makes them write in their books, then get up to show what they know.


Isadora Grevan, PhD

Assistant Professor of Spanish and Portuguese Studies, Rutgers University–Newark

PhD in Philosophy, with a focus on Portuguese, Lusophone Africa, and Brazilian Studies; MA in Portuguese, Lusophone Africa, and Brazilian Studies; BA in Comparative Literature


Isadora Grevan, PhD, wants all of the students in her class to become active participants in the interpretation of literature. However, she noticed that many students in her Brazilian literature class were accustomed to passively listening to lectures about plots and themes, not actively reading a text and making their own observations. A further challenge was her students’ lack of knowledge of Brazilian culture, which forms the backdrop for all of the readings.


Two Brazilian theorists who influenced Grevan’s approach are Augusto Boal (whose Theatre of the Oppressed has audience members become active participants) and Paulo Freire (whose Pedagogy of the Oppressed views learners as cocreators of knowledge, not passive sponges). Drawing from their teachings, Grevan developed a series of exercises that bring students out of the role of passive learner, away from their desks, and into the role of thought leader.


“In this class, I give an introduction to Brazilian literature and culture spanning almost 100 years. We explore historical, racial, and political dimensions of Brazilian lit. We also look at movies and music, and we analyze political events that are going on in the present. It also serves as an introduction to the study of literature itself.”

— Isadora Grevan, PhD

Course: 21:812:254 Brazilian Literature in English Translation II

Frequency: Two 80-minute class meetings per week

Class size: 15–20 students

Course description: Reading and discussion of literary works representative of the different literary trends, movements, and authors of Brazil, with an emphasis on modern literature.

Lesson: Tips for developing active readers

One of the books read by Grevan’s class is The Hour of the Star by Clarice Lispector, a feminist author from Brazil. The novella is specific to Brazil in many ways, telling the story of a female typist living in the slums of Rio. “The author is writing from the perspective of a man from a specific social class,” she notes. “Because of this, the students have to look at the text from different angles, which is difficult for many of them.” At least, it is at first.

“You don’t just teach a subject; you make it applicable to students so that they can create something out of what they’re learning and apply it to their own lives.”

— Isadora Grevan, PhD

By the end of the semester, Grevan’s students participate actively in a literary analysis activity. It is the culmination of weeks’ worth of preparation that begins when students learn how to take notes directly in their books and respond to prompts that inspire deep thinking. After working their way through the book individually, students finally push aside their desks, divide into small groups, and share their thoughts in a hands-on, on-the-go activity.

Here are some strategies Grevan employs to help students get from point A to point B:

Get to know the author

Many students are unfamiliar with the works of feminist authors like Lispector. To provide context, Grevan uses a PowerPoint presentation, videos, and lectures to provide background on Lispector’s life and her importance in the literary world. (One of the videos is by a reviewer who discusses the novel and interviews the author.) Grevan also provides materials from critics and sometimes from bloggers who have studied the writer and have an interesting analysis.

Grevan’s start in the performing arts

Before coming to the United States, Isadora Grevan attended theater school in Rio de Janeiro and worked as an actress in plays and commercials. This involvement in the arts—bringing dramatic literature to life—influences her teaching of Brazilian literature today at Rutgers University–Newark.

“My philosophy,” she says, “is about making literature more approachable and fun, active, and interactive. You don’t just teach a subject; you make it applicable to students so that they can create something out of what they’re learning and apply it to their own lives.”

Make them write in their books

Grevan requires students to underline quotes while they read, paying close attention to the characters and focusing on particular aspects of the novel. “If you don’t make them [underline text]—deliberately tell them to do it—they come in unprepared and don’t actively participate,” she says.

She also assigns homework prompts and questions that make them think about certain elements—characters, setting, plot, themes—as they go. This way, they reflect on the writing on their own, before beginning work with their classmates.

Get them into (new!) groups

Grevan notes that students usually sit in the same seats every day, often in the back of the room. To randomize who works together in the group activity, she assigns each student a letter (A, B, C, or D), and they divide up accordingly.

Set the stage for sharing

On the day of the activity, Grevan designates sections of the blackboard on which students will write their accumulated quotes and reflections. Each section is labeled with one of the categories the students will examine: Characters, Order of Events, Quotes, Themes, Visual Imagery, and Personal Connections.

She also has students push aside the desks, which is met with grumbling at first. “But they get used to it,” she asserts.

Start the timer—and the activity

Once students are divided into groups and no longer at their desks, the activity begins: Each group starts with a different category, spending 10–15 minutes writing on the board. This is where they make use of the quotes they underlined in their books (choosing ones that relate to the category at hand) and answers to earlier homework prompts. Here they see the rewards of their active reading.

But Grevan presses them to think beyond quotes, too. For instance, under Personal Connections, they can note scenes in the novel that are most meaningful to their lives, or they can share the names of the characters they found most relatable. Under Visual Imagery, she says, they might draw a picture of something that is described in the book.

When time is called, the groups physically rotate to the next topic and repeat the process, while also noting their responses to what the previous groups have written. After a few rotations, Grevan stops the clock, and the students move around the classroom to read the notes on the boards. (Grevan continues the activity in the next class meeting, with students completing sections that their group missed on the first cycle.)

Make them defend their case

Close to the end of the class period, Grevan asks the groups that completed a particular category to talk about their notes. She questions them about their responses, calling on individual students by name and encouraging all to chime in. The group construct encourages participation across the board, because students do not want to let down their team members.

After the activity is over, Grevan takes pictures of the board, so she can reference the responses in future activities, such as creative mapping, choral reading, and poetry writing.


Grevan says that this activity helps students understand that what they get out of the course depends on what they put into it. “Instead of passively receiving information, they have to actively participate in the discussion and interpretation of the work,” she says.

For an educator seeking to replicate the exercise, she notes that there was some initial pushback from students. “When you ask students to move around the classroom, they’re uncomfortable at first,” says Grevan. Some of them whine. Some do not want to participate. “They’re shy or tired, so sometimes students react negatively.” However, once students get used to the process, she says, they actually enjoy it and tell her that they got something out of it.

Student feedback

“When [students] start the class and begin to read a difficult text, they think they’re going to be bored. But I see them suddenly realize it’s interesting. It excites me when they wake up to the text and connect to it personally.”

— Isadora Grevan, PhD

Grevan has heard from other teachers that students like her class, and she has received positive responses directly from students, too. One told her that it was the first time he really enjoyed reading books. Another said that the round-robin activity was unusual activity for the classroom, and she really liked it.

Grevan enjoys watching the students’ realizations. “When they start the class and begin to read a difficult text, they think they’re going to be bored,” she says. “But I see them suddenly realize it’s interesting. It excites me when they wake up to the text and connect to it personally.”