Monday, August 28, 2017

Chasing, Slapping, and Waxing Your Way to Greatness

You might be familiar with the “wax on, wax off” scene from the original 1984 Karate Kid in which Daniel LaRusso shows up for his first karate lesson with Mr. Miyagi and is given the menial task of waxing his teacher’s classic car. He becomes frustrated and complains, only to discover he has been learning important defensive blocks through muscle memory all along. (Try it: Say, “wax on,” and make a clockwise motion in the air with your right palm, then say, “wax off,” and make a counter clockwise motion in the air with your left. Repeat six hundred times. Are you feeling it?)

If you haven’t seen this 80’s classic, no worries, chances are you’ve seen this same movie trope in some other film. How about Oliver Queen “slapping the water” in season one of Arrow? His teacher has him strike the water in a shallow bowl with the palm of his hand until the bowl is empty, then refill the bowl and repeat the process…and repeat…and repeat…until—What-do-you-know?—suddenly he is strong enough to draw that really big bow of his. Or, how about when Arya’s sword fighting instructor makes her “chase cats” in season one of Game of Thrones? I can’t remember what that was supposed to do exactly; but hey, she’s still alive in season seven, right? Anyway, you get what I mean.

In all of these “wax on, wax off” type scenarios, the students continue to perform a teacher’s seemingly nonsensical instructions…until one day, when they least expect it, they suddenly see the results.

Hopefully, over time (or all at once), many of you will discover that the daily reading journals you will be dutifully completing this year work exactly the same way. While they may seem like nonsensical busywork at times, they are not. The daily journals are in reality a series of analytical techniques slowed down and purposefully performed over and over again—just like the Karate Kid’s waxing moves, or the Archer’s water slapping, or Arya’s cat chasing. As you complete them, you are building analytical muscle memory…and soon you will begin to see the results.

I know…I know…I spoiled it, right? You were supposed to discover that on your own. One evening in the near future, you were going to look up from your notes, struck with an overwhelming sense of clarity, and say, “It’s as if I have a special sense for the subtleties of the text…the deeper meanings of a work!” And then declare something like, “I can now read between the lines, embrace the ambiguities, and express my understanding of complex ideas in a sustained and sophisticated way!” You will come crashing out of your room, aglow in your epiphany, angering family members and terrifying the cat, shouting, “I am an analytical god!”

Well, before that happens, let me just review the main elements of your literary journals:

When you clarify:

Strong readers use context to infer the meaning of new words they encounter, or they identify the word’s part of speech, or they break the word into smaller parts, identifying its root, prefix, or suffix, sometimes recognizing that the word is actually the cognate of a word they already know in another Latin-based language. The “wax on, wax off” here is that you have to not only consciously practice these skills as you read, you must stop, clarify the word’s meaning, and then record both the sentence in which it was used and the appropriate definition in your journal.

When you summarize:

This “water slapping” is actually not so bad. When you summarize a chapter, do it in one sentence. Yes, that’s right, I said, one sentence. The idea here is to practice brevity in your summaries. The reason for this is to avoid falling into what is known in a literary analysis essay as the “summary trap.” This is when you spend so much of your time and effort retelling parts of a text you are supposed to be analyzing, that you end up doing very little actual analyzing. The trap for the writer is that it feels like strong analysis, but it’s really just retelling…and that’s called a book report, not a literary critique. Note: advanced water slappers can summarize entire novels in one sentence…keep slapping, you’ll get there.

When you question:

Okay, now we’re “chasing cats” and building brain-muscle. Strong readers question everything they read…heck, strong thinkers question everything they see (and hear)...but they don’t ask simplistic questions when they do (I almost said, they don’t ask “dumb questions,” but that wouldn’t be nice). What I mean is, the answer can’t be obvious, like, “Who is John Grady’s best friend?” And the question can’t be a disguised prediction in the form of a question, like, “Is Blevins going to get killed?” Ask a question that will lead you to a deeper understanding of what you are reading, like, “Why does Rawlins seem to dislike Blevins so much?” The actual cat chasing here is that you now have to answer your question and support it with relevant examples from the passage. Oh, but when you do! Prepare to discover!

When you analyze:

Now we’re getting down to business…this is what you’ve signed up for, my young Padawans: literary analysis! If you don’t “wax on, wax off” here in the safe and forgiving confines of your journal, then you won’t be able to do it on the AP battlefield in May. So don’t hold back. Give an example of at least one literary device used by the author. Use a variety of devices, not the same ones every time. And don’t just “tag it” with the name of a device; explain it. For example: “In this paragraph, Mr. Hoy made an allusion to Star Wars when he referred to his student audience as ‘young Padawans.’ The term refers to a Jedi apprentice, or a Jedi Knight in training. Its use suggests that if students want to one day become full analytical Jedi, they must trust their Jedi Master. The reference to Padawans also supports the essay’s extended teacher/student analogy by introducing, or at least alluding to, yet another ‘wax on, wax off’ trope.”

When you connect:

I’ll be honest. This is my favorite part of your journals to read, and if I didn’t always have to be your “cruel to be kind” literary sensei, it would be all I ask you to do. Connecting with the characters and themes of a good story is what literature is all about. It’s the real joy of the conversation. It’s why art exists in the first place…so humans can connect with each other. Stories connect us to the past, the present, the future…and to every other human being on this earth.

Now, before I wrap this up, I’d like to give you one more thing to think about: My claim that following my reading journal instructions will eventually lead to wondrous results…will only happen if you actually follow those instructions. It won’t work if you take short cuts, or in other words, cheat. When you skip the reading and get the chapter summaries and the accompanying analysis from “help sites” (Shmoop, Cliffsnotes, Gradesaver, Sparknotes, et al.), you got the job done, turned it in, sure, but it didn’t benefit you much, if at all. No brain-muscle memory. No skill improvement. Just a senseless exercise of filling in the blanks.

Imagine if Daniel LaRusso had gone over to the neighbors and borrowed an electric buffer instead of using his hands. Mr. Miyagi’s car would have been shiny, sure, but Daniel would never have become the Karate Kid. Or if Oliver Queen had tipped the water out of the bowl when no one was looking? He would never have survived the island and returned to save Starling City. Or if Arya had simply made one of the servants catch the cats for her…who would be my all-time favorite character on Game of Thrones?

--Mr. Hoy