Tuesday, January 13, 2015

SWCBlogger Challenge #3: On Reading and Recharging

Our fledgling blogging group's final challenge last semester asked us to consider what we plan to do to recharge. After four weeks, I'm finally meeting the challenge! 

I kept putting off composing that post for a bunch of reasons. Grades were coming due. Holiday happenings happened. And then inertia set in, and instead of writing about rejuvenating, I dove into my favorite hobbies: reading books and watching movies. 

So instead posting what I planned to do, this entry recaps one thing I did to recharge. It turns out my that all roads, even attempts at rejuvenation, meandered back to teaching/learning applications! 

As is the case with many of my teacher friends, I fell into the trap of doing double-duty, thinking I could read for recreation and prep at the same time. As of now, I've read three single-author textbooks (two memoirs and a novel) that I will teach next semester, zig zagging between reading for pleasure and contemplating how to leverage lessons. Though while I was in effect doing "work," I thoroughly enjoyed studying, reminding me of the best times of grad school and summers off. 

One book, Marivi Soliven's The Mango Bride, particularly engaged me. Her novel traces the stories of two Filipinas' journey from the Philippines to the United States, and the surprising connections they share despite their class differences. 

I found myself obsessed with the book, going for pages without taking teaching notes. Certainly, Soliven's story-telling skills had much to do with my interest; her vivid descriptions and characterizations brought the story to life  (and provide excellent models for student writing!). And being a child of Filipino immigrants, I had a personal interest. 

Yet I've read fiction and non-fiction about Filipino themes, equally well-crafted. Lots.  So what made The Mango Bride more compelling than other texts? 

It occurred to me that my engagement had to do with how Soliven's novel connected with personal experience, how the"facts" of The Mango Bride echoed facts from my family's lives. This connection aptly illustrates what scholar's call "schema," the prior knowledge or patterns of information, either general or personal, that readers use to make sense of texts.

Several characters from the book immediately brought to mind family members. Soliven's Senora Concha was my Tita Nitang, two stuffy matriarchs obsessed with family reputation, appearances, and status. Philandering Frederico Guerrero could have been any one of my uncles, with "queridas", not-so-secret kept women on the side. My comprehension of the text had everything to do with the way these characters fit into a recognizable patterns, that "mental file cabinet" we call schemas. 

The story's theme, how immigration fuels a desire to create a new life, activated even more prior knowledge. For two characters, Beverly and Manong Del, the lure of America had to do with running away from poverty toward the promise of financial opportunities. Secret sexual scandals pushed two other characters, Amparo and her uncle Aldo, out of their family homes in Manila. For all four characters, immigrating to the US represents a clean break from painful memories: "America was an ocean whose restless inhabitants floated from one city to the next, dissembling, reinventing, ultimately forgetting what they left behind." 

The push/pull factors Soliven depicts uncannily reflect my own family's drama. The quest for financial security was there, for sure. My mom's family was relatively poor, barely a generation away from living in a nipa hut. When my mestizo, light-skinned, affluent father courted Mom, the subsequent scandal parallels the crises that befalls several of The Mango Bride's characters. 

My mom's family suspected that Pops was merely dallying with her, one of several side-chicks for a recently divorced playboy mestizo. His family accused Mom of being a gold digger, seducing Pops to move up the social ladder. Both families mistrusted the intentions of the lovers, and initially cast them out of their respective homes. Eventually, their parents relented, allowing them to marry, but bad blood lingered, and my parents left for California.  In a certain way, the move was just as much an escape as an exile. 

As I read The Mango Bride, I couldn't help but picture certain relatives or think about familiar yet abridged family stories, edited to keep secrets intact. Soliven's book helped me imagine my relatives' back stories. The Mango Bride allowed me to recreate events that exist in the gaps of my mother and father's talk-story about their romance, their new identities forged on forgetting. 

I will likely never get a complete version of our family history. But page by page, Soliven's book compelled me to imagine and reconstruct those details.  Reading The Mango Bride gave me lenses to "read" - even revise -  my own my parents'  story. And that active imagination accounts for how deeply the novel engaged me.  

Why am I sharing all this? Because I want to remember how the connections I make between a text and my background knowledge can fuel greater engagement in reading. Those cognitive (and emotional!) maps made the plot easier to follow. Comprehension became easier and richer. And beyond the pleasure of recognition, the story piqued my curiosity not just about the book but of my family: How will Soliven's characters work through the problems my parents faced? How closely did the subjective experience of the characters might be what my parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles felt? 

Taking the time to consider how schemas enhance my comprehension and engagement may help me explain the significance of activating background knowledge. The more I can remember and translate what I do as a reader and thinker, the more "tricks" I'll have to show students what I mean by "making connections through prior knowledge." If I am strategic, my experiences can inform how I attempt to get students to use their own "mental and emotional maps." Perhaps I can better illustrate how reading deepens the understanding of their own lives, validates their experiences, and fosters empathy.

Reflecting like this also reminds me how important it is to assign texts, written and otherwise, that help students glimpse themselves and their families' stories. The more students see themselves in the texts they read potentially increases their engagement. This might allow students to participate in the kind of creative remembering and revising that The Mango Bride facilitated for me. Making schemas visible can help those who already enjoy reading to add depth and significance. Even students who don't care for reading may come to appreciate the pleasures of reading.