What can we do when we confront something unfamiliar? Literature gives us one way to think through our options.
In Staging Literature—Proof's 7th and 8th grade language arts class—we've started the year reading two beautifully rich short stories that are nonetheless tremendously odd in many ways. In Gabriel García-Márquez's “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” we met a small group of townspeople who re-imagine their own village in the course of telling to each other the likely story of a body that washes up on their beach. And in Franz Kafka's “A Hunger Artist,” we met a professional faster who strives desperately for honor and understanding in a world that views his “art” as only a passing fad.
Like the villagers with their drowned man, who must decide how they'll relate to the stranger in their midst, we discussed in class what options we have when confronted with something that seems unfamiliar—more specifically, a strange piece of literature, a story in which the characters seem “abnormal,” who perhaps value different things or live by different codes. We worked on moving beyond the “this is weird!” reaction in order to ask questions of the text, to try to understand it better on its own terms, and to find meaning in it. The methods of reading and interpretation that we've been cultivating have therefore been a practice in open-mindedness and compassion, as well as in intellectual curiosity.
Moving between full-class discussions, smaller group work, and individual writing, students have been learning to express their thoughts clearly and persuasively, using evidence from the text, and to listen to and engage with their classmates' ideas—not just agreeing or disagreeing but building ideas collaboratively. Our focus has been on a type of reading called close reading, in which students get to be detectives and treat the text as an intricate body of tiny clues to observe and interpret. This type of reading will form the backbone of all the writing they will do in high school and in college.
For the past two weeks, the students have been working on a multi-step brainstorming assignment to prepare them, in the coming weeks, to write and revise a short essay on one of the two stories we've read so far. Each of them has come up with a topic, mined the text for quotations related to that topic, found patterns among these quotations, come up with an initial hypothesis—a claim about how their topic works and its significance in the text as a whole—and done many free-writes along the way. Each step of the brainstorming that they've worked on for homework was one that we first practiced in class as a group. For example, students practiced finding patterns among a set of quotations and arranging them into groups: with each quotation on an index card, students sat in small groups on the floor moving the cards into different formations—using their visual and tactile senses to help them think flexibly and see the story from multiple angles.
This brainstorming assignment has challenged each student to use her analytic and creative powers to the fullest in order to create an original argument interpreting a piece of literature. And I must say, they have truly risen to the occasion and come up with some amazing ideas!