by Richard Short
On the first proper day of the year, when the photos and screenings and class meetings are over, and we’ve finally returned to our regular bell schedule, I show my American Literature classes a film about a little bird.
The primary reading skill we work on in this Honors-level course is analysis. It’s a tricky one, as readers of this blog likely already know, and an intimidating word for some of my fresh-faced sophomores. We practice analytical thinking all year. In this first class period, my goals are to roll out some terminology in an unthreatening way and begin building comfort with the process. I’ll refer back to this simple lesson many times in the coming months as we transition into larger, denser texts, reminding students that this is just like what we did with the kiwi.
Kiwi! is an artfully moving short film – with no dialogue – that clocks in at less than three minutes. In it we watch as a little bird labors to nail a tree to the side of a cliff. It peers over the edge, and we see that this is the last of many, many such efforts. Donning an old aviator’s hat and goggles, the kiwi then leaps off the precipice.
The camera slowly tilts to reveal the kiwi’s perspective: by falling through this simulated forest, it is experiencing flight. Tiny, adorable stubs extend, beating furiously, and a single tear rolls from his eye before the bird is lost in the mists below. Then comes the thud – that always gets a reaction.
I strongly recommend watching it before continuing. I’m linking it here with the creator’s permission:
Level One: The Literal
Following their initial viewing, I talk about what we mean when we ask someone, “what was it about?” There are a few different ways to take that question. I ask that they begin with the literal. What’s literally happening? If your friend were absent, found out that we discussed a video and asked you, “what was it about?” what would you say? Just the plot. Just what they’d see and hear.
We brainstorm a list together on the board. There are some key details that need to be acknowledged before we move on, and I nudge them if necessary. It’s interesting how some students will jump ahead, start putting things together and doing interpretation, but I remind them that we want to be strictly objective here.
Level Two: The Interpretive
We watch the film a second time. The class is then divided into groups, and given time to discuss another way to answer, “what was it about?” If someone who already knew the plot asked that same question, what would they mean? Groups are told that they need to think a little more deeply, make inferences, and connect the literal together in some coherent way. Why did the bird jump? They talk and I eavesdrop.
Here they begin to think thematically. They make claims about sacrifice, about naivete. As we start to get their Level Two thinking on the board in a new column, I encourage speakers to connect what they’re saying here to the contents of our previous list. The relationship between detail and assertion is important.
Typically, there is some disagreement on how aware the bird is when it jumps. Does it realize what will happen? I’ll start two lists, and we’ll see how much evidence can be drawn in support of one or the other. What’s the deal with the tear? Is this a moment of bitter realization, or the achievement of a profound joy?
Slowly, the “aware” column begins to edge out its rival. We can point to the dozens (hundreds?) of trees already hung, the use of rope and climbing necessary throughout, as support for the kiwi understanding the power of gravity. We can note the happy foot clap following completion of its task. A student this year argued that the ready-to-hand (beak?) costume and lack of hesitation demonstrated that the bird had already given all of this considerable thought.
The bird’s identity as a kiwi and how that separates it from other birds adds additional support. The music, too, does a lot of work cueing mood. A bouncy, almost silly march gives way to a tinkling melody that is not flatly sad, but bittersweet. There’s a complex mixture of feeling there at the exact moment it closes its eyes (another detail!) and sheds the tear.
Conclusion (and Level Three)
And this, I explain, is the game we will play all year. It’s the same moves, the same rules, despite the texts themselves being longer. It starts with the literal. We need to watch (and read) carefully. Little details can affect how we process the whole; for example, if someone didn’t hear that final thud, they might not realize what the bird truly exchanged for its experience and the emotional weight that adds.
Sometimes the literal stuff is pretty easy, as with an animated short, but sometimes it requires effort in its own right. A work like The Scarlet Letter demands a slow and careful reading, mediated by potentially unfamiliar vocabulary and style, just to understand who’s who and what’s what. Background knowledge matters too. Knowing what a kiwi is, or taking the time to investigate the title, is a major clue in the right direction.
Interpretation, our second level, is only possible once there is a good command of the literal, especially when we need to defend the plausibility of a given perspective. Without details to corroborate, persuading someone else to see it our way becomes difficult, and we’re left on the flimsy terrain of opinion. The inevitable snarky kid will suggest something outlandish, but when pressed to connect that to evidence the point makes itself, and I will take pains to distinguish between possible and plausible.
I end by asking that they briefly discuss how we could take this further, further than a fictional bird in a fictional film. In the third level, the applied, students are asked what larger message or wisdom could be extracted from this text. Theme lives here, and moral, and thesis, and all the other meta-narrative goodness that make art worthwhile. Some students wrote about how the film illustrates the dangers of obsession. Others that the greatest dreams require the greatest sacrifice. One even read this as a commentary on ableism.
Sometimes they ask me what I think. And I tell them unironically that this little bird lives in my heart. No matter how many times I watch it, it gets me every time. The music. Those little wings. Somebody just made it up, and yet it matters to me, and that’s not nothing. In fact, that’s our course.