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.


Visualization Activity with First Grade and iPads

MeTeaching Fridays at 10.  It’s my standing appointment with a first grade class to work on one of their weekly skills using a new app every week.  We’ve done Screen Chomp, Educreations, and more to work with skills like fluency and sequencing.  Last week, their skill was visualization, so we used the Doodle Buddy app on our iPads, and some books from the library.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.1.7: Use illustrations and details in a story to describe its characters, setting, or events.

“When students listen to or read text, they can create pictures in their mind or make a mind movie. When readers visualize what is happening in the story, they remember more of what they read or hear. ” (The Daily 5 CAFE)

NatalieDoodleBuddyBefore class, I went to the school library and found 5 books I figured they had never read (my sole criteria for determining this was that they looked OLD, and had those uniformly beige hardcovers).  I made a makeshift book cover out of orange construction paper, so they couldn’t see any part of the book.  I then read a page or two from a story, then gave them about three or four minutes to draw what they were visualizing.  At the end of the time, they held them up for me to see, then had another minute to show each other.  Finally, I took off the orange construction paper and showed them how the illustrator had visualized it.

We started with an edition of The Princess and the Pea where the characters were illustrated as animals (all the kids’ illustrations were stick people), read a couple pages of The Goggles by Ezra Jack Keats (the kids all drew their goggles in black, while Keats did his in yellow), and the first two pages of Big Al by Andrew Clements Yoshi (describing a very nice but scary-looking fish named Al).  We finished with the beautifully illustrated book called Crossing by Philip Booth.  In this book of rhyming train terms, our suburban kids had no idea what any of it meant without seeing pictures.  I started in the middle:

“Fifty-nine, sixty, / hoppers of coke, / Anaconda copper, / hotbox smoke.”

cars on roadThe results on the iPads were the best of the day.  There was more variety than with any other story, and the fact that they all drew automobiles rather than trains led to a discussion (well, a pointing out – this is first grade after all) that they drew auto cars because that’s what they know (the teacher even used the word ‘schema’!).  In reflection, the classroom teacher and I decided that the more nonsensical the text, the more imaginative the visualizations.

I would suggest everyone try this 45-minute activity with some of your lit picks, and let us know how it goes!


5 Quick Lessons on Character Analysis and Predicting using iPads





Since this month’s focus is ‘Teaching Reading with iPads,’ our weekly ‘Techie Lunch’ iPad/tech training session concentrated on Character Analysis and Predictions.  We have already covered Active Reading for Main Idea and Sequencing.  The educators in attendance during their lunch period were 2nd and third grade teachers, so we had a conversation geared toward this level of students.

After some discussion about Bloom’s Taxonomy, and the importance of students being able to show understanding by accessing the higher levels, we came up with some ideas for lessons on Character Analyis:

1.  (Character’s Description) – Whiteboard, Doodle Buddy or Jot!  – Students draw a picture of the main character using a whiteboard app.

2.  (Character’s Language/Dialogue) – PaperDesk, NoteMaster, ScreenChomp, Skitch or Notability – Students take a picture from their printed story, and then highlight something that the character said that illustrates one of their character traits.

3.  (Other Characters’ Reactions to Character in Question) – ToonTastic or PuppetPals –  Have students assign characters from their story to figures in the apps.  Have them re-enact scenes from memory from their story.

For Predicting, students have to understand all the elements of the story AND have a good grasp on human nature in order to predict what will happen next in a story, which is why active readers should always be pausing to try and figure out what will happen next, just as we try to solve the case in less time than it takes Bones and Booth.

1.  (Predicting Character Actions)  – ToonTastic or PuppetPals – Similar to #3, above, but give them a situation NOT in the story, and have them show you how the characters in the story might react to the new situation, or if you are only part way through the text, what they think the characters might do next in the story.

2.  (Predicting Plot) –  iBrainstorm, Popplet or Corkulous – Plot out main parts (even as simple as beginning, middle, end), of the plot on either poppies or sticky notes, and put them in the right order.  Change the color of the notes or popples and have them continue on with the story sequence.  They could even then change the colors all back to the original color, exchange iPads, and have their neighbor put them all back in order, changing the color of the predicted ones once they get there (so you know they know which parts haven’t really happened yet).  If the students understand cause/effect the plot so far, and any characters involved, they should be able to put them all back together.

What other lessons have you found to be successful?