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.

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.

No comments: