Abstract Art And English

In a stack of papers called Instruction.

  • Dec
  • 03
  • 2007

On Friday, I collected a piece of writing (another paragraph) based on “Young Goodman Brown” (Word) (PDF), the short story we just read. In an effort to turn my current-year mediocre ideas into next-year strong ideas, here’s what I essentially told them on Thursday:

Writing As Abstraction

You say, “I’m an abstract artist today and I’m going to draw something that is in this classroom.” With four big rectangles drawn on the board, flash a proud smile to the students. “Well, what is it?” Abstract art using four rectangles

They say many things: books, cabinets, bird’s-eye view of desks, ceiling tiles, bookshelves, the computers, windows, doors, the floor.

You say, “But how can one drawing be so many different things?”

They say something like, “Because it doesn’t have much detail, but there are shapes there.”

You say, “Right. And because of that, we can read so many different things into what this is. But it would be ridiculous to think that this drawing is of, say, your Yankee’s cap or this cup of coffee. As long as you can explain it to me and it’s within reason, you are right. The same applies to any text. Take out character names and details; you abstract the text so that you just have a vague outline of the summary, kind of like those four rectangles on the board. ‘Young Goodman Brown’ isn’t a story about a Puritan guy who goes off into the woods with possibly the devil and meets up with his wife in some kind of evil communion. What’s it about?”

They say, “It’s about someone who realizes something that changes his life” or maybe “it’s the story of someone good who goes through a bad experience” or possibly even “this shows how much bad dreams can affect you.”

You say, “Surely, you can relate to that. And, just as surely, that tells you something about the world you live in. That’s theme and a big part of making sense out of anything you read.”

I Wish

I wish there was a series of steps that a reader could follow in order to make sense out of any text encountered, kind of like there’s a series of steps to follow in order to solve any addition problem no matter the numbers involved. Fortunately, the same logic applies to 2+2 as applies to any matter of addition. Reading isn’t like that. There are as many possible formulas to reaching understanding as there are texts to be read. Some steps increase your chance of understanding, but nothing is guaranteed.

If a formula for literature exists, though, this is part of it. Abstract the story so it’s a fuzzy version of what actually happened and you’ve got the makings of discovering the point of the piece. This doesn’t get us past the trouble of “I read it, but I have no idea what I just read,” but one step at a time, please.

Here’s another abstract drawing (what do you see?):
Abstract art using boxes, colors, and lines

That Paragraph

Just so you know, in a startling similarity to what I’ve experienced before, fractions shy of half failed this writing assessment (46%). I passed out papers this morning and everyone had 10 minutes. If you passed the assessment, go get vocab list #10. If you didn’t, rewrite the thing and turn it in. I’m hoping that the similarity to last year maintains, that I see the pass rate increase each time I give an assessment or assign a rewrite.

3 comments

1. Ben Chun says:

[12/3/2007 - 7:47 pm]

addition : reading :: making sense of math : making sense of text

I too wish there was a set of steps for both of the latter! But just knowing the steps doesn’t mean you know what you’re doing them. And we see this problem in both subjects — it’s hard to teach students to strive for a deep level of understanding that they aren’t sure exists since they’ve never experienced it.

I like the fact that you’re making analogies with your students and working within them… that’s a mind-stretching practice in and of itself!

2. Ben Chun says:

[12/3/2007 - 7:48 pm]

Oops… “what you’re doing them” should read “why you’re doing them”.

3. Todd says:

[12/4/2007 - 12:27 pm]

Sure, there’s the piece of making sense out of why you’d need to do a certain thing. But if you’re just talking about getting an answer, there’s a process to follow. Never mind if that answer is something that I go on to use, it’s a correct answer.

I’m just envious of the formulas that exist in other subject areas, math only being one of them.