Writing a New Story

Do authors intentionally add all the metaphors, symbolism, and big-idea meaning that we attach to their work as readers?  Do poets actually strive to layer meaning upon meaning?  I would say no.  I would follow with a qualifying, ‘most of the time’.  I would argue that writers write what comes up through their consciousness, percolating through their awareness.  Their ideas become shaped by their experiences, and polished by language to emerge as an articulated thought, complete with a meaning unique to the author.  The reader, then, does the opposite.  He/she ingests the language, chews it around a bit, forming a new meaning based on his/her experiences and consciousness and eventually produces a NEW story.  The overall meaning remains the same, but its effect is unique to the individual reader, thus a ‘new’ story.

Take the western novel Shane, for example.  I used to have my 7th graders read it as a novel study.  Let me clarify:  a teacher who grew up in rural, 1970s Montana required his 21st century midwestern suburban 12- and 13-year olds to read a novel written in 1949, but which takes place in 1889.  Clearly, my version of the story is different than my students’.  And my version is, I have no doubt, different than that of Jack Schaefer, the author.  I understand that the novel is really about change, generational differences, problem-solving, etc., but did Mr. Schaefer really intend for that fool stump to be the huge symbol and metaphor it’s made out to be?

Carmen Medina

Dr. Carmen Medina

The last two days have been spent in a Workshop at the University of Missouri St. Louis (UMSL) designed to introduce the concept of the ‘InnoLab‘.  Carmen Medina, a visiting professor from Indiana University, led us through an exercise exploring big ideas (in this case, immigration) through children’s literature.  Her statement resonated with me so much that it became my main takeaway from the event:  “Story interpretation is always the creation of a new story.”  Her lesson’s text, Separate is Never Equal by Duncan Tonatiuh, outlined the story of the Mendez family and the landmark Supreme Court decision.  The experience (story), of Dr. Medina, a native Spanish-speaker, has to be completely different than my takeaway, even though we both experienced the story at the same time in the same conditions.

So, if every time we read text, each reader creates a slightly NEW version, how can we teach author’s purpose?  We can discuss the author, guess at the effect of a unique set of life experiences, and surmise their language’s contribution to come up with a pretty good idea of their purpose, but I believe we have to understand the caveat:  no one really knows for sure.  I suppose one could argue that the closer we read, the closer we come to understanding author intent.  But if the author writes in a flurry of creativity, putting to paper what sounds good in the moment, perhaps reading too closely broadens the intent, reshaping it into something more than originally intended.

I’ll save you (for now) from a rant on close reading.  But let me say just this:  Language allows us to make visible the invisible, but beware of assuming my vision as your vision.


Time to Think

Greg Miller (@gregmiller68) posed some interesting questions on his Posterous recently.  The video and resulting comments are worth reading.  What is the relationship between hunches, ideas, innovation, and the time and space is takes for them to come into fruition?  One of the main premises of the video was that oftentimes, two people have hunches, or at least ideas floating in the back of their minds.  When these two hunches are allowed to meet each other, the result is the formation of a whole idea.

I found the post particularly interesting, since my mother and I just had a conversation about a month ago about ‘thinking time’, and how people are so busy nowadays that they don’t take time to just think. Didn’t Christopher Robin have a thinking tree and Blues Clues a thinking chair? One of the commenters reminded us that the most valuable commodity to teachers is time: time to plan, time to research, time to explore new technology, time to collaborate with colleagues, and time to think.

I like to think, but I feel guilty if people come into my computer lab where my desk is and see my staring off into space, like somehow I’m not BUSY, I’m not PRODUCING anything. Therefore, I tend to do my thinking at home while doing something monotonous, like mowing the grass, shaving, running, or falling asleep at night.

I feel it would be worthwhile to provide a time and place for educators to think and to collaborate.   I would say (at least in my district) a digital venue is out, because unless it’s Facebook or maybe Pintrest, most educators are uninitiated, and claim that it’s just “one more thing” you’re making them do. As a solution that could be implemented tomorrow, perhaps there is an old whiteboard or chalkboard laying around that could be put in the room where teachers gather most, say, for lunch. Butcher/bulletin board paper could even be put up across the walls, and tantalizing questions could be posed, mind maps started, a non-digital twitter feed could be written, etc.

We are looking for ways to have the students be able to collaborate and free-draw their ideas.  Why not do the same for their teachers?

In what ways do you enable your teachers’ hunches to collide?