Related to what I was pondering yesterday, but shaped by the activities of today, I write. Part of my job is to have my students tell stories and to analyze how they communicate their thoughts/ideas. I also assess how well they comprehend stories – the structure, flow, cause/effect relationships, what drives the characters to behave as they do.
To make this process easier, I use wordless picture books. Pancakes for Breakfast by Tomie dePaola. The Red Book by Barbara Lehman. The story is entirely without words, and only the pictures give the reader clues to what’s happening. So it’s entirely up to the students to put words to the characters and their actions. This helps me distinguish between students who struggle with reading and students who struggle with language.
Today I was using my favorite wordless picture book, Rainstorm, by Barbara Lehman. The story follows a rich little boy on a rainy day as he is stuck inside his big, empty house with all these toys but no one to play with when suddenly, he discovers a mysterious key. “Hm, I wonder what this belongs to?” the illustrator makes you think. The key, you find, goes to a chest that leads to a tunnel that leads to a lighthouse on a beautiful country island where it is not raining and the boy meets new friends and spends the day playing. When the day is through and the children realize that the sun is setting, they ask him to stay. “Who, me?” His gestures say. “Yes, we like you,” the picture leads you to believe. The boy says goodbye, returns to his big, empty house, goes to sleep, awakens in the morning, and as he is walking through the tunnel to the lighthouse, his new friends appear. He invites them back to his home, and now he is alone no longer. The end.
I assessed one student, Jeremy, using this book. This student, a 3rd grader… I wish I could post his video here. Jeremy gave the book language so smoothly it was like listening to music. His words and ideas trickled out like a stream over stones, perfectly reflecting the thoughts and words of a young boy. “Hm, hm, hm… nothing to do… oops! My ball fell. What’s this? A key? Hm… I wonder what it’s for… nope, not that… nope, not that… aha! A secret tunnel. I wonder where it goes? Dm dm dm… climbing up up up… hey! Where am I? I can see the ocean! This is great! Who are you? Wanna play? (more sound effects) Ah! It’s getting late! I’d better go. You are the coolest kid ever. Who, me? Yeah, you. Ok, bye. (sound effects as the boy returns home).” Maybe you can hear his little voice in your mind. It was the most perfect story. It carried every emotion, every intent. Looking at the pictures and listening to Jeremy’s narration, I understood exactly what was going on. And it was powerful.
Then I assessed Derek. This little guy has a diagnosis of a learning impairment, with all the signs and symptoms of high-functioning autism. He told the same story. Yet it was such a completely different story. Each picture panel was a self-contained, uninteresting message. “And he lost a ball. And he had a key. And he opened a chest. and he walked in a tunnel. And he climbed stairs. And he stood in a lighthouse. And he ate dinner with the kids. And they ran back to the lighthouse. And he went through the door. And he went home.”
The pieces were there, but the story was missing. No sense of loneliness or boredom that moves you to pity the boy in the story. No sense of mystery or curiosity urging the boy forward through his adventure. No connection between the characters. The story fell flat.
When asked what’s missing, it’s hard to put your finger on it. Derek’s words were arguably better, his sentences more complete. But the beauty of language, the communication, the excitement, the power, was lost. Not only do my children not know, they do not make the connection. I slowly turned to book back to the beginning and walked Derek through the story, unveiling the mystery between the panels. Why did he follow his ball? What did he feel when he found the key? What drove him to explore the tunnel? Slowly the essence of the story came into focus, and I saw Derek smile. I heard him ask questions. I listened to him talk about his own similar experiences.
I work in this field because I believe these things can be taught, and learned, communication as a second language. It’s simultaneously mysterious and exhilarating, pathetic yet fulfilling. These things we feel, we can put them into words. The connections we make are experienced in a deep place. A privileged few are able to communicate through music, or art, or dance. But those expressions not an option for most. Everyone has access to words. If the feelings are the vibrant colors on a canvas, then the words are the paintbrush. If we cannot express how we feel, what motivates us, then what really do we have at all? What is our heart’s voice?