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Thoughts on Interpretation: Part 1: Thinking Alongside Adult Learners

My colleague and I, Holly, launched in a new district a couple of weeks ago. In many ways it’s a compelling way to begin staff development: start mid-year, engage teachers in concepts and structures (not curriculum) and attempt to establish common language, vision, and expectations for the massive shifts in literacy instruction to come. After finishing our launching day, where we watched a powerful and beautiful short film with teachers called Denali, we got more than one response asking, “Why did you pick such an upsetting film to watch during a PD?” The teachers that were troubled were confused as to how and why a terribly sad film, where a life is lost, fits inside meeting their new literacy staff developers.

We responded to the assistant superintendent by email writing, “One of the larger themes that will come up in our work (and one of the ways I think Holly and I are unique as staff developers) is that we believe the teaching of reading is deeply personal, deeply complex and we choose to teach in this way because we want to help kids with all that they carry. Books allow us to talk about the hardest stuff we deal with. In showing that video we are trying to establish intimacy with folks and set them up for this bigger goal- to grow life-long readers who use books to heal and change the world.”

The reaction from these teachers brought up questions I've been grappling with for some time:

How do you teach interpretation?

How do you teach children (and adults) to think interpretively?

Is it through skills and strategies?

Do you digest one text so completely that you understand everything the author intended and expect it transfers?

In that PD session (and reflecting afterwards) I thought about adult learners specifically wondering, “How do we move from a literal reaction or understanding (‘This movie is tragic!’) to an interpretive stance (‘This is a movie about loss, but it’s also about the beauty that comes when we celebrate what was and let go of what is no longer.’)?” Furthermore, does this process transfer to children?

I work with upper-grade readers most days- grades three through eight. Across those grades I see children unable to answer, “What themes live within this text? What do we learn as readers?” I’ve helped teachers create graphic organizers, charts and dozens of tools to scaffold children towards this work. Yet the discomfort some teachers felt during our PD session leads me to believe that the mindset of thinking interpretively is a critical, and often missing, first step.

In many ways, I was hoping my new colleagues would interpret from this shared experience what I later wrote in the email. But perhaps that was naive of me. It’s a rather large leap of faith to take on. And so now I am thinking more about how I teach interpretation and will be sharing a few strategies in my next blog entry. I can’t say I have the answer, but I am convinced that living in the world interpretively is, by definition, living in the world of possibility and revision. As a good friend often reminds me, “Our first reaction is not always our best, or even truest, reaction.” I suspect that this will be the case with the teachers in my newest district who are, right now, a little confused.

If you want to see this incredibly moving film, head here:

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