In June of this year my daughter Elsa and I presented a session entitled “Tolstoy, Hardy, & Austen: Direction for Courting & Marriage in the 21st Century” at the CMI Conference in Kentucky. We discussed how the books Anna Karenina, Far from the Madding Crowd, and the body of Jane Austen’s novels had informed ideas about dating, courting, and marriage for Elsa and her two sisters. Here is the slide introducing our thesis and desired learning outcomes:
Following the conference, participants were asked to complete an anonymous survey evaluating the sessions they attended. The survey results were then shared with presenters. Every teacher and presenter, of course, welcomes feedback because it allows them to improve their future instruction. Here is one of the comments included in the responses to our session:
“Rather than spending so much time telling the stories from the books, it would be helpful to describe more how the family used them in discussions.”
In my consideration of the survey results, I initially gave thought to the first part of this comment because we did spend considerable time talking about especially the Hardy and Tolstoy novels. Later on, I realized I had overlooked the last part of the comment: “. . . how the family used them in discussions.”
Here is my answer: I don’t think we referred to the books much in family discussions at all. These books were included in our home schooling as read alouds in the early afternoon following morning lessons and before the girls moved on to music practice or ice skating lessons or free time or whatever was planned for later in the day. While I read they worked on cross stitch, knitting, or crocheting. These are not books that we narrated or discussed.
I am inclined to believe, however, that the books have subsequently been individually reflected upon, internalized, and personalized by my daughters. Through the years they viewed every film version (good and bad) of the Austen novels, including films only loosely based on the novels. Mariel enrolled in a seminar course at Hillsdale that enacted scenes from one of the books and performed some of the country dances portrayed in the novels. Anna Karenina was, in fact, not a family read aloud. But as Elsa explained during our presentation, she read it first before her marriage, then once as a wife, and again as a mother; she has invested many hours in her consideration of Tolstoy’s story.
In her 1978 book entitled The Reader, the Text, and the Poem, Louise M. Rosenblatt discusses the reader’s involvement with literary work. She defines the “text” as simply the paper and ink; the “poem” refers to all literary works including poetry, but also short stories, novels, and plays. Rosenblatt says that attention is most often paid to the author and the words they write while the reader and his role is ignored or taken for granted. Each reader is, though, a person bringing their experiences and personality to the reading of a text. Rosenblatt says, “The poem, then, must be thought of as an event in time. . . . It happens during a coming-together . . . of a reader and a text” (p. 12). It should be noted that Rosenblatt is not suggesting that the author’s words are meaningless or that the meaning of a text can be subjectively disassociated from its intended sense (p. 4).
Interestingly, 1978 was also the year a study was done to test a generative model of learning proposed by Doctorow, Wittrock, and Marks. According to this model, readers use a complex psychological process to construct (“generate”) meaning for printed texts. Three of the several fundamental processes of reading comprehension are attention, encoding, and memory. Good readers attend to the meaning of a text rather than to surface characteristics and bring relevant background knowledge and past experiences to their reading. Two examples of tasks defined as generative by these researchers are constructing mental images and drawing pictures while reading. In two studies that included nearly 500 children, comprehension and recall were approximately doubled when generative learning tasks were used.
Two years later, Kalmbach (1980) asked sixth-grade students to read a story and then narrate everything they could remember about it. He concluded that “a retelling . . . is not an attempt at verbatim recall, rather it is an attempt to communicate an understanding of a story by selecting, organizing and emphasizing certain events from the story” (p. 22). As Rosenblatt wrote, narrations are transactions between the reader and text rather than detail-for-detail repetitions of the original story or poem.
Gary Schmidt, a Newbery-award-winning young adult novelist, wrote Okay for Now in 2011. It is one of the shared novels I assign in the children’s literature course I teach every fall. Below are written retellings of that book from three of the students in this year’s class. The last one is just the final paragraph of a three-paragraph written retelling. I like the reference to the book’s title in the first sentence of that paragraph.
“Doug and his family are constantly abused by their father and are forced to move after the father loses his job. They move to Mayville and Doug thinks that it is boring, dumb, and worthless. He hates it there. He has a very snappy attitude at school, so his peers and teachers begin to dislike him. Doug meets Lil Spicer and they start going to the library together where Doug sees the Audubon paintings of birds and instantly becomes fascinated. A library employee, Mr. Powell, also enjoys the paintings and begins to teach Doug to draw after Doug denies wanting to learn to draw. Doug begins to enjoy drawing and goes to the library to work on his skills with Lil. He also begins to deliver groceries for the deli market that Lil’s father owns. After mishaps at school, Doug begins to realize that he does not need to be rude like his brother Lucas and begins to respect his teachers and peers. His life begins to turn around, and he is determined to find all of the missing paintings of the birds and put them back in the book where he thinks they belong.”
“Doug is a very stubborn and sarcastic kid who is basically lost in life. His father is abusive, his brother gets accused of robbery, and his other brother is deployed in Vietnam. He meets Lil Spicer, and they become friends. She becomes a great influence on him, and her dad eventually gives him a job at his deli. Lucas returns from Vietnam a changed man; Doug finds interest in some paintings of mostly birds. This is where he begins to find himself. Along the way he faces struggles that he learns to overcome. In the end he finds out who he really is.”
Final paragraph of narration 3:
“He begins to get his life back on track and decides to just be okay in the moment. Lucas, Doug’s brother comes back from the Vietnam War without his legs or eyesight, but with some tough love from Doug, he begins to be restored. Lil and Doug are recruited to be in a Broadway play, and they are doing great. Doug is also in the process of obtaining all of the paintings for the Audubon book, and he is making progress with that. Lil finds out she has cancer, and Doug stays by her side encouraging her. He gets all of the paintings back but one, but he draws the Artic tern and Mr. Powell says that it is an exact replica. He decides that the art and the birds are really always with him, and the book ends with the Apollo 11 lifting off.”
These written narrations include some of the same story elements, but there are differences in the voices of the writers and their choices of which parts of the story to emphasize. As Mason said: “They throw individuality into this telling back so that no two tell quite the same tale” (Vol. 6, p. 292). And in Volume 1: “Narrating is an art, like poetry-making or painting, because it is there, in every child’s mind, waiting to be discovered, and is not the result of any process of disciplinary education” (page 231).
My point – and getting back to our family discussion of novels that have much to say about love, marriage, and family – when any one of us is exposed to and attends to a living book and the ideas in the mind of the writer of that book, we are able to draw our own conclusions. Narrating is important for its own purposes but not for the purpose of making sure someone else approves of our application of the text. I am quite sure that if I had led a discussion of Sense and Sensibility or Far from the Madding Crowd with my daughters, it might have distracted from their reflections on the themes and thoughts of Austen and Hardy. I would have tried to direct their thoughts to what I wanted them to learn from that particular passage. Our presentation at the conference, therefore, while not providing a discussion guide for the novels we reviewed, did point to some of the many living books that can guide the current generation to their own conclusions about wise choices they should make in regard to life and love.
Doctorow, M., Wittrock, M.C., & Marks, C. (1978). Generative processes in reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 70(2), 109-118.
Kalmbach, J.R. (1980). The structure of narrative retelling. Houghton, MI: Michigan Technological University. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED216317) Mason, C. M. (1989). Home education. Wheaton IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (Original work published 1925)
Mason, C. M. (1989). Home education. Wheaton IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (Original work published 1925)
Mason, C. M. (1989). Towards a philosophy of education. Wheaton IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. (Original work published 1925)
Rosenblatt, L. (1978). The reader, the text, and the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press.
Schmidt, G.D. (2011). Okay for now. Boston: Clarion Books.
© 2015 by Donna Johnson