On Teaching Interpretation

I want my students to be able to think for themselves. This is my teaching goal everyday. Teaching interpretation in a way that enables my students to think for themselves has been something that I’ve thought a lot about for the past decade.

It began ten years ago when I was teaching fourth grade. We were reading the book Tuck Everlasting. As a whole class, we were noticing Natalie Babbitt’s use of time: sunrise, noon, sunset, and midnight. I had created an assignment for my students- “Note each event that is associated with a time period.” We were analyzing the connection between the mood & intensity of the event and the time of day when it occurred.

I will never forget one of my students asking me, “Ms. Johansen, if you hadn’t told me to look for this, how would I know?” At first, I laughed inwardly- such an astute question from a fourth grader. But then, I was fearful. I didn’t know how to answer. So I answered sternly and quickly, “This is why you have teachers. They will tell you what to look for.” This was one of my teaching-cringe moments. The moment when you know you are giving a terrible answer. My student wanted to be independent. She was looking for a strategy to notice the author’s use of mood, time, and symbolism. She wanted to learn how to think for herself. Above all, she was excited to learn how to notice hidden gems in a text and make her own interpretations. I let her down that day. And I’ve always remembered it.

At the time, I didn’t know how to answer her. I didn’t know which strategies to teach or even that there were strategies that could help her. I was simply making assignments and expecting my students to follow my directions. Now I know differently. I LOVE teaching strategies to students. I cannot imagine teaching any other way. Students need strategies to make the implicit, explicit, and the abstract, concrete. They can do this hard, thinking work on their own.

Redoes are vital. Since my student asked me that question ten years ago, I’ve had a dozen or so redoes. Now when students ask that question, I answer, “That’s a great question! I’m so happy that you want to uncover parts of a text that may seem hidden, on your own! Let’s talk about the strategies you can use and which elements you can be on the lookout for. I bet you’ll find many hidden gems on your own!”

Teaching strategies for helping students think about an author’s use of time and mood:

  1. Use the clip “Decision” from Disney’s Mulan (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zC2LGK9BdjU&feature=related) to discuss the time of day, light and dark, and weather used by the animators to create the mood of the scene. “Just like these animators, authors use the time of day to create the mood of the scene. It is important to notice the time of day in a story. It may be important and help you feel the mood of the scene.”
  2. Have students think about their own daily schedules. What moods do they associate with different times of the day? What activities take place at different times? How does light and darkness affect their moods and activities during the day. Why might this be important in texts as well?
  3. Use a text like Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt to keep track of the author’s use of time (sunrise, noon, sunset, and midnight) and the mood of the event. Creating a chart or using a graphic organizer is best for this lesson. Students may notice that moments of revelation happen at sunrise, whereas, moments of intense action and emotions happen at midnight. (It is also good to notice the colors associated with these time periods. They may be symbolic.)
  4. Most importantly: Create a classroom chart that lists the many ideas students may want to be on the lookout for in a text. “Time of Day” should be on that chart.