According to literary legend, Ernest Hemingway wrote a six word short story in response to a bet:
So when my Advanced Placement English Literature class was suddenly shortened one day last week due to a delayed opening, I thought that I would do a close reading on this famous short story. After all, how long could a discussion on six words last? I was confident there would certainly be enough time for each of them to craft an essay as well.
The usual procedure for close readings in class is to have a volunteer “read aloud” while students annotate their copies of the text. The text is also displayed on the SMARTboard so that notes can be added and shared with all members of the class.
After they settled down with copies, Sam volunteered to read. We listened and paused. I started to ask, “So how did Ernest Hemingway, the author of this short story, convey his meaning?” when I was cut off.
“Whose baby died?” asked Alexis. She had no notes on her page.
“The baby died?” Connor responded, “I thought this was about a tag sale.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked, “Look at the evidence in the text.”
“Because people who have tag sales put in ads, and the ads are short,” replied Connor.
“But that is why the ad is short,” Alexis retorted, “the parents are so upset, they cannot write a long ad to sell the baby’s shoes.”
“Where are parents in the text?” I demanded.
“I agree with Alexis,” said Sam, “the shoes were ‘never worn’. The baby is dead.”
“OK,” I agreed, ” the words ‘never worn’ are in the text, but…”
“But the baby shoes could have been a gift that was the wrong size,” interrupted Natalie.
We were drifting off in our discussion. I had chosen the story because of its brevity, but I also had considered how well the text responded to the Publisher’s Criteria for the English/Language Arts Common Core Standards:
The Common Core State Standards place a high priority on the close, sustained reading of complex text, beginning with Reading Standard 1. Such reading focuses on what lies within the four corners of the text. It often requires compact, short, self-contained texts that students can read and re-read deliberately and slowly to probe and ponder the meanings of individual words, the order in which sentences unfold, and the development of ideas over the course of the text.
This was a “compact, short, self-contained texts that students can read and re-read deliberately.” The students were beginning to probe the meanings of individual words, but they were drifting. They were bringing up tag sales, upset parents, and poor present gifting; we were far off the four corners of this text.
For a moment, a very brief moment, I consider that we were moving away from the goals of the Common Core to work with the text. However, they were so quickly engaged, that I grew far more interested in listening to how close to they were to determining Hemingway’s purpose. Hemingway had selected six specific words to excite the reader’s imagination. My students were not wrong in their suggestions, they were using his text to understand, to create meaning. They were working with Hemingway’s language and responding to his inferences.
Their written drafts also leapt beyond the evidence, much like the discussion:
- “They have waited nine months in anticipation for this day, and that morning a pair of shoes, no larger than the size of a plum, arrived in the mail, a gift from an aunt. They run to the hospital; they cry, they yell, they cry, but their baby is dead. ‘Get rid of those shoes.’ He writes in the paper, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’ Auntie will be sad.”
- “…whether it’s a parent/ guardian or a thief trying to make money, it is obvious from the syntax that the shoes need to go.”
- “‘For sale’ is a general coupling of words that comes from a particular type of person….a person low on monetary resources or one who wants to get rid of something…”
- “…by saying the word ‘never’, that means the parents have never had a baby and will never have a baby…never is finite”
- “In reality, Hemingway’s story is less of a story and more of a jumping off point. The six words are a choke point, like that of an hourglass stretching of in infinity in either direction.”
These drafts, hastily written in response to the story, ranged from 2-3 handwritten pages; far more than the six words that stimulated their ideas. The students wrote furiously until the bell rang, and then begged for more time to finish.
Certainly, their responses could be judged by the CCSS criteria, “Student knowledge drawn from the text is demonstrated when the student uses evidence from the text to support a claim about the text.” However, their responses in discussion and in essays offer significant proof that the ideas that started in text cannot be limited by clocks or “four corners”.