Making Curriculum Pop

PLAYLIST: Decoding Symbolic Language Part 2 - 9 PDF PAGES OF FUN!

In yesterday's post I talked about symbols in life and art. We're constantly encoding and decoding symbols every time we send or receive a "message."

This is even more intense for students because they are bombarded by new and different messages every time they change classes. They might need to decode an equation in math, a paining in art, a word problem in science, a primary source document in history, sheet music during band or the facial expressions of their best friend in between periods. We're all living in a symbolic world loaded with culturally constructed and contested meanings.

How can we teach students to make meanings? Many folks are trying to help us do this by talking about literacy. In the last thirty years this print-centric word has been used to refer to the act of encoding and decoding in every discipline - have you heard about scientific literacy, media literacy, historical literacy, or my favorite, innumeracy - the fancy work for mathematical Illiteracy? Everyone is working on making meanings.

How does one teach students literacy strategies that are transferrable to all the disciplines that are a part of our daily lives?

The first answer might be to find a good literacy specialist - these folks are pros at teaching readers to be meta-cognitive about the act of reading.

The second answer might be to use some simple strategy like the "reading with your pen" moves showcased in the playbook. This tool scaffolds "active reading."

But what kind of lesson can you do to teach students strategies for decoding texts they might not understand? The artwork of Xu Bing (showcased yesterday) gave Nicole and I excuse to create a fun lesson to deal with this challenge.

This text is part of artist Xu Bing’s novel Book from the Ground. Bing has written this story in a “language of icons” that he has collected. In his artist’s statement Bing says, “regardless of cultural background, one should be able understand the text as long as one is thoroughly entangled in modern life.”

You probably have some ideas what this story might be about. If you want to explore the icons on your own - skip ahead, don't read the translation.

Due to the size restrictions of this web page you might have a hard time reading the translation below. If it is too small for you to read I suggest you go read the interactive (and slightly different) online translation here.

At the bottom of this post I have uploaded a BETA Learning Experience Organizer (LEO) should you want to use this text in your class to talk about making meaning, codes, symbols, reading, writing, and understanding. The LEO is ten pages long and it is loaded with graphic organizers to scaffold your instruction.

I used this LEO in my "Literacy Across the Curriculum" class for undergrads. In that class Bing's story was a model for what students might experience when they're asked to process a challenging text. From there we were able to develop reading strategies that would apply in any discipline.

Nicole used the same LEO in her high school classes to talk about:
1. symbolism in writing
2. symbolism in the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf
3. the evolution of Middle English into Modern English.

Her students, being quite gifted, spent a lot of time "talking back" to Xu Bing's artist's statement.

Please check out the LEO below if you're interested in creating a learning experience for students using Xu Bing's art. Additionally, please post any feedback on the LEO in the discussion forum below - especially if you catch any typos! We will happily update the document based on your feedback and ideas.

Additional references:
Xu Bing's Website
Xu Bing's artist's statement for "Book From The Ground"
The "Book From the Ground" homepage
The "Book from the Ground" wiki - Contains the full index of Xu Bing's icon dictionary.

EDITOR'S NOTE 4.21.10: 
• PDF was updated on 4.21.10
• On 4.20.10 The New Yorker did an exculsive online interview with Mr. Bing about his decision to move back to China in 2008.  Very interesting for those interested in learning more about Xu

Views: 648


Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

I teach a class called "Teaching with Technology" for a teacher certification program at the UM School of Education (we're proud to count Ryan as one of our grads). I write because of a very happy experience I had yesterday regarding Xi Bing's story, inspired of course by Ryan's posting. The topic for yesterday's session was "Epistemology and Web Research" and I was looking for a way to draw my students into the subject, when news of this posting came through e-mail. I didn't have the benefit of Ryan and Nicole's wonderful pdf, but my angle on the story was to give the students a few minutes to engage in some "deciphering" work and then, after letting them share their decoding ideas, to talk about what kinds of knowledge they drew upon to make their deductions. The story was ideal because it provided a wonderful point of entry for my students, perhaps particularly for those "visual learners" who liked a challenge that intermixed and usefully blurred aesthetic and intellectual matters (later, as the students tried to make meaning from the activity as regards their own teaching, several mentioned the possibility of drawing visual learners into the center of the conversation).
I fished for further connections to my students' teaching, and they surfaced some interesting ones. For example, we did a show of hands and there were a few of my students who didn't know where to start with the task of deciphering. There were parallels drawn between that feeling and the *lost* feeling that some of their students had in their classrooms. How could they respond appropriately and sensitively to such realizations. We also discussed the idea that as people were responding with their thoughts about "what the story meant" and how they reached their ideas, the public space became a place for people to hear their intuitions validated (or challenged) and for the collective knowledge to grow (later that day we were talking about wikipedia--good segue). Happily, several comments could be connected with a pet issue of mine around trying to find ways to make valued places in class for knowledge, intuition, savvy, and experience that the kids bring to class, even before a book is cracked. Of course, we reminded ourselves that not a single person in that classroom had a teaching major or minor in iconography, nor had any of them even taken a class in the topic...a nice segue to thinking about formal and informal learning, and thinking about how we might utilize, and seek ways to recognize, the latter.

As the young folks say, MCP rules!! Jeff Stanzler
Hi Jeff,
Where is your school located? Can yu send me info. about the Teacher Technology program? Margie
We're in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Margie. Information about our "Learning Sciences" program is available at:
Is there a way to access the icons used in Xi Bing's playbook? Is there a way to access the strategies that are depicted in the butcher paper?
Shamica, Xu Bing's "Book From the Ground" does actually have some software HE is developing for people to write in his language - I don't know if that is accessible to the public yet but they did have the writing software available at the museum.

You can check the mostly under construction "Book from the Ground" wiki:
And the "Book From the Ground" website:

What I'd really recommend, Xu Bing (or someone from his studio in Brooklyn) JUST joined the Ning. He's a world famous artist but I'm sure he would be excited to talk with you about the icon library. Having students create their own "Books from the Ground" is a logical next step from the lesson above.

Now the strategies depicted on the Butcher paper - yes! That's all on the PDF attached at the very bottom of the post above - do you see it just hanging out at the bottom of my blog - SymbolicLanguage2.pdf - download that for ten pages of fun!

Hope this helps,

You have no idea how well-timed this resource is! I would definitely argue that these icons are our universal language, and modern hieroglyphics... on the "walls" of the internet? IDK. Thanks for this, I'll take photos and send you some student work when I use this!
Lauren - Please do post the photos!! We can also send them on to Mr. Bing! If you have a minute let us know how the lesson goes for you when you use it!!

Omg! We've been building up to this translation by looking at all sorts of codes from different cultures around the world (global tie in -- score!!), and then we built our own code from symbols that we see everyday (much to my dismay, a lot of their code language was made up of brand name logos, but at least they're getting the idea)... so we just started the translation today and I already have some really hilarious ones. You can imagine... "Yo, so there's these two dudes on an airplane, right? And, one of them is grillin the other one, so the other one feels some type of way and starts checkin out that safety card thingy that no one ever looks at..." HA! I'll be taking pictures of them and their work once we're further along! Thanks again for the resource, it's been really fun so far!
This is already lol funny - you'll have to put some of the priceless South Bronx translations so we can all enjoy the genius of the BK crew!!!
Hey G,
Here's a few preliminary photos to whet the appetite!

1. A's worksheet - taking notes and using annotation techniques to decipher the code (I started with 3 techniques and we're going to keep building, slowly

2. K and J discuss their translations

3. E works on her group's "Symbol/Meaning/How We Know" chart

I'll post more of the final group posters and the translations this week. I attached the jpg files as well, because my laptop is being hopelessly weird lately with regard to uploading files to sites. Hope all is well!

Lauren, everything is coming out fine. Man, it is really exciting to see the lesson being used in different places!!! It looks like they're having a lot of fun with it. Can't wait to see more!

Thanks for uploading that stuff!!

BTW - your photos are WAY better than our iPhone shots.

This post in the Math Educator Group is a nice addition - a mathamatacion and a designer had to invent new math symbols!



© 2024   Created by Ryan Goble.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service