October 26, 2006

By the book, with not-so-great expectations

Last week JoVE and I had an off-blog discussion about great teachers of the institutional variety, and the general consensus was that the hallmark of a great teacher is a love for children, along with a deep and abiding belief in children's abilities. And then a few days later I read the thoughtful posts by Kelly at Big A little a and Monica Edinger at educating alice (don't miss the comments sections, either) about this Washington Post article, "Assigned Books Often Are a Few Sizes Too Big", on the latest from the reading experts. Post writer Valerie Strauss starts off,
If adults liked to read books that were exceedingly difficult, they'd all be reading Proust.

Most don't.

So why, reading experts ask, do schools expect children to read -- and love to read -- when they are given material that is frequently too hard for them?
Well, some adults do like to read exceedingly difficult books, or rather -- and more to the point -- challenging books, ones that make them think. Those who can't puzzle their way through alone often search out reading groups and books clubs, through friends, libraries, and even online and via television and the radio. As Monica correctly points out,
Most of all I’m troubled by her generalization (boy do I hate generalizations) that students are given material that is too hard for them. One of the bedrock ideas of my personal pedagogy is Lev Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development, which he described as “… the distance between the actual development level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance or in collaboration with more capable peers.” (Vygotsky, Mind and Society, 1978.) That is, I guide my students through readings that would be perhaps a tad too challenging for them on their own. So the idea that teachers shouldn’t do this, shouldn’t assign books that need support, that are a bit beyond their students’ comfort levels disturbs me greatly. This is such an exciting way to both teach and learn. This is how we learn to appreciate literature, to dig deep into it, to learn how to read, really, really, really read!
Articles like this make me ever more aware of the differences between the way I was educated (at two NYC private schools very similar to the one where Monica teaches), the way most children are educated in the North American public system, and the education I want for my own children, where five-year-olds can strike up a friendship with and appreciation for Shakespeare and Beowulf. I still have fond memories of reading Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in 11th grade English, even though some of us initially rolled our eyes upon finding that title in the course syllabus. By the end of the year, however, everyone realized that the skillful Mr. Z. had shown us an entirely new work, far from the simple young children's book we remembered from our childhoods. Fortunately, Mr. Z., who also had The Member of the Wedding and Pale Fire on the syllabus, was not a reading expert:
Of particular concern are students in urban school systems, said Richard Allington, a leading researcher on reading instruction and a professor of reading education at the University of Tennessee.

In large part, he blames inappropriately chosen books for students' reading woes, especially in school systems where large percentages of children read below grade level. The average fifth-grade student in Detroit and Baltimore, for example, reads at a third-grade level, he said, but schools still give them fifth-grade core reading and social studies texts.

That, he said, crushes a child's motivation.

"If you made me education magician and I had one thing that I could pull off, it would be that every kid in this country had a desk full of books that they could actually read accurately, fluently, with comprehension," he said.
Mr. Allington, meet education magician The Marvellous Marva, aka Marva Collins. But you don't need magic powers to understand that the usual reading instruction/reading education argument is flawed; rather than supplying fifth graders in Detroit and Baltimore with dumbed down twaddle, why not teach them to read properly in the early years and then give them inspiring, well-trained teachers who understand, appreciate, and know how to share good literature with their charges? As Mrs. Collins wrote, with Civia Tamarkin, almost 25 years ago in Marva Collins' Way,
The curriculum changed with the passing of each fad. And the textbooks changed. Somebody, somewhere decided to water them down. Textbooks were being written two years below the grade level they were intended for. Why? Because students couldn't read. ... Instead of challenging students with materials that might improve their skills, the new books made it easier, using more pictures and fewer words. And simpler words. One textbook that used enormous and apprehension in a story came out in a revised edition that replaced those words with big and fear. The standards fell lower and lower.
On the subject of comprehension, here's the Marvellous Marva approach (not so coincidentally not vetted by most reading experts); you can feel her love for "her" children shining through:
On the second and fourth Fridays of the month Marva chose a book for each child, handing out copies of The Jungle Book, Pride and Prejudice, O. Henry's Tales, Mysterious Island, Spring Is Here, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, Lord of the Flies, 1984, The Fall of the House of Usher, and Great Expectations, among others. Marva seemed to dispense the books arbitrarily. However, her policy was the older a child, the more difficult the book, even if the child's reading level was not quite high enough. Children used to failure needed goals if they were going to succeed. That was her rationale for giving Theodore, her twelve year old with the third grade reading ability, one of the thickest books on the shelf, Moby Dick.

"Hey, Mrs. Collins, I got the wrong book."

"No, sweetheart, I gave you the right book, Moby Dick."

"But it's got so many pages and so many words on a page. It's got no pictures. This is a book for big kids."

"I think you're big enough."

"Naw, in the old school I always got easy books."

"Well, in this school we don't give young men like you easy books. We don't expect you to do the same work the little children do. Give this book a try. You don't have to understand everything in it, but see what you can do. It's made up of words and words are made up of what?"

"Sounds," Theodore grinned.

"That's right. And as long as you remember your sounds and know how to use a dictionary, you'll do fine."

At the end of the day Theodore left the school clasping the copy of Moby Dick so that everyone could see the title and the thickness. Marva wanted him to show it off. As far as she was concerned, all he had to do at the end of the two weeks was tell her the book was about a big fish. As it turned out, he told her Moby Dick was a big, white, man-eating whale."
Most disheartening in the Post article was the comment from a seventh grader in "the Humanities and Communications Magnet Program" at a Maryland middle school who said that "she would like to be assigned books that speak to her": the previous year in English class, "graphic novels [were] excluded, which annoyed many of us," she said.

I was reminded again about what Mrs. Collins had to say about "relevance":
According to the curriculum experts, everything has to be "relevant." One mathematics textbook has a chapter on probability that asks students to determine: What are the odds that cabdriver will get a counterfeit $10 bill? What is the probability that a girl will become pregnant if she is taking birth control pills that are 97 percent effective? What is the probability that a person living in a certain community has either syphilis or gonorrhea?

All that "relevance" undermines the very purpose of an education. It doesn't expand the children's horizons or encourage inventiveness and curiosity. Instead it limits perspective to the grim scenes they see every day of their lives. Children do not need to read stories that teach "street smarts." They learn enough on their own. What they need are character-building stories. They need to read for values, morality and universal truths [emphases mine]. That was my reason for teaching classical literature.
And that, kiddies, is why you read graphic novels and other "relevant" and/or fun stuff during free time. That's what it's for, after all -- recess, lunchtime, after school, weekends. In grade school, I used to read one Nancy Drew book every day between recess and lunch. Unplug the computer, the TV, and put away the cell phone, iPod, portable DVD player, and your handheld game-playing thingamajigs, and curl up with a not-so-good book. And remember always that learning is meant to be annoying, prodding, and challenging, or it isn't doing its job. It's worth considering, too, that kids raised on a steady diet of twaddle, including graphic novels and even my beloved Nancy Drew, might not grow up to become adults who read, or want to read, Proust in their free time.

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