What is going on beneath the surface of an event or conversation?
Sometime, before having students read a novel or a short story, or watch a film or a play, introduce the lesson with a provocative concept: there are subtexts of meaning below the surface of almost every human interaction.
Begin by asking what might have occurred in the mind of an individual that led to the invention of the chair? What thought drove this prehistoric person to pound together a few chunks of wood so that someone might sit?
The kids will drift through various suggestions: desire for comfort, avoidance of dirt or bugs, an effort to keep dry in wet weather. To spark deeper thought, describe the scene of the school parking lot and the after-school rush to the cars in which we hear the cry “shotgun” ring out from kids who don’t drive. They’re trying to get the second most prestigious seat in the car.
Then talk about status in a family. Does anyone have a family in which one member always sits at the head of the table or in the best armchair in front of the television? When appropriate, mention the difference between the chair occupied by a judge who presides over a trial and the chair in which the defendant sits. Point out the contrast between the cushy chair behind the teacher’s desk at the back of the classroom and the hard and chilly seats of the students.
Eventually someone gets it: power. The chair is a status symbol; it shows the power of the individual who sits. A king on his throne, an executive in a corner office, etc.
Next ask students what is meant by the words exchanged in any casual greeting that they no doubt have heard a dozen times before they get to school each day. Role play, if you will.
“Hello,” teacher says.
“Hi,” the student responds.
“How are you?” The teacher continues the dialog.
“Fine, and you?” The student will likely respond.
“Fine.” The teacher ends the exchange.
You might want to do another dialogue and when the student asks, “How are you?” Respond with a lengthy discourse on the condition of your hangnail or the problem you are having with tendonitis on your six-mile jogs.
Then, ask the student to do the role-playing experience again. This time, have the student begin the exchange. “Hello,” the student will say. (You may notice that some kids point their chins a bit and say “s’up?” That’s ok. The lesson still works.)
But instead of responding with a cheery hello (or “s’up, yourself”), simply stare at the student. Maybe he or she will repeat the greeting; you remain silent. Guaranteed, discomfort will ensue. If you stare long enough, the kids will accuse you of mad-dogging.
Ask the class what you are communicating with your non-response and what this shows about the meaning of every day polite greetings. Very soon, or perhaps with some additional guidance from you, the students will realize that the standard greeting is really a culturally conditioned manner of ensuring the safety of each individual in a world in which, very often, the true danger to humans is from other humans. The actual meaning of the dialogue is thus:
“I see you there before me.”
“I see you as well.”
“I am no danger to you.”
“Nor am I a danger to you.”
You will find dozens of examples that show how a very serious thought lies beneath simple objects, like a chair, and beneath simple words exchanged in common greeting.
Now students can read the novel or short story or watch a movie or the performance of a play, or simply live their lives, and look beneath the images they see and the words they hear.