In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Keeping the frog alive

Dear Aunt Debbie,

Ah, Howard Gardner.  I think that the idea of multiple intelligences is in some ways a good one -- kids do learn in different ways.  All too often, though, what it turns into in classrooms is a lot of chalk and talk, plus an assigned poster with glitter on it.  There is little room, and little incentive, for teachers in a test-focused system to experiment with projects which might actually reach kids in different ways.  (Education schools may preach it, but they don't always practice it: I'm reminded of a story that Michael told about the education professor who gave his class a handout and a Power Point about the Socratic Method.  It is to laugh.  Or maybe cry.)

I teach on the high school level, 9th through 12th grade.  I've been teaching for a little more than ten years, and in that time I've come to realize that one of my major pedagogical goals is to provide my students with the scaffolding, focus, room and choice they need to connect more deeply with reading and writing on both an analytical and an emotional level.  Some of my assignments include ways to get into the book in a non-standard reading and writing way, but for most we read a book, and then we write: about the book, about ourselves as inspired by the book, about ourselves and the book at the same time.

There's a wonderful Flannery O'Connor speech in which she bemoans the student's search for the one true meaning of a story: "Every time a story of mine appears in a Freshman anthology, I have a vision of it, with its little organs laid open, like a frog in a bottle."  We talk in class about how to avoid that feeling, that we're analyzing a story to death.  How do you keep the frog alive?  Study the way it jumps without dissecting it? 

In that same speech, O'Connor writes: "A story really isn't any good unless it successfully resists paraphrase, unless it hangs on and expands in the mind.  Properly, you analyze to enjoy, but it's equally true that to analyze with any discrimination, you have to have enjoyed already." Laura Miller touches on the same theme in The Magician's Book: "If literary writing has any distinguishing characteristic, it's that the more you look at it the more you see, and the more you see the more you want to go on looking.  It invites a plurality of interpretation.  'A genuine work of art must mean many things,' wrote George MacDonald, the Scottish writer whom Lewis regarded as his master.  'The truer its art, the more things it will mean.'  The meaning of Animal Farm is fairly obvious, but what's the meaning of King Lear?  The question doesn't even make sense, really; it's like asking what I mean, or what you mean.  Works of art, like human beings, are irreducible."

Sometimes, the best way to express how we feel and think about a work of art isn't just through writing.  When I assign the final portfolio to my juniors and seniors in Writers' Workshop, I encourage them to bind and organize their collection of work in a way which is creative and true to them.  Many make books; some go far beyond that when given creative freedom.  I've gotten portfolios hidden inside giant Lego motherships, portfolios hand-written on rice paper made into lanterns, portfolios sewn into the panels of quilts.  If you give kids the freedom and the encouragement to be creative beyond your wildest imaginings, I've found, they will do it almost every time.

This is what I think Lizzie and Mona's best projects (and your amazing Hobbit party creation) have in common: the freedom in each for the reader to express herself in a focused but open way, to come at it in a way that surprises even herself.

Love, Annie

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