Monday, July 27, 2015

Word Cloud Remix: Using Tagxedo to Rethink Theme and Reading Closely

Be One of the Crowd (M.A. Reilly, 2015)

Throw away the lights, the definitions/And say of what you see in the dark.
                                      - Wallace Stevens, “The Man With the Blue Guitar,” p. 183.

I. Reseeing
Tagxedo is an online word cloud generator.  An interesting aspect about it though is that one need not be limited to the shapes that Tagxedo provides as users can upload their own images and use these as outlines for word clouds.  

It was with this in mind that I began to think about the directive Mrs. Rosen gives to Annemarie at the beginning of the novel, Number the Stars. As you might recall, 10-year-old Annemarie, her friend and neighbor, Ellen Rosen, and Annemarie's younger sister, Kirsti, are halted by Nazi soldiers as the girls run home from school.  After some tense moments, the girls are sent on their way and as they near their apartments, Annemarie and Ellen decide to not tell their mothers about the encounter.  They live in Copenhagen and it is1943.  

Ellen returns to her family's apartment and as Annemarie enters her home she hears five-year-old Kirsti telling her mother and Mrs. Rosen all about the incident with the two soldiers. 

Alarmed, Mrs. Rosen says to Annemarie:
"You girls walk a different way to school tomorrow. Promise me, Annemarie. And Ellen will promise too."   
"We will, Mrs. Rosen, but what does it matter? There are German soldiers on every corner."
"They will remember your faces," Mrs. Rosen said..."It is important to be one of the crowd, always. Be one of many. Be sure that they never have a reason to remember your face" (p. 8).

When I reread the novel recently, I noticed that I had highlighted:

Even though these lines are delivered very early in the novel—they resonate as the advice offered is not limited to a particular geography or time. We need not be in Copenhagen in 1943 to be stopped by such a claim. As I thought more about the text, I recalled thinking about Kyleen Beers and Bob Probst's taxonomy of signposts in reading and at first recognized this exchange as an example of Words of the Wiser.

But after making the image, I'm not so sure that these words are words of the wiser.  Making art often invites revision of thought and theme is largely a matter of revision.

II. What Happens When Image-Making Shows Up

After importing the lines from the text into Tagxedo and then considering what image I wanted to upload, I found it necessary to not only reread the quotation, but to also reread a few pages prior to the quote so I could better recall the context.  Then I viewed images while wondering, What does it look like to be one of the crowd?  I must tell you that I looked at a lot of images, rejecting most and finally settling on one image.  I played with Tagxedo and 'discovered' that I could have the lines of text also be used within words, so I did that and downloaded, five images that when placed together formed the imperative, Be One of the Crowd.  I wasn't sure what I would end up making, but each iteration had me thinking more about crowds and selves; limits and possibilities.  

Word cloud remix. 

As I worked off line I began to consider the consequences of limiting one’s self-definition to being one of the crowd, always.  What does such action incur? What might well be lost by such positioning? Who gains in such a scenario? What might be forgotten against such a set of exchanges?

Such pondering is often what happens when image and word are remixed.  Transmediation—the process of making meaning through a range of symbol systems—affords learners with potentially more complex ways of knowing as constraints and liberations are co-specifying.  How we know a thing in one symbol system may or may not have a correlate in another system. 

In “Seeing Our Way into Learning,” Shirley Brice Heath (2000) summarizes how human neural mechanisms work. She tells us, “seeing and attending to specific features of perceived images engages us in calling up information we have stored through prior experiences and can now recall and recount verbally” (p. 122). We are most often co-authoring as we read and view and the marks we use to form ideas need not be limited to print alphabet.

Against the thoughts I had brewing about limitations of self-definition, I also considered the historical implications that likely (in)formed Mrs. Rosen’s dictum and wondered how Annemarie’s early life lessons would have continued to shape her later life. So often after a difficult experience 'concludes' we think it rests quietly or disappears.  So much of theme naming rests in the resurrection of past experience that we newly name as we come to consider characters and their circumstances. Theme is a complex matter.

In the same article by Heath she explains that the shift from image to word to image engages the visual brain, which “resonates with remembered experiences and linguistic representations” (p. 123).  What we cannot name with words alone—might well be spoken by image.  

And now I am wondering what remembered experiences gave form to the final image I made. Wow, heady stuff for a Sunday night in July.

III. Throw Away the Definitions

Let me confess that it makes me nervous when I hear educators talking about the merits of close reading and limiting that discussion to acts akin to overly simple detective work.  How unfortunate to situate reading as if it might be nothing more than finding authorial clues and assembling them into a final verdict.  What was at play tonight had little to do with being a detective. As I made the images, rethought the text, and recalled earlier and perhaps even sketchy experiences that shadowed, in part, the multiple and conflicting ways I was understanding the idea of being one of the crowd, always--I was acting far more like a bricoleur, than a detective. 

Meaning wasn't being chiseled out of some known and unchanging tome. It was emerging and unstable. 

I want to suggest here that it is a wide range of experiences that are so often art-based that help youngsters to best ponder theme. Theme is not "finding" an author's life lesson as if such matters might be nothing more than bits of crumb you follow. Yes there may well be crumbs, but the linearity of following is a mistake. 

Our job as teachers is to open spaces of permission for young people to wander, linger, and hopefully, contradict us. 


  1. Mary Ann what an incredible use of Tagxedo! I knew you could use a picture as the shape for the word cloud but didn't know you could put the words into the outline of letters. Will have to look at that as I'm not sure how to do it. The end result is striking and certainly gives very visual meaning to those words. Thanks so much for sharing this!


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