Wishes or Fishes? — Some Thoughts on Being Present at the Creation

We finished reading the wordless graphic novel, The Arrival, which I had planned as an introduction to some of the central questions in a unit on immigration.

We came across these pictures early in the book.

I’ve been trying to keep my mouth shut (at least for awhile) so I could hear the kids think. Here’s what they said:

“What are those….birds?”

“No, I think they are flying fish.”

“But they don’t look like fish, exactly. I think they might be a flock of birds that followed the ship.”

“I disagree. I think they are flying fish, too. I’ve heard of flying fish. They fly across ships sometimes.”

So, birds or fish? The class seemed split, but mostly on the side of flying fish.

Later, we came to these pictures.

And these pictures.

And then some kids said:

“I wonder if that isn’t really a bird. Maybe it’s a wish.” (ME: Tell me more, please.)

“Maybe the author wanted to show us a wish and had to think of a way to show it in a picture.”

“Maybe the bird is a wish that The Father sends out to his family. He wishes they could be there with him?”

“It’s like he sends them thoughts through the air to his family.”

And then:

“Remember earlier, on the ship, there were all of those flying fish? Maybe they were ALL wishes by all of those people thinking about the people at home.”

(ME: What do you all think? Wishes? Or something else?)


“Something else!”

(ME: What then?)

“Maybe they are strange animals. The Father has run into a lot of strange animals in the new land he lives in.”

“Yeah! Remember that weird pet that acts like a dog? And all of those people have strange animal pets. I think the author wanted us to think of this as a place with lots of strange animals.”

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

I bring up this conversation because it is such a common one in our classroom. I have to admit that I have a bias toward the wishes thesis because it contains visual metaphor, and my brain really likes metaphors. (Yum. And more later, maybe, on why metaphors mean so much to me.)

I know that our classroom is clearly divided between those who increasingly look for language (or a visual image) to carry with it a figurative meaning, and those who see things more literally. Some see wishes. Some see fishes.

I suspect that one of the differences between these stances is how (or whether) one’s orientation as a reader faces toward building a generalization out of a particular–to ask the question that generalizes out of any particular circumstance. For example, the habit of asking this: What might these fishes mean if they weren’t simply fishes? A question like that admits from the outset that there is more than meets the eye, and offers the possibility of general ideas to emerge from the particulars of experience.

Do you have such a divide in your classroom? If so, what do you make of it? Are there any thoughts common to the Literalists, the Figurativians that might help me understand them better?

*  *   *   *   *   *   *

Why does metaphor even matter?

Maybe it doesn’t.

Or maybe it does.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *

Sometimes, when I listen carefully to the kids talk and I (try) to keep my mouth shut, I feel like I’m present at the creation. Lava oozes from the Earth, cools. Continents wander about slowly colliding, splitting, sloughing, accreting. A new world forms and reforms.


6 thoughts on “Wishes or Fishes? — Some Thoughts on Being Present at the Creation

  1. This reminds me of those pictures that you see two things in: the woman or the old man. Yes I have the literals and the figuratives in my class. And our bias as teachers is towards the figuratives. We jump over the literals as not getting the deeper idea. Your post makes me wonder, what about those literals? I love how you see this as a stance. What we see from where we sit. Our perspective colors our interpretations. Those with the literal glasses on see it clearly for what it is not what it could be. Those literals are quite grounded and perhaps there is something that could be learned from both perspectives. I wonder, could this be something for students to debate in order to see something in the other’s perspective?
    I must get this book.
    Have you tried Journey with your students? It seems like another book that might bring forth interesting thinking.

  2. No, I haven’t looked at Journey with the kids. Have you?? I’ve seen it reviewed and thought it might be a good fit with what we are talking about.

    We have enjoyed the longer wordless graphic novel format. It lends itself to prolonged interpretive conversation, I think. (And it connects to the “media” standard that ask students to derive meaning from images, etc!) Also, I’ve been wondering about layering some completely different “journey” kind of book (one that explores journey more metaphorically) onto the questions we are asking for our immigration unit — something like Pictures of Hollis Woods, or The Great Gilly Hopkins, or Bridge to Terabithia, or Eleven, or some such…

    Here are our questions:
    –Why would one leave home and everything one knows to go somewhere strange and foreign?
    –How does one “pack” for such a trip? What do you take? What do you leave behind?
    –How does the new life compare to the old?

    Thank you so much for stopping by to chat, Julieanne!

  3. I somehow missed this last week but stumbled on it today while I was trying to put together a post on text complexity that also referred to The Arrival. And like Mary Lee, I’m so, so in love your last paragraph. It so fully captures the privilege of teaching children. I also love that neat teaching move: “What might these fishes mean if they weren’t simply fishes?” It’s a wonderful invitation to consider layers of meaning—even if, at the end of the day, you think they’re only fishes. And as you’ll see when I get mine up, the teachers I was working with had a similar divide with whether the dragon was a metaphor or real. Makes me think that maybe if you consider what it might mean, it doesn’t matter so much what you decide on at the end, since you’ve entertained the possibility—and perhaps don’t have to see it as an either or.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Vicki!

      Our classroom, too, struggled with what to make of the dragons. Some thought actual dragons, some thought something else. Finally, one of the kids offered a suggestion: Maybe the dark shadows mean there is fear or worry or sadness. We played with those ideas — I asked if anyone had heard the saying, “Sadness (or worry or fear) hung in the air.” — and we thought about what that might mean IF the dragons were a metaphor for something other than a real dragon. (There was an interesting discussion that happened when The Father encountered the dragon-like creature in jar in the market place.)

      Yes, I agree that probably the thinking (and the playing with ideas) is the important part. No either/or is necessary.

      Although, as I say this (and I hope I’m not being totalitarian here) I really DO believe that a life lived in the company of metaphors is rich and deep, maybe richer and deeper than one lived without them?

      But maybe all this points toward the idea that teaching is also about taking a risk to reveal our own story, the sources of what give our life meaning, so others can decide what of that is useful for themselves? No need for me to make another choose. Perhaps, just live and try to be real, try to be present.

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