Message in a Bottle

A teacher asked me today, “Why is it that my students do not see the value of poetry?” She had followed the literature text’s suggestions, asking guided questions so students could access the meaning of the poems in the text.

We dialogued on the flow of the lessons in her unit, and found that the design was deductive. Starting with the big idea of what poetry is, the lessons followed a general to specific study of poems, how they were constructed, naming devices, and then analyzing the devices to get to the meaning of the poems.

The students disengaged at some point, and the outcomes they achieved in analysis were mechanical, lacking elaboration, and the students grew increasingly incurious as the unit progressed.

As our discussion deconstructed the lesson, we established that the points wherein the students did invest curiosity were the sessions when they had a personal interest in the meaning that the poems held in relation to their own lives and when there were connections to concepts that organized meaning in their thinking.

We decided to investigate what might happen if we flipped the unit on its head and began by provoking thinking about structure from meaning.

I told this story.

Several years ago, a teacher brought to class an apology letter. It was a letter that was written to someone that the author had offended very deeply, and realizing the offense and the effect it had on the friendship, the author wrote the letter and meant to read it or send it to the friend who had been offended. But the friend was gone, moved away, and the author never got to send the letter or say the apology to the friend.

So the author wrote the letter. The teacher read it out loud with emotion. Then she asked the class to think of a situation where each of them had offended someone, but upon realizing the offense, had not had a chance to apologize. She asked them to write that apology in class.

They did. When they finished the writing, the teacher asked them to take that letter home and rehearse reading it, so that all of these devices would express exactly how they felt:

  • Pauses
  • Tone
  • Pace
  • Volume
  • Stress on specific words

Students were to read the text with the choreographed use of their voices and silence, and then the class would discuss the meaning that they understood from the reading.

When the class met again, the students did read their letters out loud. The class deconstructed how the devices they worked on in the reading added to the meaning of the text.

Then the teacher presented a problem: What if the text was a message in a bottle? What if a stranger picked it up after it had washed up on some faraway shore, and you wanted that person to read it as you had felt it?

The students discussed this new problem. They said, it was impossible to truly understand from reading the text. “The stranger cannot understand the meaning without the voice. Without the gestures. Without the pauses, the speed, the pace of the reading. These things gave the words meaning.”

The teacher then asked, So how do we show those devices in the structure of a piece of writing?

The students discussed further and came up with the following: We know emotion in text through the pauses, the breathing, the pace, sound, tone.

The teacher then asked them to rearrange the lines of text in their letter, so that these elements were represented in its structure.

And the students came up with line breaks, stanzas, punctuation, use of lower case and upper case letters and words. The apology letters began to look like poems.

They read the text out loud using the devices as cues for how it needed to be read, and the author gave them feedback on whether their reading illustrated the text’s meaning.

Shortly after the class constructed the relationship between structure and meaning in language, they began to study a variety of poems and inquired into how the construction of the poem, how it was crafted, influenced its meaning.

In the discussion of this instructional story, we realized a few important considerations.

  • The beginning of the unit on poetry started with personal relevance: the relationship in which the offense was made, the personal writing that would address a rift, an old wound.
  • The students engaged because of the personal connections they made to the writing task.
  • The task allowed an investigation into structure using situated learning, what Papert suggests is the experience of context as the driver of learning.
  • The problem of the message in a bottle presented an intriguing situation where students would need to manifest knowledge and understanding of concepts like purpose, structure, audience imperatives, style, context.
  • Connections were facilitated between structure and meaning.
  • Students discovered the relationships between structure and meaning through the concepts and the examples illustrating the concepts.
  • Students were asked to transfer their learning from analysis of the structure of a personally-relevant text to the analysis of unfamiliar texts.

The value of the what-if question is its inherent demand to think divergently. Asking, What if someone had to read and know meaning without the author providing the voice as a tool to convey that meaning? presented the students with a situation that called for making connections between ideas that were not usually linked together. Minds were opened, and students were able to make the connections, which gave insight into the relationships between structure and meaning.

Photo Credit: By Šarūnas Burdulis from USA – Sea-mail. You’ve got mail! Uploaded by GiW, CC BY-SA 2.0









Author: alavina

Cognitive Coach and author. I simplify personal power so you can use mental resources and find pathways to your goals, be more productive and feel in control every day.

4 thoughts

  1. Fantastic post!
    Thank you so much, Aloha.

    Warm regards,
    Mayura Tiwari
    Form tutor 6A
    Grade level coordinator – Grade 6
    English teacher – MYP, IGCSE
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