In recent years, much has been said about creative thinking, teamwork and research as positive resources that will support the advancement of human culture. I believe that it is important for those of us who work with the children and youth of today to constantly rethink these concepts, and make connections between them and contemporary society. We must experiment with creative thinking, teamwork and research in concrete contexts so these dispositions can evolve. - Vea Vecchi
I remember reading about Louise Rosenblatt's transactional theory of reading for the first time years ago in graduate school. I remember then being moved by it in a way academic theories don't typically inspire. She wrote, "The reading of any work of literature is of necessity, an original and unique occurance involving the mind and emotions of some particular reader." Of course it is. But we teachers -- well, we have been known to grapple with some control issues, haven't we? So how are we supposed to teach reading if every reading is unique -- let alone every reader?
Aimee Buckner's delightful book, Notebook Connections, accompanied me this week as I waded into this theoretical jungle during Literacy Studio with the 8 year-olds at Opal School. With her guidance in my hand, we have been considering strategies of visualization readers use to comprehend text. But I have taught myself to wonder at every turn -- what might be the role of materials in this experience? How might materials support deeper understanding -- creative thinking, teamwork, and research? The India Ink on our shelves called to me. What possibilities might it hold?
What messy (literally and otherwise) territory this was: asking the children to find an image from the piece they were writing -- it's a piece about place, a unit of study intended to get the children thinking about how to craft a piece of writing that really takes a reader somewhere -- and use the India Ink to paint that image in black line. The material is compelling, with strong, rich lines. And the paintings were lovely. So far so good.
But my real interest was in the kind of visualization that Buckner writes about as "experiencing the story". This, to me, is the transaction. Buckner writes, "The first time a child actually experiences a book, it's like no other. The surprised look on a child's face when she or he first discovers that magical world and finally knows what it's like to be in a story makes the struggle of teaching and learning worth it. It makes me feel like I've saved a child's reading life. A bit dramatic, but true. It's hard to really experience a book and then not continue to read for the rest of your life."
It's the experience that supports the advancement of human culture. It is the transaction that is at once a moment of deep connection and unique interpretation that supports relationship and possibility, and the disposition to continue. To want more.
8 year-old Opal students are accustomed to the experience of reading. And so I was curious about the layers of complexity that would arise when faced with the challenge of planning for the experience of the reader from the perspective of the writer. What is the risk in the transaction from the writer's point of view? Is there desire to control? Or something else? What assumptions am I making about the transaction from my vantage point as an experienced and literate adult? What if I had grown up learning in an environment that was less about teaching me to see boundaries and more about supporting me to think across and around them? What would I be able to perceive now? These questions help me remember to listen carefully to the children. Those boundaries aren't present for them. What can they see that has become invisible to me?
These young writers took me on. We looked at a snippet of writing from one student's piece as a group. As the readers shared their experience with the snippet, two notable things happened. First, one student remarked, "You know, your brain just kind of fills things in if they are missing." And the writer acknowledged that was okay with her. She listened to the variety of unique occurances her writing had caused in the readers around the room and she was fine with it. This took me a little off guard, but I was intrigued by her willingness to let their minds fill in. She didn't feel the need for control. She seemed enriched and engaged by their participation.
What might be the role of materials? This next part felt really risky so, as the group got to work on their own drafts, I quietly pulled two girls to the studio and introduced them to the colored drawing inks. I handed them each other's India Ink paintings (after scanning the originals) and asked them to read the words the other had written and look at the painting that went with them. I asked them to use the colored inks to fill in their own experience.
I was really worried about this. It seemed too simple. Or confusing. Or abstract. Or something. But there was a glimmer of surprise and delight when they realized they would be painting on someone else's idea. And that encouraged me.
Here are the finished paintings:
I asked the writer how she felt to have her image filled in with someone else's experience. She smiled and said, "I was so suprised! Those aren't the colors that I imagined at all when I was painting the black lines. But I like it!"
This writer said, "I love the red dots she added." I asked her, "Did you imagine red dots in your image?" She shook her head. I said, "Yes, they make me think of little treasures sparkling in the water." And she said, "They make me think of the blood rising up to the top of the water from the shark attack down below." And the painter/reader laughed and said, "Those red drops were an accident!" Which made us all laugh.
And I'm left thinking tonight about how natural that transaction is. Pondering the need for such a complicated theory. So natural, delightful, inspiring to the children themselves. And I'm grateful once again to be in a place where creative thinking, teamwork and research are under constant experimentation. They evolve in me, so I can help sustain them in the children. And they can carry them forward to advance our human culture.