On Sunday, I took my children to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. As we wandered the halls of the Asian Peoples exhibit, my eight year old son stopped to peer at a diorama of an ancient group of Syberian people. As I looked over his shoulder at tiny little figures pulling a whale on a handcrafted sleigh and another group of men pointing swords at a wolf, he exclaimed, “That’s cool!” I was excited that he was excited but I wanted to know more, I wanted him to know more, so I asked him, “What is this about?”
I can bet any amount of money that you know what he said when I asked this question because his response was the knee jerk answer to probing questions that we hear from children on a daily basis: “I don’t know.”
I prompted him to look again and this time, to look closely at the diorama in small chunks. He began by peering at the whale being hauled on the sleigh. His first musing was that the whale was hurt but after some consideration, he decided that the men had gone hunting and that this would be their food. He guessed that the whale was very, very heavy because there were five men pulling it. He guessed, too, that it must be very cold there because the men were wearing heavy parkas and boots.
After looking at this section of the diorama he moved on to the wolf. I wondered out loud if the wolf was a religious symbol in this culture because in the center of the diorama was a large pole with two wolves hanging. My son quickly discounted this theory because of the way in which the men had gathered around another wolf with swords, ready to kill. His thought was that because this was such a cold place, they needed to gather every bit of food that they could. He hypothesized that the other wolves were hung so high on the stick so that other animals and predators wouldn’t come in to the village and steal their food.
As I think about this learning experience, I realize how at the beginning of this exchange, my son was looking closely but not thinking critically about what he saw. On the heels of a symposium on the Common Core in Baltimore, I can’t help but think this is exactly what the Common Core aims to change. In the same way that my son got very little from his first encounter with this diorama, children get very little from their first encounter with difficult text. It requires looking at text in small chunks and close reading and re-readings that force children to actively engage and think about what is at work with literature. When we take the time to do this, we realize that what makes something “cool” is not simply the words on the page, but the meaning implied and derived from those experiences. Close reading is about active, critical thinking and until we train children to manage complex text, their response to the question “What is this about?” will always be the same: “I don’t know.”