Writing with the Masters:  Multiple Ways of Making Meaning
a sample
Language arts teachers from kindergarten through college have all had the experience of sitting next to someone on a bus or plane and being asked "What do you do?"  When the answer to the question is "teach English" or "teach language arts," the questioning passenger often says, "I was never good at that" or "I’ll have to watch my grammar."  Most of us have never had anyone respond, "Oh, I loved drawing pictures to illustrate my book reports in fifth grade," or "When I was little, I liked to sing the Pooh songs along with my father when he read to me."  Most teachers find that the general public conceive of writing very narrowly as putting symbols on paper or computer, not as a complex and exciting system of signs, symbols, and ideas.  For most people writing instruction all too often invokes the image of the red pen run over pages of hapless and hopeless student text.  Most people forget that writing and reading are the manipulation of many kinds of textual clues, often including pictures, word problems, and poetic musical rhythms.  Writers must learn to use all these systems to write really wonderful texts.

Picture Writing
Historically, everywhere in the world writing began with pictures.  The earliest cave drawings are still visible in caves in modern Europe.  These drawings began as pictures of actions, but in time the pictures became individual symbols for those actions and for sounds as a part of the actions.  Thus, ancient languages, for example, Old Norse with its runes, ancient Chinese with its pictographs, and Native American signs, are symbol systems that equate the word (verb=action) with the action pictured.  Even today, students play games that use picture symbols for words, often as a part of units on Native Americans.

The runes were ancient letters in a sign system in which those letters were themselves meaningful.  The letters, having derived from pictures, supposedly carried the power of their original picture sources.  Poems or riddles written in runic characters became a kind of trickster language that carried the meaning of the picture along through the signs themselves.  To this day Finnish poems are called "runes."  Note the shapes of the runes.  Some look like letters, and some look like drawings.


Drawing, sketching, painting, sculpture, and architecture, though the oldest, may be the most controversial ways expressing learning.  The famous "I know what I like" probably applies to visual art more than to any other form of expression today.  Though we honor these ancient traditions of visual art, appreciating ourselves as tactile-visual learners may be a new experience because we tend to see artists as specially gifted people.  To appreciate the ancient roots of this kind of artistic expression is to learn to know ourselves as users of images and forms.

Stories in Song
As times passed, Anglo-Saxon poets called scops, also called bards or minstrels, wandered through the countryside singing the runic poems, incorporating the drawings into songs and small skits.  In time, dance and chanting were added by assembled town and castle folk to the singing of the poets.  In Ireland and parts of modern-day France, similar poets sang to early people called Celts who valued the power of the poems set to music.  To this day the symbol of old Ireland remains a beautiful hand carved and carried harp, because of the power these ancient songs still holds for people in that country.
Even older familiar stories about music and poetry can be found in ancient sacred books like the Bible and Hindu stories and tales.  One familiar Biblical tale tells of King David who played a lyre or harp and danced to celebrate victories and other great events in his kingdom.  Siva, the fire goddess, in Hindu mythology dances a fire dance that creates and destroys life.  In British mythology, Merlin, King Arthur’s magician, sings Stonehenge, the great circle of rock in southern England, into their places.  Music and dance weave inextricably through stories of battle and victory and of life and death and of creation and destruction.

Theatre and Dance
Drama and religion have often been linked throughout history.  Greek plays were performed in temples, and the first medieval plays were simply Biblical tales acted out in chapels and cathedrals.  Dance and theatre have also been connected long before the American musical became popular.  The Greeks had dances and musical accompanyment connected with their plays.  Stories inevitably have an element of action, and that action can be translated into drama.  Thus when a story is to be written, the story teller can imagine the play that might grow from that story and then imagine the music and dance that could enhance the story.  Writing of fiction or poetry nearly always has a musical or lyrical element present or implied.

Sport Stories
The drama of a great sporting event needs hardly to be explained, but any sport has its story and its potential for writing.  In fact, probably more people read about sport than about any other subject.  The fastest readers are baseball fans who can scan and digest a page of statistics in a twinkling of an eye, and everyone loves to tell stories of the fish that got away or the saved base that topped the stats or the volley that saved the game in the last second.  Nearly every writer tells a sport story at one time or another.  Ernest Hemmingway’s Old Man and the Sea may be one of the most famous, though almost all Hemmingway’s writings have a sport element of some kind.  Adolescent fiction abounds with sports stories (help, Elaine!)

Count it Out:  Quantitive Learning
The history of logic, numerical reasoning, and scientific investigation often has more honor than interest attached to it.  At least some students find these areas intimidating.  Others, of course, find these areas the best part of life.  It can be fun, however, to find out about how various kinds of measures began.  A foot, for instance, really was the length of a man’s foot.  Of course, that meant that different people measured a foot differently.  A horse’s height is measured in hands.  At one time the "hand" really was a man’s hand.  Now it’s four inches, as a foot is twelve.  English measures have their origins in such humble beginnings, measurements that worked quite well until the introduction of modern technology.  Rockets just won’t fire if their components are measured in the length of some part of a person’s body, nor will computer chips work in various computers if the size and shape are not uniform.
The history of scientific learning is equally fascinating.  What is "true" in science changes from century to century.  At one time, of course, scientists saw the earth as the center of the observable universe, which of course it was before modern telescope, rockets, and satelites.  Today, much more of the universe is observable.  The minute observations as well as the distant observations have changed considerable.  Some scientists think today that genetic engineering will be as revolutionary in the next few years as the change in the supposed center of the universe was in the sixteenth century.  Scientific learning continues to change like a giant mystery novel.

 Chapter 2:

Getting to Know Yourself as a User of Multiple Ways of Making Meaning

Writers need to know that composition can happen in many ways.  Humans (and animals too) communicate meaning in many complex and subtle ways.  The following questions help writers to see which ways of making meaning are best for them as individual writers--and which areas in each of the ways of making meaning work best too.

This chapter begins with a general questionnaire that will help the student focus on all the ways of making meaning and choose the ways that appeal most.  Then the student has a chance to focus on each of the ways of making meaning to decide which among them has the most appeal.  Thus, the student answers the questions about kenesthetic, then aural, then visual, then quantitative ways of knowing.  Students are asked to work alone and together to decide which ways of making meaning work best for them in both individual and group situations.  For instance, many of us may sit down and play the piano to get relaxed and ready to write, whereas only a few would actually write the words to a song while composing at the piano.

Notes to the Teacher

The idea of using music or dance or basketball as a way of composing will probably be new to students, at least until they think about the books and songs they like the most.  Then the multiplicity of our ways of knowing becomes obvious.  As the students work through these activities, help them to see that they have varied talents, some of which my not be tapped often enough by our visual culture.  We tend to think too often in terms of reading and writing, less often of speaking and listening, and far less often of sculpting and acting out.  The latter has even become a psychological term of derision.  Yet for some students "acting out" may be the best route to an understanding of a problem or to the composition of a work.

Encourage your students to pursue the questions in each of the questionnaire activities, discovering for themselves the activities and learning styles they like best.  Let the natural inclination of the student help him or her to discover the ideal way to approach any of the ways of learning.

In chapter one we explain how the use of both small and large muscles leads to a focus of intelligence.  For many students this kinesthetic way of knowing is the most desirable route to new learning.  The questionnaire not only helps students to discover their best kinesthetic skill, but the activities aim to help them work through those discoveries in action and words.  The same is true of the musical, artistic, and quantitive questionnaires.  Students discover and have a chance to reflect on the areas that please them most and to discover ways to learn to direct their own preferences.  As a teacher, you may want to work some of the activities with student groups and share with them your own preferences as well.

Note that under the heading of science, we list various kinds of discovery activities.  You will find in the literary activities later in the book that quantitive and scientific learning appear in many exciting frames.  Though a student might not think of herself as a scientist, learning about how detectives solve cases, or how detective writers compose detective stories, may be a use of the investigative that will appeal to even the non-science-oriented student.  The concept is to help students discover in both natural and unlikely areas talents they can bring to their learning.

Learning Your Multiple Ways of Making Meaning

Too often we associate ability with "book learning."  In fact, we all have many ways we prefer to learn, and different ways of learning and perfecting different abilities.  Answer the following questions and perform the following activities to get a picture of yourself as a learner/doer.

1.  Which of the following activities would you prefer to perform when given the school task of reviewing a book you have read or a video you have seen?

_____ a.  Write a response to or summary of the book/video

_____ b.  Draw an illustration or take a photograph that captures the point of the story

_____ c.  Act out a scene from the story with a group of friends

_____ d.  Give an oral report to the class

_____ e.  Tell you teacher about the story in private

2.  If you have a some free time (that had to be spent on a school activity) and the freedom to choose you own activity, would you

_____ a.  Work on a sport for a competitive or intramural team

_____ b.  Go to the band or choral room and work on your music

_____ c.  Find a computer and work on a project

_____ d.  Sit down some place quiet to read

_____ e.  Talk to a friend about a project

_____ f.  Work with a teacher who had the time to meet with you

_____ g.  Get together with a group to finish a project

3.  What is your favorite part of the school day?  Number in order.

_____ a.  Getting together with friends before and after class

_____ b.  Music classes

_____ c.  Math and science classes

_____ d.  Literature and writing classes (journalism, yearbook)

_____ e.  Tech prep and hands-on classes

_____ f.  Theatre and speech classes/activities

_____ g.  Athletic practice and events

Look back at your responses and notice how you responded to the questions.  Do you prefer to be in motion doing sports or dance?  Would you prefer to be playing music or working in a class with music in the background?  Would you rather create an art project than write an essay or story?  Would you like a math or science project to take up a larger part of your day?  We all have preferences when it comes to how we learn best.  Often combining two or three types of activities can be stimulating, as the example of writing to music indicates.

Find out who in your class has answers similar to yours for the questions about favorite parts of the class day.  Get together in groups with your fellow "learners" and perform your preference.  For example, if you prefer to learn through art, make a poster indicating your preferences.  If you like sports, think how a game can teach you something about another class--you might talk about how a particular sport teaches about other knowledge (we learned to overcome fears about facing strangers by learning to ride a horse).

Illustrate or describe your group’s discussion here:

Now try getting to know yourself within each of the sign systems:


1.  If you were at the gym, what kind of activity would you do?
________Pick-up basketball
________League basketball
________Weight lifting
________Swimming for a team
________Swimming alone
________Other, please specify

2.  Would you rather _______dance or ______play football?

3.  Would you rather _______play soccer or ______ride a bicycle?

4.  Would you rather _______play rugby or ______ride a horse?

5.  Describe your favorite spectator sport.  Do you watch it on TV or in person or both?

6.  Describe your favorite participatory sport or athletic activity.

7.  Talk with your group about a process that you can do.  Each of you should describe it in as much detail as you can achieve.  For example, if you are telling how to make an ice cream soda, don’t forget to describe how the glass should feel and what color the ice cream and liquid should be.  Try to include as much tactile and other sense detail as you can discover.  Each person in the group should describe a process.

Now write a description of your process.  Be sure not to miss any details of movement, scent, sound, smell, or taste.  We all tend to describe sight first, but kenesthetic learning often takes place at these other sensory levels.

What have you discovered about yourself as a kinesthetic learner?  Do you like lively, participatory games and sports, or are you the take-a-quiet-walk-in-the-woods sort?  Would you rather dance than run?  Would you rather feel a bow expand in your hands than feel a ping pong ball bounce off your paddle?

Write a paragraph here about yourself in motion?  How do you like best to be in motion?  (We prefer running or bicycling to any kind of team sport.  What about you?)

Musical talent and aural (through the ears) learning

Most of us can remember the words to a poem better if those words are set to music and if we hear them sung.  People who learn best aurally prefer to learn the way most of us like to learn lyrics.  To test your aural learning, ask a friend to read a passage from one of your textbooks to you.  Then read the next passage yourself.  Which one do you remember best?  Now try reading aloud yourself.  For some of us the reinforcement of both reading and hearing at the same time works best.  It’s important to know how visual or aural you are in order to know what kind of studying and learning situation works best for you.

1.  If you were playing music, what kind would you listen to?
Rock ‘n Roll____________

Quiet, semi-classical_______



2.  Do you play a musical instrument or sing?  What instrument?  What voice do you sing?

3.  Describe your experiences with musical performance or with watching others perform.

4.  In your group read aloud a passage that describes a scene or a process (putting together a bicycle or preparing a type of food, for example).  Have each person write down what he or she heard afterward the reading.  Who got the most information?  Who got the least?  How does learning by ear work for each of you?  Do you prefer to learn this way?

5.  Find a set of song lyrics that you enjoy.  Write or paste them on this page.  Compare your choice with a friend’s choice.  What effect does the music that goes with the lyrics have on your feelings about the words to the song?

6.  Nearly everyone likes to be read to; note the popularity of taped novels for long car trips.  Choose a selection of short stories, poems, or musical lyrics.  Take turns reading them in your group.  Write down your reactions both to reading and listening.  Which was more pleasant for you?  Discuss your reactions with group members; then write your reactions to the readings here.  Briefly retell the story or describe the lyric.  Do you recall the reading or the listening better?

 Artistic talent and pictoral learning

Our society values visual learning and artistic expression.  Television and videos (whether in the theater or at home) are our chief source of entertainment.  Even sporting events become a kind of visual experience when translated to the screen.  We also enjoy treating ourselves as artistic canvases, sometimes using strange hair colors or amazing fashions.  Women have always used paint to enhance their faces, and all actors, both male and female, do so on stage.  Many people also turn quickly to the cartoons in the newspapers, sometimes cutting particularly significant pictures and multiple frames to display on refrigerators, lockers, or offices.  Pictures speak a thousand words (maybe we should draw a picture rather than use such an old saying):

Diane, a picture here?

1.  Draw a picture of yourself.  You can use a stick figure or be as elaborate as you wish.  Now around the picture, sketch or draw in items or symbols that tell something about you.  (For example, we like horses, so we would draw horses or cowboy hats.)

2.  Join your group and compare the drawings you made.  Check on similarities and differences.  After talking with group members, add anything to your picture/chart that seems to enhance the picture.

3.  Visit an art gallery (one at your school is fine) or choose a movie to attend or to watch at home on video.  As you view pictures or watch the movie, list the images that affect you.  Also, list anything you particularly responded to such as humor or strong visual effects.  Now consider your list and write about your responses to the visual images.

4.  Ask each person in your group to bring a portrait to school.  The person bringing the picture should know something about the subject of the portrait (who it is, when it was taken, a story behind the picture if possible), but the information should be held until after the activity.  As each person in the group hands around a portrait, write down your reactions to the picture.  Make some guesses about the person.  Then discuss what you wrote down as individual group members and compare your reactions to the "facts" about the subject of the portrait.

5.  Sculpture and architecture often escape our notice even though they are everywhere around us.  Bring to your group either a sculture (or the picture of a sculpture) that you find interesting or symbolic, or bring in a picture of a house or building that you find unusual or meaningful.  Pass around the sculptures or pictures, and write briefly about the images.  Discuss your responses to the form.  What kinds of architecture do you prefer?  What kinds of sculpture?

Science:  measuring the world and finding meaning

Scientific reasoning involves noting carefully the world around us and recording those notations, then trying to make some sense of what has been noted.  We use this kind of reasoning every time we say "Oh, I shouldn’t eat cheeseburgers; they’re filled with cholesterol and calories!" or "The grass has no dew this moring; it will rain before evening."  Such comments assume many kinds of scientific and quantitative knowledge.  Research tells us that animal fat turns to grease in our arteries or (worse for some of us) chub on our tums and hips.  The weatherperson will also tell us that a dewless morning promises rain, unless you happen to be in Arizona or on the Saraha.

1.  Decide how you personally like to do scientific research.  Would you like to (check as many as you like):

 ________weigh yourself daily ________follow a new recipe

 ________dig for dinosaurs  ________learn about rockets

 ________observe zoo animals ________use a telescope

 ________use a microscope  ________grow plants

 ________figure out taxes  ________study child growth

2.  Bring to your group a report or either a recent scientific finding or a statistical study of some current event (how many were injured in a storm or some other event)..  Write about what the researchers expect you to know to understand the study.  Discuss your study with others in the group.  What did you choose to bring and why?

3.  List the kinds of "science" you can remember.  Compare your list to those of others in your group.  Discuss what you know about the sciences.  List the ones you might consider learning more about.  List the ones that do not interest you at all.

4.  Watch a science program on television (Nova or some investigative news program) or read a popular science report (Time or another news magazine has a section each week).  Describe the information for your group members and discuss which information was the most interesting or useful to each of you.

5.  What careers are you considering?  Make a list of possibilities.  Now make a list of the scientific and mathematical knowledge you will have to have to be able to work in your chosen field.  Compare your list with your fellow students’ lists.  Which careers demand the most scientific and quantitative knowledge.  If possible, interview someone in your chosen field to confirm your guesses about the scientific and quantitative knowledge for the field.  Report back to your class.

 The Dance:  Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet tells the love story of two "star-crossed" lovers, who belong to families who are embroiled in an ongoing feud.  Rich with scenes of sword play, dance, and other lively activities, the play attracts viewers young and old.  The play has "something for everyone."  Most of all, though, it has a love scene in motion.  When Romeo and Juliet meet at a dance party, they dance together while reciting a complex poem, called a sonnet (Italian for song, rather ironic since Romeo and Juliet are Italian lovers).
Romeo begins the dance by placing his hand against Juliet’s hand.  They begin to move in the dance, and he says, "If I profane with my unworthiest hand
          This holiest shrine, the gentle fine is this,
          My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
          To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss."
She holds her hand against his, continues to move in the dance, andreplies,    "Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
  Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
  For saints have hands that pilgrims hands do touch
  And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss."
Romeo moves closer and the poem goes on,
  "Have not saints lips, and holy palmers (pilgrims) too?
Juliet replies, continuing to dance palm to palm,
  "Aye, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.
Romeo, dancing, continues his plea for a kiss,
  "Oh then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do.
  They pray.  Grant thou, lest faith turn to despair."
She replies, stopping the dance,
  "Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake."
She means no, but he takes her no as a yes and says,
  "Then move not while my prayer’s effect I take."
They kiss and go on dancing, still palm to palm.

Every line in the poem has ten syllables.  There is also a complex rhyme scheme which goes a  e
   b  f
   a  e
   b  f
   c  g
   b  g

1.  Have two members of your group read the poem aloud, playing the parts of the two lovers.  Listen for the rhythm and the matching rhymes.  Then try moving in a slow dance to the rhythm of the poetry.  If you can find in a recording or play on a musical instrument a slow walz, you will see the action of the poem.  Try at least to move in a careful measured rhythm while reading the poem.

Write a description of what you notice as the speakers move through the poem and the dance, or draw a picture of your impressions of what the lovers must have looked like dancing in Roman or Elizabethan costumes.  You may want to look up what such clothes might have looked like in motion around a dance floor.

2.  The poetry in the poem is also in motion.  Try writing a few lines that follow the ten syllable, linking rhyme scheme of the sonnet.  Try describing something like a dance or an action scene and notice how the rhythm pattern of the writing picks up the action of the events you are describing.  You may want to work as a group coming up with rhymes that work for your idea.  Write the poem here.

3.  The action of the Shakespeare’s poem mirrors the action of the dance.  When the lovers talk of palms (meaning both hands and the palms of Palm Sunday), they put their hands together.  Pick out an action that you want to describe; it may be a game or a video musical cutting or some other action you have observed.  Write about the action, finding as many words to describe the motion as you can.  Ask others in your group to read what you have written and add one additional point of description to the action.

4.  In the poem and dance, Romeo and Juliet compare themselves to both holy adventurers, people who went on long journeys to visit sacred places.  Their hands and lips become a part of the holy adventure imagery.

Compare some action event you enjoy to some other activity or event.  For example, how is a swim meet like a cross country race?  Or how does a dancer on a music video compare to a basketball player in a professional game?  How is the motion like and different.

Write or draw your description here.

To do:  One of these for each sign system
 kenesthetic, dance:  Romeo and Juliet
 music:  the Lion singing Narnia into being, The Magician’s Nephew
 art:  Grecian Urn, Keats
         Milne, The House at Pooh Corner
 quantitative:  science & magic, LeQuin, Wizard of Earthsea