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

A Cornucopia of Ideas & Wise Words from NCTE

Cornucopia

Once again I couldn’t quite get this out before the turkey was done. But as I did last year, this Thanksgiving weekend I’d like to share some inspiring words and ideas from NCTE as a way of giving thanks to all the educators out there whom I consider to be part of my professional leaning community, especially all you blog readers who, week after week, renew my faith in teachers. The theme of this year’s convention was (Re)Inventing the Future of English, and as happened last year, I detected what seemed to me to be a pattern in the sessions I attended: that the future we’re in the process of reinventing is one of “wholeness and possibility,” not data points and accountability, where the act of teaching children entails “being passionate together.”

Opal School InvitationThe words quoted above were spoken by Susan Mackey of the Opal School in Portland, Oregon, in a session on “Playful Literacy” that I participated in, along with three of Susan’s colleague from Opal, Mary Gage Davis, Levia Friedman and Kerry Salazar. The session was filled with stories (more of which can be found on their blog) about children and teachers who were given the time, the space and, most critically, the trust to follow their curiosity, seek connections and wonder, imagine and dream, knowing that whatever came out of that time would ultimately be more lasting and meaningful than anything that was rushed.

This included the story of a fifth grade boy whose class had just returned from a trip to a rock and ropes challenge course. Back at school his teacher Levia had set out some materials, including some slabs of clay, which she invited the students to use to explore their feelings about their adventure before they turned to writing. And this particular boy discovered that if he put his finger in the slab of clay and then pulled it out quickly, it would make a popping noise, which, delightfully to some classmates, sounded just like fart. He also discovered that the sound became louder if he added some slip to the clay, and soon a whole corner of the room was consumed with creating a chorus of farts.

Focus Daniel GolemanMost of us—including me—would be tempted to see this as a case of a disruptive student leading others to be off task, which, in turn, could lead Levia to losing control of the room. But the gift that Opal teachers give their students—and those of us willing, as Susan said, to trust the process and embrace uncertainty—is the belief that that play was actually important. Not only does it support students becoming authors of their own learning, it puts them into what Daniel Goleman calls in his great book Focus a state of open awareness, which as he describes below, is critical for developing new ideas:

“The nonstop onslaught of email, texts, bills to pay—life’s ‘full catastrophe’—throws us into a brain state antithetical to the open focus where serendipitous discoveries thrive. In the tumult of our daily distractions and to-do lists, innovation dead-ends; in open time it flourish . . . Open time lets the creative spirit flourish; tight schedules kill it.”

In this case, rather than stopping the silliness and having students get down to work, Levia let it run its course. And her faith that that time was important was affirmed when, after his slab of clay fell apart from too much water and fart pops, the same student created this:

Opal School Clay Sculpture2Once—and only once that was done—was he ready to pick up a pencil and his writer’s notebook and write this amazing entry: “It’s like a hollow feeling when you fall down. You fall into this pit and you start to swing. You’re in a hole, it’s slippery inside and you have no idea what’s going on. My body shut itself down and I close my eyes and I thought it was dreaming. I was super happy after I did it. You have to face you fears.”

I believe that something was getting processed in this student’s mind as he played. Feelings and ideas were coalescing into powerful images and words, just as his fear transformed into triumph after that incredible fall. And none of that would have happened, I suspect, if he’d been given an onslaught of worksheets and graphic organizers and told to write down, say, some sensory details in boxes labeled ‘sounds’ ‘tastes’ and ‘feel’. Instead Levia gave him the time, space and trust to “encounter the unexpected,” which is a phrase Tom Romano, author of the new book Fearless Writing, shared in a packed-to-the-gills session I attended called “Keeping Poetry Central to Our Core.”

Fearless WritingChaired by the ever-gracious Maureen Barbieri, the session also included Georgia Heard and Linda Rief who, along with Tom, reminded the audience again and again that reading and writing aren’t just skills we need to master to secure a place in college or a job but the means by which we can, in Tom’s words, bring “ourselves into realization.”

Tom also shared his attempt to rewrite the Common Core’s Production and Distribution of Writing standards in a more meaningful and gutsy way. Rather than requiring students to “produce clear, coherent writing; develop and strengthen writing; and use technology to produce and publish writing,” he urged us instead to first invite students to:

“Write expansively, trusting the language in them, letting it gush, leading them to surprise and insights that enables them to craft writing of substance, vision and voice.”

Georgia Heard pushed back as well on the reading standards, suggesting that before we ask students to analyze the craft, structure and meaning of a poem as the Common Core requires, we need to invite them to connect to poetry “by guiding them toward finding themselves and their lives inside the poem.” She showed what this could look like with a group of young readers who, in a month’s time, came to truly understand what Robert Frost meant when he said that “poetry provides the one permissible way to say one thing and mean another.” And she shared this quote by the theologian and writer Matthew Fox, which I’m, in turn, sharing with every teacher I work with:

“Knowledge that is not passed through the heart

is dangerous.”

Finally, teacher and author Linda Rief shared how she set up her class of eighth graders to do precisely what Georgia recommended: to find themselves inside a poem. She brought out every anthology and collection of poems that she had in her classroom and invited her students Awakening the Heart 2to browse through and read some in order to find poems “that speak to your heart.” Once they found one, Linda asked them to write out the poem in the their own hand, forming each word themselves, then illustrate the poem, write a response about why you chose it, and research the poet to find out what he might have to say about reading and writing.

This led students to read more poems than they ever had before and to spend more time with those that spoke to them. One girl, for instance, loved the poem “Burning the Old Year” by Naomi Shihab Nye, though she couldn’t quite say why. Something about the images and language struck a chord in her, and in order to understand that better, she went back to the poem again and again, reading it carefully and closely and, as she put it in her response “sleeping on her confusion,” until she discovered something about both herself and the poem.

Inspired by Georgia’s idea of heart maps, Linda’s students eventually created heart books: collections of hand-written, illustrated poems that spoke to their hearts, accompanied by their responses to the poems and the poets thoughts on reading and writing. These books were similar to ones I saw in another session, though that will have to wait for another post, as this one has gotten long. But I hope these words and ideas have awakened something in your own heart, as they did for me, and that perhaps in the words of the Opal School, you’ve begun to “imagine possibilities that you couldn’t have imagined before.”

Imagine Mosaic