02
Nov
14

Elementary: a realm apart

I worked as a learning partner with a freshman student on Thursday and Friday as we read “The Red-Headed League”, a Sherlock Holmes story by A. C. Doyle. Although I had read the short story numerous times, this was my first time reading and hearing it read aloud most of the way through. One paragraph especially stood out.

Watson’s narrator writes about feeling mystified at the ease with which Holmes sees clearly, in the midst of the “confusing” and “grotesque” details of the case.

I equated Dr. Watson’s wonderment at Holmes’s mastery to the way students are mystified at our expert interpretive “performances” of English classroom texts. They likely see as magical our detection of hidden symbolism, analysis of setting, understanding of internalized conflicts. The apprentice James Watson stands in awe of the Master Sherlock Holmes, whose idiosyncratic reading of persons, situation, and detail is phenomenal, unattainable.

Even Holmes would have him believe that if Watson only becomes an astute observer he, too, will perpetrate astonishing feats of detection.

We ELA teachers fall into the trap of suggesting that a few meager degrees on an Expert-Novice continuum separate the gurus from the gurees. Is it really true that by demystifying the reading process

IMG_1720.JPG we equip readers to perform readings such as we arrive at after years of literature study, curiosity, and attention to fine detail?

Holmes cites ridiculously minute bits of data, such as awareness of the pigmentation of Chinese tattoos. to support his reasoning. No strategy other than obsessive observation might offer Watson a hope of rivaling his friend’s competency for crime detection and problem-solving; Holmes’s wide experience provides him rare entree to the gathering of such trivial data. Which of us, finding herself on a visit to China, would consume the hours in making a study of variations among local tattoos?

Watson tells us “I was always oppressed with a sense of my own stupidity” in his dealings with the Master.

IMG_1979.JPG

These Sidney Paget illustrations from the original Strand Magazine facsimile reveal Sherlock doing the thinking and work as Watson tags along. His disciple, James, feels as inadequate to the task as Jesus’ disciples must have felt when the Master sent them out in pairs to practice. Similarly mystified, when encountering stubborn demons, they marvel at Christ’s ability. They admit, as Watson must, that their teacher is in a realm apart.

If there is any place our students have an advantage over us at their age, it is in their insatiable curiosity: such curiosity drives Holmes to fasten upon minutiae, and presumably prompts Watson to write memoirs about his master teacher.

Since 2001 when I attended an AP Institute and first understood the importance of student questions, through recent years when Judith Langer in her description of Envisionment Learning suggests “asking relevant questions” as a class goal, and The Right Question website, Essential Questions, and Socratic seminar questions (and Victor Mueller’s prepared follow-up questions), I have explored the ways students come to appreciate their own questioning role as necessary to learning and problem-solving. When they do the work of asking better questions, they feed natural curiosity and train it expand into all areas of lilfe, like a Halloween night horror movie creature, The Blob, which takes over the whole town.

Mysteries and horror are not that far removed. Holmes borders on the monstrous–isolated, obsessive, so calculating he can appear inhuman. Elana Gomel points out that the cool, unemotional criminal Stapleton from Hound of the Baskervilles is a mirror of Holmes, to whose “cold, precise” mind “emotion” is “abhorrent” (“A Scandal in Bohemia”, quoted in “Bloodscripts: Writing the Violent Subject”). Gomel stresses that the reader of mysteries feels comforted by them, for readers desire to know that the world and other people make sense.

It is a wild stretch of imagination for a non reader to believe how much pleasure in a lifetime may be derived from the inky marks on a virtual or paper page. How much more imagination and faith is required to trust that a full length work provides even more pleasure!

In order to read the world and other people, experience and observation certainly help, but a sense of initial curiosity and deep wonder are readily available to a learner at any age.

I fear, however, that curiosity slips noiselessly away some time during late adolescence. What can we do to foster curiosity?

At Utah’s first #EdCamp last month I attended a session on Curiosity, which made me more keenly aware of its silent departure from the purple room of pedagogy. We participants were like party goers on the eve of Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death”, dancing from room to symbolic room pretending that education can thrive even while a plague of indifference gathers its army at the castle doors.

I found curiosity alive and well this week as my 10th grade students led 2nd graders through the editing process on a collaborative story.

IMG_1929.JPG

Wonder is not gone. Children can be inspired by teens; teens can be reminded of their impulsively curious younger selves; and we their experienced, obsessive, compulsively curious teachers can model a reading life; we must not tyrannize nor oppress them with a sense of their own stupidity. Rather, we might show them how their own sense of curiosity can lead to hypotheses, solutions, and deep and satisfying reading experiences. They, like us, are only trying to make sense of the complex text of the world and its people.

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