A Little Knowledge Can Be a Dangerous Thing

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Reading books with 6th grade students is wonderful.  The kids are imaginative and enthusiastic – and they are just beginning to understand the power of good literature. One of the concepts I introduce to kids this age is symbolism.  In order to show the students how authors use symbols to convey meaning, we begin with picture books.  I might show a picture of a character who feels sad and point out that it is no coincidence that the accompanying picture often includes closed windows and doors.  Then we look at the end of the book where, of course, the sun is out, the birds are singing and the windows are wide open.  The book I most often use to introduce this lesson is Albert by Donna Jo Napoli.

From there, we begin looking for symbols in text.  I direct them to clues that point to some further development in a story.  For example, calling attention to a garden that was stagnant during the book’s central conflict, but has new buds on the trees at the end (Skellig by David Almond).  I encourage them to pay attention to things that may have escaped their attention when they were younger readers: colors, weather, windows, and most of all – gardens.  The “a-ha” moments are theirs, not mine, but it’s rewarding to watch them begin reading at a higher level.  It’s literally as if a light switch has been flipped on when they see that in Edward Bloor’s novel, Tangerine, the character who wears glasses because he is partially blind, actually “sees” better than anyone else in the book.

In their eagerness to practice their new skill, the kids begin finding things where nothing is there.  They think every thing has a hidden meaning.  I always think of Natalie Babbit, the author of Tuck Everlasting, who when asked about the meaning of the man in the yellow suit, tells people that she was looking for a color with two syllables.  Regardles of their stumbles along the way (no, that is just a pizza – the fact that it is a circle means that it was cooked in a circular pan), it is a privilige to watch them continue their journey as readers and thinkers.


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