"You have to learn the rules..."

"...before you can break the rules." To this day, that is the best piece of advice/information anyone has ever given me. I'm not sure where I heard the concept first, but I think it was in my senior art studio class with Mrs. Mann. Over the years, I've realized it applies in so many more circumstances outside of art.

My favorite quote from one of my favorite movies, "Joe Versus the Volcano." 
Keep reading to find out why this (might) be relevant.

Case in point: As I was reading the Alaska English/Language Arts Standards, I noticed that the main differences between the expectations for high school freshmen and sophomores and those of juniors and seniors had to do with the acceptance of ambiguity and challenging conventions of language and thought. For example, under "Reading Standards for Literature," the document expects that readers in grades 9 and 10 will be able to
"Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as implicit inferences drawn from the text"
and that readers in grades 11 and 12 will be able to
"Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain (ambiguity)."
Similarly, under "Language Standards," the document expects that students in grades 11 and 12 will be able to
"Apply the understanding that usage is a matter of convention, can change over time, and is sometimes contested.
Although all high school students are expected to show a mastery of conventions, only upper-level students are expected to recognize the fluidity of such conventions. To me, this implies that there is something about a student's level of maturity/intellect that determines their readiness for this kind of "radical" thinking — that one must learn the rules in order to gain the authority and/or mental capacity or stability to (properly) break the rules.

So, the question becomes, should teachers teach students to break (certain) rules at a designated point? Should that point be the same for all students in all schools, districts, and/or states?

One last parallel between the standards and my art teacher's advice, and the above meme: Subtlety and detail seem to be an equally important aspect of the state standards, insofar as upperclassmen are expected to have better, more nuanced understandings of concepts like satire and sarcasm (see page 48 of the standards). Sarcasm and satire, if you think about it, are rule breakers —concepts that, in their expression, often say one thing and mean another. While Tom Hanks' character in "Joe Versus the Volcano" is wiggin' out listening to Mr. Waturi say his iconic line over and over, I'm thinking, "yeah, there is a difference between being able to get a job and being able to do a job." Is that a subtlety lost on the young, or average, moviegoer? What are the connotations in Mr. Waturi's repeated question to the unknown caller?

And with all that food for thought, you must be stuffed! Post your thoughts in the comments :)


  1. Caitlin! You've offered a veritable feast for thought. :-) You pose an interesting question. Is there a special point at which students ripen to readiness for nuance and ambiguity? The standards make it pretty clear. I'm of two minds about it...sort of. In one hand, yes, it can be a challenge just to build the baseline for students when it comes to writing research papers and making sense of complex texts. At the same time, how much more interesting might it be for them if their reward for tackling difficult texts and the skills is a much richer understanding and experience? I wonder. I'm inclined to say that rule-breaking doesn't have to wait. Do we expect our students to absorb standard-issue information for years and then suddenly snap out of it? I think critical analysis is a skill that is cultivated and best served by more practice. I wonder if the standards underestimate our young students. I'm inclined to think that middle schoolers can handle ambiguity, and they had better get to learning that knowledge is a moving target and get some exposure to what it means to read and write in a complex environment. Our high schoolers then will have a richer understanding of these elements. Right?
    Thanks for an intriguing idea/issue to consider. :-)


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