Tuesday, June 7, 2011

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

"Championship Coon Hunt to be Held" by Israel Sanchez, 2010

"I don't see why we have to move to town to get an education," I said. "Hasn't Mama taught us how to read and write?"
"There's more to an education than just reading and writing," Papa said. "Much more." Wilson Rawls, Where the Red Fern Grows

Visual arts is necessary in English classrooms; it allows for greater communication than writing alone, especially when enhanced by digital collaboration.

Communicating the Emotionality of a Text

Billy, the young coon-hunting protagonist of Wilson Rawls' Where the Red Fern Grows, witnesses the gruesome death of Rubin, a boy from his boondocks community."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 just 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 as I read, 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." 

Out of curiosity regarding how readers react to this children's novel filled with weighty issues such as love, death, and family relationships, I began to research informal online responses to Where the Red Fern Grows. 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 mention 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 feeling--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.

These frustrating findings were a pivotal point in my research process.

I decided to see if the internet could provide 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 (see illustration above and see citation for URL). The picture at the heading of this chapter is a fine example of his work. In the written text, as Billy asks for permission from his father to attend the big coon hunt with his grandfather, the hopeful yearning of the adolescent is palpable through the pages. Similarly, in Israel Sanchez's piece, Billy's earnest dream--and any dream of any boy that age--is clearly demonstrated in his cherubic upward gaze at his father. 

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 projects (typically junior high) 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. Where the Red Fern Grows is particularly appropriate for visual representation because of the strong emotions of the plot that sometimes overshadow meaningful themes and, somehow, dissuade mature written interactions with the text.

Visual Representations and Educational Implications

So, having my theory that involved education, I decided my best course of action would be to use the internet 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. Various teachers agreed that language arts can be enriched by visual arts, and they encouraged me to continue to pursue this line of thinking (Whitaker, "Responses"). 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" (Whitaker, "The Incorporation"). I assert that if all students should be expected to create written work, and assuming that visual creation is proven beneficial to the learning process, all students can reasonably be expected to create and consume visual work.   

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.

The Digitization of a Visual Classroom

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 secondary 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, which enriches communication, 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.

Bringing It All Together

Why does this all matter? My research on a single book, Where the Red Fern Grows, done through a single--though highly diverse--medium (the internet), led me to a single driving thesis: Visual arts is necessary in the study of language arts. How I arrived at this conclusion, though, is as significant as the idea itself when one considers its implications. My ability to access the thoughts of artists, teachers, and typical readers was made possible by the internet. My ability to share my own ideas and get feedback from a variety of interested individuals was similarly a product of technology. The way I learned about educational interaction with Where the Red Fern Grows suggests that secondary education students, too, can benefit from the richness of digital collaboration. Instead of one-dimensional, read-the-book-and-be-able-to-discuss-it English classrooms, students should be immersed in environments of visual and textual intellectualism, coupled with meaningful collaboration that the digital age makes possible.

Amy Whitaker is an English Teaching major at Brigham Young University who runs by day and reads by night.

Sources Cited

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.

Sanchez, Israel. "Red Fern Color Comps." Picture Book Report. Web. 6 Jun 2011. http://picturebookreport.com/category/where-the-red-fern-grows/

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.

Whitaker, Amy. "Responses to My Public Questions on Visual Arts." Blogger. 1 Jun 2011. Web. 7 May 2011. http://amywhitakerwrites.blogspot.com/2011/06/responses-to-my-public-questions-on.html 

Whitaker, Amy. "The Incorporation of Visual Arts in a Language Arts Classroom." Goodreads. 27 May 2011. Web. 7 May 2011. http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/563335-the-incorporation-of-visual-arts-in-a-language-arts-classroom#comment_id_31040075

Whitaker, Amy. "Using Art to Interpret Art." Blogger. 16 May 2011. Web. 6 May 2011.  http://amywhitakerwrites.blogspot.com/2011/05/using-art-to-interpret-art.html

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

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