Today, William Shakespeare might ask, "To read or to see, that is the question: Whether 'tis nobler in the minds" of students to suffer through the reading of a book or sit with popcorn and a drink and view a film? This question is the basis of my unit. The short answer for my inner city, middle school students in New Haven, Connecticut might seem obvious watch the movie. It's quick, passive, and visual. These are three qualities that define the middle school mindset, I would dare say, nationwide. I was surprised and shocked, though, when I posed this question to my current class because many of them actually said, "Read the novel." There is hope, I thought.
The New Haven and Connecticut Middle School Content Standards require students to reflect on texts, making judgments about the quality and meaning of the words using such recognition strategies as contextual clues, structural analysis, and inferences implicit in the narrative. But how do we, as teachers, help our students use these strategies to come to textual meaning and then decide if the piece is effective and outstanding as a piece of literature? Why is it that some students arrive at one meaning while others reach a different interpretation? What do some students "see" in the text that others do not?
How does the mind learn to interpret words on the page?
And what if we only watched the movie version of the text? Students would certainly vote for this because reading takes time, too much time, they would say. They have been exposed and conditioned to a ten second sound-bite world. Teachers across the nation are resorting to this strategy as a way of either introducing or attaching meaning to our most read novels. The text is then referred to only briefly. What happens to meaning in this case? Is meaning in film derived differently than meaning in print? What, if anything, do students as viewers miss if they rely exclusively on film for understanding? How are the nuances and subtleties so vividly described in a novel, such as facial expressions or a character's thought, translated onto the screen? Can our students "read" character actors' actions and movements explicitly enough watching film to draw intended or, at least, adequate meaning? These questions are important if their investigation, perceptions, appreciations, and knowledge are to be thorough.
A second set of content standard considerations lead students to study critical essays learning to recognize literary conventions and devices while examining the influences of social, cultural, and historical context. These standards deal with the literature-to-life connections helping them arrive at an understanding of the human condition as it is expressed through language, imaginative images, and personal interpretation. In considering these understandings and influences in my classroom, many of my students seem to recognize similarities between characters in the story and people around them. But my students seem to go a step further and, just as they become addicted to soap operas on television, my students imagine additional meaning in which these fictional characters seem to take on a "reality" in their lives. Students talk about these characters as if they truly exist. Fiction becomes fact in their minds. What are the implications of this? Do we possibly know more about some fictional characters then we do about the many people in our lives? Or do we interpret this to mean that the novelist has imagined and then created a completely believable story about human transformation that mirrors life, as my students know it?
The literature-to-film connections also need examination and discussion. What happens to these characters as they are transformed from print to the screen? Does three-dimensionality have an effect on how characters are perceived? Are they, in a sense, more alive because we can physically see them in motion? When a novel is considered for a film, how do directors and filmmakers decide what part of this human condition appears in the movie version? Which scenes are in and which are out? Does this selective process hurt the storyline? These questions will be the topics that might be raised as this unit unfolds in my classroom. Some of these will be left unanswered. That is an intended objective, as it will cause my students to continue thinking about the literature long after our formal classroom discussion is completed.