Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Most Common Question Parents Ask Me

I chose "Leafstrewn" as a pseudonym for the town I teach in partly because the town is wealthy and has a lot of trees.  I was also thinking of the wonderful passage in The Scarlet Letter in which Hester Prynne and Arthur Dimmesdale meet on a "leafstrewn" forest track.  It only occurs to me now that this place is also strewn with a lot of leaves in the sense of pages from books.

This is a literate, text-heavy town.  It's got one of the most highly-educated populations in the United States, if not the universe.  It supports an excellent independent bookstore that destroyed a Barnes and Noble in head to head competition.  We love books and value reading.  And yet...

The most common question I get on Parents' Night is this: "How can I get my child to read more?"  The question comes in different forms ("Why doesn't Johnny read as much anymore?"; "Can you please make Janie read more?"), but most versions have the word "more," and all contain the word "read,"stressed and plaintively elongated.  "She doesn't reeeeeaaad anymore..." The plaintive tones of the question always remind me of the father in Willa Cather's novel who shows the narrator a book and  pleads, "entreatingly," with an earnestness the narrator says he will never forget, to "Te-e-ach, te-e-ach my Antonia!"

The parents I see at parents night may be unusual--we are in Leafstrewn, after all--but I don't think so. My non-readers come in all types, and they come from all different families.  I have had immigrant parents tell me in their heavily accented English that they despair over how little their children are reading.  I have had upper-middle-class lawyers and professors ask how they can help their children read more--which books will "work"?  I have had blue-collar parents ask me exactly the same thing.

These non-readers come in all types, and there are many reasons for their non-reading.  I have had some of my best, most literary students tell me that they hardly ever read for pleasure over the school year, because they just have too much work.  I have students who seem unable to sit still, because their bodies are going haywire for some reason.  I have students whose IEPs and psychological testing describe cognitive impairments that make for extraordinarily slow processing speeds.  I have students who tell me that they haven't read a book--any book--since sixth grade.  All of these children have trouble reading--and nearly all of their parents wish they would read more.

The parents' question --How can I get my child to read more?-- points to their sense of what's important. They sometimes ask about writing, though not nearly as much as reading, but they almost never ask me about skills, about strategies, about vocabulary.  Instead, what they want is for the kids to do what maybe they used to do until puberty came along, or what maybe they never did, or what they have always done but could do better--that is, read.

In this desire to just, at least, have their children read, these parents are different from the National Reading Panel of 2000, and from the federal government's "What Works" Clearinghouse, which pretends to report on proven educational strategies .  The "What Works" report on adolescent literacy, written by a panel of experts from Stanford and other universities and school systems, goes on for dozens of pages about "explicit instruction" in this and that, but it never once goes to the heart of the matter and says that students should be reading more than they are currently doing.

I believe these parents are right.  Reading is the most important academic skill, and in order for students to get better at reading, the most important thing is that they actually read, and that they read texts that they can read and will read.  I suspect that many of our weakest readers essentially never read, and that attempts to improve literacy are very likely to fail because they will do almost everything except ensure that the students are actually reading. 

Over the next few weeks, I'll post some thoughts about why reading is the most important activity for students to spend time doing, how much our students actually do read, how we could get them to read more, and what we can do with the kids who manage to avoid reading altogether.  These are key questions that I think all English teachers should be asking.  Schools have kids 6 hours a day, 180 days a year.  If kids aren't reading, it's largely our fault.  As Dick Allington says:

“We have typically organized schools such that struggling readers spend large parts of their days in environments where there are few texts they can actually read.  We even create instructional environments, including interventions, that offer very limited opportunities to read.”

How can we make sure that our students are reading more?  How can we help students find books that they will actually read?  How can we make sure students have time to read?  How can we restructure school time so that it ensures actual reading?

Friday, May 18, 2012

David Coleman and Reading

This week the College Board named its new President: David Coleman, who is best known for being the architect and the public face of the Common Core Standards.

The choice of Coleman makes sense, since the SATs and AP tests, like the Common Core Standards, are basically measuring two things, aside from innate ability: 1) the cultural capital students have gotten from their parents; 2) the amount of reading students have done.  The announcement made me look closer at Coleman and his standards, and I was disturbed, if not surprised, by what I saw.

I glanced at the Common Core Standards themselves, and found them to be the usual bland description of what students should be able to do (read increasingly complex texts, understand them, and write interpretively about them), with slight variations according to grade level.  I wasn't making much headway with the Standards themselves.  So I did what my students do: I went to the video.

To see what Coleman himself was like, and how he sees the standards as differing from current practice, I watched a video of one of his talks.  Given many millions of dollars by Bill Gates to promote and publicize the common core standards (which Gates paid to have written in the first place), Coleman has been traveling the country giving presentations, teaching sample lessons, and making films of many of his appearances. The 2 hour presentation I watched was the one Coleman made to the NY State Department of Education in April of 2011.

That speech is notorious among Common Core foes for a line Coleman tossed off as part of his argument against having students do personal writing in the older grades.  According to Coleman, "As you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think."  Coleman went on to explain that in the business world no one was going to say, "Johnson, I need a market analysis by Friday but before that I need a compelling account of your childhood."

That Coleman could say this to a group of educators is shocking, and it deserved all the opprobrium it got.  Our children's liberal arts education should not be defined and limited by what might be required of them in some future career in corporate marketing.

For the purposes of this blog and post I want to concentrate on another aspect of his speech: how Coleman's proposals would affect students' reading.   What I was really worried about, as usual, was reading volume, so I was interested in Coleman's response to audience members who raised exactly that issue.  One of the first questions was about how to, in the questioner's words, "allow the kids at their own levels to be able to grow as learners and readers."  Coleman's response was disturbing:  first he acknowledged that of course students should be doing a lot of independent recreational reading (though he didn't acknowledge that his own standards say nothing about this practice or how to encourage it); then he uttered the following words:

"I must tell you an alarming thing for those who overly bank on that independent recreational reading. We talked to the leading provider of such tools for children. Do you know what grade level student choice of text levels out at? Overwhelmingly, 90% of the selections stop at this level--5th grade. So while we must encourage that work, we must not overly rely on it..."

This is circular reasoning at its most simplistic and blind: kids choose low-level books to read, so reading books they choose will not help them get better at reading.  What Coleman ignores is the possibility that kids are essentially unable to read books above that level.  (Also striking is that nauseating phrase: "the leading provider of such tools for children."  What "tools" is he talking about?  Those things that most of us call "books"?  And could a "provider of such tools for children" be that entity that most of us would call a "children's book publisher"?  I am not sure which would be worse, that Coleman refers to Scholastic, Inc. in such a way, or that Coleman is referring to some other "tools" that some corporation has developed for use in "independent recreational reading."  Either way, I am sure that anyone who is capable of saying, "the leading provider of such tools for children," should not be in charge of directing our country's literacy education.)

Coleman is the kind of guy who talks tough about where we "must" get to, but has no idea how to get there, the kind of guy who fifty years ago would have been cheerleading us into war in Vietnam. Coleman, who has never been a teacher himself, is a classic armchair warrior, like the chicken hawks in the Bush administration; he has never been on the front lines himself, but wants to tell the rest of us where we are supposed to go.

I also want to look at the standards themselves: what do they mean for teaching English in America?

According to Coleman himself, the common core standards make six important shifts away from current practice.  Since my basic position is that the most important thing for kids' academic success is for them to read more, I think it's useful to evaluate any ELA program or proposal in terms of what effect it would likely have on reading volume.  I'd like to consider each of the Common Core's "shifts" in the light of my own preoccupation with how much kids are reading. 

1) The Common Core Standards would reduce the amount of fiction that students read and increase the amount of "informational text."  This is supposed to increase kids' knowledge about the world, thereby increasing their ability to learn other stuff and their ability to read more complex texts.  The problem with this shift is that most students don't, won't, and often can't read the kinds of more complex "informational text" that Coleman wishes they would.  My seven-year-old daughter loves so many books, and none of them are non-fiction.  She is and will be a great reader, no thanks to David Coleman.

2) The second shift Coleman highlights is the increased emphasis on literacy in the non-ELA subjects: essentially, Reading Across the Curriculum.  Here he seems again to have little idea of how to get there; he just thinks kids should be able to read a complex science textbook.  Great; I think so too.  But I don't think you get there by just wishing for it.

3) The Common Core Standards call for schools to use more complex texts.  Based on my experience with Leafstrewn students, this is just more wishful thinking, and will decrease the amount of text that students are actually reading.  Many of our students can't handle the complexity of the textbooks we are giving them now, and giving them more complexity is going to make it even less likely that they will actually read the texts.  Coleman attributes the need for remediation in college to the low-level texts used in high school, while it seems to me that the remediation is needed for the same reason the low-level texts are needed--because students aren't very good readers.  Poor readers will get better by reading more, and giving poor readers difficult textbooks is hardly going to get them to read more.

4) The Common Core Standards call for more text-dependent questions.  This is perhaps the only shift that I actually agree with.  Yes, we should be making our kids pay close attention to the text.  Okay!

5) The fifth shift is away from personal writing and toward writing that focuses on making an argument with evidence.  This strikes me as something that has already happened at Leafstrewn, and I am very skeptical that we need even as much of it as we already have.  I increasingly want to go back to the era I grew up in, when people were championing things like "writing as discovery".  In any case, I am against any curriculum shift that is defended by saying that in ten years our students will be called upon to write market analyses, and I think our students give a shit how they feel, so their teachers should care, too.

6) The sixth shift the Coleman says the Common Core Standards make is toward more explicit vocabulary instruction.  I have spent some time trying to discern the value of explicit vocabulary instruction, and I'm going to devote a long post to it one of these weeks, but I am sure that spending a lot of class time on vocabulary will do nothing to increase the volume of our students' actual reading.  If anything, explicit vocabulary instruction takes time in class when kids could be reading.

This is a longer post than I had intended.  The long and short of it is: thumbs down to Coleman and the Common Core.  For Leafstrewn, probably nothing will change, but for the country as a whole, this man's ascendance is just another depressing aspect of the corporatization of public education.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Is Explicit Instruction Valuable? (or: What Is English Class Even For?)

Last week I wrote that some our students perceive reading to be a negligible distraction from the real "work" of English class.  This week I meant to write about how our weakest, most vulnerable students, those who most need to improve their literacy skills, may manage to get through the schoolyear without reading even a single book.  But just now that seems too depressing and repetitive; so I'll save that interesting topic for another week.  Instead, I want to tell a story about one of the best readers and writers I've ever taught.

A few years ago, one of my best students was a a senior I'll call Sarah.  Sarah had never before gone to school; her mother had homeschooled her from the very beginning.  When her mother died of cancer, her father enrolled Sarah and her younger brother in Leafstrewn High.  Sarah was a remarkable student and an excellent writer.  For her senior project, she read Anna Karenina and War and Peace, and she wrote a wonderful paper about Tolstoy's prose style.  For me, Sarah's success called into question the value of much of our English curriculum, and highlighted the significant differences between English and, say, math.

I was interested in homeschooling (my wife and I were eventually to homeschool our son for a year), and I asked Sarah about what her homeschooling had been like.  She said the biggest difference was how amazingly inefficient regular school was.  There was SO much class time, and so little of the class time felt useful to any individual person.  At home, she had been able to go at her own pace, and because she could accomplish in a few hours what took all day at school, there was a lot of time to sit around drinking tea and reading books.

When I asked her more specifically about her "curriculum", I was interested to learn that what she had done in the way of English was mainly just that: sitting around drinking tea and reading books.  There was very little writing of papers, and, as she told it, virtually no "explicit instruction" in reading skills and strategies, in vocabulary, or in paragraphing, structuring an argument, creating a thesis or handling textual evidence.  Her mother would read the books with her, and they would talk about them, and every once in a while her mother would have them write something about the books, but there was, again, little to no formal instruction.

This is interesting to me, seeming to call into question many of my daily practices.  That Sarah could be one of my two best students that year, that she could mark up a text, make intelligent inferences, create a thesis, structure an argument, and use sophisticated vocabulary, all without ever having been explicitly taught these things, makes me wonder whether my own English classes are using their time as effectively as they could, and makes me wonder, in particular, whether explicit instruction in English is valuable at all.  Sometimes I even wonder if, with our higher-skilled students especially, we English teachers are making more withdrawals than deposits from our students' cultural capital.  Most of my honors-level students say they read more over the summer than during the year.

Another thing Sarah's story points up is the difference between English and other disciplines. Sarah's experience in math and science was distinctly different from her experience in English class.  In math and science, she was in the top classes, but she was not one of the best students in the school.  Also, her homeschooling experience in math and science had been different.  It's hard to imagine what  would be analogous, for math, to just, for English, sitting around drinking tea and reading books. She certainly had not just sat around drinking tea and reading math textbooks, or drinking tea and counting things, or drinking tea and playing with a calculator.

Math and Science are distinctly different from English.  I daresay math cannot be learned without explicit instruction, while in English, as Sarah's success showed, explicit instruction can be unnecessary.  This is perhaps why, at Leafstrewn High as at other schools, the English curriculum is far less clearly structured, far less clearly sequential from one year to the next, and in some ways perhaps less necessary.  My own elementary school kids are being taught many of the same skills that I am trying to teach my high school students.  The common core standards in English are often pretty similar from one year to the next.  If a student misses a year of English, she can move right into the next year without much trouble.

What particular elements of our English curriculum, cannot potentially be learned from pleasure reading alone, or from reading, friendly discussion, and a modicum of writing?  What needs to be taught, or at least consciously learned?  I can think of at least four things, none of which make up the bulk of my instructional time:

1. Grammar (Sarah might have had no idea what a preposition was.  On the other hand, as Wittgenstein wrote somewhere: --Do they understand the game?  --Well, they play it.)
2. The historical progression of, say, American Literature
3. Schools of critical thought
4. Literary and poetic terms

But these parts of our curriculum are not what we spend most of our time on.  Instead, we spend time teaching students vocabulary, or teaching them to "weave in" quotations or sandwich them in buns of introduction and explanation.  We teach arguable theses, topic sentences, logical arguments.  And almost all of it is regarding books that we, not the students, have chosen.

Much of what we do is useful, and certainly much better than having the kids watch TV or hang out on the street.  But I wonder whether, as MisterFischer suggested last week, we might get just as much if not more mileage out of just having fun with reading and writing--giving them time to read, letting them read what they want, and having them write what interests them, not us.

Some might say that the picture I've offered of Sarah's homeschooling leaves out certain key elements--most importantly, other people, whether her mother or her fellow homeschoolers, with whom she may have had some interaction.  But my point is that Sarah spent most of her time reading, and the rest of the time discussing (with perhaps a very little bit of writing), and virtually no time on what we all spend explicit instruction on nearly every day.  It wasn't just Sarah; my son was in a homeschooling reading group, and all they did was read the book aloud together--actually, the teacher, a mom, read it to them--and then, for about ten percent of the time, discuss it.  His reading grew more that year than other years, just as it has always developed more over the summers than over the schoolyear.

What do we gain from teaching the way we do?  Would our students develop just as quickly, if not more so, if we just read, discussed, and wrote?  Is explicit instruction valuable?  What do you think?

Friday, May 4, 2012

"This is the work; that was just reading"

I'm a high school English teacher in a town I'll call Leafstrewn.  For a while now I've been considering keeping a blog, as a way to clarify some of my own thinking about reading and school. Today I had an interaction with a student at my school that provided a neat little introduction to what I'm worried about, so I decided to start blogging today, and not next week. Here's the story:

Once a week I help out in our school's "Tutorial" program, which offers in-school academic support for students who need it.  I sat down to help a student with his English homework.  His class was reading a novel; this assignment was to read a chapter and then to write a journal entry about a particular aspect of the chapter.

"So," I said to the kid, "did you actually read the chapter?"

“Well," the kid said, with a wry smile, "that’s a completely different issue." 

"What do you mean?" I said.

"This is the work," he said, pointing to the journal. "That was just reading.”

Struck by his words, I asked if I could write them down.  "This is the work. That was just reading."  To this student, reading is not seen as legitimate homework, not seen as homework that has to be done.  No doubt the teacher doesn't see it this way, but the student is far from alone.  Many, many other students seem to feel the same way.

I've been working in this tutorial, which has ten students, all year; only a few times have I seen a student actually reading, and that was almost always because I, the reading specialist, was in the room.  The students in this tutorial seem to like me, but they have not been eager to read with me, and I think it's because they see the reading as a waste of their time.  They must produce the journal entry, or the answers to the reading questions, because those they have to hand in, but in order to produce those you certainly do not need to read the chapter itself.  Or kids are learning to produce pieces of paper, but I'm not sure they're learning to read better.

This fact that many students are not actually reading the assigned reading, or not doing any reading at all, has come to seem more and more like the most important challenge we English teachers face.  If my students don't do the reading, much of my work is simply farcical.  I'm pretending to teach kids who are pretending to learn, but in fact we only meet on a plane of pretense and illusion.  And even more important, perhaps, than whether our classes are absurdist farces is the fact that if our most needy students are not reading at all--and I think that for ten to twenty percent of our students this is more or less the case--then they are probably not going to get much better at reading or writing.

I'm not sure what the solution is, but I know we need to find one.  Increasingly we are asking our students to journal, or answer questions; last year William Broz published an article in English Journal about the problem in which he suggested that journaling was the answer.  I myself, despite my reservations, have been asking my students to comment on a class blog.  The problem is that then the blog comment or the journaling becomes "the work", and the reading is, well, "just reading."

To finish my story: I asked the student to explain, and I reached over to my computer to write down what he said.

“As long as you can find a few words that are related to your assignment," he said, enjoying the attention, "then it’s all good, especially if its interpretive, cause then you can interpret it in any way you want.  You can make it about cheeseburgers, and the teacher can tell you you’re wrong."  It took me another few seconds to finish typing, and when I reached the end he said,  "Now put a smiley face.”  So I did.


My anecdote should really end there, with the cheery emoticon (ironicon?) but I feel I should add that despite the kid's cheeriness about his M.O., I did suggest that the reading was the work, too (feeling, with the "too," like both Gatsby and Daisy at once), and that reading was worth his while. 

I'm not sure I convinced him.