Thursday, February 4, 2016

Parent/student book club, book two: Fish in a Tree

At the end of January, we held our second book discussion for parents and children in grades 3-6. This time, we were also fortunate enough to be joined by both Spencer (3-4 teacher) and Mary (Learning Specialist) so it really felt like a community-wide conversation.

The evening began with general conversation about the book - what we liked, what was believable, what worked, and what seemed less plausible. Two major themes of the book emerged from our conversation: bullying and learning differences.

Our bullying discussion turned quickly to one about compassion and ways in which we are able to find compassion even when we've been hurt. Ally, the protagonist, is regularly tormented by Shay (a stereotypical "mean" kid). Yet as the book progresses and Ally finds herself feeling more confident and comfortable in her skin, Ally tries to befriend Shay. The kids (and parents) had a variety of explanations for why and how Ally was able to reach out to Shay even though Shay had treated Ally horribly.

Another character in the book, Albert, was physically assaulted by a group of children every day after school. However, Albert never "fought back" because he didn't believe in violence. When I asked the kids what advice they might give to Albert, they responded with a wide variety of strong "I" statements, messages of encouragement and support, and strategies for being assertive (without being aggressive). As usual, I found myself dazzled by our kids and their thoughtfulness.

One of the touchstones of the plot was the concept of the "mind movie" that Ally (who had dyslexia) created when she let her brain think in pictures. The author often described the detailed images that Ally would see, in her mind, when she heard others talking or trying to explain something to her. We decided to try to see the world from Ally's perspective and create "mind movies" of our own. I read a passage about trees from a beloved book, How to Be an Explorer of the World (by Keri Smith) and each participant drew/wrote/expressed on paper the "mind movie" that played in their heads while I read.

In Proust and the Squid (a nonfiction book about the way that human brains have evolved to read), Dr. Maryann Wolf (Director of the Center for Reading, Language, and Research at Tufts University) explores the ways in which the invention of reading changed our brains. I read excerpts from this text to the group, during our book discussion, to facilitate conversation about dyslexia and the way that Ally's brain used "mind movies" as a way to process text and language. Ally was not alone in this, of course. In fact, according to Wolf's book, Albert Einstein may have created similar visual representations of ideas in his brain, too.

Albert Einstein did not speak much until three years of age and he was mediocre at any subject that required the retrieval of words, such as a foreign language. He once said, 'My principal weakness was a bad memory, especially a bad memory for words and texts.' He went so far as to say that words 'did not seem to play any role in his theoretical thinking, which came to him through 'more or less clear images.' (Wolf 199) 

Our book discussion group had an interesting time parsing the idea of reading as an invention and that some brains may be wired for forms of communication that may not yet exist. If you're curious, I'd highly recommend Proust and the Squid.

True to our SK roots, our evening ended with the kids acting out a favorite scene from the book (with a little bit of help from Spencer). I love that they are able to, in the span of around thirty minutes, maneuver between an intellectual conversation about brain development and the dramatic (and slightly comedic) interpretation of the scene from a middle grade novel. I left dazzled and delighted, yet again, by their brains.

I hope you'll join us for our next book discussion in March. We're reading The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly.

To books, of course,


P.S. Elaine is reading Fish in a Tree aloud to her class right now. To see what they're doing with the book, check out her blog. Oh, novels, and the way they connect us to one another...