In a Time of Standardization, an Invitation to Authentically Read

Milton Avery Reclining Reader

“Reclining Reader” by Milton Avery

Last week third through eighth grade students across New York State took the three-day marathon known as the Common Core English Language Arts Test. And if the feedback left on, the website set up by some of the best literacy minds in the country, is any indication, it was not a pretty sight. Words like travesty and debacle—and even sadistic—appear with some regularity as do many stories from both teachers and parents about student acting out in various ways to deal with the pressure and stress, such as the parent who came home to find her son beating a bush with a stick.

Many questions were also raised about what these test were actually testing, since careful close reading simply wasn’t possible given the time constraints and few, if any, questions required critical thinking, if for no other reason than that they were incredibly narrow and myopic. Additionally, as I wrote in an early post, many of the teachers leaving feedback spoke about the convoluted and confusing nature of the questions themselves and the fact that many of those questions asked students to discern insignificant or minor differences between several possible ‘right’ answers. And all that reminded me of this  quote by the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche:

“All things are subject to interpretation. Whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.”

Applied to our current situation, I interpret this as meaning that the whole one-right-answer approach to testing is a function of the vise-grip that powerful corporate interests have over education these days, not on some unequivocal truth. And in addition to adding my voice to, I decided to push back this week by reviving an idea I tried out in my first year as a blogger: inviting readers to read a short text, this time 20/20 by author Linda Brewer, and share what they made of it, knowing that it’s the diversity—not the conformity—of our interpretations and the particular way we express them that enriches our understanding of ourselves, the text and the world.

Basic CMYKYour task, should you choose to accept it, is not to focus on, say, how paragraph four develops the main character’s point of view or why the author used the word ‘choked’ in line six. Instead I ask you to do what the test-makers seem to consider Mission Impossible: to think about the meaning of the whole story, which will almost inevitably entail looking at the story through the eyes of the characters, the eyes of the author and ultimately your own eyes, as you consider what you think and feel about what you think the author might be trying to show us about people, the world, or life through the particulars of this story. And I invite you to do that by simply paying attention to what you notice in the text and what you make of that.

Then in the spirit of collaborative learning, real reading and community, I invite you to share your thoughts about the story, how you arrived at them and what the experience felt like by either clicking on the speech bubble at the right of the post’s title or on the word ‘reply’ at the bottom of the post, right after the list of tag words. (Email subscribers can used the comment link at the end of the email.) And if anyone wants to try it out on some students, please go right ahead!

Just remember, though, there is no right answer! There is only interpretation and what happens between the mind of the reader and the words on the page. And now here is 20/20 by Linda Brewer:

20:20 by Linda Brewer

Now follow these simple instructions from the poet Mary Oliver:



29 thoughts on “In a Time of Standardization, an Invitation to Authentically Read

  1. Oh, Vicki, this is quite the challenge. I felt frustrated because the author did NOT tell me enough. I felt like I was left hanging about the characters’ relationship, character development and their driving trip.

    Geography: I noticed that we are not “told” where this journey began. Because Bill talks about “East Coast women” I wonder where they began. “Indiana” “The third evening out” – “Chicago” “Fargo” “Twin Falls” “Spokane” I also wondered where they were going.

    I enyoyed the “small moments” where third, fourth and fifth paragraphs were about the 3rd evening out – “near Chicago” and then much of paragraphs five, six and seven were about the “next evening.”

    I notice that the story is told from Bill’s perspective and wonder how Ruthie became his “driving companion.” Bill seems to not know how to respond to a woman who is agreeable “but she refused to argue.” I think Bill is a big city guy because he said, “she was from rural Ohio and thrilled to death to be anywhere else.”

    Both Bill and Ruthie look at the same things but they see them differently. Ruthie’s eyes “were capable of seeing wonderful sights” and Bill only saw what was at the end of his nose. Bill saw “reflectors nailed to a tree stump” and Ruthie saw “Bigfoot.”

    • I’m going to save my story comments until the very end, but I just wanted to thank you, Fran, for being the first to fearlessly take this on! I hope others are inspired by your thinking as I was.

      • Vicki,
        This was my “jump in the deep end of the pool” attempt! I am still amazed that such a short story really left me with more questions than answers!

      • I think often that what we make of what we notice are questions. Just hope others join you & me with thoughts and questions of their own! This is definitely a more the merrier post!

  2. As I read I kept asking, what is going on but forced myself to keep reading. At one point, my thinking was, “Why is Bill so uptight? I thought, he sure has an ego? His statement about east coast women fueled my women’s sensitivity! Why did he choose Ruthie as a traveling companion?” and then I thought, “Bill needs to learn a lesson from Ruthie, a lesson about just “noticing” life ~ that is is not about the destination but the journey! A lesson about reveling in the moment! ” Maybe he did begin to see, as the author shares “…her eyes… were capable of seeing wonderful sights…!”

  3. I like the implications that are behind “Ruthie, I’ll drive.” He makes her a little nervous, but he likes her anyway.

  4. I found myself trying to figure out Bill. Was he looking for something more from Ruthie? It sounds like it was a platonic arrangement but yet he was sizing her up to be something more. Ruthie didn’t seem to have the same expectations. She struck me as more of a “live in the moment” kind of gal. She seems able to see beauty in the world around her, as if she loves unconditionally and lives in the moment. I find this passage gives me more questions than it does answers. Why were they traveling together? How did they meet in the first place. What did Bill expect from Ruthie? What did Ruthie expect from Bill.

  5. My reflections began with Ruthie rather than Bill. At first, I thought she might be quite young with her monosyllabic retorts. Then, I just wondered if she was nervous. Was she too nervous to argue? Too nervous to share more of what she saw? There’s no way I can grasp what the author wants me to learn in those few paragraphs. I am filled with questions and angst. I WANT ANSWERS! I did, though, quickly grow to appreciate the simple beauty of the things Ruthie observed. Perhaps I should look at this excerpt the same way…. Nah. I need to read more. 🙂

  6. Beautiful, just beautiful!
    Having grown up an ‘East Coast Woman’ and repeatedly being told that I have all of the idiosyncrasies that the author states and implies, and currently living in Silver Valley, Idaho (about an hour to Spokane, WA) I feel a sense of camaraderie with Bill. The story actually brought tears of laughter to my eyes. I do question Bill waiting until the Bigfoot comment to switch to the driving position.
    If, as reader Kim implies, Bill is looking for something more – may he be looking for a dreamer, a jester, or a whimsical storyteller – because these appear to be characteristics of Ruthie .
    I believe the author is using humor to delight the reader. If there is a lesson in this story it is to familiarize yourself with your traveling companion before embarking on cross-country adventures! If Bill had 20/20 vision, he might have chosen a different travel mate.
    Traveling mercies,

  7. I like this text! It makes me dream, imagine, wonder. I am thinking, what are these places like, what are these people like? Then I try to make sense of it through my own experiences. Then back to the text. What do I need to re-read to help me think more?
    Hmm, right now, I don’t need to do much more than this with my Grade Two students in reading groups, do I?
    I really started to think more after reading the comments here, returning to the text to discover the words which triggered these great responses. Our best learning is social. Maybe the best test-prep I can offer my students is the chance to interrogate other students’ responses to a question. “What did they read that made them think that?”
    Thanks Vicki and fellow commenters. We make meaning together!

  8. I don’t like drawing conclusions because there are always so many sides to think about. I like to let the story play out a bit and enjoy the ride before I question. I thought maybe bill liked her because he “frowned” when there was no Indian paintbrush near Chicago. Then at the end the narrator said he let it ride when ruthie decided he was a “handsome genius”. Still, these are clues, only, of their feelings. I’m sure there’s a lot left to learn.

  9. I was thinking he was obviously from the East Coast because he talks about the “girls he is used to “. I thought she might have been young and possibly a hitch-hiker, wanting to get away from her home and to places she’s only read about. She didn’t want to argue because then she would lose her ride.
    When it mentioned that on the third night when she was driving she called out that she had seen Indian Paintbrush, I thought it was something she had read about and maybe seen a picture of, but had never actually seen.
    By the next night when she mentions “Bigfoot” I felt she may have been more comfortable with him and trying to razz him a bit — to see if he was paying attention.
    By the end, they had sort of met in the middle. He could see the whimsy of not being so serious and she was relaxed enough to have fun with him.
    Having driven from Indiana to Alaska via the Alaskan Highway and back via the Cassiar I know it can be pretty boring. At the time our car did not have a tape deck or cd player and there are no radio stations once you pass into Canada. We would guess at what we were seeing and make up stories — just to pass the time.
    So, young mid-west girl plus young east coast guy drive across country and grow on each other. Why was he driving across country? How did he meet her? Why did she get in the car with HIM? These are questions I would still like to know. 🙂

  10. I thought this was a very funny short story. I totally “got” Bill and his snobbery, though my take on the word “choked” was perhaps that he wasn’t as smart as he thought he was and confused the word with chalked. I also think he finally appreciated Ruthie and her 20/20 vision (the title was key for my comprehension, such as I felt I comprehended it). I felt 20/20 referred more to her than him. I visualized two college-age students, who found each other on a message board (the old fashioned kind), perhaps sharing a ride cross country. I loved the end when he let her last comment “ride”, since it was a compliment to him. I think this was a great snippet of life of two very different people forced together, their personalities and perceptions very different, yet growing to appreciate one another. Love the East Coast comment, as I’m an East Coaster and I felt that got at the whole vibe, pace, energy of the East Coast/NYC.

  11. This piece left me with a lot of questions, too. But I was interested in what I did with them. First, I got an initial impression, sort of a gut level feeling for Bill (who I don’t really like all that much) and Ruthie (who seems ghostly to me) and their growing relationship (which seems, ironically, kinda sweet.) Then, I started to create stories, “maybe”-stories, that tried to fit pieces together, to build a story in the large spaces the author left.

    My first impressions of Bill were probably as judgmental as his! 🙂 Being a rural Iowan, his judgment about what rural Ohioans want struck me as arrogant, dismissive. That was set up by his judgment about what she was capable of. He seemed to finally accept Ruthie’s pronouncements after she called him a genius near Spokane.

    I imagined Ruthie as a hitchhiker, or someone Bill met on the street. By the trajectory of the trip, I’m imagining Seattle as the destination? Which made me imagine Ruthie as a bit on the edge, and kind of reinforced my “maybe-story” about her living on the street. I couldn’t figure out what to do with Ruthie’s observations. On one level I like the way they show how she is living in the moment, naming what she sees as she sees it. (She appears to be certain, confident in her observations?) On another level it bothers me that she sees Indian paintbrush where is isn’t, or golden eagles that might have been almost any large bird. (I think knowing real Indian paintbrush matters. Eagles, too.) Which made me wonder about Ruthie. Was her own mind’s eye more important to her than the actual, physical world she moved through? Which brought me to the title: Is that what it means to see with 20/20 vision, this ability to see Bigfoot in reflectors? A UFO over Great Falls? A genius in Bill? (For me, that’s a bit dissatisfying. I believe that big ol’ world is worth knowing on it’s own terms, at least as much as is possible in a lifetime…)

    Which brings me to the sweetness part. Maybe that’s what Bill wants, someone who can see him for what he isn’t? Perhaps that’s the next step on his journey, to see as Ruthie sees, to keep his eyes open even as it shines directly into them, to become the person she sees?

    So, as a side note, I realize that the link to the last reader response you provided up top was one of the first times I had responded to your blog, Vicki! Which helped me reflect on how important the room you have created to think together has been for me. Thanks a big bunch.

  12. This was a quirky and compelling text. I found myself reading and then re-reading because of its subtly, cleverness, and the need to check my comprehension. I do love it when a text does that for a reader. The line about Ruthie being “thrilled to death about being anywhere else” but Ohio made me laugh out loud. As I made my way through the story, I found myself wondering about why these two were traveling together and loving the sneaky way that Brewer revealed the problem. I also wanted to research the spots Ruthie summarizes in the end to see if I could figure out what the actual sights may have been. Thematically, I think that this is a story about seeing each other clearly in this world. Despite Ruthie’s poor eyesight, she is described as “capable of seeing wonderful sights.” She is open and imaginative and trusting – things I often want to be, but am too scared or cynical to actually embrace. I also think this is a story about seeing others clearly. Bill sees Ruthie for who she is – incapable of debate and wonder-filled – and chooses not to ridicule or correct or attempt to change. Thank you for the invitation to do this work, Vicki. Such good stuff.

  13. This post came at the perfect time…we have been recovering from post-traumatic test disorder after last week’s ELA tests and I couldn’t see launching a new unit before our spring break next week. I took your invitation, Vicki, and tried it out with my seventh graders. We desperately needed some good talk and this text worked beautifully. It kept them talking, arguing, revising their thinking, going back into the text, puzzling over details, and noticing patterns all period. In fact, we will be back at it tomorrow, so that everyone gets a chance to share their thinking. And, because of their talk and ideas, I am seeing the text so differently compared to my first reading.

    I tried to keep a transcript of the conversation in each class…but with 125+ students over the course of the day it would be too much to reproduce here. Some takeaways though –

    I was surprised how quickly students connected the story to the title and began to talk about ways of seeing. Many described Ruthie as imaginative and different, artistic in the way she sees the world. One student even pointed out the recurring references to “eyes” – Bill resting his, Ruthie’s “big, blue and capable of seeing wonderful sights,” the “visions” she has over the course of the story.

    One class argued over whether or not Ruthie was stubborn to continue to “see” her way. Was Bill selfish for only letting it ride after Ruthie sees him as a handsome genius, after all he wanted to argue with someone? In another class, students returned to these two characters’ differing backgrounds as explanation for the way each sees the world. One student wondered (emphatically) why “we all seem to feel much more sympathetic towards Ruthie.” In her mind students were much more forgiving of Ruthie’s crazy visions but didn’t seem to feel that towards Bill.

    They wondered about where these two came from, who was driving whom, and how they might have met. Overall they saw the story as being about ways of seeing – that people see the same thing differently and that is, essentially, a good thing.

    After a few false starts, I found it most productive to invite the students to start with the characters. That actually worked much better than just having them focus on their noticings and questions. Anyway, thanks again for the invitation and for all your thoughtful musings on this blog – it both grounds and inspires me as a teacher!

  14. I zipped past the comments not wanting them to taint my thinking. I think I was feeling this was a test and I couldn’t cheat. But really if I was in a book group or in my classroom I would honor my group’s thinking and add in my thinking. I’ll look back after. Sort of testing myself. Can’t help it!

    What was the question? Let me look back.Oh yes, the meaning of the story. (So glad there isn’t one right answer. I love Nietzsche. Oliver and your graphic of the eye.) Now to the task.

    Sweet funny story in my mind about a seemingly simple soul. Who seems to marvel at anything, not questioning or arguing, just accepting with wonder. Her male companion seems at first just to comment on it, then theorize about why it occurs, then question her ability. You get the feeling through his eyes she changes from being a simple country girl to, with the mention of Bigfoot, a hazard. Perhaps someone not to be trusted with a moving vehicle. But at the end of this journey through her eyes, he is a handsome genius. Hearing this he lets it ride. So what is 20/20? Who has perfect vision? Beauty, amazement is in the eye of the beholder but the acceptance of that vision lies in the eyes of the environment that surrounds the beholder. We, the reader, took his assessment at face value. It all made sense. But once his vanity got involved his vision changed. We see the sweetness in Ruthie, and how her sweetness has poked through Bill and his easily influenced perception.

    I went back and read responses and found these added to my thinking..
    Steve – Was her own mind’s eye more important to her than the actual, physical world she moved through?

    Susan – their personalities and perceptions very different, yet growing to appreciate one another.

    Fran’s close reading really made me look at the cities they were traveling through.

    Fun task. I realize I am a reader that reads for emotion and visuals. Tend to fill in those holes too readily. Need to question more. Lesson for my students?

    Brilliant post. Thank you.

  15. My interpretation: Bill is from NY or Boston. He isn’t rude, just opinionated and confident, like most New Yorkers (disclaimer: I am from there, so I could relate, and I now live in Seattle, where most folks, like Ruthie, don’t like to argue). Over the course of the cross country road trip, Bill goes from distain (she’s from rural Ohio), to thinking she is a bit crazy (UFOs?), to liking her. I’m tempted to think they actually fall in love by the end of the road trip. She sees him as a handsome genius, and he likes being seen this way (and maybe also likes her simple observations and non-argumentative nature.

    The big idea I took away is that there is no such thing as 20/20, we all see the world through our own culture and personality and the like. In relation to everything in the post about the state tests, this story is a really brilliant choice, and connects to the ideas of the blog! Love it. Thanks for sharing.

  16. I looked upon the passage as a comedic piece. I postulated that Ruthie had sized Bill up, and
    found him judgmental and a bit pompous. How did Bill know that Ruthie refused to argue unless
    he had been baiting her? Was he trying to create a little more excitement on a boring trip through the Midwest?

    I decided that Ruthie was exhibiting some passive-aggressive behavior and had decided to
    turn the table on Bill by inventing implausible sights along the way. She was baiting him, in other words. And he took the bait. I think Ruthie secretly got satisfaction from Bill’s actions and felt
    smug when he decided not to challenge her opinion of him. I saw that last sentence as the punch line of an elaborate setup. Or maybe Ruthie didn’t want to drive after all, and was thrilled to have
    Bill take over that task all the way to the West Coast.

  17. Spring break is here, and I am doing all the little things I cannot do when I am either planning or grading. I read the little story twice before deciding to write on the dialogue alone because that is the advice I would give to my students. That is also very Common Core, New Criticism-ish:
    Ruthie speaks three times; Bill speaks once.
    Ruthie speaks about the natural world: cows, Indian Paintbrush (a flower), golden eagle, Bigfoot.
    Ruthie modifies her thinking: “never thought” “so glad” “real life.”
    Ruthie communicates in phrases: “Indian Paintbrush. A golden eagle.”
    Ruthie expresses her emotional state: “I’m so glad I got to come with you.”
    Ruthie uses the imperative: “Look, cows.”
    Bill also uses the imperative when he speaks (once): “I’ll drive.”
    Sum total of the evidence?
    Ruthie observes the world around her and wants to share. Ruthie enjoys the trip. Ruthie likes Bill.
    Bill wants to be in charge.
    Note: the concluding paragraph, one without dialogue, furthers the reader’s understanding of Bill. Especially with the observation (his?) of the “handsome genius in the person of Bill…”
    Yup. Bill sees himself as in charge.

  18. What an interesting piece of writing. I was trying to think about what the author was trying to tell us through this piece and I kept thinking about assumptions we make, some that are actually prejudices. I know we all like to think we are “not prejudice” but we sometimes do lump people into categories without a second thought. I see Bill lumping all East Coast women into one category and all rural Ohio people into another. Of course, I think he changed his mind by the end of the short story, at least about Ruthie. It took him the whole ride to realize maybe he needed to look deeper to learn more about Ruthie. Maybe the way she saw the world was much more interesting than the way he saw it. This all fits with the title, 20/20, and how each of us “sees” the world… which makes me want to go back and read more about Paula Freire and his ideas of “reading the world.”
    I found it interesting that we never get to hear anything Bill is saying on the ride. What was it that he wanted to talk or debate about? Whatever it was, he obviously thinks his thoughts are more valued/deeper/higher-level than hers. I also wonder why Bill “let it ride”— Ruthie’s comment about him being a “handsome genius.” Did he “let it ride” because he was accepting her compliment? Or did he just let it ride because he really didn’t agree he was all that much of a genius any more.

  19. Pingback: Exploring the Instructional Implications of What We Did as Readers | To Make a Prairie

  20. This story made me think about how commonly we define ourselves through our reactions and responses to others. Without significant “input” we are left to confront the existential reality of our own thoughts.

    • Sorry I didn’t see this before sharing everyone’s comments as this is yet another great take on the story—that need we sometimes have to use others as a mirror through which to see ourselves. Thanks!

  21. Pingback: Constructing Understanding: Developing a Deeper Vision of Realistic Fiction | To Make a Prairie

  22. I felt pity for the girl. She was obviously shy and was in love withe the man that’s why she didn’t speak much….But he expected something of an amusement and fun whereas she was happy by just having him as a partner. I have these thought about the characters judging by their replies. Thank you for the story!

    • As I wrote to Karon, I think there are no right or wrong answers, only our thoughts and perceptions. But so glad you shared your perspective here as they add so much to the conversation!

  23. What a wonderful ride, to read this story (as I’m actually reading through your more recent blog post today…this being one of the pieces of that) and to feel compelled to join this discussion – if late to the joining in. (Guilty pleasure reading this morning rather than heading off to the office!)

    I read the story once. Read Fran and Julieanne’s comments – Steve’s and a couple of others… then I browsed through your blog post. Reread the story. My heart missed time in conversation with colleagues like Eric & Faynessa when once we got to sit together as you guided our work. Here is my thinking on the story –

    Bill takes a while – most of the story really, to appreciate Ruthie’s simplicity – and beauty. For me, she is the gift in the coupling. But it is not until she expresses her gratitude that he is able to let the beauty that is her in. It makes me think that perhaps gratitude is a door to connection regardless of what divides us. “I’m so glad I got to come with you.” is all it took – after 5 long days of driving in judgment and disregard, really that he truly SEES her, and in his way appreciate her too.

    • It’s never too late to join the conversation, Dana, because each person’s take adds another layer of richness to the text. Here, for example, I love the idea that maybe gratitude is a door to connection that perhaps we need to open up more. So wonderful to consider that this morning!

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