Monday, June 6, 2011

Coon Dogs, Cartoons, and the English Classroom: How Where the Red Fern Grows Calls for Visual Representation and Why This Matters

Billy, the young coon-hunting protagonist in Wilson Rawls' Where the Red Fern Grows, just witnessed the gruesome death of Rubin, boy from his boondocks community, while Billy was on a hunt with him and his brother. "Scared, not knowing what to do, I called for Rainie. I got no answer. I called his name again and again. I could get no reply. My voice echoed in the darkness of the silent night. A cold chill ran over my body. I suppose it is natural at a time like that for a boy to think of his mother. I thought of mine. I wanted to get home" (Rawls).

I read Where the Red Fern Grows for the seventh or eight time in my life (it's a childhood favorite) so that I could research it and write about it for my class, Writing about Literature in the Digital Age. Often, though, I forgot to think about it as literature as I was caught up in the emotionality of the text. "It is natural at a time like that for a boy to think of his mother." How stirring!

I began to research the reactions of Where the Red Fern Grows on an informal basis. I looked through Facebook groups. I read tweets. I read book reviews on Goodreads and various other online forums. I searched blogs that mentioned the book and I asked almost everyone I had a conversation with if they had read the book and what they thought of it. I was disappointed in the surface-level responses I got from each of these sources. In my blog post, "Using Art to Interpret Art" I mentioned how frustrating it was to hear "What a sad book" over and over and over again. While Where the Red Fern Grows is an easy read, it is replete with emotion--it is full of opportunities to connect with the text in a meaningful, personal way and to explore the intricacies of human emotion and, even, interspecies relationships. Words, at least the words I found in informal online settings, were inadequate at expressing the readers' emotions.

This frustrated post was a pivotal point in my research process.

I decided to see if there were any visual representations of Where the Red Fern Grows that might be more meaningful than the shallow commentary I was finding in written words. I ran across some art by illustrator Israel Sanchez inspired by the novel, and I was moved by the emotion in even his cartoonish depictions. I e-mailed the artist, and he gave me permission to share his art on my blog, thanking me warmly for my interest in his art and the way he was using it to express his interaction with the work. Thanks to his connection to literature through art, then his connection to others through the internet, I was led to research school (typically junior high) projects that incorporated visual art into the study of Where the Red Fern Grows. As a future high school teacher, I quickly developed a theory that I was thirsty to prove: Visual arts is beneficial for students of secondary education as they study language arts. Indeed, the two arts should not be separated because both textual and visually artistic reactions to the text are legitimate means of interacting with it.

So, having a theory that I was thirsty to prove that involved teachers, I decided my best course of action would be to contact teachers on the topic. Through several forums targeted to teachers and a discussion I started on Goodreads, I received responses that, for the most part, corroborated my thesis. One woman named Cheryl responded on Goodreads that I should consider offering students a choice when I create visual assignments because "some may not be comfortable responding visually." She did go on to admit that maybe pushing students out of their comfort zone was appropriate.    
There are scholarly sources that agree with this viewpoint. Two articles by Zoss and Lin, respectively, state very clearly that visual arts should be a part of mainstream subjects, particularly language arts. I simply wish to take this a step further. Visual arts enriches the study of literature by allowing a greater range of communication, which is especially helpful when exploring highly emotional texts such as Where the Red Fern Grows.

Now, this is important. This is the crux of my research. But there is an underlying significance to how I did my research, how I found the art, how I found the lesson plans, how I communicated with Israel, how I reached out to fellow educators, and how I shared what I learned. It was all done online. Even the student art that I found was online. Yes, I read the primary text from a printed book, but most of my interaction with it was virtual. This says much about my learning process as a college student, but that is not what I am researching. Now, after becoming thoroughly convinced that visual arts is a necessary component of a language arts classroom, I am faced with another question: Is technology a necessary part of this visual interaction?

I love the traditional English classroom. I love the smell of books and sitting in a circle, discussing literature. I love markerboards and notebook paper and that wall-mounted pencil sharpener that sounds as though we're sharpening our pencils with a chainsaw. But, considering the richness of my digital interaction with Where the Red Fern Grows, I can't just forsake technology when I am a teacher in my own classroom. Especially when scholarly sources indicate that technology enhances learning.

The article "Utilizing the Internet to Facilitate Classroom Learning," by Jan Tucker and Bari Courts, states that, "There is a push to increase the efficiency of learning and the transfer and facilitation of knowledge. Technology enhanced learning environments improve the learning experience by promoting cooperation, collaboration, and self-sufficiency in learners." Cooperation, collaboration, and self-sufficiency. Couple that with a visually-rich classroom, and the level of student interest is bound to increase. Therefore, technology and visual arts are both key components of a great language arts classroom, and just as I saw the two coincide in my research, they should be interwoven in school.

I have spent my academic years writing single-strand scholarly papers, but these do not even begin to reflect what literary criticism can be in an age of digital literacy. If I had written a traditional scholarly paper for an audience of one (my professor), about Where the Red Fern Grows, this highly emotional children's novel, I probably would have come up with a thesis, I would have found sources that corroborate my initial impression of something I consider important in the text, and I would have tried to determine its significance on a grander scale. This might have been a fine paper. But writing about Where the Red Fern Grows in the digital age, using digital resources, I was able to reevaluate the emotionality of the text, recognize the legitimacy of visually artistic responses to the book, and study how visual arts might be used to study it in a secondary education classroom. All of this matters much more to me in my future career as an English teacher than does any theme, device, or oddity I would have decided to delve into on my own.

Simply stated, looking at the digital world of Where the Red Fern Grows--particularly a visual world of artistic interpretations--before looking at the printed text itself influenced my research, my ideas, and my ultimate thesis. Going about my research in this manner allowed me to see the novel in a unique light. More importantly, though, it led me to new pedagogical ideals--it led me to a thesis that I will continue to actively pursue and, assuming I find it consistently accurate, incorporate into my future career as a teacher.

Lin, Chia-Hui. "Literary Instruction Through Communicative and Visual Arts." Teacher Librarian 32.5, 2005. p. 25. Web. 2 Jun 2011.

Rawls, Wilson. Where the Red Fern Grows. NY: Laurel-Leaf, 1961. Print.

Tucker, Jan and Courts, Bari. "Utilizing the Internet to Facilitate Classroom Learning." Journal of College Teaching and Learning 7.7. Littleton: Jul 2010. p. 37-43. Web. 6 May 2011.

Zoss, Michelle. "Visual Arts and Literacy." Handbook of Adolescent Literacy Research. NYC: Guilford Press, 2009. Web. 25 May 2011.


  1. This really comes close to meeting all of the stated criteria. Good job on a great draft!

    --Spell check!
    --I was pleased to see you referring back to prior posts. One of the strengths of this piece is that we get a clear sense of you as a researcher, figuring things out as you go.
    --Be careful about using links as you ready this for an eBook. What you have now is just fine for a blog format, but you can't count on people having an Internet connection in an eReader and so you need to spell out any links that you have (using standard MLA citation conventions, including putting the URL into your works cited). It's a bit less convenient, but as I said you just cannot count on people being able to link out to any hyperlinks in an eBook -- not at the present, anyway.
    --You should visually emphasize your thesis statement
    --Where is the artwork? You should at least have one header image, as we've discussed -- especially with your topic. If possible, we should include some of the others that you've gathered. Caption these photos, too.

  2. critiqued this for you on the googledoc