Reader Response, Writer Response

Home again, home again, and having dinner with family -- nothing is better. I did have a wonderful time in Las Vegas with teachers and friends, and want to tell you all about it, as soon as I rest up a bit. For now, here is a photo of a "character trading card" from EACH LITTLE BIRD THAT SINGS, one of many cards made by students at UNLV reading LITTLE BIRD and LOVE, RUBY LAVENDER.

Part of the assignment included creating an icon that would be used in the four corners of the picture (here it is a peach -- good choice), and "words that define me" -- in this case, "enthusiastic, careful, organized, talkative, neatly dressed, tearful, and a Mamma's boy." Wow. I love seeing how readers respond to characters I have created.

Here's another response to the character of Peach. Immediately, you can see the visual difference -- I love both of these physical renditions of Peach, and I can see at a glance how a different reader has a different response to the same literature. I can see something about each reader's heart and talents, too, as I read these cards... it's like a call-and-response in music, but it's happening with literature.

Another part of the assignment was to offer a found poem that suited the character. Here's the poem one student selected for Great-great Aunt Florentine:

"This is the beginning of a new day. You have been given this day to use as you will. You can waste it or use it for good. What you do today is important because you are exchanging a day of your life for it. When tomorrow comes, this day will be gone forever; in its place is something that you have left behind . . . let it be something good." -- anon.

Isn't that just what Great-great Aunt Florentine would have believed?

I learned so much at this conference. I don't think I really understood reader response until Nancy Johnson read to us some pages from Katherine Applegate's new book HOME OF THE BRAVE and asked us, "what's bubbling up for you right now?" and asked us each to write or sketch or color our thoughts, which we then shared with a partner. What was bubbling up for me was completely different from what was bubbling up for my partner. It was amazing to hear the different responses around the room.

I've always thought of reader response as mostly MY response to literature. What I didn't connect to was the power in comparing all readers' responses to one another's and seeing the mosaic of thought in one room enrich us all in our understanding of not only what we read (which is enormous, in itself), but in our understanding of one another and our individual selves as well. Boy-howdy, my world has been rocked. Click, click, click.

It was amazing to come to a conference and be TAUGHT. It's one thing to be inspired, and I was inspired this weekend. But you know... it's another thing to be taught. Good teaching is such a rush -- for the teacher and the student. And here's another thought -- you are teaching well if you are also learning, at the same time... don't you think so? And that learning! It's such a privilege.

I am still sifting all I learned and admiring those I learned from. Who said that we are all each others' teachers? I believe this. I learned something completely different from my friend Tawni, when we spent the day after the conference together, talking and catching up with the past ten years, remembering our past together, a past that stretches back to when we were teenagers.

Each moment is a learning moment if we take the opportunity to learn what is being offered. I was offered so much this past few days, I'm having trouble taking it all in. Here is Nancy Johnson, reading to us. She guided us through a morning full of surprises, full of ways to help our students and ourselves respond to literature in meaningful, insightful ways.

It was my turn in the afternoon to talk about a writer's response to her life and how that response has turned into stories.

I was almost overcome on Saturday as I listened to Nancy talk about the power that a teacher has to know, to see, to understand her students through reader response -- I understood how it could work. And I concluded my own remarks with sharing my realization that, if I had had teachers who understood this concept of reader response when I was growing up, I might have felt seen and heard and understood by them in a way that would have prompted me to make different decisions as a young adult. I might have done more thinking for myself, might have understood myself more, might have... might have... well, might have. It's not that I have regrets -- and overall, I think I had good teachers. It's that I'm still trying to understand, still learning. And now I see something new: what power is held in reader response... what empowerment.

Here are Nancy Johnson and Cyndi Giorgis, who was our host, and who is a wonderful teacher as well.

In a few days I will write a part 2 about this experience, as I sift it a bit more. I feel as if I can barely string two sentences together right now, and there is so much catching up to do; always the re-entry is bumpy. So off to bed I go tonight early. Response. I want to think about response and the many ways it can be interpreted. There is a reader response, yes, and also the response to one's life, to a conversation or a remark or a look or a situation or... maybe all of life is about that call and response, that point of choice.