Old knowledge makes way for the new

I read the short story “Sonny’s Blues” first this week without looking ahead in the other readings to see where the discussion of reading literature might be going. While I read, I was thinking the whole time of how I might address this story with my high school students. I noted immediately that they might misconstrue the drug references in the text to be glorified as “cool” for the time period since Sonny seems to have done well for himself in the end—and also for the fact that the drugs helped him to find his voice or sound. I struggled to figure out how to get around those misconceptions and shallow interpretations of the plot without the story becoming, as Wilner describes, and anti-drug message. So it was incredibly apt that the article by Wilner would address my fears of allowing students to start with what they know and then give them the tools to build critical interpretations of a text.
Wilner describes a similar situation where her students misunderstood a text to be about homophobia while they missed the more rich and instructional thematic qualities. She explains that a teacher must let students enter into a text with their preconceptions and understanding of topics. A teacher must meet his or students where they are and then scaffold the instruction to allow students to fully interpret a text. I think the trick here is in not prescribing to students exactly what they should get from a text; instead, students must learn the skills in order to perform the interpretive acts on their own.
And yet, I remember conversations we’ve had in class this semester on the pitfalls of ideologies presented in texts like “How to Read Like a College Professor.” If tools for interpretation are too prescribed, then a student will be led down the wrong path, assuming that everything is a symbol or holds a metaphor.
Wilner describes that there must be a balance between the “complex relationship between beliefs and cognition” (Wilner 2). Students must negotiate between “old knowledge and value systems” and “new knowledge” (Wilner 2), finding a way to build understandings and reshaping what one had assumed. So, it is not about prescribing steps for a student to follow, but instead wanting to “help students see what constitutes and valid question or ‘problem’ and to cultivate in them the art of answering the question or solving the problem as an expert would do” (Wilner 6). Teaching reading should be about instructing students on how to approach a text and question it—to interact with it.
As a final thought, I appreciate what Blau says in chapter one of “The Literature Workshop” regarding confusion when reading a text. Blau says, “The only texts worth reading are texts you don’t understand. Because if you understand a text as soon as you read it, you must have understood it before you read it, so you didn’t have to bother reading it in the first place” (Blau 24). Reading is about discovery. It’s interpretive. And I think this confusion is what makes it so interesting to teach.