Thursday, October 16, 2008

Sunset Towers

Now that AJ's in second grade, his at-home independent reading assignments have gotten a little more formal. Where last year he could just read, this year he is supposed to answer a general question about what he read. The question changes every month. It started simply in September with, "What was your favorite part?" October is asking for him to describe the main idea of what he read. This can be tricky. AJ remembers just about every detail he reads. But as a second grader, he's still trying to figure out which details are important and which are not. At the beginning of the month, he was reading The Westing Gameby Ellen Raskin, a mystery. This made the assignment even more difficult, because the book reveals its story slowly and throws out tons of details -- many red herrings -- along the way. Trying to help AJ figure out what to write was challenging. And I'm not sure he entirely understood the story because it wasn't organized the way he knows stories to be. He got enough of it to enjoy the book, though.

After he finished The Westing Game, we returned to Roald Dahl (He read Matildabefore The Westing Game). I gave him a copy of Danny, The Champion of the World, which had been my brother's favorite Dahl book, and AJ dove in with relish (it's also the book where the BFG makes his first appearance, as a story within the story). The difference between the two books struck me. Leafing through both without reading carefully, I would have expected AJ to have an easier time with The Westing Game. The vocabulary was entirely under his command. The chapters were short. Dahl's vocabulary is much more complicated and occasionally arcane (AJ had to look up "pheasant" and "poaching" and informed me afterwards that pheasants are related to peacocks). But Dahl's structure is much more straightforward and this makes all the difference. After having to coach AJ carefully through each main idea last week, this week he's almost completely independent. And he's feeling good about it.

Our experience with these two books has me thinking about a few things. 1) What makes a book difficult or easy for a given person? 2) How much it too much to stretch? 3) Is there a developmental aspect to the perception of literary structure or is it merely experiential? This last question interests me most, because as a teacher (and self-learner), I think a lot about the importance of frameworks, some kind of structure on which to hang the facts you need to remember. For example, as a doctoral student, I had to pass comprehensive exams, several days of hell, including separate 2 hour exams on each major period of western art music (Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, etc.). We took courses for four years to prepare. We read lots of scholarly articles. But when it came right down to it, the book that helped me most of all was the general music history text I'd used as an undergraduate, because it had a framework that I could remember and which, in term, helped me to remember the rest of what I needed, no matter how complex. As a teacher, I work frameworks into my course plan that guide my lectures, study guides and review sessions. Usually I have a central idea -- a theme -- that I overlay onto chronology, which I break up into subthemes. These themes serve as scaffolds to which the details of composers and pieces and historical events are attached, giving them both a point of view and an organization. It seems to work.

Many, if not most, gifted children are exceptionally good at identifying patterns of all kinds. They are quick to establish their own mental scaffolds. This makes them quick at figuring things out for which they have a half-knowledge. Sometimes, in AJ's case, at least, this can make them resistant to things that don't fit the patterns they know. When I try to help AJ accept the idea of something new, I usually do it by encouraging him to freefall -- so what if you don't know what it is? Just get in and experience it and see what happens. And pretty soon, he figures it out. (Aha! This is the pattern of the mystery with the slow reveal!) And once he does, there's no stopping him and his world gets just a little bit bigger.


FreshHell said...

I love The Westing Game. One of my all-time favorites. I've been looking forward to reading it with Dusty. But, she's on a Harry Potter kick so I guess we'll get to it eventually. Then we can compare notes.

My Kids' Mom said...

Pook picked out Danny, The Champion of the World from the school library just yesterday.

I like the requirement to answer questions about the book. We have AR (Accelerated Reader) at our school and Pook takes tests on almost everything he reads. Not sure how indepth the questions get- not very I predict.