Thursday, October 18, 2007

Good Listeners, Good Readers

No, this isn't a post about kindergartners or other small children. It's not about sitting and listening quietly, or "sounding out" words. Or using whole language approach, phonics or anything of that ilk.

This is about how my high school students amaze me every single day.

Yes, they're uncommonly good listeners in class. In the utopia where I teach, there are virtually no behavior problems.

And yes, certainly my American Literature students are very, very good readers. My co-teacher and I are throwing them, head first, into a huge survey of American literature with only 24 contact sessions for the year. We will cover Hawthorne to Amy Tan, Dickinson to Dorothy Parker, Sojourner Truth to Lorraine Hansberry, the musical Oklahoma, Poe, Fitzgerald, Melville, and well, you get the point. And for those who were amazed about my book meme reading list and how many of these books I've actually read, please remember that I teach this stuff - I have love to read these classics.

But I'm talking about something else. Something harder to define. It probably has something to do with Howard Gardner's theories about multiple intelligences.

One of my students can "see" literature through music. I believe that literature can be interpreted in many ways, and that writing essays is just one method of showing understanding. I guess I particularly believe this because I was so right-brained as a child, and would do much better if I were given a visual task. I could write stories, I could create pie charts, diagrams, diaramas, collages, booklets, interpret anything, as long as it didn't involve writing essays. I remember in college, I took a cosmology course and for my semester project, I wrote a series of poems explaining the laws of the universe that we had been studying. My professor had been skeptical at first, but then he was intrigued, and finally he ended up loving it. I used a great deal of technical detail, but it was much easier for me to think in images and fragments of words than it would have been for me to write a straightforward research paper.

Anyway, this student has an extraordinary ability to create soundtracks for various novels we have studied. Last year, he created a collection of music that was so on target for Oliver Twist that when my DS and I were driving to boy scouts and listening to this mix, we actually knew, without looking at his write-up, which section of the book each piece of music was for (we'd both read Oliver Twist and knew the book well). My student has done the same thing this year for The Scarlet Letter. During a particularly crazy day yesterday, I was transported, between my meetings, classes, etc., by listening to his simply perfect selections for the novel. This student also picks songs that are dramatic. You truly feel you've listened to a musical score when you've heard one of his mixes. I think he'd have a brilliant career in putting together music for films. To me, he defines a good listener. And... he's obviously a good reader because he can match the music to the very essence and all the significant points of a text.

He truly amazes me.

Then I have this other student. She is fourteen or fifteen and still very much a young girl. This doesn't mean she's immature; she's not. She's just young and naive and she doesn't have any idea how competent she is. She gets embarrassed easily and she is famous for blushing when she's unsure of an answer. A friend asked me to run her class on "Bartleby the Scrivener" by Melville. For those who haven't read it, "Bartleby" is one of the great puzzles of literature. Briefly, it's about a character, The Lawyer, who hires a scrivener, Bartleby, for his law practice. To make a long (really quite long) story short, Bartleby, who starts out as the perfect copy-scribe, ends up refusing to do activities by saying, "I prefer not to" until he finally dies in prison, puzzling The Lawyer, who has tried to help him, and also puzzling Melville readers for well over a century. It is a piece that has universally confused scholars of American literature, and it is a piece that is studied primarily because it's shorter than Moby Dick and Billy Budd, so you can "include" Melville, without really "including" him, if you know what I mean.


This girl walks into class yesterday and we all sit down and my first question to the group is "What are your general impressions of the story?" And the students go around the table and talk about the pathos, the weirdness, the caricatures, and all the regular, general stuff. But then this girl, who's one of the youngest students in the class, pipes up with, "I noticed that there's a lot of references to walls, and death-walls, and The Lawyer refers to Bartleby as 'cadaver-like' and 'an apparition' and his paleness, and windowless rooms. Does that have any significance?"

It does indeed.

And, of course, she blushed furiously, convinced that she'd just uttered nonsense. But what an eye, huh? This was her first time through a very dense text and she managed to pick up all that symbolism as well as some of Melville's use of repetition.

I wish I had eyes and ears for books the way these wonderful kids do. They just surprise me every. single. day.

And now, please come join us for playing the writing game! We already have about eight folks signed up and you can get all the information


Jami said...

What? No Stephen King?

Unknown said...

It wasn't until I was in college that I encounterd Melville, Joyce, and others---while sitting in a classroom full of students who had already read these authors in high school. Reading "the greats" expanded my vision of the possible.

On another note wasn't it Dorothy Parker who when challenged to use the word "horticulture" in a sentence replied, "You can lead "a whore to culture, but you cannot make her think."?

Enjoy those perceptive students of yours!

robkroese said...

That is a really perceptive student. I remember reading The Great Gatsby in college and not getting most of the symbolism.

anno said...

You know how grateful I am that you are teaching this class. The students are perceptive and wonderful (how could I disagree?), but it is your thought-provoking questions and imaginative assignments that inspire your students to search deeply and respond creatively to the works they are reading. Having you as a teacher makes a HUGE difference.

Rebecca said...

what great students! But I have to agree with Anno that an enthusiastic teacher can make all the difference.

Now, do you and Anno teach at the same school?????

Jen said...

No, Jami, probably not at my current teaching post, lol.

Yes, Greg - and I love Dorothy for just that sort of reason...

We have Gatsby coming up - I'm kind of shaking in my shoes because it's not my favorite novel by a long shot, for just the reasons you mentioned, Diesel

Thanks, Anno! You know how much I love having m in my classes!

And yes, Becky, we do!

soccer mom in denial said...

My kids have known the preamble to the constitution since they were 2. Thanks to School House Rock. I'm a firm believer of using music for learning. It is how we all learned the alphabet.

I stink at symbolism so your students are WAY ahead of me.

Michelle | Bleeding Espresso said...

Your students are amazing! And like others have said, that's often a reflection of the teacher :)

painted maypole said...

poems? soundtracks? i want to be in a book club with you and your students!

Anonymous said...

How amazing your students are! I have to agree with Anno, though. They're also lucky to have such a supportive and enthusiastic teacher. Sadly, not every teacher would welcome such 'outside the box' thinking.