Why this blog?

"... Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves ... Do not search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. The point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer." - Letters to a Young Artist, R. M. Rilke

Rooted in the promise and challenge of growth ...

these are letters from a young teacher.

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Hunger Games continue

The last time I wrote about my middle schoolers' favorite trilogy The Hunger Games, we were writing reading journal entries together about it. This was my way of modeling with them what reading journal entries should look and sound like. This was a fine idea, but soon after, once I started reading the first book, myself, I was inspired to write my own journal entries to them, so they could see what kind of thinking happens as you move through a book, not just after you've finished.

These entries have been a real hit, and I think some of them have particularly enjoyed playing the more experienced reader as they read all my thoughts, observations, feelings and predictions. Here are some snippets:

Chapters 1-3
I'm finding myself trying to make sense of the world of this book. We don't find out until Chapter 3 that it is futuristic: Panem apparently rose out of the "ruins of North America", and it seems that it stretches across the whole continent, because the Capitol is where the Rockies used to be (West) and District 12, where Katniss lives, is where Appalachia used to be (East). But it sounds like things aren't terribly different, because District 12 is known for coal mining, just like Appalachia is known for mining today.

Student 1: I am going to have to disagree with you ... I think that it looks very different. My mental image is more everything seems a little more old-fashioned. Do you imagine District 12 to be very big? At first, I thought it was pretty small, but it's sort of hard to imagine how big a place is in a book because the author really only gives you a few places that the character goes. For example, Katniss goes to the town square, the mayor's house, Gale's house, the bread shop, and the Victors' village. Do you like Katniss?

Chapters 4-6
I'm trying to make sense of Katniss' protection of herself and distrust of so many others. Her obvious suspicion of her mother stands in such sharp contrast to her fond memories of her father, who taught her how to hunt. On p. 52, Katniss recalls that she was named after a plant that her father once pointed out to her in the forest. "I heard my father's voice joking, 'As long as you can find yourself, you'll never starve.'" I wonder if this line will have some figurative significance later on, because of the double meaning of "finding yourself."

Student 2: What seems amazing to me is that Katniss seems to have so many troubles, doubts and confusion about herself. Obviously (following stereotypical plot lines), the main character is supposed to be admirable, and I suppose she is, but she doesn't seem that way. I think a good story would support that uncertainty and eventually mend it through the course of it. I am anxious to see if, by the end, Katniss is more self-confident and solid, if she eventually comes to match her physical stance, emotionally.

Chapters 11-16
I've figured out one thing that is so successful about Collins' writing style - the end of every chapter brings some comment or event that presents something new and exciting to the story. Like at the end of Chapter 12: "It would be hard to miss the wall of fire descending on me." At this point, I'm realizing that I could just skip to the end of each chapter to see how the plot develops.
Chapters 17-25
Before reading these chapters fully, I skimmed to the end of each of them. And remarkable, I'm able to get a good picture of how the story progresses without feeling like I've missed too many important details.

Student 3: I understand your findings of those little "cliffhangers" that always seemed to be there in the first book. I hate to say it, but I think that book was the best for that technique. I have noticed that I have relentless bashed The Hunger Games in my letters. Some of these things were about the character, and about the lack of action [in the third book]. So I wonder, what exactly makes me want to read it? Maybe the pressure to find out what happens in the end, or just to see if it gets better. "Better" to me might be more action or someone dying to spice it up a little. Or to see the Capitol do something crazy. But this "better" is different for everyone.

What I notice as I continue to read their journals is that their entries are not necessarily changing according to what I've written in my own entries. But I do find their responses to my entries, and to my questions to their entries, to be ever more genuine, and not so much the kind of automatic writing students can fall into the habit of producing. Here I was, trying to figure out how to teach them how to write about their reading, when all I had to do was do what I wanted them to do, first.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Fading through the story

My students are well on their way, learning and practicing their stories for class performances at lunch next week. Parallel to work in small Story Circles of four students each, we've had some all-class workshop time, exploring one's own body as a material for developing one's story for performance.

Some background, though: Reggio Emilia pedagogy utilizes a variety of artistic materials to encourage children to express and describe their ideas. This approach is grounded in the idea that children speak in a hundred languages, and the materials allow for more diverse expression, and deeper learning for both student and teacher.

So, being accustomed to artistic materials, I asked the children: What if you didn't have materials to work with, but instead, used your body as a material to make your story your own?

You could act out your story. The movement of your body could help you think of words that would be good.

I sort of agree, but acting is really different than movement. Acting is saying lines. While I am telling the story I would do the thing, the movement that goes with the story.

If your story has two perspectives you could go from one to the other. Like, Max and the beasts in my story, Where the Wild Things Are. You can switch off between perspectives.
How is your body going to help you do that?
It could help explain how they move. How they’re different from each other, and not the same.

I know that names put a color in my mind, so maybe you could put a movement with a name. You could think about what movement comes to your mind about a character, and then move like that character.

From there, we went to the workshop, exploring the perspective of familiar characters from stories I had told, as well as the characters of their stories. They went from the extreme of despair to the extreme of wonder as they walked, as a merchant, through the bitter cold up to a magnificent, magical castle. They went from being that merchant as he beheld the ugliest beast one could imagine to becoming that beast, and walking through the classroom as he would walk. They contemplated how the characters of their stories stand, walk, gesture, and express their thoughts on their face...

How was it? What did they learn?

It felt good. Just closing my eyes and imagining it, how the Beast looked and how he walked. It created a really good mental image in my mind. And I was able to act it out really well. I had a lot of space, so I could do whatever I needed to do. With materials, it’s different, because you can’t really change the way they look or move.

I think body motions really enhance the mental images for people.

It felt kind of strange to be transferring into those creatures. It was kind of fun to act out what the different creatures looked like, and maybe see what the merchant would look like, because I was also watching other people.

It felt like you were fading through the story, from one part of the story to the next.

As we gear up for our performances for each other next week, I gradually sense that these storytellers are actively making their stories their own. We talked about this early on - how necessary it is to learn a story, and then let go of the "original", so that one can develop one's own interpretation of the story. As they gather these experiences, I wonder what they are finding: How does a storyteller make a story their own? What materials are at hand and the most useful?

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky

This isn't an easy thing to write about. I read this book recently, and wondered whether it would be meaningful to my middle schoolers. I wasn't sure if they could take the graphic detail of a tragic accident scene, until they were telling me about all the details of The Hunger Games. I thought, if they can take children fighting each other to the death in futuristic societies, they can take a little horror from the real world.

Well ... it's not quite that simple. Having not taught this age group before, I was still piecing together the whole picture of what literature to bring in for them, and how, exactly, to read a book - there are multiple ways, of course - when considering it for a classroom setting.

I handed the book off to an eighth-grader, who reported back to me that she really enjoyed it, but wouldn't recommend it to just anyone in her class. She suggested I create a shelf of "mature reading", which would require parents' permission to read.

Simultaneously, a parent (who also happens to be a teacher) wondered to me whether she was being too overprotective in thinking that this book was not appropriate for middle school. I shared some of my thinking behind bringing the book in, and then went to consult with the student I mentioned above. That night, the parent emailed me with a more lengthy description of her thoughts and experiences with the book (which she had read).

I appreciated and learned a great deal from her approach to conversation with me. Never did I feel accused, never did she assert assumptions, never did I feel shamed for my decision. In fact, I noticed that, instead of directing the matter to me, directly, she reflected on her own assumptions first: Am I being too overprotective? That approach opened up the opportunity for me to reflect on my own assumptions, in return: Am I not being protective enough?

Our correspondence was not lengthy, but just enough for me to feel that I have a clearer picture of choosing literature for middle schoolers to read. Still not complete, but important gaps have been filled, and my questions for further pondering continue.

And yet, I feel like this experience was not primarily a lesson in choosing literature for students. It was, first and foremost, a lesson in living in community. As teachers, we play a role in our communities, but not to the exclusion of others' expertise. We look to parents for the understanding that only they can offer, the pieces of the bigger picture that only they can fill. And when we do, we must always be mindful of our assumptions, question ourselves before questioning others, and remember always to support each other in the valuable roles we have in our community together.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

How are mental images built?

I have started a unit on storytelling with our 2nd/3rd grade class, and we are already off on a roll. For myself, I am very interested in how the children can help me understand what difference telling a story makes from reading it - what the difference in experience is, and means for them. However, I know they will have questions of their own...

To begin our focus, I told the story of Beauty and the Beast, and asked the children to consider what stood out to them the most about the experience of hearing that story. They worked with drawing, writing, painting and watercolor to give voice to that response. What resulted was a beautiful array of images from the story. Many of them talked about the mental images they had of the story, a term they have used before in reading and writing. These images ranged, but a good chunk of them depicted either the Beast or the scene where Beauty's father first comes across the Beast's castle.

At first, I was a bit frustrated, because I thought they were responding too much to the story, and not enough to the experience. However, a conversation with a colleague made clear to me that the mental images were the most significant part of the experience. If I want to know more about the experience they were having, I must allow them to name the part of the experience they know, and then dive deeper into that.

So, our next step was to consider: How are mental images built? How do we make them in our minds, and what's happening for us as listeners as these mental images from a story come to us?

Here are some of the ideas different children expressed:

There are two ways - how the teller who tells the story describes what’s happening. If they actually say I walked into summer and all the leaves were this color, then it really gives a detailed image. It also depends on the person who’s making the actual mental image, because they need to listen to the person telling the story, otherwise they don’t get it.

For me, mental images could be called portable art, because, I mean, if you look around, you can always see something, and that’s an image, really. And I guess when you hear something that triggers it, but you don’t see anything that’s related to it, then you have to use your mind and the words kind of give it detail. You need to not use your hands, but use your mind, and use it in a different way than controlling your hands like in a painting or drawing or coloring, but in another way, to do it itself.

I think it’s millions of little shapes in your brain. When you hear something, your eyes may have seen it on TV or something, or they can just make it up. If they saw it, it’s easier to make the image, because they’ve already seen it, and already have a clear image of what it is. So I think it’s millions of little shapes coming together to fit into this one image.

Well, I think when you hear a word, for example, chicken pox, you think: What do chicken pox look like? And your mind thinks. Your mind is a separate being, but who does a lot of the thinking. You and your mind together - you’re the one who has to hear it, and then your mind helps you think about it.

As I read over these theories, I remember how complex the human brain is. My favorite part about the conversation I got to have with these students was that we were talking about something that brain scientists can't completely explain! The students were researching with me by reflecting on their experiences and noticing things about their own thinking.

Where to now?

Our next step, after studying our experience of listening to a story, is to move towards identifying a story we want to tell. I don't want to do anything with these thoughts on mental images quite yet, until the children move into the process of practicing how to make those same mental images possible for their audience. I wonder what else they will have to say then? How will mental images of the stories they tell help them make their stories their own??

Updates soon ...

Thursday, April 7, 2011

What made you think that?

I got my first reading journal entries from my middle-schoolers this week. What a joy to read! Insightful thoughts and strong opinions, everything one would expect from well-read teenagers. Except, of course, any iota of evidence to back up their opinions.

As a result, our question of the day today was: What made you think that? I emphasized to them that for every opinion they offer, they must back it up, especially if they are trying to persuade someone who has not read the book to do so (or dissuade, as the case may be). How else are they going to know what you're talking about?

So, I put out a challenge to them: We would write a journal entry collaboratively about a book they had all read. The choice: The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, which I, conveniently have not read. ("What?!" they gasped, and one of them immediately took a copy from the library shelf and shoved it into my hands. I guess I'll have to now.)

"Where do we start?" I asked.

"The Hunger Games is amazing!" sounded one student, exuberantly.
"It’s fascinating because it’s in the future," said another.
And then another, and another, and another. But - the golden question - what made you say that? Back and forth, they opined, and I challenged. It was the most fun I've had with teenagers in a long while. Here is the result of just five minutes:

The Hunger Games was amazing! It’s fascinating because it’s in the future. Technology has progressed, but we (humanity) are socially digressing. The Capitol is a totalitarian government at the center of 13 districts. It has initiated the “Hunger Games”, where children aged 12-18 fight each other to the death. Everyone must watch as a reminder that the Capitol is all-powerful. Also, the Capitol is keeping the districts in poverty by keeping resources for themselves. Despite these horrific conditions, technology has advanced to the point that animals are genetically engineered and surgeries are available to dye skin color. The irony of this situation is that despite this technology, common people in the districts cannot access it and are struggling too much to survive to even think about it.

We will continue next week. I'll keep you posted.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Karen Gallas, Imagination and Literacy

This book is officially changing my educator's mind. And I'm not even finished. There will be more parts to this as I continue reading.

Karen Gallas is a teacher-researcher from Massachusetts who has written several books that float around the Charter colleagueship here. Several other teachers suggested I read it, so here I go. I now see why they were so encouraging.

For now, what a first read of this book has offered me is a completely new understanding of the vastness of the terms IMAGINATION and LITERACY. I realized I had gotten trapped in our common understanding of these terms, having forgotten how far-reaching they are, and completely losing sight of how fundamental they both are to ALL learning.

I will be very unprecise in my citations, simply because it's more important to me to flesh out my ideas, which I'm sure will blend with hers, and I'll lose track of the boundary. For now, allow me to get these ideas out, then on my second reading, I can provide a little bit more careful reflection.

First, IMAGINATION. Forming images in the mind. Is this not the fundamental essence of thought? I hold my glass of milk over an open floor and think of letting go. What will happen? I have a theory it will fall and milk will spill everywhere. How do I know? Most likely, I have seen it happen before. I've seen enough things fall and spill in my life, that just the sight of a glass of milk over an open floor triggers the image of what will happen if I let go. So it is that we can take what we know and create images of what is as of yet unknown to us, what has not yet happened, but could.

Second, LITERACY. Reading and writing, decoding and encoding. Is it only words and letters? Sounds and symbols. Gallas finally settles on "world-making", as she considers the many facets of literacy. Because literacy consists not only of words, but of discourse and vocabulary, which vary from discipline to discipline. Scientific literacy, for example, requires different learning than Spanish literacy. Each discipline step into is like a world of its own, with its own insider language. As we learn this language, and become literate in this discipline, we are making the world of that discipline a part of us and the way we see the world.

All of a sudden, the title Imagination and Literacy takes on a whole new meaning for me. Whereas I would have perhaps previously thought "Creativity and Language Arts", I now think "Images and Worlds in the Making", "Imagining and Internalizing", and "Imagining the World and Being in it" ...

The purpose of the book is to examine the role of imagination in early literacy. Already I am seeing so many connections to a project on storytelling I am planning, and I am sure I will have more write along those lines soon.

For now, how would you flesh out the concepts of IMAGINATION and LITERACY? What do they mean to you?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

This book is not a story

Things got rolling today with my middle school group. With the memory of To Kill a Mockingbird fresh in our minds from yesterday, I wanted to begin thinking about reading comprehension by thinking about how we make sense of any kind of story we're presented with, no matter the medium.

But, to start: my favorite provocation. I picked up a copy of Mockingbird and asked them: Is this a story?

Yes, they said, unanimously.
What if I told you I don't think it is?
Confusion. Outcry. Disgust on their faces.


Well, it's a novel, they said. It's fiction. It's a book, with pages and a cover.
Is a book a story? I asked.
No, it could be a dictionary.
A book is a physical thing, and the story is inside it. In the words and the pictures.
The story is more like thoughts or ideas. It's mental. It's what's being told, it's not the physical thing, the physical book.
And a book is different from a story because you can tell the story in a movie or in a picture.
You're thinking of different media through which we can communicate stories. But what is the story you're communicating? What is the story?
It's a series of events.
It's stuff that happens to people. Someone can imagine it, like in The BFG, or it can be something that really happened, like World War II.
Where does a story live? When I open up this book and read it, do I get the exact story Harper Lee had in mind for me to read?
Yes. No. Sort of. Everybody has a different interpretation of a story.
But it's still the same story. It's written down in the book! A story doesn't change just by reading it. You can read a story, or depict it in a picture, but it's still the same story. It's not a different interpretation. For example, Mockingbird was a book, and then it was depicted on stage. But it was still the same story.
So, you're saying you can depict a story without interpreting it?
And depicting a story is simply recalling a series of events that happened.
Is a series of events still a story if no one ever tells anyone about it?

Unfortunately, I didn't have my audio recorder with me, so I am going off of some furious notes I was taking plus recollection. Regardless, some really rich questions from this discussion, and I am particularly intrigued by the two that came up at the end:
- Can you depict a story without interpreting it?
- Is a series of events still a story if no one is there to tell it?

I stopped them to transition to the next topic - how we understand the stories we read. It was imperative, though, to maintain my position: this book contains no story. Because, you see, if the story was part of the book, we wouldn't be able to access it. What is in the book? Symbols. Words. Code. It's just a code that someone translated their ideas into, for someone else to find. When that someone else comes along - that would be us, readers - the idea is constructed based on the code, albeit within the context of someone else's brain. Still, it is the human that is required to make any sense of it at all - without it, the code bears no meaning.

So, readers, that's what we do. We decode. We construct the ideas others have left in translation for us and hope that we might do them justice by understanding. How do we understand? That's called comprehension. How do we comprehend? We use a host of strategies to access the meaning of the many levels of the texts we read. Many of them are automatic to us at this point, but by making ourselves more aware of the strategies we use, the better we can use them, and the more likely we are to learn further strategies. The more strategies we practice, the more we comprehend. The more we comprehend, the better we understand. The more we understand, the more we can begin to feel a part of something bigger than just ourselves and think about who we are.

That’s why we read.