Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Ulysses Who?: Considering the Connections We Make

            I just can’t shake this experience. Recently, my graduate class in children’s literature has been reading Flora & Ulysses, the Newbery award-winning novel by Kate DiCamillo. (Yes, I know this is a nonfiction blog, but hang on, I will get there.)

            At one point in the novel, after a squirrel has taken a harrowing trip through a powerful vacuum cleaner, a young girl named Flora overhears her neighbor ask his wife if she is going to leave the Ulysses (the vacuum cleaner) outside.  Immediately young Flora names the squirrel Ulysses. The author tells us “she knew the right word when she heard it.”

            Why is this the right word? Here we have factual information begging for an inference. Why, indeed did Flora name the squirrel Ulysses? In my mind, the author was referring to the Ulysses of Greek myth. That Ulysses, like our squirrel, had experienced travels fraught with danger and had been transformed by his experiences. Similarly, Ulysses the squirrel was also transformed; he became a thinking squirrel able to type out poetry. This connection gives the events in the story the grandeur it seems to me to be seeking.  

            . . . But not to my students. They, instead, connected the name Ulysses to Ulysses S. Grant. True, he was a hero, a man of decisive action, a fighter, and a president. Yet I was totally surprised by this connection and I asked the class to develop their idea so we could compare it with mine to see which held up better.

            So what does this have to do with Common Core? The connections we make—our intellectual leaps and inferences—are where our most exciting thoughts are happening. The Common Core asks students to make inferences they can defend by supplying evidence. Students are to make inferences within a single text and inferences across multiple texts. This is true for both fiction and nonfiction. This is important intellectual work.

            Making and defending inferences based on evidence is the heart of historical thinking. Similarly, making and defending claims is central to the nature of science (NOS). Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to say that inferential thinking is the heart of all original thinking.  That is why when we embed the ideas of Common Core into our teaching it is rewarding, but when we race from standard to standard, trying to cover them all, it is not.

            I am always struck by how exciting it is to come up with an original claim, pursue it, and defend it. We don’t have to look very far for examples. In her most recent post on this website, the one just before this one, Mary Ann Cappiello talked about how after rereading works by Elizabeth Partridge she discovered the central role Bob Dylan played in the careers of Woody Guthrie and John Lennon.  Here are her exact words describing this experience: “...I am always surprised at how powerful it is to make my own connections through a series of texts, cultivating curiosity, building knowledge, and pursuing my questions.” I couldn’t agree more.  

            So, which Ulysses was it? What do you think?



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