Sunday, April 12, 2015

Noticing: 4th Graders & Literary Language & Techniques

4th graders participating in comprehension conversation
I've been thinking about the logic that aligns content taught through whole class read aloud with small group comprehension conversations. Most of the times, this logic feels solid--but as is true for most situations there are, of course, exceptions.  I was thinking about this the other day when I met again with the four fourth graders who are in the middle of reading Nathaniel Hawthorne's retelling of the Persephone myth, The Pomegranate Seeds. The students were at the point in the story when Pluto had stolen Proserpina and carried her off in his chariot and they had arrived in his kingdom, the Underworld.

The students are keen to retell the text and do so with great integrity.  But their noticings are largely about plot. I want to introduce them to other literary elements and techniques, such as symbolism, personification, and diction and how these (in)form meaning. For example, when the narrator describes the River Lethe, I want the students to notice Hawthorne's diction and speculate about possible meanings the river might have. I want them to be stopped by the language and to allow themselves to not know and to wonder.
Sometimes, I tell them, I'm unsure why a passage might be significant, but the language stops me nonetheless. At these times, I'm not trying to understand the plot, but rather I'm noticing the author's language, diction, choice of words. I trust stopping and rereading even if I'm not sure why I'm doing so. Often I'll talk with my husband about the section of the text I think is important and that I just don't understand. Talking it out helps. That's one reason why you are working together in a group so you can talk to each other.  Let me show you what I mean. Let's take a closer look at the scene when Pluto and Proserpina come to the River Lethe. 
I read the text aloud as the children follow along. I want them to hear the words, not merely see them.
Screenshot of Page.  

The students notice what most advances the plot. They comment that Proserpina has been taken from her mother and is not of a mind to ever forget her, while Pluto would like nothing more. What gets lost in this reading is the River Lethe, Hawthorne's description of it, and what the river might symbolize. I get this. I know how familiar it is to ignore what doesn't seem to fit in to our understanding of the text,
Take a look again at just the first paragraph where Hawthorne describes the River Lethe. What strikes you here? I ask.
Well the stream's really dark cause Proserpina says she's never seen anything like it, begins Kamila.
It's torpid. That means it's inactive, says Antoine as he reads the definition on the page and I comment that using the information, like word explanations, is smart.
Yeah, it seems stuck, adds Dionni.
Stuck? What makes you say that? I ask.
Here in this section, Dionni says pointing to a line in the text.
Go ahead and read that, please. Let's lean in and listen, I say to Antoine, Luis and Kamila.
Dionni begins to read, " moved as sluggishly as if it had quite forgotten which way it ought to flow, and had rather stagnate than flow either one way or the other." See the stream doesn't know which way to flow.
Does that strike you as unusual?
It's as if the stream has a mind, says Dionni.
The river is also blank, offers Kamila.
What do you mean? asks Luis.
It's empty. It's zero. It's a river of nothing.
Yeah I see that. A river of nothing. Pluto says he'll give her water from the river so she can forget. The river takes away, adds Luis. It makes you forget.
If Proserpina loses all of her memories of her life before being taken to the Underworld, what does she have left? I ask.
Nothing. Like the river, says Kamila.
Dionni, before you said the river had a mind. What were you thinking about that?
It didn't know which way to go. Like a person, Dionni explains.
Wow, that's good noticing. Hawthorne personifies the river. In literature, the River Lethe is also known as the river of forgetfulness. In order for shades, people who have died, to enter into the Underworld they had to first drink from the river so that they forget their earthly life.
Wait, that's what Pluto wants, says Luis with some urgency. It's not just her mother she'll forget. It's everything.
She'll be dead. She has to die, adds Antoine.
I take a moment to let those last thoughts linger before I say to the children, As you continue to read see if there are other descriptions by Hawthorne that make you take notice--that stop you. Don't worry about understanding those sections right away. Try reading the section aloud so you can hear it. That helps me a lot. 

In working with the students I realized that the difficulty of the text, especially Hawthorne's diction and his use of figurative language, allusion, and symbolism make many of the lessons learned during read aloud not easy to apply.  The students have read and identified symbolism and personification before. Yet, because these students are reading such a challenging text, the instruction during the small group work requires more support as application of lessons learned doesn't translate directly. Further, the quality of the literary text they are reading opens opportunities to learn content not prescribe at their grade level.  So far we have discussed reliable and unreliable narrators, omniscient narration, allusion, symbolism, and diction.  As I work with these students I am understanding how important the small group comprehension conversation is.

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