What Does That Mean?

March 5, 2018, by Dewey Kincade, Primary School art; Grades 4, 5, 7, & 8: history; Grades 4, 5, & 7: art; Grade 7: foundations; Upper School Latin intro

“What does that mean?”

That is a favorite question of my three-year old son, Theo. The question never fails to bring me a smile. He is busy acquiring the building blocks of meaning—the meanings of words. These building blocks are the foundations of a great tower of meaning, and as such, he needs his meanings to be clear, concise, and concrete in order to support the weight of this tower.

As a teacher, I’m fortunate to be able teach students of all ages. They are all in one way or another asking what things mean. At the foundational level, meaning is understood like an equation. This word equals this definition. Primary students spend a lot of time at this level. These students are not ready to take on ambiguity or nuance. Instead, they need reinforcement. Word games, puns, and any activity that allows students to assert their knowledge will help build a solid foundation. The foundation should not only be strong; it should also be broad. Students should be learning as many new words as they can, and finding a book series they like is a great way to do this.

As students continue building their tower of meaning, they encounter the interpretive level where = becomes ≅. Unlike the foundational level, meaning at the interpretive level is not fixed. A poem can mean a lot of things to different people. A sentence in Latin can be translated several ways. This is a challenging time for most students because the very foundation of their tower seems to be in jeopardy. Whereas before meaning was fixed, now it has become more malleable. It’s not enough to say what a story means, students must also support their statements. Arguments must be made.  

This is a great time to engage in debates with your children. The best way to encourage a child to construct arguments is by having fun debates at home. Who would win in a matchup between the Hulk and Wolverine? Who would make a better friend: Elsa or Moana? Your children will come up with an answer, but make sure they can support their answer with evidence. One of the challenges with debates is that people expect there to be a winner. When a child confronts the notion that there may not be a best interpretation (but many good ones), they may take it a step too far and say that any interpretation is valid. If they do, demand hard evidence for this assertion.

The importance of our interpretive abilities cannot be over-emphasized. We don’t simply apply these skills in language classes like English and Latin, but in history as well. The past can be interpreted in a myriad of ways. Even the sciences provide students with an opportunity to hone their interpretive skills. Raw data doesn’t always provide us with an obvious conclusion. Sometimes we must forge ahead by finding the best interpretation of the data.

The bulk of middle school and high school is spent exploring the interpretive level of meaning, but lurking around the periphery is an even higher level of meaning—the existential. What is the meaning of life? That’s a big one, but what we really mean is: what is the meaning of my life? As seniors approach the end of their education at LCA, they shift from following the plot to constructing their own plot. Unfortunately, we can give no answers to the question, what is my life’s purpose? And I have no advice to parents as their children begin to tackle this question, but I’m confident that students getting an LCA education will acquire the tools to answer the question for themselves.