So, I’ve been thinking about Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. I am teaching a senior English elective called Truth and Fiction, and Slaughterhouse-Five is our first book.
When I was talking with the class, preparing them to read the first chapter, I of course mentioned that this is not a linear story. Some students spoke up right away to say that they found this type of narrative hard to follow. It is handy that Mr. Vonnegut put in ” * * *” between sections; however, I wanted the students to be able to see the big ideas being carried through these non-linear vignettes. Also, I am a fan of diagrams, charts, color coding, and other Making Thinking Visible ideas. Finally, I thought about a piece of art that I saw at the Student Exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in June.
I shared this image with the class because I think it is an interesting visual, but also because I think it is so neatly organized and effectively shows complexity, connections, and organization all in one. My thought was that we would create something similar from the first chapter.
The first chapter is 28 pages and has 22 little sections ranging in length from a brief paragraph to several pages. I copied all the text and cut and taped it into sections. Each section went on a 11×17 piece of paper and students annotated the sections, highlighted key text, and thought about themes. Then, we spread out the sheets in order, took string and used it to show when particular themes appeared. Here’s what we came up with.
It could be neater.
I think what I wanted to show was that even in this choppy, nonlinear narrative, there were themes and big ideas emerging.
This task could definitely use some improvement. I did something similar on a smaller scale when my 5th graders read Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbit. It that case, we had only 3 story lines we were following and for each chapter we either put the string that represented the story line on top of our little card or behind it. Ultimately we had a row of 25 slips of paper/chapters with the 3 strings going in and out, in front and behind, to show which story line was “in the spot light” in that chapter. For those 5th graders, it was important to represent visually that the other story line(s) had not disappeared; they were simply not our focus. For seniors discussing themes, the task was more complex, as it should be. A couple of things were not necessarily perfect about this iteration of the task. First, there were a lot of little pieces to deal with all at once and yet, we have only read the first chapter. Second, while I wanted us to start with this task for some legitimate reasons, it might also be something that would be better if started midway through the book. In this version, we used all the text. However, what if we started midway through, after having a sense of what ideas we really want to follow, and were more selective in terms of the pieces of text that we pulled out? I suspect we would be better able to see connections between and among sections as well as themes.
Ooooh, what if when we get to the end and students are writing an analytical paper, they make a visual representation of their thoughts before they begin to write? Is this too abstract for the non-visual learner? Thoughts?