Interpreting and/or Analyzing Language Demands with “Friends”

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A highly scientific qualitative data analysis of a comment thread from Facebook.

It’s 5:35 on Tuesday night. I am in a room of pre-service English teachers — some a semester from student teaching, some two.  The class is the teaching of English: methods. I start class with a mid-term Google survey. I ask students to take a look at the syllabus and decide if what remains is what they need or if, in our final four weeks together, I can offer something else.

I just spent the three hours between my junior high job and my university job reading lesson plan commentaries. In my feedback, I wrote over and over that “all of this will make more sense when you are actually teaching these plans.” The purpose of this edTPA exercise was to orient students to the form/genre so that when they are actually student teaching, the edTPA process could be less overwhelming. I don’t want edTPA to take over the course, but I don’t want to send new teachers into the field without some grasp of how they’ll be assessed by the state.  Still, the language section (4a-d) and the dearth of explanation in the students’ commentaries in this part, struck me as important enough to address now. Language is, after all, our business.

I already have a plan for tonight that does not include direct instruction of language function, syntax, and discourse. Students are reading poems. Leaders are modeling Sheridan Blau’s literature workshop strategies. I walk around and listen, thinking about language demands. They are reading poems aloud and discussing, but their language has different functions: to interpret, to explain, to justify, to describe, to analyze, to synthesize. I hear arguing, asking, responding, expressing. These future teachers already have the academic vocabulary to do the work: noting the difference between author and speaker, tone and mood; asking about line and stanza breaks; identifying hyperbole, personification, simile. They know that poets play with syntax (sentence length, type, order) purposefully. These teachers know the discourse norms of a literary discussion for how to share an aesthetic response and what to say to a peer who shares a story of a loved one who died in response to W. H. Auden’s “Funeral Blues.”

When the poem-reading sessions end, the future teachers note how prior knowledge of the poems, poets, context, allusions impacted the interpretations; they identify the advantages and disadvantages of frontloading vocabulary, poet biographies, and context. I listen. I feel good about the future of our profession.

It’s 8:35 now. I am closing class with a look at the comments from the Google survey.  Sure enough, language demands come up a few times but also some time for just Q and A, an opportunity to ask me questions about teaching more generally. I tell students that I will work on revising our syllabus to include a Q and A and, of course, language demands.

“Maybe you can help with the functions part especially?” one student asks. “I am sure there is something in the handbook, but that is hundreds of pages, and… their words are so vague and — analyze, interpret, explain.”

“Right, so they are asking you to design your lesson plan to teach how to do that. How would you teach interpreting versus analyzing?” I say, and as I am saying that, I realize how complicated the answer is, how the complex, strategic, and artful work teachers do defies easy ways of knowing and doing. I need more than four weeks. Geesh, I am still figuring this out, and I have been teaching fifteen years.

It’s 9:40 now. I have just parked my car in the condo garage.  I turn off Warcross by Marie Lu and realize I haven’t been listening. I’ve been thinking about interpreting and analyzing. I decide to take the question to my “friends” on Facebook, most English teachers, academics, and authors. I “know” lots of smart people.

Teacher-friends: What’s the difference between interpreting and analyzing a text? What skills, language are needed? How is the purpose different/similar? (Facebook, October 24, 2017, 9:40pm)

  1. Yvette Pompa, freelance writer/literacy teacher: “Interpreting is from what you bring to the content. Analyzing is more clinical/data driven.”
  2. Gary Anderson, professional development designer and presenter/adjunct and writing center specialist at Harper College: “I think of interpreting as moving beyond the text to generate some new meaning, while analyzing is more like deconstructing, identifying components and possibly considering how they relate to one another but not necessarily arriving at new meaning.”
  3. Alisha White, Assistant Professor at Western Illinois University: “I think of analyzing as thinking through literary theory, while interpretation is more the readers’ take on the text.”
  4. Laura Jewett, Doctoral Coordinator Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley: “Meaning-making vs distilling.”
  5. Angela Der Ramos, Instructional Leadership Corp at California Teachers Association: “Damn. You have smart friends.”
  6. Amy Hayden, freelance writer and former instructor at the University of Chicago: “Interpreting is finding the meaning of the text; analyzing looks to explore its strengths and weaknesses, implications, applications to other theories/areas of inquiry, arguments, underlying assumptions, etc.”
  7. Sabrina Anfonssi Kareem, high school English teacher: ” Hmmm. I think interpreting a text is a part or step in the process of analyzing. I use the phrase “interpret” when I want students to tell me what something means in their own words. I guess one skill involved in interpreting might be decoding or translating the author’s words into simpler terms without losing meaning. Additionally, skills involved in that endeavor would be summarizing and paraphrasing as well as using context to define challenging words. Once an author’s words have been interpreted, I would ask students to analyze various statements across a text which they have interpreted in order to piece together a deeper meaning. This would require the ability to use interpreted statements to synthesize a message or theme or claim being made. It would also require the ability to select proper evidence to support that meaning.”
  8. Omar Sangiovanni, artists/art teacher at Miami Dade County Public Schools: “In art school we are taught to analyze the work of art (the elements of art and principles of design used) before coming up with an interpretation of what the artist was trying to create.”
  9. Antonio Garcia, caseworker and adjunct professor at East Carolina University: “Evaluation v. Endorsement. Interpreting the text is to endorse a particular view or understanding. Evaluating a text is to analyze the “evidentiary” components as separate items and then as a connected whole to be able to understand the multiple “angles” that could be gleaned under the endorsement/interpretation. Linguistic inquiry and research must look at the evaluation first then review the interpretations for discrepancies. Semiotics and understanding the signified and it’s signified are crucial. Pedagogically take a simple elementary story and replace certain words and then evaluate the impact. “Switched” is replaced with “juxtaposed.” “To get Better” is replaced with “ameliorate.” “Muffin” is replaced with “pastry.” The words chosen in original form say a lot about the intent and “position/ality” of the writer.”
  10. Sophia Sarigianides, current work not available/worked at Teachers College, Columbia University: ” I’m following a UbD-influenced line of thinking to align with Amy, above, and a lot of Sabrina’s comments. Interpreting is bringing in a text to the reader to show what it “says” in the reader’s words. There is a transformation that happens at this level that works to shape meaning, to “summarize” but with something of a reader’s spin. In literary analysis, larger structural tools may be used to show author’s craft, to discuss the likely audience and the text’s “hoped for” effects on that audience, as well as resistant readings shaped by various critical lenses. Great question, Sarah.”
  11. Kim McCollum-Clark, Associate Professor of English at Millersville University:  “I think it’s very important in “analysis” to identify your critical lens. You could “analyze” the frequency of the letter “e” in these replies. It wouldn’t “mean” anything, per se, but you could do it. I often press my teacher babies to explain their analytic lens and the rationale behind it.”
  12. Jennifer Horton Isgitt, no workplace/studied secondary education at the University of North Texas: “‘Analysis’ means to break something into its constituent parts to see how each contributes to the whole. Analysis of a car engine would mean seeing how each part makes the engine run. Analysis of a sports game tape would mean seeing how each individual play led to the outcome of the game. ‘Interpretation’ is the synthesis. What is, in the end, the overall effect of the writing? What purpose did it achieve (if rhetoric) or what observations about life (themes) did it evoke (if fiction) or what longings does it express (if poetry) or even what further questions does it raise?”
  13. Donald Tinney, English teacher at Bellows Free Academy in St. Albans, Vermont: “Thanks for asking this question. I am analyzing and interpreting the answers.”
  14. Doug Hesse, Director of Writing and Professor of English at University of Denver: “I’d say interpreting gets at ‘what it means,’ while analyzing gets at ‘how it works.'”
  15. Mark Letcher, Assistant Professor of English at Lewis University: “I tend to look at interpretation as the reader coming to the text, and moving it forward in some manner (connections to other texts, world, etc.). In analysis, I usually think of looking back at what the author has crafted/intended in her work, which lends itself to critical lenses. In looking over earlier posts, I think my response is more aligned to what Sophia said, and she said it better.  Great question, Sarah!”
  16. Tim Duggan, Northeastern Illinois University: “Nice question. I think of analysis similarly to how Jennifer described it, and we use analysis in the service of developing an interpretation, or a range of possible interpretations. It reminds me of Robert Scholes and the reading/interpretation/criticism construct: What does it say?, What does it mean?, What does it matter?”

It’s now 1:54 pm on Saturday. I was right that the answer is complex, defies easy knowing, certainly complicates application or transfer to classroom practice.  And I was right that I know lots of smart people. (I include a workplace according to the Facebook profiles I could access, which may not be up-to-date.)

I started to synthesize the data but resorted to the highly reliable and artful word cloud to capture the complexity. The most frequent word is “text” and also “meaning.” Maybe that’s what happens when we talk about teaching in the context of language and not language users. Maybe that’s the problem with mechanisms to assess teaching. The syntax and discourse matter not because our teaching license depends on it but because meaning and understanding depend on it. 

The syntax and discourse Facebook communication permit a certain kinds of meaning making. I bet that if my students and teacher “friends” could gather in a beautiful space to talk about teaching English and the language of our practice that the word that would come up the most is “student.” I have actually met, in person, a few of the people quoted above, and I can assure you that when they teach and write and speak out, they do so for our students. The syntax would be more complex and the discourse would be more dynamic.

What would have to change in education for discussions about teaching to always position students at the heart of every discussion’s word cloud? What would that lesson plan commentary look like?