When we were together in Florida, we took walks together along a neatly manicured path in Kim’s neighborhood. As we walked, we talked about the trees and flora and wildlife and how different it was from the places we grew up. The flora and fauna of our childhoods were familiar and distinguishable for us. We could easily tell an oak tree from a maple tree and could identify hydrangea bushes from azalea bushes. In Florida, however, the landscape is different and tropical, and neither of us know what anything is called. However, as we walked, Kim–who has lived in Florida for nearly two years now and has grown familiar with the landscape of paradise–narrated our tour.
“This is what I call an orange polka-dotted umbrella tree. Notice how it’s shaped. It’s branches grow in a semi-circle. It provides a wonderful shade and lots of people hang swings on its branches. In the summer, it will be speckled with bright orange flowers. You’ll notice on this tree, its seeds grow in these long, brownish pods. I call those sea pickles because I see them washed up on shore every time I go to the beach.” Kim also pointed out “turduckens” and “tree of life” trees, and each time Kim gave a made-up name to something new, she shared what she has learned through her daily observations of these living things.
We couldn’t help but feel like we were channeling our inner Richard Feynman who, in The Making of a Scientist, discusses how his father taught him to study birds. Feynman’s father explained, “You can know the name of the bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird.” Richard Feynman says that his dad taught him that looking at the bird and seeing what it is doing is what really counts. He goes on to write, “I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”
When it comes to reading, we think the important thing to “know” is that reading is about making meaning. If what you read doesn’t make sense or you’re not seeing how the details connect to communicate the author’s message, what is the point of reading? These days, in education, we want to split hairs over whether students are “close reading” or “getting the gist.” We have students label strategies and name their learning, which we agree can be helpful. But to us, if students are constructing meaning and making sense of what they read, their labels for their work are secondary.
As always, we are grateful to the Slice of Life family at Two Writing Teachers!