Sunday, February 8, 2009

Literacy and The Commonplace Book

Last year I took a really interesting class in literacy instruction that focused on alternative ways kids can enter and experience literature. During the class, we each explored how to use a commonplace book as a method for gaining a deeper understanding of a novel. Commonplace books have long been used as a way for a person to gather information and thoughts about a single topic. Thomas Jefferson kept many such books as a way to organize his study of everything from archaeology to politics and finances. In a literacy commonplace book, students make connections between what happens in the novel and the real world. They gather evidence that helps them identify patterns, and link the novel to deeper concepts. Sometimes a commonplace book holds artistic responses to the work, and helps students create a relationship between what they have read and how they feel about it.

I worked with Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses, a quiet novel about life in WWII Norway. I didn't like the book at first. It is a very meditative and contemplative book, and I like a little more action to drive a storyline. However, as I explored the novel through free-associative art projects, I learned to recognize and understand the tensions caused by the secrecy and need that underlie the plot.

I started by creating a collage of things I associated with Norway. I was drawn to ancient Viking images, and felt compelled to contrast the war-like Vikings of old with the soldiers who fought the Nazis. I layered tissue-paper soaked with glue over the ancient images as a way of conveying how they were images from the past, seen through a veil.

I brought together Old Germanic epic poetry about fathers and sons, and linked it to the father-son relationships in the book. Disappointment, secrecy, lies-these were the patterns that emerged.

I played with quick watercolor reactions to the story. Everything was shrouded in mist, in secrecy. Even the mountains of Norway weren't able to emerge from the thickening fogs.

I made a soundtrack of haunting, lyrical music that was written in the concentration camps. In a presentation for the class, I blended it with images of travel posters for Norway--the country itself was trying to hide the tragedy of the war from the rest of the world. Secrets layered on secrets. As my reflection below states, I ended up in a very different place then when I started reading the book, and an appreciation for the quiet strength of a novel that I might earlier have placed back on the shelf without thinking about it again.

These are only a few pages from the work I did that semester; the rest are other side explorations. The experience of immersing myself in the investigation of a novel was powerful. This year, I am doing a group commonplace book with my students as we read The Crucible and study the way that drama is used to interpret historical events according to a certain bias. I'm curious to see what memories and connections they build as they participate in this kind of subtle and sometimes subconscious exploration.


sdonny said...

I love the depth that the snow drifts show in this watercolor. I can almost sense something or someone hidden out of view within the trees.

Project Hyakumeizan said...

Many thanks for this reminder - yes, a commonplace book to record passing impressions, quotations, ideas (especially those gleaned from what one is reading) is said to be an essential tool for aspiring writers. (Must try it one day ....) Some have collected such rich commonplace books that they've even managed to publish them as works of literature in their own right. John Julius Norwich comes to mind. Now there's a thought....