The past couple of weeks, the art teacher and I have been talking with our 6th graders about symbolism. First, symbolism in art: Baroque still life paintings. The art teacher and I talked about things that might symbolize ourselves. I chose a book, a cup of coffee, and a mixing bowl with a wooden spoon. Then the students created their own still life paintings, featuring their own symbols of themselves. At the end of last week, I talked to them about symbolism in literature. We looked at a few common symbols and then discussed Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” They took those ideas and ran with them, and we had discussions about difficult choices and regret.

This is big stuff for 6th grade, but they hung in with us and did a great job. And when other teachers said, “You know, some of that is a little abstract for 6th grade,” I said, “We’re just going to present it, and maybe they will get some of it, and that’s enough.” Their take on Robert Frost was a little bit concrete: good choice/bad choice, but isn’t part of the beauty of poetry (and prose) that it speaks to you in different ways at different times?

What the kids don’t know yet is that it’s so easy for those symbols to become not just things that represent you, but things that you hide behind. The books I read to avoid thinking, the way I eat instead of dealing with a problem, the idea that something that doesn’t come out of the oven just the way I intended is some kind of failure on my part. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe the kids do know that already – what it means to be the smart one, the jock, the cheerleader, the goth.

The start of this school year has been a busy one, and one thing that has suffered in some ways has been my relationships with the students. (In other ways, I have been working with them more closely than ever, but it’s taking some getting used to.) This project has been a good one to get me back in the swing of things, seeing how bright our students are, what interesting ideas they bring to the table. We had all manner of symbols in those paintings – a cheetah, a multitude of baseballs and footballs, a blue monkey, art supplies, Breaking Dawn, trophies, and even a baby elephant. I have been able to meet these students through their paintings and their reflections on them.

The art teacher has been really happy with this project, too, so we have been planning our next foray into collaboration. She would like to do something with surrealism, and we have talked about some information and technology skills I could work with the students on, but I am also considering making some connections with one of my favorite poems of all time: “Jabberwocky”. (I know it’s not surrealism, but I think it might work for what we are wanting to do.)

When was a freshman in high school, I was someone who had to have the best grades, who was so caught up in a world that appeared to be black and white. For the drama class I took that year, we had to perform a poem or a monologue, and I chose “Jabberwocky.” It was, in many ways, unlike me to dance around on stage saying nonsense words. When I think of “Jabberwocky,” I feel free. If nothing else, I can’t wait to pass a little bit of that on to these kids. (Also, “frabjous day” is one of my most favorite phrases. I hope to pass that on to them as well.)

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