Monday, June 24, 2013

Results of a survey on independent reading

I asked one of my ninth grade classes to write my a quick note about how independent reading went for them this year. I asked specifically about how they felt about independent reading, how it had changed, if at all, over the course of the year, and what they foresaw for the future. A few kids were absent; I got thirteen responses.  Two were weakly positive; two were strongly negative, and nine were strongly positive.

I expected to get more responses like the two that were weakly positive, saying that reading "wasn't bad" but not granting that it was actually good.  Instead, most students seemed pretty enthusiastic.  Maybe they were just saying what I was obviously hoping they would say, but I like to think they were really pretty happy to get an English class that gave them a lot of time and encouragement to read what they were interested in.  The strongly negative responses were perhaps the most interesting.  One of the kids read quite a bit (a couple dozen books), and the other read very little (four or five books).  But both predict they will never read voluntarily.  This is probably true.  The tone of these comments is a bit defiant ("Reading didn't actually change my year in any way whatsoever"; "independent reading this year sucked.  I hated it."), but I think they were pleased to get a chance to vent their feelings about having to do something every day that they feel they're really bad at.

In the end, I think the independent reading was a good idea.  I have some ideas about how to change it in the future, but I still think this is a direction we should all be taking.

Here are the responses, unedited except for redacting the name of one elementary school.

Weakly positive:

  • It wasn't bad.  I liked it better than class work.  If the book was good, I liked it.  It got better over the year.  I'll probably read more.
  • I think that the independent reading this year wasn't that bad.  It helped me read a lot, which increased my vocabulary.  I have read more this year than last year.
Strongly negative:
  • My independent reading has greatly increased.  I still don't like reading, but if I have to then I will.  Reading didn't actually change my year in any way whatsoever.  I most likely will never read again unless I have to.
  • I thought the independent reading this year sucked.  I hated it.  I never liked to read, and I never will.  the only time I would like to read is if I find a book that I actually like that doesn't happen often.  I Hate independent reading and I think you shouldn't do it next year.
Strongly positive:
  • My independent reading got a lot better for me this year as far as how much reading i did.  Because of the amount of reading we did this year i will continue to read a lot and enjoy reading.
  • I really started to like reading again.  This really going to help me in the future because I want to actually pick up a book and read compared to last year when I would spark note everything.
  • By reading a lot this year, it made me read more books that I really liked.  I also read a lot at home.  I definatly became a better reader and really enjoyed the unit. I think that I will read a lot this summer and next year.  I haven't read more in my life than I did this year.
  • Independent reading this year was at least for me an improvement over the past couple of years. At __________ our teachers never forced us to read that much because we would always be reading a book as a class.  The only problem was I didn't read that much compared to the others in our class.  I would like to keep improving on the amount that I read because my family do so much of it.  This was still a very good year for me even if it may not look like much it's probably the most that I've ever read in my entire life.
  • I liked independent reading a lot more than assigned reading. It gave me an option to find a book I liked rather than a boring book. I didn't read many books over the course of the year, But I read more than I did last year. I would like to read more in the future.
  • I thought that the independent reading this year was a great idea.  I hate reading as a class because I read slower so I have trouble staying up to date.  It has made me more enthusiastic about reading.  I think I will definately do more independent reading this summer.  At first I wasn't thrilled with the idea of reading on my own but as the year progressed I began to enjoy it.  Thank you for encouraging me to read more and thus making me enjoy it more. Definately do this next year.
  • Independent reading this year has helped me advance to a faster reader.  I've read 3 books the whole way through this year, and I haven't done that before.  I've challenged myself with more challenging books this year and I've also figured out what genre I'm most interested in.
  • Independent reading really opened my eyes to reading more.  Some books I really liked and some books I hated.  Independent reading in class really improved my reading skills.  I think you should continue to allow your students to do independent reading.
  • I thought independent reading was great for me.  Whenever I have to read, I really feel like I am reading for myself.  Reading did change for me.  I have developed my interest and skills in reading. In the future, reading will be closer to my fashion.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

NOLA schools "improvement": Ed Reform is likely less important than time, funding and demographics

The NYT has a post up about Ed reform in New Orleans that's getting a lot of attention.  The post basically says that ed reform is helping lift student achievement but may be hurting communities in other ways.  The part about hurting communities is interesting, but the part that attributes increasing student achievement to Ed Reform seems dubious to me.

Bruce Baker of Rutgers (and schoolfinance101) has been pointing out for years that all charter successes are completely explicable by looking at two factors: (a) increased spending and in-school time (as at HCZ etc.); (b) different populations.  If you spend more money and time on a school, and if your student population has fewer poor, ELL or special ed students, then your test scores will be higher.  Baker has repeatedly shown that highly touted charters are actually spending more money and/or enrolling more advantaged populations.

The New Orleans schools have both increased spending (as the NYT article mentions but passes over quickly) and a distinctly different population (as the article does not mention at all, as far as I could see.)  This second point is important. The population of New Orleans is distinctly different post-Katrina (as the NYT reported).  It is smaller overall, it is more white and less black, and it is less poor.

My guess is that these factors are easily enough to explain the higher test scores.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Waldorf Schools are an interesting natural experiment showing that explicit reading instruction in the very early grades may be unnecessary

We have some family friends whose kids used to go to a (private) Waldorf school nearby.  The kids were wonderful, but I didn't know much about the school or its methods.  A few days ago, when I was saying something about whether children needed to read "informational text" in the very early grades, my wife said, "That's silly. Waldorf schools don't teach ANY reading until second grade, and those kids end up just fine."

I looked this up, and, as usual, my wife was right: Waldorf schools generally don't teach reading until second grade, use a whole language approach and avoid much explicit strategy instruction when they do teach it, and their students apparently end up reading just fine.  This is an important result, because it would seem to show that explicit reading instruction in Kindergarten and first grade may not be necessary, and that students certainly don't need to read much informational text to themselves in kindergarten and first grade in order to learn to read well later on.

Recent Studies
Until recently, most Waldorf schools were private, so skeptics could argue that if Waldorf students ended up being good readers, the students and families at those schools were distinctly different from the norm, so no comparison was possible.  Over the past couple of decades, however, a number of public Waldorf schools have opened, most of them in California, and two recent studies in the U.S.(Oberman 2007(pdf); Larrison et al. 2012) compare the results at these schools with those at traditional schools with comparable student demographics. The two studies find the same result: when it comes to reading on their own, students in the early grades in Waldorf schools are dramatically worse than their peers in regular schools, but by the later grades, the Waldorf students have caught up or surpassed the regular-school students.

The graphic below shows some of the results obtained in the 2012 study. The scores of the Waldorf students start well below average, then catch up by fourth grade, then seem to pull ahead.

These results are striking. When the same researchers looked only at the California Waldorf schools, so as to avoid issues with cross-state comparisons, the same pattern was seen, though with less dramatic divergence in the upper grades. When Oberman did a similar comparison on a more limited scale and with data from two years earlier, she found a somewhat similar pattern--Waldorf students starting out behind and catching up, if not pulling ahead.  A New Zealand study comes to the same conclusion: Waldorf students do badly on reading tests when they are 6 and 7, but by the time they are entering adolescence, they have caught up or even pulled ahead.

Now, of course the students and families at these schools are self-selecting, and of course there may be other ways to explain away these results, and of course this is not a very large body of scholarly literature.  Nevertheless, I can't find any studies that contradict these three, and these results are consistent with thinking that what is important is not explicit instruction in discrete reading skills, and not reading a minimum proportion of informational text--but, instead, developing students minds by engaging their imaginations, creating a culture of engaged intellectual inquiry, doing lots of reading stories aloud and having them sing songs and repeat poems.

So these studies aren't definitive, but they are enough to call into further doubt the blithe assurances of people like Tim Shanahan and David Coleman that their preferred approach is consistent with the available empirical evidence.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Summer Reading Redux

I've been so busy that I haven't followed up on some stuff I posted about a long time ago and meant to come back to.  Here's a quick follow-up on one thing.

A few months ago I wrote about being on a summer reading committee, and about my cousin's seder-table diatribe against summer reading programs in which everyone reads the same book.  After that post, a few emails, and a discussion in our department meeting, I somehow ended up on a committee of two--me and a wise librarian--charged with creating a summer reading program based on (mirabile dictu) student choice.

So we made up a suggested reading list and wrote up a simple plan for students to recommend books to one other in English class this spring, read books of their own choosing over the summer (they must read at least three books) and then report back on their reading in the fall.  I'm a little worried that some of my colleagues will be pressed for time and won't bother to do the activity; I'm a little concerned that we haven't tried to provide kids with books; and I wish we had had more time to make sure everyone was on board--but at least in principle we now, at least for this year, have a summer reading program that is entirely based on students' choosing their own books.


When shown that there's no solid evidence for their side, literacy gurus demand evidence for the other

Over the past month or so, Tim Shanahan and I have been having an interesting discussion in the comments section to one of his blog posts.  I've been pleased that he's taking the time to respond thoughtfully, but he's not convincing me.  I'm writing this post, even more than some others, to clarify my own thinking--apologies for getting too much into the boring weeds here.

Initially I asked for evidence that reading more informational text led to better comprehension of such text. He said there was lots of evidence, I asked for specifics, and he finally admitted, after a few back-and-forths, that "You are correct that there is no study showing that increasing the amount of the reading of informational text has had a clear positive unambiguous impact on reading achievement or student knowledge. "

Shanahan did not, however, address why he had written in his blog post:CCSS is emphasizing the reading of literary and informational text to ensure that students are proficient with a wide variety of text. Nor did he address why, when I asked for evidence that reading more information text led to greater proficiency with informational text, he responded by saying "Actually there is quite a bit of research showing that if you want students to be able to read expository text, you have to have them read (or write) expository text."

Instead of explaining why he had made incorrect statements about the evidence for reading informational text, Shanahan asked me to show the evidence for reading literary text.  He doesn't seem to get it: my whole point is that there is not strong evidence either way, and it is dishonest to pretend that there is.  He, and many other scholars who engage in education discourse aimed at teachers and the general public, are continually pretending that there is strong scientific evidence for their pet curriculum ideas. Very often there is no such evidence.

When I suggested that a lot of "evidence-based" educational policies are not founded on particularly strong evidence, Shanahan made an interesting move: he essentially said that I was demanding too much.  As he put it, "the basic problem here is with your understanding of research and how causal claims are put forward." He said that what he and others do is to look at some available evidence and come up with a "logic model" that fits the facts.  Not all research is done, because some questions, like " Is third grade really necessary?", are not going to be studied.

So he seems to think if you have a story that is not inconsistent with some emprirically established facts, then apparently you have the right to say that "there is quite a bit of research showing" that your story is true.

Maybe.  But it seems to me that if there is debate about a question, like the question of whether it is worthwhile to make young children read more informational text, then if you say there is "quite a bit of research showing" that your side of the debate is true, you have to have evidence that is not only consistent with your side of the debate but also inconsistent with the other side.

And it's not like we couldn't do some studies!  Nell Duke, a prominent proponent of more informational text in the early grades, has gotten millions of dollars in grant money and has spent over a decade studying the issue of how much informational text children "are exposed to" in school.  Couldn't she have taken some of that large amount of time and money and done a controlled experiment?  Surely some district would have been happy to have a huge library of informational text provided to half of their K-4 schools, so that Duke could check whether students at those schools would actually do better, a few years down the line, at understanding informational texts?  But she didn't do it, and Shanahan didn't do it, and now Shanahan is implicitly suggesting that such research would be as silly as a controlled experiment in which we got rid of third grade.

I'm still trying to figure out what I think about "research-based" arguments.  I guess my position now is: research can be useful and informative, but it is only rarely, to use a legal term that has been cropping up a lot lately, dispositive; and we should have a lot more of it before we take the kind of authoritative tone that Tim Shanahan and a lot of educational experts take when they are writing for a popular audience.  In their scholarly papers, and when pressed in debate, these experts are circumspect and honest about the limitations of their certainty; I'd like to see more of that circumspection in the advice given to us teachers and to the public.

Monday, June 10, 2013

NYT sees no evil in ability grouping; but I wonder if it enables boring curriculum

According to a piece in yesterday's New York Times, ability grouping in elementary school is seeing a resurgence.  The article gives very short shrift to the potential problems with tracking, so it might be worth pointing them out. In general, kids in higher groups like tracking; those in lower groups don't, so most of the problems with ability-grouping are obvious Matthew-effect issues: kids in lower-level groups might feel ghettoized; kids in lower-level groups might learn less. But there's one problem that is less obvious, and that affects students at all levels: tracking may allow teachers to get away more easily with less-interesting curriculum that they might otherwise have to rethink.

The Times article describes one teacher's practice:

Ms. Vail teaches the same lesson, whether it is a math concept or a book, to the entire class, but gives each group a different assignment. Working on each week’s set of new vocabulary words, all four groups draw illustrations and write captions using the assigned words, but she encourages team C, her highest-achieving group, to write more complex sentences, perhaps using two new vocabulary words in the same sentence. She also asks children in team C to peer-teach students in the other groups.
“At the end of the day, they’re learning the same words, but just with different levels of complexity and nuance,” she said.
When she moves students to new groups, she tells them it is because she can best help them there, and she believes they see the grouping positively, she said.
“It has to be done properly — you can’t make a kid feel small because they’re in group A,” her lowest-achieving group, she said. “If you don’t have a stigma attached to the group, then I don’t see the problem.
The teacher doesn't see any problems here ; I see three:
  1. There is probably, despite the teacher's assurances, still a stigma attached to the lower groups.  How can she really know?  And how can she know what the long-term effect of always being in the lower group might be for some kids? It could be pretty harmful, and she would have no idea.
  2. Even if there were really no stigma, there might be harm done to the lower-level kids if they aren't exposed to the more interesting work done by the higher-level kids.
  3. Vocabulary study may well be largely pointless, so there is a large potential opportunity cost here: the kids could be reading instead of doing vocab work.  This is especially important for the kids in the lower groups, who are much more likely to essentially never read.
This last point may seem the least germane to the debate, but is actually potentially very important. Ms. Vail's vocabulary lesson strikes me as pretty tedious, but by adapting it to different levels, she makes the boring lesson workable. Tracking, then, may enable boring curriculum, by allowing its weaknesses to be masked by some made-to-measure tailoring. To offer another example: a curriculum that mimics a standardized test won't work with a heterogeneous group, because the test questions will be too hard for the less able students and too easy for the highly skilled.

My theory is that to make heterogeneous classes work well, you need to do more interesting curriculum. The more meaningful the activity, the more it will allow students of different abilities to engage with it in their own ways. An open-ended discussion can be joined in by students of all abilities, and a mini-lesson on Modernist poetry may be appreciated by everyone as well. If you really want to do vocabulary, why not have every kid write something meaningful (a story, a book review, an argument) using the words? That way each kid could write at his or her own level, and stories tend to be less boring than isolated sentences. If you want kids to push themselves, ask all kids to write the piece using and reusing as many words as possible, or offer variations adapted to the meaningful assignment.  In any case, the more the assignment fits into a larger purpose, the better: instead of isolated sentences, have students use the vocab words in the book reviews they are writing of their independent reading books after having read a bunch of book reviews pulled from a variety of publications, with the eventual goal of putting together a class magazine modeled after the London Review of Books--or whatever.  The point is, meaningful tasks can almost always be done at a wide range of levels; meaningless tasks depend on teacher-created difficulty levels, and if you don't have those levels the meaninglessness is perhaps more exposed.

So though I don't actually know if tracking is always a bad idea (though I'm sympathetic to Jennie Oakes's arguments), I think as a general rule we should have whole-class lessons that aren't tracked, have individual work that is appropriate for the individual kid, and have group projects that are mixed-ability.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

If disruptive innovation is so great, how come the elite eat artisanal bread and cheese, drink artisanal wine and send their kids to artisanal schools?

Disruptive Innovation has been a big buzzword in business and tech circles for nearly two decades now, but it's only recently that people have started trying to apply it to education.  The basic idea is that in any industry, the established players are focused on incremental improvements, and that big changes only happen when new producers enter the arena, usually with a shoddier but cheaper product that they sell to a new, untapped market.  As I've written, this paradigm doesn't fit K-12 education very well, since there wouldn't seem to be a large untapped market available, and the market is fairly closed to new producers--but one way of seeing the Ed Reform movement is as an effort to open up the market, especially at the low end.

In a previous post, I argued that, seen in the light of disruptive innovation, ed reform was mainly about  serving poor kids with shoddier products that cost less money. In this post, I discuss the flip side of disruptive innovation: the way in which our era, which has been famously amenable to disruptive innovation, is also quite amenable to its opposite: conservative, traditional artisanal products.  These traditional artisanal products are not, however, aimed at the mass market, but at the high end.

The other problem with disruptive innovation: it's often not as good!
"Disruptive innovation" is discussed so much in the media that people tend to forget about the flip side of the shoddier/cheaper dynamic.  In recent decades, a lot of people have also done very well by making things somewhat less cheaply but also of dramatically higher quality. You might call this "artisanal non-innovation."  Especially among the elites in our society, and especially over the past few decades, as the rich have gotten richer and the wages of the bottom half have stagnated or fallen, there has been a movement back toward ultra-high-quality traditional products.  This has been true in education as well, and there is no reason to think this trend won't continue.

Artisanal non-innovation
Artisanal non-innovation means going against the grain of our mass market economy and, inspired by a tradition and learning from its masters, trying to do things the old-fashioned way and do them really, really well.  Artisanal non-innovation has been a fine business model both for those who don't need to grow (often family businesses, like Limmer boots)--and for those who do want to grow (Starbucks, for example).

Artisanal schools
Even as the powers that be promote "disruptive innovation" in education, nattering on about Baumol's disease and productivity, they are, of course, choosing artisanal schools for their own children. In New York City, private schools that used to be considered third-tier, schools that anyone with tuition could get into, are now seen as elite, and some of the elite schools are doing away with testing altogether. If they have to do test prep, they'll do it the old fashioned, artisanal way and get a tutor.

So it seems likely that what is coming in education, as in other areas, is a bifurcated America, in which the masses get sold lots of crappy test-prep products, and the elites, who cheerlead the crappiness of the crappy test-prep regime by calling it "disruptive innovation," will be choosing for their own children education that is ever more artisanal.

Other kinds of disruption
In other words, we public school teachers, parents and children will have this...

...and the elites will have this...

...until, perhaps, we get the more political kind of disruptive innovation that we haven't seen in this country for 80 years or so...

Friday, June 7, 2013

In education, "Disruptive Innovation" means new, worse schools

A couple of years ago Clayton Christensen, a professor at the Harvard Business School and the high priest of "disruptive innovation," was eagerly anticipating the rise of disruption in K-12 education, even suggesting that by 2019 "half of all classes for grades K-12 will be taught online." A more modest new white paper from Christensen's institute scales back these ambitious predictions, suggesting instead that what's coming is "hybrid" or "blended" innovation, in which novel methods will combine with elements of the old regime.  

Perhaps it's a good thing that the Christensen institute is realizing that traditional schools have more staying power than previously suspected. Still, the new paper is an occasion to reconsider the whole idea of "disruptive innovation." After looking into it a bit, I think that if Christensen's first idea was a bit extreme, his basic idea is partly right: we are getting disruption in our schools--but in a bad way, not a good way.

What is "disruptive innovation"?
The basic idea behind "disruptive innovation" is that the status quo is upended by doing something (making cars or steel, providing music or movies, etc.) somewhat more shoddily but also dramatically more cheaply or conveniently.  Clayton Christensen has made a career out of describing and glorifying this process, and it may be a useful way to think about a lot of things: the rise of the Japanese car-makers, for example, or of Netflix's streaming video business.  Christensen, and many others, have predicted that the education status quo will soon be upended by disruptive innovation, usually imagined as some form of online learning.  This may eventually happen, but there are some significant barriers to it, especially at the K-12 level.

Why disruptive innovation won't come naturally to K-12 education
Every year my alma mater's alumni magazine, which fancies itself a major force in journalism, publishes a list of 50 "disruptive companies"; this year, for the first time, an education company made the list.  Predictably, the company was Coursera, which provides free online college courses, and not a company involved in K-12 education, which is particularly resistant to change.

Disruptive innovation typically requires one or both of the following: (1) low-end consumers; (2) new producers who are doing things differently.  First, there has to be a market for the crappier product.  Often the untapped market is in a niche where the crappier product is more convenient, like cell-phone cameras, or where the old product was exclusively expensive, as when personal computers displaced mainframes.  In education, it is very clear that colleges and universities are ripe for disruptive innovation, since colleges are getting so expensive (to be sure, some of this is happening because states are defunding their own public universities).  As for the second requirement, producers who are doing things differently, higher ed. has always had a fair amount of "churn," or Schumpeterian creative destruction, and there are naturally, then, lots of groups working on doing things differently: Coursera, EdX, etc. But K-12 education is fairly different from higher ed, and is less naturally open to disruptive innovation.  K-12 education has not seen the same skyrocketing prices, it has a stable and in some sense captive consumer base, and doesn't have a significant sector of alternative producers to serve the (non-existent) low-end market.

It's interesting that K-12 education costs have been fairly stable. Despite Baumol's cost disease, which is supposed to lead things (like teachers) that are not amenable to technology improvements to become more expensive over time, teacher salaries have been pretty much flat since the early seventies; moreover, the cost of K-12 education has not, unlike that of higher ed or health care, increased as a share of GDP.  So the low-end market that is required for disruptive education is nonexistent; to create it will require political action. Another thing that would be required is a significant sector of producers who are doing things differently.  And in K-12 education, the only producers who are doing things differently are private operations (open schools like Sudbury Valley, homeschool operations like Calvert, etc.). In the traditional system, these private schools do not have access to the low-end market, which has been limited to public schools.

It's possible, then, to see Ed reform as a movement that is attempting to create the conditions for disruptive innovation by (1) creating a low-end market and (2) encouraging a new education sector that is, in Christensen's words, "remote from the mainstream."  Ed Reform is creating a low-end market by starving districts of funding, partly by channeling funds to charters; and this heavy support of charter schools and vouchers, etc., it aims both to increase the number of education providers who are doing things differently and to allow them access to the low-end market.

In other words, in education disruptive innovation may mean a race to the bottom for our poorest kids, even as the rich go to ever-more artisanal schools
The reformers want to open up the education market to low-cost producers.  This is a strategy that has not worked in any other country, and if the history of the free market in other products is any guide, even at its best we will end up with the poorest and most vulnerable children in our society being almost completely cut out.

The rich and powerful, on the other hand, will probably not send their kids to disruptively innovative schools.  Because when it comes to services and human experiences (food, coaching, nature experiences, opera, education, etc.), the rich and powerful very rarely use the products of disruptive innovation.  Rich people don't get take-out via their smartphones; they hire a personal chef.  For rich people, the trend is not toward disruptive innovation, but toward artisanal non-innovation, and the same will probably be continue to be true of schools for the rich.  More on that in another post.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Why is To Kill a Mockingbird so difficult?

Kids don't read it because it's difficult--but why is it difficult?
To Kill a Mockingbird is the very text that William Broz used as his prime example in his article, "Not Reading: The 800-pound Mockingbird in the classroom."  Broz argues that most students who are assigned the book don't actually read it.  Broz doesn't mention the text's difficulty in his article, but I wonder if his students--and many others--aren't reading it not only for the obvious reasons (have other priorities; think they can get away with not reading; don't like reading, period; want to read other stuff; etc.), but also because the book is so difficult. I certainly find that the book is too hard for at least half of my ninth graders. But why?  The difficulty is not captured in the book's lexile score, which is about the same as The Fault in Our Stars, but students don't seem to have trouble reading the John Green book.  On the contrary, they gobble it up at astonishing rates.  What, then, makes Mockingbird so difficult?

It's not the vocabulary, sentence structure, or background knowledge
Mockingbird's difficulty is not because of its vocabulary, though that is not easy.  (Any book that uses "seldom", "assuaged"," apothecary", "Methodist", "strictures", "chattels", "piety", "stinginess", "Cornwall", "sustain", "impotent", "apparel", "dictum", "persecution", "Battle of Hastings", "read law" and "taciturn" in the first two pages is pretty difficult, but The Fault in Our Stars manages to use sophisticated vocabulary and still be accessible.)

It's not the sentence structure or the background knowledge that's required, although again, many young readers will be put off by a book whose second page contains the sentence "Mindful of John Wesley's strictures on the use of many words in buying and selling, Simon made a pile practicing medicine, but in this pursuit he was unhappy lest he be tempted into doing what he knew was not for the glory of God, as the putting on of gold and costly apparel."  

Instead, what makes Mockingbird so difficult is the jumps in time, continuity and logic. Nearly every paragraph requires the reader to make an inference or catch a subtle subtext--and to make these inferences not only so as to appreciate shadings of meaning, but just to follow the basic events of the story.

A sample chapter (seven types of ambiguity!) Chapter 25, which I read out loud to my classes last Friday, is a case in point.  The chapter has a series of very confusing time-shifts, and neglects to mention some key information.  I go through the confusing sequence below, but the specifics aren't so important--what matters is that there are at least seven separate times in the first half of the chapter in which the main plot information is unspoken and needs to be inferred.

1. The chapter starts in medias res, with Jem telling Scout to put "him" out on the back steps.  We don't know what or who is to be put out. A few lines later we learn that it's a "small creature," and that Scout does put him out, scooping him up, putting him on the bottom step, and going back to her cot.

2. Then, after a bit of scene-setting (it's September, they're still sleeping on the porch, etc.), we hear that a "roly-poly" is in the house.  It might occur to us to wonder if this is the creature Scout put out on the back steps, but we wonder, if so, what the thing is doing back inside.  

3. Putting down her book, Scout watches the roly-poly for a while, and then, feeling sleepy, she "decided to end things."  (Not all of my students realized that she was going to kill the bug.)  

4. Scout says, "My hand was going down on him when Jem spoke."  The next paragraph begins, "Jem was scowling.  It was part of the stage he was going through"...  Again we are thrown off balance: Jem "spoke," but what did he say?  We aren't told; we are supposed to remember the first line of the chapter, which was, "Don't do that, Scout. Set him out on the back steps."  But the narration goes on, not mentioning anything about Scout's scooping him up and putting him on the back steps, so we're not really sure.

5. Over the next few paragraphs Scout lies on her cot thinking about things, and soon, she says, she is "wide awake, remembering what Dill had told me."  What had Dill told her, we wonder; are we supposed to know?  

6. She goes on to describe a time Dill and Jem were walking back from swimming at the local swimming hole and get picked up in the car by Atticus and Calpurnia, who are headed to Tom Robinson's house.  Now, if we remember the previous chapter we may wonder if this is the time, the previous month, when Atticus and Calpurnia go out to tell Tom's wife that he has been shot, but we certainly are never told this straight out, and at least half of my students had no idea that this was the particular day that Scout is remembering.

7. Those students would have been confused, then, when Helen Robinson ("Who's Helen?" one of my students called out as I was reading) suddenly collapses just before she reaches Atticus.  Not only has Atticus not told Helen that her husband is dead, Harper Lee hasn't told us that Helen is collapsing because she sees the truth in Atticus's face--nor even that Atticus is there to deliver the news.

Conclusion: maybe we shouldn't assign it so widely?
To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful, intricately constructed novel, but it is often needlessly obscure, and I sympathize with those of my students who say they would never want to read it to themselves.  My 13-year old son was given the book a few years ago by his grandparents, and it has sat unread on his shelf to this day. In short, I think we should reconsider assigning it as widely as we do.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The most exciting literacy scholarship being written today

For me, the most exciting literacy scholarship being written today is by a Rutgers professor named Chantal Francois.  Her work documents an amazing urban school that has devoted itself to creating a humane culture of reading, a culture in which reading is valued, in which books are everywhere, in which teachers know students' individual interests, in which the Principal leads by example, and in which students' reading skills increase dramatically.

Francois's most recent article, "Reading in the Crawl Space," has just come out in the Teachers College Record.  It is a vision of where we should be going, a vision of a school that offers everyone what Scout and Jem got at their reading father's knee, a vision of a school that would lead us all, not only to the Common Core's "college and career readiness," but to happier, healthier, more moral lives. Everyone who cares about education should read Francois's work.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Newsflash: famously bad teacher who read aloud to students turns out to be famously good teacher!

Many years ago in Leafstrewn, there was an English teacher who was also the basketball coach.  This teacher liked to read aloud to his classes.  For years I have heard stories from some of the old-timers in my department, including some very close to me, about how this guy would sometimes spend the whole year reading A Tale of Two Cities aloud to his ninth grade class.  It was always implied that this was terrible teaching. If I said I was trying some reading aloud, they might say, Well, at least you're not doing what the Basketball Coach did, and reading A Tale of Two Cities aloud for an entire year!  Snooze-a-rama! What a bad teacher!

Today, some other colleagues and I were having lunch, and someone mentioned reading aloud.  My friend Robert said that his partner, Kate, who attended Leafstrewn back in the day, had never had an English class as important to her as the one in which the teacher just read aloud the whole year.

I said, "You mean the Basketball Coach?! Kate had him?!"

Robert said that yes, Kate had had him, and he had indeed read A Tale of Two Cities aloud to his class the entire year--and it had been great.  That year, he said, Kate was new to Leafstrewn, having come from a little private elementary school, and she knew nobody and was miserable.  She had been put into the Basketball Coach's low-level English class, and every day little Kate and the twenty other students in the class (all hulking basketball players, in Robert's telling) would come in, open up their Dickens, and listen to the coach read aloud.  With ten minutes left in the period, he would stop, and they would discuss what he had read.  According to Robert, this class sustained Kate--she loved the book, she liked the discussions, she got to know the basketball players--for many painful months, until she was able to make friends. She still thinks of it as one of the best English classes she ever had--and she graduated, as an English major, magna cum laude from Cornell.

So, the famously bad teacher is also a famously good teacher, and the distinction between natural and unnatural is again unclear. My own takeaway is this: if, as per the Common Core, we want to get kids reading more complex texts, maybe we should be reading aloud more? If we do it for our own children, why not for our students?