“Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.” Do you know from what movie that famous line comes? I’ll give you a hint, it won an Oscar or two and stars Kevin Spacey. That’s right, American Beauty. What an amazing film. It was provocative, inspiring, sad, disturbing, and beautiful all at the same time. I know it’s a cliche, but that scene with the floating plastic bag gets me every time. So beautiful! Having watched this movie more than a handful of times, I noticed something different every time. When I saw it in the movie theater for the first time, I didn’t fully comprehend the director’s use of the color red. It took me a few more viewings to really see what Sam Mendes was trying to accomplish in creating this masterpiece. After the movie was first released, I read several reviews and commentaries on the film that discussed how many different layers one needed to peel away to see what was truly underneath. The lighting, the use of the color red, the camera angles, the writing, and the final scene were just some of the different aspects critics analyzed when discussing the film. They went on and on about every tiny little detail of the movie, it seemed to me back then. Universities and colleges even began offering a film class to study the movie. While I love the movie and agree with most everything people said about it when it first came out in 1999, I did begin to wonder if people in the industry were overdoing it. Were the critics over analyzing the movie? Were they discussing it so much that the film seemed to lose some of its allure or beauty? One could argue both sides of those questions, but it does make me question if sometimes, popular culture does get over discussed or critiqued in our society.
During Humanities class today, my co-teacher and I continued reading aloud our class novel The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. We just began the book last week, after returning from March Break. Upon reviewing the main characters, title, author, and setting of the novel, I began reading it aloud to my students. The boys were enthralled. They couldn’t get enough. When I did stop reading, they begged for me to continue. I love that. It means that we chose the right read-aloud text. I couldn’t be happier, because not only are the students enjoying the book, but it’s also one of my favorite novels to read aloud. The prose is brilliant and heart breaking while the storyline is simply complex. The way the author captures the thoughts of a silverback gorilla is breathtakingly bittersweet. There is at least one line in almost every chapter that I could talk about for hours. The way Ivan sees humans as wasters of words or the way he views the world with such heart and simplicity. As I read the novel aloud to my students today, I couldn’t help but stop to reread various lines, asking the students to decipher the message the author was trying to send her readers. After having analyzed several lines together as a group, I realized that I had spent 10 minutes getting through only three pages. Was I over analyzing the book? Were the students really able to get into the story if I kept pausing to discuss so much? Despite the beauty of the novel, was I overdoing it today in class? Did I spend too much time discussing and analyzing the author’s words? As I read, I realized that perhaps I was going into overdrive a little longer than I should have been; and so, during the last ten pages of reading, I merely paused after reading what I interpreted as amazing writing and simply waited in silence for a few seconds or said, “While I would love to discuss this line, I know you are all such great detectives and are able to infer the message the author is trying to convey.” This seemed to keep the boys happy as I was validating their abilities while also moving forward in the story. It was difficult for me to control myself during this time because I wanted to ask so many questions. I wanted the students to dissect what the author was trying to do and why Ivan saw the world the way in which he did. But, I didn’t. I kept on reading.
How much is too much analysis? Should I have continued asking questions while reading? if I did that, I never would have finished reading the 20 pages I had wanted to complete in class today. Would that have been an issue? Should I have been okay with that and kept discussing? Or, was I right in continuing to read the story aloud? Did the students miss out on anything because I didn’t give them a chance to analyze and discuss the novel during the final ten pages of the section I read today? Would they have been able to practice applying other reading strategies that we hadn’t already covered in class had I posed further questions? I doubt it, as my line of questioning was about analysis and drawing conclusions. I do think that if I had spent any more time discussing and less time reading, the boys might have gotten a little frustrated. They seem to really like this book and so the more I read to them, the happier they are sure to be. It’s much easier to follow a story that is read in a fluid motion like the flow of a river. I kept damming things ups by stopping to ask questions.
I do think that there is a fine line between analyzing a text and overdoing it. While we want our students to be able to interpret books, analyze the words the author crafts, and draw their own conclusions, it is important that we don’t beat a dead horse. If we stop to pose questions and discuss a book too much, we risk losing the students’ interest. We need to ask just the right amount of questions as we read a book aloud to our students. Reading and discussing literature is very much a fine art. It’s a balancing act of beauty and beast. How much is too much and how much is not enough? For me, it’s all about knowing my the audience. Are my students engaged in the discussion or are they bored? Do they seem to need more time to process and analyze what I’ve read aloud? Gauging the students during activities like this is crucial. The better we know our students, the more effective we can make these read aloud and discussion sessions. Just like Alanis Morissette did to her record company after they released yet another single off of her third studio album Jagged Little Pill, we, as teachers, need to know when to put the brakes on discussion and move back into reading.