Constructing Understanding: Developing a Deeper Vision of Realistic Fiction

One of the other things I love to do in summer (beyond institutes) is walk along the East River, watching the boats and the people who come from all over the world to see New York City’s famous skyline. And much of the waterfront in my neck of Brooklyn has become a wonderful park, with soccer fields and volleyball courts built on reclaimed piers, free kayaks and yoga, and an outpost of what in my humble opinion is the best ice cream in the city, Ample Hills, which takes its name from a line in Walt Whitman’s poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

Ample Hills

Every summer, there’s also new art, and this year we have sculptor Martin Creed’s “Understanding,” the neon and steel piece you see above that actually rotates 360 degrees. My partner David and I first noticed it from behind as it was being installed, and it took me a while to realize that the word we were trying to read backward was understanding—and that the workers on the ladders and cranes were literally constructing understanding, which, once I figured that out, delighted me no end. You see, I believe that deep, lasting learning best happens when learners are actively involved in the construction of understanding and knowledge, versus receiving, memorizing—or as Jeff Wilhem says in Engaging Readers & Writers with Inquiry, consuming—information.

I’d say the teachers and coaches I wrote about last week were engaged in constructing an understanding of the different ways fiction stories can go. And in her gorgeous and brilliant new book The Journey is EverythingKatherine Bomer invites her readers to construct an understanding of essays by reading two spectacular examples, “Joyas Voladoras” by Brian Doyle (whose structure she also visually maps!) and “Pride,” by Dagoberto Gilb. As Katherine writes,

“The key to teaching essay well is understanding deeply what essay is. We don’t need to invent a definition; we only need to pay attention to what we see, hear and feel as we read essays closely. We can notice for ourselves what essays stir up in the minds and hearts of readers and then make that seeing explicit, naming the features of essay we can use in our own writing or teach to students.”

Of course, developing a vision of what we want students to engage with as writers is true for every genre, not just essay. And the deeper our vision is, the deeper and more meaningful our teaching can be, which I think is captured in this wonderful Japanese proverb which I discovered as I planned for my work in Paramus:

vision-without-action-is-a-day-dream-japanese-poverb

So before Labor Day is upon us and everyone’s back in school, I want to invite you to read a very short story called “A Story About the Body” by the great poet Robert Hass in order to construct a deeper understanding of what realistic fiction is and what it does for us as readers. As Katherine urged, try reading it attending to what it stirs up in your mind and heart and then, based on how it affected you, try to articulate in a more general way what you think the deeper purpose of realistic fiction seems to be and how writers convey that purpose. (And try to not default to what you already may teach, like saying that realistic fiction is a story about people and events that are made-up but could happen in real life, and it’s purpose is to entertain, which, as I wrote in an earlier post, doesn’t capture the complexity of what writers do.) And since it’s sometimes easier to construct an understanding of a genre by looking at more than one example, consider clicking on the links for two other short stories I’ve shared over the years, “Wallet” by Allen Woodman and “20/20” by Linda Brewer to see how they inform your thinking.

Finally, in the spirit of collaborative learning and community, please share your thinking about Hass’s piece and/or realistic fiction in general by tweeting (using the hashtag #tomakeaprairie) or leaving a comment here, by clicking on either the speech bubble at the right of the post’s title, the word ‘reply’ that following the list of tag words at the bottom of the post, or, if you’re a subscriber, on the comment link at the end of the email.

And now here’s Robert Hass’s amazing piece, which comes by way of genius.com:

A Story about the Body Robert Hass

35 thoughts on “Constructing Understanding: Developing a Deeper Vision of Realistic Fiction

  1. What a fabulous piece – the story holds a tight narrative but the writer allows the reader to imagine and feel so much. Great economy of language, and so precise. And, that ending! Enigmatic and thought provoking. Thanks for sharing this, Vicki – your post, as always, gives me so much to think about!

    • More and more the word precise and precision is in my mind as something we don’t talk enough about with kids. And talk about ending with a powerful image! It’s amazing, but I wonder if the ending of Fireflies, where the main character releases the fireflies as he/she (I’ve never been sure) smiles and cries at the same time, isn’t an age-appropriate equivalent. But . . . hope the first day of school goes well. Those kids are so very lucky to have you!

    • So funny, Mary Lee, I read that poem before publishing the post and loved it enough to forward it to David, but I didn’t think of the connection with Hass until you mentioned it – at which point the lightbulbs in my brain all turned out. So thanks for the text-to-text connection! And do come back later when you’ve caught your breath!

    • So funny, Mary Lee, I read that poem before publishing the post and loved it enough to forward it to David, but I didn’t think of the connection with Hass until you mentioned it – at which point the lightbulbs in my brain all turned out. So thanks for the text-to-text connection! And do come back later when you’ve caught your breath!

  2. WOW! Mary Lee’s “hit me hard in the gut” is so true.

    Beauty is only skin deep. What he orginally loved, or thought he loved was totally challenged when she was less than perfect, according to his reaction. And the bowl of roses had the appearance, but what was it covering up?

    So, good realistic fiction should hit us with an emotional response and make us think / question both what the words say and the underlying implied author’s message.

    Serious thinking. Off to read the other articles as well. Love this work!!! ❤

    • Love how people are responding both to the story and each other! And hitting us with an emotional response or making us think and question seems much more precise (to use Tara’s word) and accurate than entertaining!

  3. What did I do? OK, I visualized (immediately), re-read words, phrases, to monitor my understanding (and visualize more), and kept track of character feelings. I don’t question (I like to let it unfold) but I probably predict a lot (I love solving mysteries!). The other stories were also great to see how the author can manipulate our feelings. I learned a lot!

    • Amazing, isn’t it, how much the writers make us feeling, which I think is different than entertaining us (though when I showed my daughter this piece, she said it depended on how you define entertainment). And I, too, think it’s important for readers to be open to how a story unfolds.

    • Amazing, isn’t it, how much the writers make us feeling, which I think is different than entertaining us (though when I showed my daughter this piece, she said it depended on how you define entertainment). And I, too, think it’s important for readers to be open to how a story unfolds.

  4. Vicki,
    You asked:
    “…please share your thinking about Hass’s piece and/or realistic fiction in general by tweeting (using the hashtag #tomakeaprairie) or leaving a comment here.”

    I love this prose poem. I first heard of it in Jane Hirshfield’s book, TEN WINDOWS: HOW GREAT POEMS TRANSFORM THE WORLD. A poem like this really does transform the world, at least for me.

    Which may be at the heart of how I’m thinking about “realistic fiction”, in general: it being a way to transform the world, or at least A world (if not the definite article) — to take what is and set it on edge for another perspective; or better because it is less distant, the way it marinates, then stews carefully cut chunks of a world into some delightful dish that, though the spicing may be unfamiliar, through my eating it becomes a part of the next me I will be.

    Realistic fiction is a story about the body, what nourishes and sustains and transforms.

    One reason I love this poem is that the story I hear it tell about the body is one of injury and healing; how, over the course of a life scars are inevitable and they are the visible reminder that THIS has happened and I have survived. And there is a beauty in that.

    I found myself drawn to the Japanese painter, too, especially her ease with herself “…the way she moved her body, used her hands, looked at him directly…”; her directness and insight: “I think you would like to have me. I would like that, too.” I found myself thinking how trite the young composer was, to not see beauty in the scars. And maybe that would be enough to transform a world. But what made this poem-dish so delectable for me was the dead bees under the rose petals. When I first read those lines, I imagined the “sting” the painter might have intended for the composer – an eye for an eye, a sting for a sting – and marveled at the artful way she gave it back to him. But on subsequent readings, I began to see that she had actually ALSO given him the great gift, a metaphor that might, if he were lucky, help him transform his world and, to the extent I am him, help me transform my world, too. For me, the story about the body, the story of life, became the story of the blue bowl. Filled with both dead bees AND rose petals, the one cannot exist without the other.

    • Wow, Steve. I have to admit, my first reaction was good for her! But reading your response made me think about the co-existence of the two. Then I thought of the sting of beauty. What a provocative story. It lingers.

      • Hi, Julieanne. My first response was the same. Subsequent readings didn’t change that awe I felt at her perfect response, but they did add another layer, at least for me. Here’s why I had that second response: I started wondering about the difference in age between the two, which just HAS to mean they see life somewhat differently. It didn’t seem to me that the “young composer” had much of a sense of the beauty that the sting of life can bring….YET, and the older painter seemed like she’d learned to turn even this kind of rejection (one she seemed to almost expect from him?) into a work of art. In fact, I began to wonder if one of the reasons she seems so “together” is that she’d learned to weave together the petals and the bees in her own life?

      • Even at sixty, I know I’m not always able to weave the petals and the bees together, but what a great thing to remember and try to aim for, that deeper, more complex and more graceful perspective!

    • As always Steve, your thoughts help me see so much more in a piece and really gets me thinking. I love the idea that literature (be it realistic fiction or poems) nourishes, sustains and transforms us, rather than just entertains – and the idea that life is both dead bees and rose petals. It is such an astounding image, though I do think, as I wrote to Tara that, it’s quite similar to the way Julie Brinklow ending Fireflies, with an image that captures the bittersweet of life. What a think to invite kids to consider!

  5. Sometimes there is nothing to say after we have read something like that; and to force our students to try to articulate what it “means”, as realistic fiction or poetry or anything, feels outright like pouring thought-feelings in a pressure cooker: be ready for what comes out if you don’t have the timing right. The thoughts can be too mushy or still too stiff.

    As someone who reads a lot and writes too, I know fiction is to be experienced. There is so much of human experience we don’t have words for but we try anyway.

    Last Fall I taught an intense unit on: “What is Progress?” to my 8th graders (all levels). We started by reading many nonfiction readings about the Nuclear Age—several perspectives: Einstein’s letter, to the families already living at the nuclear testing sites, nuclear fission, documentaries—to our current Digital Age. To wrap up the unit we listened to Leonard Nimoy narrate Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains.” I kid you not, there was silence for three full minutes after that and not a kid moved. I had never taught this unit before and I have seen students moved by fiction on many occasions but I had never witnessed anything like this in my 9 years. They couldn’t even say, “Whoa!”

    We were supposed to “discuss” the story for a day or two thereafter; but that’s all they wanted to talk about for weeks. The whole nonfiction unit had just come alive in their hearts and minds in a manner only fiction can make possible. The Nuclear Age was real now. They didn’t care whether Bradbury was considered a science fiction writer; in their understanding it was realistic fiction for sure.

    Thank you for this post, for all your posts, all your work, for always making teachers think deeply and for those of us who write fiction, giving us yet another new perspective.

    • Certainly, the piece is moving. I enjoyed the comments just as much as the story the piece told. In reading the replies, I’m reminded that there often are no right or wrong answers. The idea is to think deeply and respond with how the work uniquely and personally impacts you.

      • Yes, Karon! So important to move from answering getting to thinking and, I’d also say, feeling! And to read in a way that offers enough for both objective and subjective responses!

    • And thank you, Annie, for your thought response! I totally agree that we often push kids to identify “the meaning” or “the theme,” way before they’re really ready to. And whenever I read a text with teachers, which I try to do whenever I can, one of the most important things they recognize is how much they don’t want to jump to anything resembling a thesis when they finish. Instead, just as your eighth grader, they want to stay with the story, considering, questioning and pondering it more in order to more fully feel and understand it. And of course, everything that we say about realistic fiction applies to science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction, too. They’re all exploring people, life and the world we live in – even if the world of their work isn’t explicitly ours.

    • And thank you, Annie, for your thought response! I totally agree that we often push kids to identify “the meaning” or “the theme,” way before they’re really ready to. And whenever I read a text with teachers, which I try to do whenever I can, one of the most important things they recognize is how much they don’t want to jump to anything resembling a thesis when they finish. Instead, just as your eighth grader, they want to stay with the story, considering, questioning and pondering it more in order to more fully feel and understand it. And of course, everything that we say about realistic fiction applies to science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction, too. They’re all exploring people, life and the world we live in – even if the world of their work isn’t explicitly ours.

  6. Hi Vicki – Thank you of sharing three beautifully written narratives – such great examples of language and craft. “The Wallet” was hysterical. In just a few lines of narration, the reader gets to peek into the humor of this seventy year old man, “all oyster – no pearl!” Who’s fooling who? – genius ending as he, after setting up the sting, has to take off in a get away car! Tension is built by use of language alongside the play by play action. Whereas in “20/20, the simple responses and traveling move the story along, yet again, you have to think Who’s fooling who? As I was reading all three, I was imagining scenes in a film and was reminded of what I heard Martin Scorsee say in an interview with James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio. “What’s magical about filmmaking: “It’s interesting, when you cut a shot — that’s why I still love editing — you cut one shot and there’s camera movement and that sort of thing and it cuts to another shot it creates a third shot that’s in your mind that’s not there. It creates information usually that’s not there. It’s very subjective. That’s whats so magical about it.” Whether the punch line is to make you laugh, make you cry, or give simply give you pause to think, developing strong narrative writing skills lifts the level of ALL writing. Thanks for raising our awareness!

    • This reminds me, Laurie, of Betsy Hubbard’s great piece on Two Writing Teachers the other day about the power of narrative, where she shared this great quote by Jonathan Gotchall: “Human minds yield helplessly to the suction of story.” And I think that’s because, as one of the teachers said in Paramus, stories shake us out of our complacency by making us laugh, cry and think about the human condition.

  7. The deeper purpose of realistic fiction seems to be to invoke an understanding in the reader. I think writers write realistic fiction so that the reader will say, “Yes, I’ve felt that” or “I haven’t ever felt that but I feel it now.” It’s like the story is just the medium to pass human emotions through.

    • I think you’ve just offered us all an enduring understanding that’s so much more powerful than “realistic fiction tells made up stories that could be true.” And I wonder if writers also want us as readers to both feel and better understand something we’ve either experienced before or are encountering for the first time. Yes?

      • Yes. I hadn’t realized this before I started writing myself. I always thought writers wrote stories “to entertain.” That is what I had been taught, I suppose. But when I started writing stories, I realized I wanted my readers to find some truth in them, or to recognize themselves, or to think about the world a bit differently than they had before. I was writing to connect with other people more than anything else – to tell them something about myself and hope they understood it.

        That’s a much deeper reason than “to entertain.”

  8. I enjoyed connecting the detail within the writing to make meaning within my head. At first I thought only from the point of view of the Japanese artist. I let myself think about the writing during the day, and it expanded. As a reader, it’s so satisfying to dig deeper, to change your mind, to create a picture of the blue bowl that will probably stay in my head forever!
    So, now I’m wondering if I give my young readers enough time to think. I’m also wondering if I give my young readers opportunities to explore short, mysterious texts as rich as this example? Texts with more than one point of view – that’s what life is about. I’m on the hunt now!
    Fellow commenters, thanks for the extra sparks – Scorsese! – which I’ll be using in my teaching this week. Cheers.

    • Hello, Brette! Hope all is well in Australia! Ao glad you spoke to the satisfaction AND pleasure of thinking because, like you, I’m not sure we give kids enough time to feel how thrilling it is to think and change and expand our ideas. I think there’s lots of books for kids that end on what I sometimes call a bittersweet note – though I’ve encountered few images as powerful and haunting as the blue bowl is. But if you find one and introduce it to your kids, it might be interesting if you invited them to look for them as well.

  9. Oh my. What masterful pieces. What thoughts, quotes, and poems this post has provoked.
    These stories tug at humanity; the human error we all suffer from. Those base instincts we shamefully share and hide. To see the humor in vengeance or arrogance. I think realistic fiction challenges us to see ourselves as the young composer, not the Japanese painter. Feel the sting we might or have created in the world and amend our ways. That’s the gift of realistic fiction. We’re not the rose petals, we’re the bees.

    • As you’ll see in next week’s post, Julieanne, the teachers I worked with in New Jersey this year, also zoomed in on that “human error we all suffer from,” and introduced the concept of flaws to their third fourth graders, which was amazing. And I love the idea that stories not only tug at humanity but also make us feel both the beauty and the sting in a way that hopefully helps us remember our better selves in difficulty moments.

  10. Pingback: Your Heinemann Link Round-Up for August 28–September 3 - Heinemann

  11. Pingback: How Vision Can Inform Instruction: Applying a Deep Understanding of Genre | To Make a Prairie

  12. What a wonderful ride you’ve taken me on this morning, Vicki, and colleagues. Reading your thinking enriches and grows my own. The three stories will haunt my psyche as I move through my day. And that, I believe is what you’re talking about in how we perceive and teach realistic fiction or essay. The characters and their interactions moved each of us. That is what we want in our own writing and to teach our children. Makes me want to try to write a short story again.

    These lines…
    From A Story About The Body, “Chest cavity-like music-withered quickly”
    From 20/20, “Her eyes were big and blue and capable of seeing wonderful sights”
    From The Wallet, “allowing the false billfold to rise like a dark wish and be grappled by the passing shadow of a hand”.
    Each of these powerful lines are turning points in stories about people who do not at once understand things about themselves or each other. The young man desirous of the Japanese painter until he learns of what lies beneath. The more worldly experienced man dismissive of his companion until he learns of her gratitude for the experience he provided her. The father, disdainful of pickpockets who then finds himself delighted in fleeing the scene he has created.

    And this is the beauty of story … that it leads to discovery of connections and to questions and more discovery both of the events of the story and to ways these events connect to our own experience. Now that’s the next part to ponder as I move along today!

    Thank you Vicki, and everyone who’s responded with their thinking. Beautiful!

    • And thank you, Dana, so much for responding to all three stories! Does make me remember my time in LA – in fact, I can hear Fayneesa saying delicious in my head! We just have to figure out how to carve out time for teachers to have these kinds of discussions over texts in school.

  13. Pingback: From Content & Concepts to Practice: Setting Students Up to Construct Understandings | To Make a Prairie

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s