Saturday, November 1, 2014

Neil Gaiman & Lorenzo Mattotti Meet Molly Bang in Fifth Grade: An Embodied Reading of Hansel & Gretel

A child reading with a flashlight. (Reilly, Newark, NJ)

I. Seeing

So I have been thinking more about potential engagements with the Neil Gaiman and Lorenzo Mattotti's text, Hansel and Gretel that I initially began thinking about here.  I wondered how students might see the text if I was to engage them with Molly Bang's ideas about aesthetics that she outlines in Picture This: How Pictures Work.  Below is a slideshare that Rob Cohen and I have used with students that incorporates ten principles from Bang that answers her question: “How does the structure of a picture affect our emotional response?"

Bang explored this question by creating illustrations for Little Red Riding Hood in an attempt to learn how pictures work. Bang would later send the manuscript based on her exploration of this question (what later became Picture This) to Rudolph Arnheim and he responded by writing that Bang's book "uses the geometrical shapes not as geometry, which would not be all that new, not as pure percepts in the sense of psychology textbooks but entirely as dynamic expression" (p. 7 form Bang's Picture This).

Dynamic expression.
          Something enduring.

That's what I'm after--that's what it means to guide reading--to open spaces for children to wonder. Can fifth graders after exploring Bang's principles through play with paper, use some of those principles to compose visual responses at various points during their reading of the Gaiman/Mattotti text?  Will this process deepen and complicate their comprehension?

II. Making Enduring Work

When I taught grad school, this exploration of aesthetics was work I did via an initial course on theory, An Arts Approach to Literacy.  Rob translated this work into a series of engagements with eighth graders across a school year.  Beneath both of our work was the understanding that creating mental models (Kintsch, 1998) of what is read is necessary for comprehension and that the arts offer ways to get at elemental and embodied expressions of text and self and other.

What's Your Story? (M.A. Reilly, 2014)

Earlier in the year I was playing around with the idea of story and made the image above. I was not consciously thinking about Bang or her work on Red Riding Hood and yet, some of the principles she outlined found their way into my thinking as I composed, What's Your Story?  

Memory traces. 

III. Situating Close Reading

Kintsch, in a fascinating article, Musings about beauty (not yet published), posits that cognitive science can "illuminate the concept of beauty." Kintsch writes:
In reading a text, we distinguish the mental representation of the text itself – the textbase –and its knowledge and interest-based elaboration – the situation model (Kintsch, 1998). This elaboration can be automatic, as when experts fill in the gaps and links in a text within their domain of expertise, but it also is often conscious and indeed effortful, as when we labor to understand a difficult text in an unfamiliar domain. This labor is not confined to the initial reading but may continue as we ruminate about the implications of what we have read. Thus, memory traces are dynamic, with important consequences for the perception of beauty.
Kintsch clarifies the idea of memory traces being dynamic by asking his reader to image s/he is standing on a mountain top thinking about the beauty of the landscape below.
The mental representation of that event is not just visual, but emotional (the euphoria of having reached the summit), and embodied (the fatigue of the ascent). Cognition does not occur in a disembodied mind, but in an acting, feeling, perceiving person.
Reading a scene or any text cannot be limited to the tenets of close reading as they are espoused these days as the disconnected acts from the "acting, feeling, perceiving person."  As Kintsch argues, meaning is made via neural activity and is of course, embodied.

No body. No comprehension.

He writes:
The happiness we experience looking at some picture becomes an integral part of its mental representation. Emotions and bodily events are represented in our brains as patterns of neural activity, as are visual scenes or the semantic content of a story. 
Contrary to the reductionist attitude espoused by David Coleman and Sue Pimentel that reading can be limited to "what lies within the four corners of the text"--Kintsch would tell us differently,
as did Louise Rosenblatt, 
                          as did my mom when I was just a child.

IV. What Gets Found and Remade

In those early years my mom and I went twice a week to our local library that was housed those days in an old Victorian mansion. There were window seats there, something I did not have at home, and large windows that invited a reader to look out--to pause while reading and to get lost in other landscapes and think. I spent hours there, curled up on a cushion with a stack of books at my feet, as my mom perused the books she might want to read. My mom read a book a day and taught me by example that there's no limit to where the well loved and read text might lead us.

Yes I attended (even closely attended at times) to the words I read forming mental representations of the texts, thinking how the words, sentences and images worked together and extracting core ideas along the way. All of this though was conditioned and informed by what I knew and in turn this newly made knowledge informed my thinking.

My pausing. My look out the proverbial window was perhaps an attempt to assimilate or accommodate the new with the known--to resolve ambiguities, or at the very least to hold them in abeyance.

Where in our teaching do we afford learners such time?

Kintsch asks,
Why is it that we can read a great book many times and it becomes more interesting with each reading? Because it affords us the opportunity to fine-tune our model, to construct a novel interpretation every time. The book remains the same, but we – our model – change.
Decades later the aroma of old books remains and still informs my sense of beauty--my memories of my mother.

Memory traces.

V. Postscript

When I think of the work we do with students and their teachers, I am reminded how we hope to occasion learning that leaves traces too. When we partner with children, teenagers, and teachers we want to make enduring work--beautiful work--work that often requires us to get lost, to look out windows, to wander a bit.

I'll let you know how the Gaiman/Mattotti/Bang work is proceeding.

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