One of my most favorite short stories to use with older kids is “Mr. Entwhistle” a piece from the book Hey World, Here I Am! by Jean Little. Nine years ago I was I was sitting at a think tank at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project and a small group of staff developers were trying to figure out how we interpret ourselves. That was always part of the process at TCRWP: figure out how we do it, try it with children, then develop tools, strategies and techniques to support teachers.
Here is a picture of my well-worn book
I read the short story (not for the first time) and was struck by these lines:
Mr. Entwhistle was our substitute teacher. He had big shoulders and a mean mouth. He knew, before he’s laid eyes on us, that we were out to make trouble. And he knew how to handle teenagers. Step on them hard, right from the start, and you’d have no discipline problems. He’d show us who was boss the first time one of us stepped out of line.
Looking back, I can see that was how it started. But at the time, I had not gotten around to noticing him, except to see that he was young. That’s a nice change, I thought, and went back to attempting to show Sandra Mayhew where she’d fouled up in the Math homework.
Mr. Entwhistle had started writing our names in on a seating plan. He knew all the tricks. He wasn’t going to put up with desk jumpers.
“What’s your name?” he asked sharply.
As my colleagues and I turned to share our interpretations I said, “I think one thing this story is really about is, well, how loud teachers are. The description of Mr. Entwhistle emphasizes his upper body. He yells, sharply, right away. He is so angry and nothing has happened yet. I think the yelling and his name, Mr. Entwhistle- ent-WHISTLE- are intentional. What do teachers do? Talk. Too much, sometimes. What is he doing? Yelling, like a whistle. It’s about how loud teachers are, but also how afraid they can be. And when you’re afraid, well, you can respond with anger to mask the fear.”
My boss, the founding director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project replied, “You got all of that from 4 paragraphs?” When Lucy Calkins questions, I listen. I knew she was not actually unclear, rather she was pushing me to study myself, question myself, peel back layers. She was showing me how to interpret.
“Yes, I said. I think, yes. Because I think I know that teacher. I’ve been that teacher. And Jean Little knows that teacher, too.”
Two things happened in our group that day. I had the chance to revisit a known text. And I had time to read closely. I went to my own life (I know about being a teacher). I went literal (I know what a whistle is and what it does). And I brought them together in the context of the story.
Years later I’ve tried this strategy with children. I’ve asked them, as they interpret, to study themselves and bring in layers. And to study object (or concepts) in a literal way first.
Fourth-grade students at my school in the Bronx do an interpretation unit each winter. The read aloud is the exquisite and remarkable novel, Home of the Brave by Katherine Applegate.
In this story the main character, Kek, comes from Sudan to America. In Minnesota Kek experiences many firsts including snow and ice. He is living without his mother and doesn’t know if she is alive or dead. He comes across a cow which reminds him of his life back home. The cow becomes an important part of the story and I work with students to dig deeper. First, we think, “What do we know about cows?” This is more of a push than you might imagine. Students often talk about the cow in the story. “No,” I urge. “What do we know about cows in general?” We list:
Then we think together, “What do we know about the cow in this story, in Home of the Brave? Children respond:
Kek loves the cow
in Africa a cow is a “God with a wet nose”
Kek names the cow on Lou’s farm Gol, which means family
Kek is terrified of what will happen to Gol when Lou sells her farm
I then place these brainstorms side by side. I say to readers, “So if we know some things about cows and our own life, and we put that next to what we know about Gol and Kek in this story, what are some deeper messages, some deeper interpretations we can make?” Last week I heard from Nyla, “Well the cow represents life. And that life is hard. Gol is old and may not have a secure home soon. And Kek’s life is hard. But he needs family, he needs some way to hold onto his past because the future, while maybe safer, is too unknown.”
I pushed, “So what is an interpretation that we can apply across books? That is nuanced and precise?” Together we came to, “Life is filled with beauty and with pain. They exist together and maybe you need both so you can recognize the other.”
I think, if I was to try and name this as a strategy I might say, “One way we can interpret is when we read, and we come to a place where there is an object (or concept) we know from our own life we can work to list the literal understandings we have of the object (or concept) and how the object (or concept) lives in the novel we are reading. After we compare these we can think, “What is a deeper message that lives in this text? What is a precise and nuanced interpretation a reader might make?”
I wasn’t raised to be an interpretive thinker. When I was in school each book had a single interpretation and I hoped I got it right. But I’ve become an interpretive thinker. I’ve become one because colleagues sat with me and pushed me to peel back layers- what is obvious and what is possible.