ArticlePDF Available

A cognitive strategies approach to teaching Toni Cade Bambara's "The war of the wall."

Authors:

Abstract

The article focuses on the tutorial designed by author Carol Booth Olson, that introduces students to the cognitive strategies in their mental tool kits and enables them to practice as they read and respond to a short story by African-American author Toni Cade Bambara entitled "The War of the Wall." Geared toward middle school students but appropriate for older students, this high interest and moving story explores the reaction of adolescents and adults in an urban neighborhood to a stranger who arrives unexpectedly and begins painting a wall in their community. One of the defining characteristics of engaged and experienced readers is that they possess a repertoire of cognitive strategies that they deliberately and purposefully access to construct meaning from texts. After finishing reading the story the reader should revise the meaning and visualize.
A Cognitive Strategies Approach to Teaching Toni Cade Bambara’s “The War of
the Wall”
-Carol Booth Olson
One of the defining characteristics of engaged and experienced readers is that they
possess a repertoire of cognitive strategies that they deliberately and purposefully access
to construct meaning from texts. Further, they exercise three kinds of knowledge when
they read: declarative knowledge of what these strategies are; procedural knowledge of
how to implement them; and conditional knowledge of when to apply these strategies and
why they are effective (Paris, Lipson & Wixon, 1983). To make this concept accessible to
students, I have borrowed a metaphor from researchers Flower & Hayes (1981) and
likened the wide array of strategies readers have at their disposal to the tools in a tool kit.
In the interest of promoting learning by doing, I designed a tutorial that introduces
students to the cognitive strategies in their mental tool kits and enables them to practice
as they read and respond to a short story by African-American author Toni Cade Bambara
(1981; 1996) entitled “The War of the Wall.” Geared toward middle school students but
appropriate for older students, this high interest and moving story explores the reaction of
adolescents and adults in an urban neighborhood to a stranger who arrives unexpectedly
and begins painting a wall in their community. The tutorial reprinted below should be
considered as model of what a teacher might do or say and not as a script.
Introducing Students to the Tool Kit Analogy:
The first step in the tutorial is to help students understand that when we read, we have
thinking tools or cognitive strategies inside our heads that we access to construct meaning.
Researchers say that when we read, we’re composing just like when we write (Tierney &
Pearson, 1983). What they mean is that while we read, we’re creating our own draft of the
story inside our heads and as we keep reading and come across something we didn’t
expect to happen or suddenly make a big discovery about what something means, we start
on a second draft of our understanding. Tell students: So, when you think of yourself as a
reader, think of yourself as a craftsman but instead of reaching into a metal tool kit for a
hammer or a screwdriver to construct tangible objects, you’re reaching into your mental
tool kit for cognitive strategies like visualizing or making predictions to construct meaning
from words.
Tapping Prior Knowledge:
Rather than just diving into a story, effective readers begin by seeing if the title will give
them any clues about what they are about to read. A good strategy to access when one
ventures into a text is tapping prior knowledge. Explain to students: Think of prior
knowledge as being stored in file cabinets in your head. You have a storehouse of
knowledge based on all your life experiences, the cultural group you belong to, the area
you live in, the school you go to, the books you have read, and so forth. That’s why, when
you read, the mental draft of the text you are creating in your head will be slightly
different for each reader. When readers tap prior knowledge, they might say to themselves
inside their heads, “I already know that…” This reminds of …,” or “This makes me think
about…” Invite students to notice what words and associations jump out at them as they
consider the title “The War of the Wall.
Making Predictions:
As readers tap prior knowledge, this naturally leads them to make predictions, educated
guesses about what is going to happen. When people make predictions, they often use
expressions like “I’ll bet that is going to happen,” or “I think this story will be about
because…” Ask students to make predictions based upon the class discussion of the words
in the title. They are likely to predict: a fight over turf; a misunderstanding; a wall gets
built that shuts something out.
Introducing the Author:
Ask students if anyone knows anything about the background of the author of the story? If
so, encourage students to share. If not, explain that Toni Cade Bambara is an African
American writer, and former teacher and social worker, who grew up in New York City and
who often writes coming of age stories about kids and stories about human relationships.
Then ask the class to add to their predictions. Students may speculate that the story: will
involve gangs; be set in an inner city; possibly include an incident related to
tagging/graffiti; or be about a symbolic wall of discrimination rather than be about a
conflict over a literal wall.
Reading the Story:
Read paragraphs 1, 2 and 3, up to “And then we’d really be late for school. The opening of
the story is reprinted below:
THE WAR OF THE WALL by Toni Cade Bambara
Me and Lou had no time for courtesies. We were late for school. So we just flat out told the
painter lady to quit messing with the wall. It was our wall, and she had no right coming
into our neighborhood painting on it. Stirring in the paint bucket and not even looking at
us, she mumbled something about Mr. Eubanks, the barber, giving her permission. That
had nothing to do with it as far as we were concerned. We’ve been pitching pennies
against that wall since we were little kids. Old folks have been dragging their chairs out to
sit in the shade of the wall for years. Big kids have been playing handball against the wall
since so-called integration when the crazies ‘cross town poured cement in our pool so we
couldn’t use it. I’d sprained my neck one time boosting my cousin Lou up to chisel Jimmy
Lyons’s name into the wall when we found out he was never coming home from the war in
Vietnam to take us fishing.
“If you lean close,” Lou said, leaning hipshot against her beat-up car, “you’ll get a whiff of
bubble gum and kids’ sweat. And that’ll tell you something--that this wall belongs to the
kids of Taliaferro Street.” I thought Lou sounded very convincing. But the painter lady paid
us no mind. She just snapped the brim of her straw hat down and hauled her bucket up
the ladder.
“You’re not even from around here,” I hollered up after her. The license plates on her old
piece of car said “New York.” Lou dragged me away because I was about to grab hold of
that ladder and shake it. And then we’d really be late for school.
Constructing the Gist and Asking Questions:
Say to students: In creating the first draft in our heads of our understanding of the story,
it’s very important that we can follow what is literally happening. This is called constructing
the gist. The word “gist” means “the main point.” So, when we’re constructing the gist,
we’re getting the basic point of what is happening. To do this, we often ask ourselves, “I
wonder why,” “How come,” or “What if” question. Ask students to pose an internal
question about what they’ve read so far and then to articulate it to a partner. Follow-up by
asking some teacher-directed questions such as the following: Who do you think the
narrator of the story is? Where does the story take place? What ethnicity do you think the
characters are? When does the story take place? As students offer responses, continually
ask, “What makes you think that?” to send them back into the text to search for evidence.
For example, the reference to “integration” can be used as evidence that the characters
are most likely African-American.
Making Connections:
Experienced readers also make connections when they read. That is, they draw on
personal experiences to relate to the text. Ask students: Was there a special place in your
neighborhood when you were growing up where you hung out and where you felt like you
had some ownership? Or, have you ever had someone that you viewed as an intruder
invade your space? People often make connections by saying, “This reminds me of…” or “I
can relate to this because…” Encourage students to share their connections in a small
group and then ask for volunteers to share with the whole class.
Further reading:
Read up to “Me and Lou definitely did not want hear that. Why couldn’t she set up an easel
downtown or draw on the sidewalk in her own neighborhood.” In this section of the story,
the Morris twins bring dinner to the “painter lady” as she is mapping out her design for the
mural she is planning to paint. She wags her head as if there is something terrible on the
plate and tells them to thank their mother very much but she brought her own dinner
along. Later, she shows up famished at the local dinner and alienates the adults there by
being extremely picky and indecisive about ordering her meal. However, the narrator’s
mother, who works in the restaurant, later regrets that she got impatient with her and
rationalizes that the woman was probably just trying to follow a strict diet and that it’s
hard to be an artist and get recognition for one’s work. This is exactly what the narrator
and his friend, Lou, don’t want to hear since they have declared war on the painter lady.
Adopting an Alignment:
Ask students: How is the story going so far? Are you into it? Why? Usually when you read
something and you’re so involved that you feel like you are there, you have tapped a
cognitive strategy called adopting an alignment. This strategy involves the degree to which
you identify with the characters, are engrossed in the topic, or can relate to the author.
Sometimes, people talk about adopting an alignment in terms of feeling a sense of kinship
with the characters in a text or with the author or topic of the story. They say things like,
“The character I most identify with is…, “ “ I really got into the story when…,” or “I can
relate to this author because…” Of the characters we have met so far in the story, which
one do you feel aligned with? Why? Which character is the hardest to relate to so far?
Why? Students can discuss this with a partner prior to some whole group discussion.
Monitoring and Analyzing Author’s Craft:
Experienced readers and writers are able not only to select and implement appropriate
cognitive strategies but also to monitor and regulate their use. Ask the class: Has anyone
been listening to the story so far and come across a word or phrase where you said to
yourself inside your head, “Wait. I don’t get this?” If you have, you were using a cognitive
strategy called monitoring. The monitor in our tool kit tells us if we are understanding what
we’re reading or if we need to go back to figure something out. When you are monitoring
your reading process, you might say to yourself, “ I know I’m on the right track because…”
or “I need to go back and reread this because…” For example, did anyone come to the
description of the painter’s eyes being “full of sky” and think, “Now, what in the heck does
that mean?” Since the painter can’t literally have sky in her eyes, we have to reach into
our tool kits and use analyzing author’s craft to understand this metaphor. What do you
think the writer means? Many students will assume that “eyes full of sky” is a reference to
the painter having blue eyes. This can lead to an interesting discussion about the race of
the painter lady. The majority of students are likely to picture this stranger as a white
woman. Someone may suggest she is Jewish because she doesn’t eat pork. A small
contingent of the class may feel she is African-American and Muslim and use as evidence
the fact that mama calls her “sistuh” (sister) and that she is considered ill-mannered for
not acknowledging the elders when she enters the restaurant. Encourage the class to
continue to watch for evidence concerning the painter’s race. Return to the “eyes full of
sky” expression and ask students to consider that it could mean something else. Someone
will notice the word “trance” in the following sentence and conclude that the expression
may signify that the painter lady’s mind is somewhere else; that is, she has her head in
the clouds.
Further Reading, Predicting and Evaluating:
Read from “All weekend long” to “We spent our whole allowance on this.” In this part of
the story, the narrator and Lou see a news story on TV about kids spray painting subway
trains in New York and head off to the hardware store in search of some paint of their own,
leading most students to predict that the boys are going to deface the mural the painter
lady is creating. This is a good place to introduce the cognitive strategy of evaluating.
Explain to students: When you evaluate, you look carefully at something to judge its
quality or worth by criteria such as a rating scale of 1-10 in the Olympics signifying poor to
excellent, or a set of values such as bad to good, or a moral to scale of wrong to right. For
example, if you think the boys are going to destroy the painter lady’s artwork by putting
graffiti on the wall, how would you evaluate their actions? Can this behavior be justified in
any way?
Final Reading:
Finish the story. When the boys return with their paint, they find most of their neighbors
huddled in awe in front of the wall. To their surprise, along with important figures from
African-American history, they see themselves depicted on this “wall of respect” which is
dedicated to the painter’s cousin, Jimmy Lyons who lived in the neighborhood and died in
Vietnam.)
Revising Meaning:
Sometimes as we read, we make certain predictions about what is going to happen and
then the plot of the story goes in an unexpected direction and surprises us. This causes us
to use another strategy in our tool kitrevising meaning. When we revise meaning, we
work on our second draft of what we think the text means. Ask: How many of you were
surprised by the ending of the story? Did it cause you to revise meaning? Invite students
to turn to a partner and complete this sentence, “At first I thought but now I…”
Visualizing:
When people visualize, they often talk about making a movie inside their heads or use
expressions like “I can picture…” or “In my mind I see…” Say: You’ve probably been
watching your own internal movie all along as we’ve been reading. What are some scenes
you pictured? After students share the scenes which stand out in their minds, give them
time to do a quicksketch of the closing scene of the novelboth the mural itself and of the
characters who are awestruck by it.
Forming Interpretations and Reflecting and Relating:
After a reader finishes a text, it is time to stand back and ask the big question, So what?
When readers use the cognitive strategies of forming interpretations and reflecting and
relating, they use expressions like: “So, the big idea is…,” “A conclusion I’m drawing is..,”
“This is relevant to my life because…,” Something important I learned is…” Ask students:
What do you think the big idea of this story is? You will need to dig deeper to uncover the
message or theme of the story. Because this story is so rich, it lends itself to multiple
interpretations including: don’t rush to judgment; first impressions can be deceiving,
strangers aren’t necessarily enemies; it is important to communicate your intentions,
especially when you could be misunderstood; what unites us is more powerful than what
divides us; it is important to have pride in one’s heritage.
Constructing a Wall of Respect:
As a culminating activity, students can create their own wall of respect as Jeff Elsten’s 9th
graders did at Los Amigos High School in Garden Grove. After reading the story, students
spontaneously asked to create their own class mural to depict their national pride
represented by the Statue Liberty and the Twin Towers, their cultural pride represented by
Emiliano Zapata who said “I would rather die on my feet than live on my knees” and their
school pride represented by their mascot, the wolf. As a finishing touch, and as a way of
symbolizing their growth as readers in confidence and competence from tapping the
cognitive strategies in their tool kits, students also included their pictures inside flowers
blooming across the border of their wall of respect.
References
Bambara, Toni Cade. (1981; 1996). The War of the Wall. In Deep sightings and rescue
missions. New York, NY: Pantheon Books. Note: “The War of the Wall” is also anthologized
in the Scott Foresman Literature and integrated Studies, Grade 7 (1997).
Flower, L., & Hayes, J.R. (1981). A cognitive process theory of writing. College
Composition and Communication, 21, 365-387.
Paris, S.G., Lipson, M. Y., & Wixon, K. K. (1983). Becoming a strategic reader.
Contemporary Educational Psychology, 8, 293-316.
Tierney, R.J., & Pearson, P.D. (1983). Toward a composing model of reading. Language
Arts, 60, 568-580.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Carol Booth Olson is Director of the UCI/California Writing Project and a Senior Lecturer in the
Department of Education at UC Irvine. Her book The Reading/Writing Connection: Strategies
for Teaching and Learning in the Secondary Classroom explores taking a cognitive strategies
approach to reading and writing instruction in more depth.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
Article
Full-text available
Includes bibliographical references (leaves 21-24) Supported in part by the National Institute of Education under contract no. NIE 400-81-0030
Article
An important aspect of learning to read is understanding how to use strategies to aid comprehension. Many actions such as skimming, using context to discern unfamiliar words, and taking notes to aid remembering can promote reading comprehension and learning. In this paper we examine aspects of knowledge and motivation that are critical to becoming a strategic reader. We emphasize that agents are strategic, not actions removed from contexts, and that self-guided learning depends on the intentions, perceptions, and attributions of learners. Learning to read strategically is related to children's cognitive development as well as to the social contexts of instruction. Some suggestions are offered for classroom instruction that can promote children's awareness and use of strategic reading.
The War of the Wall" is also anthologized in the Scott Foresman Literature and integrated Studies
  • Toni Bambara
  • Cade
Bambara, Toni Cade. (1981; 1996). The War of the Wall. In Deep sightings and rescue missions. New York, NY: Pantheon Books. Note: "The War of the Wall" is also anthologized in the Scott Foresman Literature and integrated Studies, Grade 7 (1997).
A cognitive process theory of writing. College Composition and Communication
  • L Flower
  • J R Hayes
Flower, L., & Hayes, J.R. (1981). A cognitive process theory of writing. College Composition and Communication, 21, 365-387.