Friday, July 27, 2012

What Seems "Natural", and to Whom, and Why?

Natural Reading?  OK.  Natural Teaching? Maybe not.
A couple of times on this blog I have suggested that "natural reading" should be an important component of literacy education.  I still think so, but I recently read an interesting scholarly paper that made me realize that "natural" is a pretty subjective term.  I should have known this, since "all natural" is a classic slippery phrase in food marketing, and maybe in some sense I did know it, since my own use of the term "natural reading" was always intended to be partly humorous.  After all, who would be in favor of unnatural reading?  But while I still think "natural reading" is a good idea, I'm less sure, after perusing this 2009 paper by Mckeown, Beck and Blake (Rethinking Reading Comprehension), about natural teaching.

Scholarly articles are a bit more objective (i.e. unnatural?!)
Articles about education aimed at a policy audience, or a popular audience, are often terrible, distorting, inflating or ignoring the often ambiguous data.  Nevertheless, the data, though ambiguous, are often worth looking at.  Science is supposed to be objective--and it is fairly objective, compared to the gross distortions that often come in work aimed at a popular or a policy audience. Reading the scientific literature, looking at the actual data, is a useful and interesting check on the received ideas and self-serving propaganda that you find in a lot of magazines or in publications like the National Reading Panel.

In the articles presenting the results of their experiments the same scholars often take a much more objective and moderate view than they do when they're writing for an audience of teachers.  Teachers are looking to be told what to do; scholars are looking for an argument (And then there are teachers like me). Writing for policy advocates or managers, you want to use the data to promote your favored policy; writing for teachers, you want to offer specific advice for things the teachers can actually do; but when you're writing for your fellow scholars, who are always looking to nitpick, because that's their job, you have to be somewhat more guarded in your assertions. (Being guarded and objective may not be natural, but it has its advantages!)

The paper
This post is about a 2009 paper by Isabel Beck and Margaret Mckeown, two big names in reading research and coincidentally the same researchers who back in the early eighties did the questionable research on vocabulary that is still being used to promote the idea that explicit vocabulary instruction increases reading comprehension.  The paper is about a study comparing two different ways of teaching reading, one a "content "approach" and one a "strategies" approach.  The study seems to show, interestingly, that the "content" approach is superior, but the paper is as interesting for its asides as for its data, which data are not, as usual, particularly conclusive.

Aside #1: We don't really know what works (or do we?)
The first interesting passage in this paper came in its introduction. Mckeown and  Beck are prominent, veteran researchers, and yet they paint a fairly grim picture of the current state of knowledge in reading research, essentially saying that very  little is known about the best way to teach reading.  This humble admission of ignorance, while not unusual in the sober scholarly literature on reading, is in striking contrast to the countless  books and magazine articles that offer specific advice to teachers on the explicit pretense that the advice is grounded in "the research", and Mckeown and Beck's humility also contrasts with such pretended authorities as the National Reading Panel and the "What Works" publications.  The professors who taught my workshop last week were wonderfully open about how unclear the research literature is, but many of the articles they provided were of the popular kind that I have come to see as fundamentally dishonest.

"The research on strategies and content approaches," Mckeown and Beck write, "provides little guidance on what in the instruction was responsible for the outcomes.  It could be the case that simply more time and attention to text is the key that leads to improvement."

Maybe spending more time and attention on text is the key.  Ya think? As a teacher who has spent way too much time doing my own talking and having my students either listen to me or do something that is not focused directly on the text, and as someone who has walked around my school for years seeing way more teachers talking than students talking, this last conjecture seems eminently reasonable: most of the time in most reading lessons is probably not spent either on actual reading or on students looking closely at the text and talking about it, so if you make teachers spend time actually looking closely at an actual text,  that might be expected to lead to more learning.

Amazingly enough, after presenting this eminently reasonable hypothesis, Mckeown and Beck immediately say, "We doubt that is the case." They don't explain the basis for their doubts, saying only, "it is more likely that some activities are more effective than are others" (222). Well, yes, some activities are probably more effective, but that is hardly any reason to doubt the hypothesis that spending time and attention on the text itself is important; perhaps those activities that focus student attention more sharply on the text are more likely to be effective.  But perhaps such a relatively simple hypothesis is too simple for Mckeown and Beck. Like the policeman in Poe's great tale, scholars are heavily invested in their complicated, time-intensive methods, and may respond to a suggestion that the answer is simple with anxiously incredulous laughter: ""Ha! ha! ha! --ha! ha! ha! --ho! ho! ho [...] oh, Dupin, you will be the death of me yet!"
The study itself
In any case, the study that the paper is primarily about compared two approaches to teaching reading, the "strategies approach" and the " content approach."  In a strategies approach, discussion of a text is a sort of meta-discussion, focusing primarily on which "reading strategies" might be useful in answering a given question about the text and only secondarily on the text itself.  In a content approach, student attention was focused on the content of the text through "meaning-based questions."  The study's results seems to show a "content" approach doing better than a "strategies" approach, basically because the strategies approach leads kids to focus on the strategies and not on the text itself, whereas a content approach encourages kids to think more deeply, and pay closer attention to the text. It seems to me that the content approach might be considered the more "natural."

The study worked with six classrooms in the same district, replacing one of the week's 5 regular reading periods (working in a basal reader) with a scripted lesson.  Two of the classrooms used a scripted lesson that focused on comprehension strategies; two classrooms used a scripted lesson based on discussing the content of the reading; and two of the classrooms used a scripted lesson based on the questions included in the basal reader.  The students who had discussions focused on content performed somewhat better than students in the the other classrooms on such tasks as recall and offered LONGER answers to discussion questions.  This is an interesting result, since it suggests that asking students to talk about what happened in the text is just as helpful, and possibly more helpful, than offering explicit instruction in HOW to talk about the text.  As with other research I've looked at, this study provides little support for explicit skills instruction in English class.  But the most interesting part of the paper was a result that the authors presented almost as an aside.

Aside #2: Natural teaching may not be natural learning
Although the content approach looks to me to be the more natural one, the teachers in the study didn't experience it that way.  When asked, "How natural did the approach feel?", the teachers who used the strategies approach were happier with their approach, saying that the strategies approach felt "very natural." Amazingly enough, the content approach teachers said that the content approach felt less natural.  One teacher said that it wasn't "natural at first [...] I always wanted to put my two cents in." The other teacher said, "It's not natural to not go deeper. It's hard to just let them think on their own and not pull the information from them."

What's interesting about this is that teachers do not "naturally" use a natural approach.  Instead, what seems natural to a teacher is to put her own "two cents in," instead of asking questions to elicit the students' own thinking. To a teacher, to go "deeper" apparently means to "pull the information from them." The strategies approach, on the other hand, felt natural to the teachers who used it, perhaps because that approach's explicit skills instruction allowed the teacher to feel she was putting her own "two cents in."

One reasonable explanation for the teachers' feelings is that teachers like to, well, teach.  They are teachers, after all.  But more teaching does not always mean more learning.  What's natural to the lion may not seem so natural to the zebra.

Conclusion: we may have to work unnaturally hard to foster natural reading and learning.
Natural reading, and natural learning, do not necessarily happen naturally.  School is an unnatural environment, and to create natural events in an unnatural environment probably means hard work.  That's only natural.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Fault in Our Stars

is very good, if a little too perfect and precious.  The best novels I've read this summer are still by Beverly Cleary.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Thank God for YA fiction

If you have had a reasonably good childhood, or at least a reasonably repressed one (same thing?), or maybe even a miserable one, becoming an adult means losing your illusions, letting go--accepting a more tawdry and depleted reality than what you have been used to experiencing. Among the many illusions our students are due to lose, among the many wonders that they will have to let go of, is the pleasure of reading fiction. So I'd like to take a moment, as an English teacher, to give thanks for YA fiction, in which our students are lucky still to be immersed.

Serious contemporary fiction is pretty grim fare. I picked up the New Yorker magazine before dinner last night and read Junot Diaz's story, "The Cheater's Guide to Love."  I can't believe I read the whole thing.  Diaz's narrator, a writer not unlike Diaz himself, tells about his love life over the past several years--though "love life" is too good a term for the miserable history of infidelity and failure from this guy who calls women "hos" and manages to cheat on his girlfriend 50 times in the course of a few years.  Why would I want to read about this loser?  Of course by the end of the story we see the narrator and his buddies lonely and longing for family life, and according to an interview with Diaz that I read this morning his narrator is poised for some kind of maturity: "Perhaps now, for the first time," Diaz says, his character "can cohere an authentically human self—but only future tales will tell."  Okay, but why would we want to read these future tales?  Why do we want to read this one?

After I finished the Diaz story I thought, wow, are there any YA books as pointless and unentertaining as this story?  Then this morning after watching John Green and his brother discuss Fahrenheit 451 (which I think they made sound better than it is), I went and bought The Fault in Our Stars from my local store.  I hope it's good.

(My other thought was, Wow, grown-up non-fiction is really better than grown-up fiction!  The only grown-up fiction I've liked a lot recently has been Edward St. Aubyn, but that's almost non-fiction, and I can't imagine others less gifted than St. Aubyn producing anything nearly as good.  The mind-bogglingly amazing Katherine Boo book, however, might be approximated by any number of good reporters who were willing to put in the extraordinary time and energy Boo devotes to her task.) 

Update: Even YA authors like John Green himself are apparently worried about fiction. Green's anxiety is in fact so intense that the author's note in The Fault in Our Stars is entirely devoted to a defense of the validity of fiction itself, and he makes the following wild, desperate claim: "the very idea that made-up stories can matter .... is sort of the foundational assumption of our species."

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Emails from a student

This spring, the excellent Leafstrewn student newspaper (let's call it "The Pequod") ran a column about reading.  The column was written by a former of student of mine.  My former student said, more or less, that he didn't like the books his Junior-year teacher (that is to say, I) had assigned him, and that if students weren't forced to read boring books like My Antonia or Their Eyes Were Watching God (a "real stinker"), and had a little more choice, they might read more.  His nut graf: "I don’t believe that nobody today reads, but I think the problem lies in what students are being forced to read rather than why they aren’t reading. It’s time to revamp English class so that students discover a passion for literature instead of just deciding books aren’t for them."

This student has a point, and I had been worrying much the same thing.  In fact, after a so-so experience with his very class, and after worrying a lot about how many students managed to avoid the assigned reading, I built more choice into my syllabus, and I gave the students a bit more time to read in class. Also, though I have always had very mixed feelings about motivational lectures and the like (my recent conviction that schools should create a "reading culture" is a flower that grows out of a complicated bog of ambivalence), I gave a brief, passionate lecture about how important reading was, and how lame it was not to do the reading, how especially lame it was to use Sparknotes or other cheatsites. These are good  books, I said; read them!

I wasn't sure how well this had gone over, but I was going on the wise advice of my department chair, who had told me that I had to pretend I believed in what I said.  So I pretended. I was happy, then, to get an email from a student at the end of the year that read, in part, "i really enjoyed your class this year. To be honest, i dont usually read my english class books but what you said in the beginning of the year resonated with me and i am proud to say i really did read all the books this year. I am glad i did too because some of them were really great. You are a really awesome teacher. Thanks for the wonderful year!"

I discounted the last bit for the obvious reasons (she probably wants me to write her rec next year, etc.), but I was pretty interested in her admission that she doesn't "usually" read her English class books.  I wrote back and asked if she wouldn't mind elaborating.  (I didn't tell her I was going to be putting her response up on a blog, but I excuse myself by imagining that no one will know who she is--she could be anyone, really!)

I didn't think she would write back with much more detail, but she did.  Here is (most of) her second email:

"Freshman year i pretty much didnt read a single book. I read about 20 pages of ------. Sophmore year I read the beginning half of most of the books we read. i usually just ask one of my friends that have read the book to give me a synopsis and then i improvise from there. i think that there are a lot of people who just copy off of others or use spark notes but i find that i can use clues in the question to guess the answer. sometimes im totally off but for the most part i usually at least get partial credit. Before high school, i could finish all my hw within 20 minutes so i used to read at least a book a day for pleasure.. i used to read literally allll the time. since hs my pleasure reading has been reduced to about a book a semester and over the summers, although this summer i was assigned more reading than usual since I'm taking ----- so i didnt even both bringing any of my pleasure reading books to ----."

There you go.  The problem in a paragraph.  This is a smart kid, too--she was recommended for an English department award--but her ability in English class is probably due far more to the "book a day" she used to read, back when she wasn't given much homework, than to the hours and hours of work and explicit instruction she has received in school.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Social class and reading

I've been worrying recently about the ways in which reading is social, cultural, and deeply influenced by one's social class.  Below are a few attempts to start to think this through.

Images of Reading: solitary, but also social

Reading is in many ways a solitary activity.  People tend not to read in large groups, and when they do (reading rooms; subway cars), reading often seems to wall off the self from the group.  When I think of images of reading, I think of those portraits of female readers, in which the reading is nearly always shown as an activity of almost circular self-sufficiency.  Here's a picture by Fragonard:

It's a lovely picture, and we like it partly because it makes makes us imagine what it's like to be the young woman. We want to be her because reading looks so pleasant, so private, so self-sufficient--not necessarily passionate, not necessarily joyful, but reasonable, calm, and, despite the pillow against which she is propped up so straight, wakefulWe put ourselves in her place, we want to know what the book is about, we imagine such a wonderful self-sufficiency (perhaps we are enjoying the painting in the same way the young woman enjoys the book), and the picture is so much about at-one-ness that viewer and subject partly merge. 

But the picture is more complicated, and the apparent solitude is less solitary, than it might seem. It is also less self-sufficient, and it is embedded in a pretty distinct social and cultural context.  First, and most obviously, such a celebration of privacy, such solitary self-sufficiency in a young woman may seem, as in Vermeer paintings, to have (that pillow!) an erotic tinge. The young woman in Fragonard's picture is both attractive and quite fetchingly dressed, and if reading might seem a solitary activity, she is less alone than she thinks, for both painter and viewer may play the role of peeping Tom.  

(Here's one, by Renoir, in which the inherent eroticism of the subject is a bit more obvious:


The eroticism of the picture is merely the most obvious way in which reading is never completely solitary.  These young women, like reading itself, are also clearly of a certain class--or rather, are distinctly not of a certain class--that is, they are not poor.  The woman in the Fragonard painting is probably richer than Renoir's subject--by Renoir's time, reading, or leisure, had filtered down to the middle class---but both have had time in their childhoods to learn to read, someone to help them learn, and maids and servants to clean the house, shop for and cook the food, put on their dresses, tie their ribbons and plump their pillows.  While their servants were doing such work (you might argue that Renoir's girl looks like she might have to do some housework herself, but then Renoir is an inveterate fantasist), these non-poor women enjoyed available books to choose from, an undistracting space and continuous leisure time in which to read the books they choose, and friends with whom they could discuss the stories.  In nearly every way, reading was an upper-class pursuit. 

Reading and social class in To Kill a Mockingbird 

The situation is similar in To Kill a Mockingbird. The book paints a wonderful picture of an apparently self-sufficient childhood culture of reading.  Jem, Scout and Dill don't need school--Harper Lee seems deeply skeptical of the idea that reading can be taught--and the children's summer world, a combination of unsupervised outdoor play and passionate engagement in Tom Swift and Tarzan books, seems as beautifully self-sufficient as Fragonard's idyll of solitary reading.  Anyone should be able to read, it seems, and when the book's villain, Bob Ewell, is asked by the book's hero, Atticus Finch, whether he can write, Mr. Ewell is indignant, but in the joke he makes (or should I say the joke the author has at his expense), we are given to understand that his level of literacy is despicably low.  "Of course I can write," Mr. Ewell says.  "How do you think I sign my relief checks?"  We laugh, but we understand that the Ewells probably can't read, as we would think of reading, and that their illiteracy is a part of their separateness, their subhumanness.  According to Atticus, it's not even worth making the Ewell children go to school, because the Ewells are the Ewells and will never change.

I'm dwelling at length on to Kill a Mockingbird because it presents such a clear picture of a good reading culture and such a clear picture of the all-important social divisions.  In Maycomb, one is almost completely defined by one's family and one's class. Jem, Scout and Dill are good readers, but nearly every other upper-class character, that is to say, everyone who lives on the town's "main residential street," is also a member of the reading club: even the mean, racist Mrs. Dubose kicks her morphine habit with the assistance of a Walter Scott novel; and even Boo Radley likes to cut out newspaper articles for his scrapbook.  

The poor farmers, on the other hand, who occupy the next rung down on the social ladder, may be literate, but they are not readers.  Of the farm children who make up most of her class at school, Scout tells us that "the ragged, denim-shirted and floursack-skirted first grade, most of whom had chopped cotton and fed hogs from the time they were able to walk, were immune to imaginative literature."  The Cunninghams and their neighbors were not raised by lawyers who are professional readers and writers, they did not see their parents sitting in the armchair reading every night, and they were provided neither the books nor the time to read even if by some form of extra-sensory perception they had somehow gotten it into their heads that reading was a worthwhile pursuit.

The social groups who occupy the bottom two rungs of the social hierarchy, the African-Americans and the poor white trash, are mostly illiterate--not only immune to imaginative literature, but hardly able to read or write at all.  Bob Ewell may be able, barely, to scratch out his name, but his son Burris, who at eight or nine years old has only spent two full days in school, can't spell his, and his nineteen-year-old daughter Mayella, the best of the bunch, has only been to school for two years and can read and write only as well as her father.  Most of the African-Americans in the town are also illiterate; of the large congregation in the First Purchase church, only four or five, including Calpurnia and her son Zeebo, know how to read.

That African-Americans, and poor Whites, are still less literate than the upper classes is completely to be expected.  The Fragonard picture was painted about 250 years ago.  To Kill a Mockingbird takes place less than a hundred years ago. Cultures usually change very, very slowly.  Burris Ewell was younger than my grandfather; his grandchildren could be my students. We, like them, are living with the inheritance of centuries and centuries of social divisions.  For centuries in Europe, only the clergy knew how to read. In England, your crimes were treated much more leniently if you could prove you could read (they'd ask you to read Psalm 51, the "Neck Verse," and if you could read about God's mercy, then the powers that be would offer mercy as well).  In the American south, education for slaves was prohibited by law. This was all very, very recent, and since we are still living in a culture shaped by this history, we can most effectively make progress by accepting that our work is not only "instructional," not only about "skills," but is primarily social and cultural. 

Family, Peers, and School

The point I am laboriously making here is that reading is not only solitary, and it is not a "skill" that can be isolated, taught and tested in the way that perhaps long division can (though I wonder);  no, reading is social and cultural, and we teachers of reading must keep that uppermost in our minds.

We often assume that all parents want their kids to succeed, to become readers, but some of them probably don't.  There's a funny and horrifying scene in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which Huck's absent, illiterate father comes back to find that while he's been away his son has learned to read.  Pap is upset:  "Looky here -- you drop that school, you hear? I'll learn people to bring up a boy to put on airs over his own father and let on to be better'n what he is. You lemme catch you fooling around that school again, you hear? Your mother couldn't read, and she couldn't write, nuther, before she died. None of the family couldn't before they died. I can't; and here you're a-swelling yourself up like this. I ain't the man to stand it -- you hear?"

When Huck reads a bit, Pap knocks the book across the room and warns Huck that if he catches him at school again, he'll beat him.  The scene is funny partly because Pap's attitude is so counter to all the middle-class bromides (Stay in school, etc.), but it's also funny because it expresses something real: there is a real anti-academic feeling in a lot of people.  Sure, nearly every parent genuinely wants his or her child to succeed in school--but a lot of them have mixed feelings.  They may have hated school themselves.  A part of them may feel that they didn't succeed and don't want their kids to succeed.  I had mixed feelings about school myself, and I know I have transmitted those feelings to my children.

It's not only parents, but peers, who work against creating a culture of reading.  In To Kill a Mockingbird, the only two readers in the First Grade classroom are Scout and the teacher, and even if they could work together it would be difficult for them to move the great mass of the rest of the class. The greatest obstacle to student success is often the students.  Not the student, singular, but his or her peers.  It takes more than one person to create a culture--and a teacher is only one person.  True, she has a vested authority, but she is competing against a score of other people, many of whom are not yet initiates into the society of readers.

This is a huge, and potentially growing problem

In the United States, despite the constant talk of our weak performance and the "crisis" in education, the situation is roughly what it's been like for decades.  The rich kids do very well, even by international standards, and the poor kids don't.  Recent results on the OECD's PISA tests make this clear: in 2009, US schools with less than 10% poor kids had reading scores averaging 551, significantly better than the scores in any other country (schools with more than 75% of students receiving Free or Reduced Price Lunch averaged 446, significantly worse than Turkey), but US poverty rates are among the highest in the OECD.

In any case, US schools with few poor kids do very well, and this has been clear at least since 1972, when Christopher Jencks and his colleagues published their magisterial Inequality: A Reassessment of the Effect of Family and Schooling in America (and every year other writers like Richard Rothstein and Gerald Grant make the same obvious point). Oddly, it was also in 1972, or thereabouts, that the economic fortunes of the bottom 50% took a turn for the worse.  Median wages, adjusted for inflation, peaked in the early 1970s and have been flat or declining since, even as the incomes of the upper-middle-class have grown quite a bit and the incomes of the rich have grown enormously.

This inequality has large educational effects.  Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame) gave a talk recently on inequality that has been getting a lot of press (David Brooks, whom I usually loathe, wrote a somewhat reasonable column about it this week).  The basic idea is that poor kids grow up in dramatically different environments, and are given much, much less attention and fewer resources (like books!) than their higher-SES peers.  The inequality among children, according to Putnam, is getting dramatically worse.  I look forward to Putnam's book, but we teachers should be taking this stuff into account every day, trying to provide, in school, the cultural and social education that our students are missing outside of school.

We can't make up for cultural gaps by mechanical means.  Instead, we should be doing just what the Deweyan teacher in To Kill a Mockingbird is trying and failing to do: we should be reading to our students--but reading them stories they like.  We should be modeling our love for reading and thinking. We should be providing them with books to read, and time in which to read them.  We should be fostering student discussion in lit circles and the like.  What we should not be doing is what we too often are doing: giving our students the educational equivalent of Scout's classmates daily chores: drudge-work, like feeding hogs and chopping cotton, that keeps them from the valuable, mind-growing work of leisure-reading.  School should look like this:

...or even like this:

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A reader writes...

 MisterFischer, a fellow teacher and a reader of this blog, writes in offering his own ideas about how English class could change.  I think he's going in the right direction, and I'm interested in thinking more about the "close reading of small passages."  I should say that I'm not against "teaching reading in English class," and I 'd say his approach seems to me to still fall under that heading--but the idea that "teaching reading" isn't really possible, and so doesn't belong in English class, is close to what Harper Lee seems to suggest, and it's a provocative way to begin!

I'm wondering: what if we stopped teaching reading in English class?  At some point in our pedagogical history, we started to pretend that we were college professors designing literature-based courses: American Literature; World Literature; European Literature.  Why? Well, at some point (1910's?), college professors re-designed the HS English curriculum in their own image.  The curriculum was designed for a select few (those who stayed in school after 14 instead of going to work) and, probably, for the purposes of weeding out the non-academic.

What if, instead, we went back (way back) to teaching rhetoric instead.  That is, rather than using text as a springboard for pseudo-intellectual discussions (which are sometimes fun and enlightening, but often times vapid and used to hide the fact that the kids haven't really read the material), we use text to examine how text works and how to create text.  We focus on close reading of small passages to help kids understand how text works--how are we manipulated and persuaded? how are we encouraged to like one character or one side of an argument? how do we use words to convince? to create a convincing character? Back to the Trivium! (or some modified version)

As you've written everywhere, kids need to be reading as much as possible.  But evidence (anecdotal and otherwise) seems to suggest that we teachers aren't helping matters.  Will kids read on their own if we don't assign it or make them do it?  THAT's a great question.  Personally, I think that they will, with a little help.  They need help finding the right books, and then more and more and more right books.  Kids need to know how to go about finding the right books--and this is NOT in our school's curriculum anywhere.  We teachers are OK with this; we know about literary books and a little about other books.  But this isn't what most kids want to read.  We need 50 more Robin Brenners and 100 more school librarians...or we need to do some hard thinking about how we can learn enough about what's out there to help guide the kids to the right books.

Do kids need to get credit or points or rewards for reading books?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  They certainly need time.  They need blocks in the day for reading and time at night for reading.  They need to stop filling their time with the books we're assigning them and taking more time reading books that are more appropriate for them to be reading.  This isn't to say that we shouldn't be pushing them to read more and more difficult texts; we can certainly do that.  But clearly trying to make 25 kids read the same difficult text at the exact same time at the exact same pace isn't working.

So, as I see it, we need to stop teaching--assigning--reading so that kids can begin to read.  We need to start doing something else (rhetoric is my vote) so kids can start doing what we want them to do, what we know they need to do, which is to read.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Two curricula: one for the elite, another for the masses

     The elite are "nurtured"and "inspired" toward a "love" for reading

Like Barack Obama and Arne Duncan, Bill Gates did not go to a public high school.  Instead, Gates, a scion of an elite Seattle family, went to a fancy prep school called Lakeside.  Lakeside's English curriculum is quite different from the Common Core Standards that Gates paid millions to have created and is spending millions now to promote, and that Obama and Duncan are pushing as well, through their "Race to the Top" (sic) program.  The Common Core standards suggest long and detailed classroom analyses of extremely difficult texts, and offer absolutely nothing in the way of requiring extensive reading or encouraging a love of reading.  This curriculum is dramatically different from the ones offered at Lakeside, where Bill Gates's kids now go, but I wouldn't expect Lakeside to change its ways anytime soon.

Here are the mission statements for Lakeside's English programs at the middle school and high school levels:

    "The Middle School English Department is dedicated to nurturing a lifelong love of reading
    and writing. We strive to create a community of readers and writers that inspires students to
    experiment with a variety of written forms."

    "Lakeside’s [High School] English Department’s highest goals are to inspire in students a 
     love of literature and to help students become great writers."

Both the middle school and high school statements use the word "love" and emphasize writing in an "authentic voice" and "artistically."  The curriculum is notably literary and cultural, and not narrowly designed to ready students for the business or political world.

It's also notable that these English departments aren't afraid to talk about encouraging a love of reading.  Encouraging a love for reading might seem like an obvious goal of English class, but in the Orwellian world of the Education-Industrial-Complex that goal is controversial.

     The masses are given "instruction" aimed at "proficiency"

This Orwellian madness surfaced in 2006, when the new President of the International Reading Association came out against encouraging a love for reading.  Professor Tim Shanahan, one of the biggest names int he reading world, had already made clear that he was against natural reading: he was a prominent member of the "National Reading Panel" (2000) that after a cockeyed look at the evidence, argued at length for explicit instruction and dishonestly claimed that there was no evidence that independent silent reading was effective.  In 2006, he became President of the International Reading Association, which has as one of its three stated purposes, in addition to improving reading instruction and promote reading proficiency, to "encourage reading and an interest in reading" (Reading Today, June 2006). Shanahan's first move as President of the Association was to say that while he could support improved instruction and promoting proficiency, he was not in favor of "encouraging reading and an interest in reading."  Although Shanahan can be eloquent and passionate about why reading is important, he apparently thinks it's inappropriate and dangerous to encourage interest in it.

For this, Shanahan was not laughed out of the profession; he remains one of the big shots of the reading world. This past week, the thoughtful, intelligent instructor of my PD workshop referred to Shanahan in glowing terms and gave us a couple of his articles.  How could this be?  How could the President of the International Reading Association argue against teachers' trying to encourage "an interest in reading"?!  Bill Gates's kids have teachers that nurture a lifelong love of reading, but the rest of us can't even encourage an interest in reading?  Are there different rules for private and public schools?  Well, yes--according to Shanahan.

     Interest in reading and "freedom of choice"

For, although his central (if insane) argument is that encouraging an interest in reading is somehow inimical to effective teaching, and that we should be "jealous of instructional time" which would apparently be wasted by encouraging student interest in our subject, Shanahan also argues at length that it is beyond a public school teacher's mandate to encourage interest in his subject.  In order to make this argument, Shanahan shifts the terms of the debate from the words "interest" to "pleasure" and then to "desire" and then to "love", and argues suggests that as "institutional beings," teachers have no right to try to instill love or desire in anyone.  A teacher's "public responsibility," according to Shanahan, does not include "encouraging reading," which is, he says, a "personal goal" that might carry "danger."  What danger?  Apparently encouraging reading would limit "freedom of choice."

That encouraging an interest in reading could be considered as limiting to freedom of choice is obviously Orwellian.  As Bill Gates found when he went from public school to private school, and as Shanahan should know, given his explanation of why he is passionate about teaching reading, encouraging an interest in reading actually promotes freedom of choice, while merely teaching it dispassionately as a useful skill is usually a good way to limit freedom. For Shanahan public schools, although obligated to impose explicit instruction of the kind Bill Gates found so tedious when he went to public elementary school, are not allowed to offer students encouragement and nurturing of the very practices that will allow freedom.

     Conclusion: We need to create a culture of reading, even in public schools

Why is Shanahan so uncomfortable with the notion of encouraging interest in reading, even though he acknowledges that reading is important?  Why does Gates spend his billions to promote increased class size and increased testing, even though he sends his kids to a school that brags about its average class size of 16 and that manages to have 40% of its Seniors be National Merit Scholarship Finalists without having done any of the kind of high stakes testing Gates is working to impose on the rest of us?  The obvious answer for Shanahan is that he has spent his career promoting explicit skill instruction, and for Shanahan to admit that it's important to teach reading as an organic, pleasurable experience, or to admit that reading is largely a socially mediated activity, might seem to him to call into question his life's work.

As for Gates, perhaps he doesn't know how to address the social and cultural aspects of learning, or perhaps he thinks the changes he's pushing will lead indirectly to an improved cultural and social environment in the classroom.  My guess is that Gates sees public school as properly different from what he offers his own children. When Gates himself switched from public school to private school, he noticed a dramatic cultural shift.  As he recalls, "it was a change at first.  And the idea of just being kind of a goof-off wasn't the sort of high reward position like it had been in public schools." It seems possible that, partly based on this experience, Gates doesn't think it possible to change that culture.

But he should think so, for in the same interview I quoted before, he offers an excellent example of a public institution that encourages reading. Gates remembers that when he was a kid, the library would give you a gold star if you read ten books over the summer, and two stars if you read twenty.  According to Gates, he and "five or six girls" would compete to see who could read the most books.  For reading is a solitary activity, but reading is also a social activity, and it can be encouraged.

The first job of every high school English class should be creating a culture of reading.  This is difficult to do when many of our expert authorities don't believe that interest matters, and think that human beings are mechanisms that have only to be properly programmed for "proficiency." The best way make sure that our public schools are not like the one Bill Gates went to, where "being a goof-off was more socially rewarding," is to replace the interest in goofing off with an interest in reading and thinking, and that can only happen if we encourage that interest.  We must make sure that our public schools do "encourage reading"--even inspire a love for it.  If reading is, and has always been, strongly linked to social class, we don't have to accept the social class divisions that we are given.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Long roots moor summer to... idleness, reading and reflection

Summer is a time for recharging and reflection--and for reading a lot.  Some readers of this blog have expressed a wish to hear more about Leafstrewn, about classroom experiences and particular instructional issues.  I'll try to write a lot about specifics in the fall, but over the summer I want to read and think on a larger scale. So until my vacation in August I'm going to post, every Friday, mostly about big issues.  I'll try to make it entertaining and provocative.

Over the past couple of days I've been thinking about social class; maybe this Friday I'll write about that.