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Clara's Clearing

Clara's Clearing

Lesson Four: Interpretation, Editing

Thursday, March 03, 2011

This blog is part of Educating My Boy: Chronicles of a Free-Schooler

As I teach Jack I occasionally hit on insights that I think are valid. I also imagine what advice I would give to others based on them. One advice is: “Don’t belabor. Revisit.” I’ll write more about this later but this advice is based on something that I automatically do as we progress in our lessons with Jack.


Usually, at the beginning of a lesson I revisit points that we had brought up, or “covered,” before. The reason that I put “covered” in quotation marks is because I don’t think of learning as a linear progression where you cover or learn a “fact” and you move on to the next one. In my blog “Uncertainty, Improvisation, Approximation” I wrote that I think it is much more accurate to think of learning as achieving approximations.


I think of learning as a kind of spiral. You sort of hover around the same point in larger and larger circles covering more space each time. At other times you hover in smaller and smaller circles approaching a center. There’s no beginning and there’s no end. There definitely is no concrete, absolute chunk of learning called KNOWLEDGE. I think learning occurs in degrees and approximations, through multiple “revisitings.”


Much of this revisiting is a kind of review that happens automatically at each lesson. Reminding Jack of some of the things that we had talked about before is a kind of intellectual warm-up and a good way to start a new lesson.


One topic I revisited with this lesson was the difference between prose and poetry. (I made a mental note to read Molière’s The Bourgeois Gentleman with Jack at some point: “That which is prose is not verse and that which is verse is not prose”!!) We quickly touched on some points and observations we had made before. One was that both prose and poetry can be used to tell stories. Jack thought poetry was better at describing things while in prose it was easier and more straight-forward to tell a story. I used the words “descriptive” and “narrative” to help him articulate his thoughts better.


Jack offered his own definition of poetry: “Poetry is a little segment of musical writing.” A very nice little definition! His definition of prose was not quite as – shall we say – poetic? “Prose is like a book – hard to say what book, could be any book. It’s up to you to choose which book is prose.” Good enough for now. We moved on.


I then reminded Jack about the difference between oral and written tradition in literature and how in the oral tradition rhyme and rhythm, hence poetry, were used to help listeners memorize a piece and to pass it on themselves. I also pointed out that in oral tradition there are many retellings of a story because no particular narrative is fixed. Different retellings often give different interpretations and different interpretations “amuse and instruct differently.”

To demonstrate these points we looked at two different Cinderella stories that I had assigned him to read.


First we looked at the retelling of Cinderella from one of the books that had been sitting on Jack’s bookshelf for years: “Classic Fairy Tales.” This book, a colorful and cheaply produced book (printed in China) with washed-out mediocre illustrations, had no editor. The title of each story is followed by “retold by” and the name of some obscure author. I pointed out to Jack that the collection does not have an “editor”: we don’t know who chose these particular retellings and why.


I contrasted this to the Cinderella story in My Book House series (we are on Volume Four, “Through the Gate.”) This series does have an editor, Olive Beaupré Miller, a noted author of children’s stories herself, who in her introduction to each volume explains many of her editorial choices. Most importantly, I pointed out to Jack, she cites the sources of her particular stories in her footnotes. In this case her source was the French Tales of My Mother Goose by Charles Perrault in 1699, translated into English in 1729. The footnote also explained, “These stories, centuries old, were told Perrault by an old nurse” – a good reminder of how oral tradition worked.


As we looked at the citation and comment in the footnote I explained what footnotes are and how a good editor uses them to cite her/his sources and make comments, clarifications, references, etc.


My husband and I are in the publishing business. So far Jack’s understanding of editing had been limited to “correcting” writing: copy-editing, fact-checking, proof-reading. I used this opportunity to teach him about other aspects of editing. I pointed out that any collection of writing is “edited” by someone. In the fairy tale collections he had in front of him someone had made the choices of the individual stories and particular retellings of them. A good editor has good reasons for making these choices, explains those to her readers, cites her sources, and may choose to make other comments that have instructional value.


We also compared the particular retellings of the Cinderella stories and the ways in which they interpret the story differently or emphasize different aspects of the story. In the Classic Fairy Tales collection Cinderella ended up forgiving her ugly stepsisters and sharing her glamorous new life with them. Jack didn’t think much of this “moral lesson” and thought it ruined the story. (Children like bad people to be punished!) This was a case of stories in the oral tradition being interpreted differently through various retellings to “instruct and amuse” differently.


Jack wrapped up the lesson with this comment about the crystal slipper: “Nowadays they would do a DNA sample to identify the right girl.”


During this lesson Jack was playing with Bakugun toys, decorating his bed frame with them (they are magnetic), and interrupting me frequently with: “I just want to show you…”


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