Monday, July 2, 2007

Read, Write, Discuss: Repeat

About twenty years ago I participated in a six-week summer workshop sponsored by the Boston Writing Project. The instructor began each class by having one of us read out loud an excerpt from a piece of writing that interested us, after which we would be given seven minutes to write down our first thoughts in response to the reading. One the writing time was up, we would share our responses in discussion, either as a large group or in smaller groups of two or three. I don't remember too much about what else we did during that summer session, but that one activity stayed with me. There is something very satisfying, very connected, very grounded, about that sequence: read, write, share. It gets at core skills, it brings reading and writing and thinking and talking together in an integrated way, and it leads in a very organic, unforced way to explorations of elements of craft that are, well, educational.

It usually takes about forty-five minutes to work through the entire process. If digressions or spinoff conversations occur, and they often do, it can take longer than that. During the regular school year, most classes are either and hour or an hour and a half long, so it's not really possible to use the read, write, share sequence as a part of the everyday routine. But right now I'm in the middle of a six-week summer school session, and we have class for three hours a day, so we've been doing the drill every day.

One of the things I like about the exercise is that I get to find out about new things as well. For example, on Friday a student named Megan decided to share with us an excerpt from a YA novel called Inkheart by Cornella Funke. In the selection we read, there is a band of what seem like a group of pirate mercenaries, led by a man named Capricorn, who are forcing a captive named Mo (nicknamed Silvertongue) to read out loud, because in so doing, he brings the world rendered in the book to life, and the pirates are able to plunder real gold and jewels from the virtual world. After the reading is done and the riches plundered, the pirates insist that the book itself be burned.

It seems like a pirate's dream: an inexhaustible source of riches. But there's catch: sometimes people from the books come to life and present themselves to the pirates (who immediately lock them up for later use as slave laborers); and sometimes people from the real world, like members of the pirate gang, disappear from this life, presumably into the fictional world that exists as a kind of parallel universe. Here is what happens as Silvertongue begins reading The Thousand and One Nights:

A boy was suddenly standing between the still smoldering braziers where Capricorn had burned the books. Meggie was the only one to notice him. All the others were too absorbed in the story... The boy was some three or four years older than Meggie. The turban around his head was dirty, his eyes dark with fear in his brown face. He blinked and rubbed them as if he could wipe it all away — the wrong picture, the wrong place. He looked around the church as if he had never seen such a building before, and how could he have? There wouldn't be any churches with spires in his story, or green hills like those he would see outside. The robe he wore went down to his brown feet, and in the dim light of the church it shone blue as a patch of sky.

Meggie wondered: What will happen when they see him? He's certainly not what Capricorn was hoping for.

But Capricorn had already noticed the boy.

"Stop," he commanded, so sharply that Mo broke off in mid-sentence and raised his head.

Abruptly, and rather unwillingly, Capricorn's men returned to reality. Cockerell was the first on his feet, "Hey, where did he come from?" he growled.

The boy ducked, looked around with a terrified expression, and ran for it, doubling back and forth like a rabbit. But he didn't get far. Three men immediately sprang forward and caught him at the feet of Capricorn's statue.

Mo put the book down on the flagstones beside him and buried his face in his hands.

"Hey, Fulvio's gone!" cried one of Capricorn's men. "Vanished into thin air!" They all stared at Mo. There it was again, the nervousness in their faces, but this time mingled not with admiration but with anger.

"Get rid of that boy, Silvertongue!" ordered Capricorn angrily. "I have more than enough of his kind. And bring Fulvio back."

Mo took his hands away from his face and stood up.

"For the millionth time, I can't bring anyone back," he said. "The fact that you don't believe me doesn't make that a lie. I can't do it. I can't decide who or what comes out of a book, nor who goes into it."

I was struck as this passage was being read by how cleverly the author is using the narrative to explore indirectly and concretely the same sorts of questions from the domain of metacognition that some theoreticians and literary critics have been trying to work out about how those parallel worlds — the world of the here and now and the world conjured in the imagination by black marks on a piece of paper — are related. Here, for example, is the opening passage from Sven Birkerts "The Woman in the Garden" (from The Gutenberg Elegies ):

I HAVE IN MY MIND an image—a painting. Either it really exists, or else I have conjured it up so often that it might as well.

The painting belongs to a familiar genre—that of the pensive figure in the garden. I see a bench, a secluded bower. A woman in Victorian dress is gazing away from a book that she holds in one hand. The image is one of reverie and privilege. But these attributions hardly begin to exhaust its significance. If reverie or privileged leisure were the point, then the book would not figure so profoundly in my mental reconstruction. Indeed, it is the book that finally grips my attention. I have it placed, if not literally then figuratively, in the center of my visual field. At the vanishing point. The painting is, for me, about the book, or about the woman's reading of the book, and though the contents of the pages are as invisible as her thoughts, they (the imagined fact of them) give the image its appeal.

Writing this, I feel as though I'm venturing into a labyrinth I may never exit. Already I find that my thoughts are cross-hatched with corrections and qualifications. For one thing, I suggested just now that the woman was thinking, had thoughts, as she looked away from the page. Not true. The whole point of my summoning her up is to fasten upon a state that is other than thinking. If she were thinking, she would be herself, contained fully within her circuits. But for me the power of the image lies precisely in the fact that she is planted in one reality, the garden setting, while adrift in the spell of another. That of the author's created reality. The business of interpretation gets more complicated when I think that the image was presumably held in mind and executed by a painter working at an easel, and that I have it in my mind not through direct perception, but in memory — or in my imagination.

What compels me is that the painter has tried to find a visible expression for that which lies in the realm of the intangible. Isn't this the most elusive and private of all conditions, that of the self suspended in the medium of language, the particles of the identity wavering in the magnetic current of another's expression? How are we to talk about it?

I zero in on the book itself. It is unmarked, unidentified — a generic signifier. But it does not belong to the ordinary run of signifiers: It is an icon representing an imagined and immaterial order. The book, whatever it is, holds dissolved in its grid of words a set of figments. These the reader will transform into a set of wholly internal sensations and emotions. These will, in turn, prove potent enough to all but eclipse her awareness of the surrounding world. The woman looks up from her book. She looks not at the garden but through it. What she sees, at most, is a light-shot shimmering of green, nothing more. Of the bench she is entirely oblivious.

I see the book. Inside the book are the words. They are themselves the threshold between the material and immaterial, the outward and the inward. The book is a thing, the page is a thing, as are the letters of the words, pressed to the pages by the printing press. They are tiny weights of ink. But if the physical book can be seen as a signifier, then the words are signifiers raised to the hundredth power. Signification is their essence, their entire reason for being. The word is the serpent eating its tail; it is the sign that disappears in its act of signing — the signing is not complete until the word has disappeared into its puff of meaning. At the instant of apotheosis it ceases to be itself; when it has brokered the transaction, it vanishes, reappearing only when the eye has moved on. This is the paradox of paradoxes: The word is most signifier when it least signifies.

But enough. What about the woman in the garden? About the meaning of reading? What is it we do when we brush our eyes over sheaves of print, and why do so many of us elect to do it for our own pleasure? What is the connection between the reading process and the self? Is this a question that can even be answered? I'm not sure. But if it can't, maybe there are others that can be, such as: What is the difference between the self when reading and when not reading? Or: "Where am I when I am involved in a book?

Since I have just been re-reading Birkerts, that connection was easy to make, and it's one of the things I wound up writing about during my seven minutes.

The students had other fish to fry. One thing that came up in the discussion was that the students were impressed with the description. When I asked them to point at passages that they thought had particular descriptive power, one student selected this one, from earlier in the excerpt:

There was no smell of salt and rum when Mo began reading this time. The air in Capricorn's church grew hot. Meggie's eyes began to burn, and when she rubbed them she found sand sticking to her knuckles. Once again, Capricorn's men listened to Mo's voice with bated breath, as if they were turned to stone. Capricorn alone seemed to feel nothing of the magic. But his eyes showed that even he was spellbound. They were fixed on Mo's face, as unmoving as the eyes of a snake, and his body seemed tense, like a dog scenting its prey.
So, if this is "good description," which the students agreed it was, now the question becomes, what makes it good? What is this writer doing here that works? If you wanted to write something which was successful in the way that this piece of writing is successful, what would you have to do? The students zeroed in pretty quickly on the two similes in the last sentence: first, that similes and metaphors are useful for emphasis, for dramatic impact; and secondly, that the placement of the similes at the very end of the sentence redoubles the emphasis. Once the students, reading as writers, have made this kind of functional observation about the way that a pretty good writer has achieved a certain effect, they can begin thinking about how to use this fairly interesting new tool in the next piece of writing they do.

This whole post has been by way of illustration of a process. I've been thinking a lot this summer about what exactly I'm trying to do as a teacher, what exactly it is that I'm hoping students are going to learn in my class, and what kinds of classroom experiences seem to foster whatever that is. I've got answers to each of those questions, but the answers do tend to move around on me a lot. In my next post I'll try to walk myself through one set of answers, following up on what I've been sketching out here. But what I like about the read, write, discuss sequence is that it models the connections I'm trying to make. More to come.

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