Saturday, February 28, 2009

Joy to the Wordle

“This is seriously the weirdest story I’ve ever read,” my students inform me, somewhat accusingly, as they enter the room after reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” For the most part, they are confused and somewhat angry about it. It is, after all, a hazy story told by an unreliable narrator whose mind either deteriorates or finds lucidity (depending on how you read it) as disturbing designs start to emerge in the wallpaper of her room.

The one thing I made them promise to me as they read the story was not to turn to any outside resources as they read; I want us, as a class, to puzzle the story together instead of reaching for an easy answer. But they want an answer, and they want it now.

So how do we work through the story in a constructivist way without sacrificing efficient interpretation-seeking?

First, we made a list as a class of all of our questions. They had...a lot.

Then, every student picked one question that intrigued him/her and spend a few minutes brainstorming possible responses and follow-up questions. At the end of this brainstorming, they seemed even angrier and more confused. Some of them were holding their foreheads as if their brains physically hurt.

What happened next? Wordle to the rescue, and this is no exaggeration. If you haven’t tried http://www.wordle.net/, you should exit this blog to try it out right now. And then please come back, because they way that we used it was, in the words of my students, really cool.

What is wordle? It’s a site in which you can paste in a text, and it quickly designs a word collage in which the words on the original text that appear the most frequently show up largest in size in the word collage. It requires no login, no password, nothing, and it’s practically instantaneous. And there are many different collage designs that students can play with, of course.

So, we took “The Yellow Wallpaper,” page by page, and wordled it. And here’s what happened:


On the first page, the words “John” (the narrator’s husband), “physician” (the husband’s occupation) and “one” were the largest, and there many negative smaller words like “haunting” and “anxiety” surrounding them.


As the story continued, “John” got smaller and smaller as the narrator grew independent of him, and the “wallpaper” grew larger. The word “standing” was replaced with word “creeping,” and “daylight” words were replaced with “night.” Words like “one” were replaced with “we,” and many of the words grew more positive. Also, verbs jumped into the present tense and increased in their sense of urgency. By the way--I didn't notice any of these things. My students did.

The best part? It's what happens on the final page. As Austin, sophomore student, wordles the last page on his laptop, he gasps, "Oh my God! On the last page--" "Don't give it away! Don't give it away!" Shannan, another student, snaps back at him. It's last period on Friday, and you'd think that they were watching The Sixth Sense, not examining the diction of a feminist story written in the late 1800s.
If you're wondering what actually happens when you wordle the last page, here it is: The largest words on the very last page were “door” and “key,” replacing the earlier emphasis on “windows” and “walls."

We then came back to the questions we brainstormed at the beginning of class and discussed what story the words tell. Of course, the ambiguity still remains…while the door is a way out for the socially trapped narrator, it’s still closed and locked at the end of the story. But, wordle, aside from the fact that it is really cool (several students claimed that they were going to spend their entire weekends wordling) opened up a door for us. It wasn’t just fun and fluffy; it sparked intense discussion and allowed us a concrete way to analyze abstract, elusive themes. Just as the design of the wallpaper emerged to the narrator, the design of the story revealed itself to us.

They left class, I think, realizing that their confusion was not a reflection of a story poorly told, but a story carefully designed to be nebulous.

And, more importantly, they were happy because wordle really is cool.

10 Comments:

Blogger Rachel said...

That is amazing! I love this!!

I stumbled across your blog while looking for other teacher blogs to commiserate with :) Mind if I follow?

7:52 PM  
Blogger Mike Porter said...

Maybe it's constructivist. Maybe it's http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Criticism
Either way it seems to work for your kids.

Mike Porter

3:38 PM  
Blogger AustinD said...

I was mentioned. (Insert smiley here)

I loved the activity personally. I thought it was a great way to analyze word choice and that helped me grasp the story even more then I had. I know that is something that you tried to drill into our heads to analyze word choice to get further inferences, so having a tool to help with this was a great experience.

11:03 AM  
Blogger Dana Huff said...

What an excellent use of Wordle. Sounds like it worked out great for your students.

12:21 PM  
Blogger Cara S. said...

...all the boys and girdles?!

3:24 PM  
Blogger Kristin L said...

Cara--That's the best comment ever. Rhyming is fun.

3:43 PM  
Blogger BenH said...

Using math to help understand a complex English text? Imagine that.

Wordle was a great way to visualize the differences in word patterns, but just for fun I ran the 10 sections I found the story split into online (I'm hoping your version had 10 pages, too) through a word frequency analyzer to get raw number output. I made a google spreadsheet here if anyone is interested in seeing the actual numbers of words (for every word appearing more than once on a page). At the top it is broken up into each of the 10 sections.

6:09 PM  
Blogger Renee Howell said...

Kristin - What a wonderful way to use Wordle. Creative, magical, and sensible, too! Nice....

9:19 PM  
Blogger Dan Maas said...

Mrs. Kakos and students,

This is a wonderful story of your use of Wordle. I am late commenting here, but at about this time, I was using wordle in an interview process for the Colorado Association of School Executives President-elect process. Several nominees submitted their writing to the committee and I made wordles out of each one. Then we gave the wordles back to the nominees during their interviews and asked them to tell us what they thought of the wordles and what messages they meant to communicate. They had never seen this before and were very interested to see what their writing morphed into with this technique. As a committee, we saw one nominee emphasize "students" while another emphasized "message"... guess which one we liked better? Certainly wordle did not decide this for us, but it influenced our thinking.

I share this story with you because I want you to know that what you are learning is fun, insightful and practical. When you write your letters for college admission or job applications, do a wordle and see how your writing comes across. This is a powerful 21st Century writing skill.

-Dan Maas
Chief Information Officer
Littleton Public Schools

10:14 AM  
Blogger jverdin said...

What version of the story did you use? How were the pages broken up to get these results from wordle? Sounds like a great activity!

3:39 PM  

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