Sunday, December 21, 2014

Understanding Difficult Material

Memorizing is a great skill for new information, but what if the information is uninteresting and hard to follow? What do you do?

I never could concentrate on the “Illiad" or the “Odyssey.” In high school I just didn’t have the self discipline to read them. In college, I read both, but my mind kept straying. I could not stay with the story. Sure there have been movies, but they didn’t interest me either. Here are some strategies for understanding difficult or seemingly uninteresting material.

I could have gone to a study guide. I would still have to read the stories because even the best study guides sometimes have theories or off information. Many students think reading the study guide is enough. It isn’t.

One semester I was teaching, “Hamlet.”. We were discussing Ophelia’s suicide. One student said Ophelia was pregnant. That was an interesting take on the story, but inaccurate. Yet other students agreed. What was happening?

I asked a student where in the text it said Ophelia was pregnant. She rushed up with a copy of “Cliff Notes,” which usually makes very good study guides to important literature. One paragraph suggested that a pregnancy might explain Ophelia’s odd behavior.

Ophelia wasn’t pregnant. In fact, her dad thought she was a virgin. Ophelia was a romantic, but Hamlet didn’t have much interest in her, and according to her dad he never would. The study guide was wrong. So use study guides as a tool to better understanding, but read the story, so you know when the guide is off target. There are hundreds of study guides online, so these are not difficult to obtain.

One advantage of famous plays like “Hamlet” is that they can be taped or seen as live performances. Sometimes when we watch a very good actor read the lines, they make more sense than just the text on a page. Some novels have also been made into great movies. When I assigned “Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest Gaines, I showed students the HBO movie starring Don Cheadle and Micah Phifer. But beware, not all films are that good.

“Hart’s War” is a great novel. The movie changes the plot and would be of no use to a student.

Talking books are wonderful tools for understanding novels and those shorter fiction and non fiction pieces that have been recorded. free public domain audiobooks has thousands of free recorded titles. The readers are volunteers, but the quality is generally very good. One can put on a pair of ear phones and read the assigned text while doing housework, running or driving.

I sometimes make movies in my mind when I am reading books. I imagine the scenes as they would be presented. I cast the story with actors I know from film and television. It is fun and making the story into a movie does make it more understandable. How would Martin Sheen or Johnny Depp read that line?

Another method is to follow the arc of one character at a time. This is easy with a play that has dialog tags. When following a character arc in a novel skim looking for the character’s name and scenes. Read the chapters out of sequence. Start with the last chapter and read the chapters in reverse order. Skip every chapter. When I do this I usually have to go back and reread everything in order, but I have a better understanding of the story.

Some subjects like math require learning to be in a certain order. In those cases, I look for not only study guides, but for explanations online. Youtube and iTunes U are overlooked resources.

Some short stories are read on youtube. Others are acted out. In teaching, “Sonny’s Blues,” I found scenes from the story on youtube. While the entire story was not there, these scenes helped students and increased their interest. I had the students read dialog from the story in class.

When I was teaching grammar, I found youtube very useful. I found a site on youtube where the apostrophe sang and danced. The students loved that. It saved what was bound to be a boring lecture. For home study, youtube singing punctuation marks can break the boredom.

Annotating books is the best technique in studying most courses. When I was in college, I would pre read all my textbooks and mark them up with different colored highlighters. That way during the semester when I was very busy working and studying, I could just read the highlighted main points and support. It made the study and the understanding go faster.

Don’t feel bad if you don’t like or just don’t get a famous story or poem. We all have different tastes in movies and television programs. It is only natural that we have different taste in all forms of fiction, nonfiction and school courses. When the story is about a distant place or time frame, it helps to go to an encyclopedia or other reference book, but don’t beat yourself up if you still don’t like the story.

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