How the Other Half Learns: Not a “So What?” Experience

how the other half learnsA few days ago I wrote a response to Robert Pondiscio’s terrific book How the Other Half Learns: Equality, Excellence, and the Battle Over School Choice. Here are some more thoughts, this time about the “so what?” question.

Before reading the book (but after reading many reviews, summaries, and excerpts), I wondered if I would be left nonplussed, even if I enjoyed and learned from the book. If part of the book’s message is, “The Success Academy is not for everyone–students, parents, or teachers–but insofar as it serves some students and families extremely well, it should be recognized and supported,” doesn’t a similar message apply to all students, parents, and teachers? That is, shouldn’t all of us seek out a place that works for us, leaving the rest alone except to acknowledge its value for others? If I, as a teacher, do not like the Success Academy model, then isn’t it my right (and responsibility) to seek out a place that does suit me, as have done over time? And if this is so, if it is on us to find the place that suits us, then who cares about a larger picture, except insofar as it offers each of us a place? Why should I care what’s going on at another school, if it’s not my type of place to begin with? But this conclusion dissatisfied me; there are reasons to care what is going on in other schools, and as it turned out, Pondiscio’s book brought them to light.

I found myself rooting for the students as I read about them–from Adama, whose parents were continually pressured by Success Academy to transfer him to another school (and finally gave in), to Darren, who shot up the waiting list and was finally admitted, to  Luis, who passes an informal reading test and blurts out to his class, “I’m Level L!” Even when I disagree with the admissions procedures, teaching methods, and more, I want things to go well with these kids–and I want to keep up some kind of discussion about what is important in education. Even if different approaches work for different students, even if different kinds of schools can, do, and should exist (not only among charters, but within the public school system itself), there are some universal goods and ills worth considering.

Take the instance of Luis becoming a “Level L.” Setting aside the business of calling oneself an L or a P or a 2 or a 3, I see at least two sides to the issue. On the one hand, despite my many criticisms of the Fountas and Pinnell leveling system (which Pondiscio gives a good shaking), I recognize that moving up the levels represents some kind of progress in reading, especially if the instruction is good, the texts are worthwhile, and the student practices continually at school and at home. And when a little boy reacts with such joy and pride to his progress, I want to join in. I want him to get to level Z and beyond–into good literature and other texts worth reading for their own merits.

On the other side, the Fountas and Pinnell system has even more problems than Pondiscio discusses (particularly on pp. 230-236). In addition to its misleading measures of text complexity, in addition to its flimsy basis in research, Fountas and Pinnell has given rise to some terrible writing. There is an industry devoted to writing children’s books and texts to match the F&P rubric exactly. If you read these texts (the ones written to match a particular level), you find something canned about them, and for good reason: they are canned. There isn’t a Curious George or Winnie-the-Pooh among them. In fact, many classic children’s books have been rewritten (i.e. simplified, distorted, and re-fonted) to match this or that reading level. In some cases they don’t even make sense.

Beyond that, the insistence on precise levels is inherently limiting. Any books worth their salt, including children’s books, contain a mixture of levels. In school, students can learn phonics systematically while also being exposed to texts, many texts, that they can’t read entirely on their own yet. They can learn background information that will help them understand texts on specific topics. They can learn to read a book several times, with more understanding each time. That way, they will not only progress gradually but amass concepts, words, and structures that allow their understanding to take off.

I didn’t learn how to read at school; according to my parents, I taught myself, at ages 4 and 5, and began writing before reading. But that had to do with having a lot of literature in the air. I can’t describe how I learned, since I don’t remember any more. But when it comes to learning languages, I have benefited from struggling with difficult works, works well above my level, works that I would want to reread many times. I persist with the first reading, and before I know it, I understand much than when I began, as a result of noticing roots, grammatical structures, syntax, and more. It has consistently helped me, rather than hurt me, to go beyond my level.

Not everyone benefits from the same approaches. Nor is mine foolproof, even for me; one weakness is that I have missed or sidestepped some systematic instruction along the way. For instance, I was reading Dostoevsky without a dictionary by the end of our year in Moscow, when I was fifteen, but I didn’t really learn how the Russian verbs of motion worked until late in college. I used them correctly enough to make myself understood, but my speech and writing must have been filled with mistakes.

All this said, it’s worth bringing up the weaknesses of Fountas and Pinnell, even while recognizing that it has done some good. At the same time, I can appreciate teachers who wholeheartedly encourage students in their progress (as did Luis’s teacher), even if the content and measures of said progress are flawed.

So, yes, the book affirms that it does matter what’s going on at other schools–because the fads and other weaknesses are worth criticizing, the strengths are worth learning from, and kids (at any school) deserve support and guidance. They want to learn, they want to make progress, they want to know what this means and why it matters. It is possible to hold two sides of the truth at once: that we’re all different, with different needs, and yet that we have something to do with each other, even if our paths never visibly meet.

I made a few minor changes to this piece after posting it.

Literature Class Is Not Reading Class

The StudentOne of my greatest concerns about the Common Core is that it will do what so many other reforms have done: drag everything toward an average, be it a high or low one. This may well happen if literature class is turned, once again, into reading class.

Reading class emphasizes the process of reading. The Balanced Literacy versions focused on “reading strategies” and “just-right” books. A Common Core version goes something like this: During class, the students read a “complex text.” Then they answer “text-dependent questions.” Then they write an argumentative piece that uses concrete textual evidence.

In reading class, the teacher is not supposed to give presentations beyond the briefest explanations or introductions. Instead, she assists the students as they read and write. Class time is work time.

In literature class, by contrast, students do the reading at home and come to class to discuss it. The teacher does give presentations, the length and substance of which will vary. Class discussion may focus closely on certain passages or relate different passages to each other and to the whole. Questions may move from simple to complex, and they may also take unexpected directions. For the most part, basic comprehension is assumed;  the class discussion focuses on interpretation. Of course there are exceptions; certain texts present exceptional difficulties and must be read slowly in class. On the whole, though, one assumes that the reading has been done and that the class can now tackle the subtleties of the text.

In a literature class, it is understood that the teacher will offer knowledge and insights. She presents context, background, interpretations that illuminate class discussion (without taking anything away from the students). She poses questions that build on each other and that draw on past discussions. She uses judgment in this regard, weighing the good of presentation against the good of elicitation. The proportion will vary from lesson to lesson, text to text, and course to course.

That’s how it works in college courses (in literature, history, and philosophy). You don’t spend time reading in class, unless you are focusing on a particular passage. Nor do you expect the professor to refrain from offering knowledge. Some professors choose to talk very little. Others give extended (and brilliant) lectures even in seminar. The different styles provide different angles on the subject. Certain lecture courses and lecture-style seminars are continually oversubscribed because (gasp!) the students value what the professor has to say.

Now, many students in grades K-12 (and even in college) lack the practice of reading for class. They may benefit initially from classes where the main task is to read and write. Yet this is a state of disrepair. In a more robust situation, students (from middle school onward) would be responsible for poring over the reading, on their own, until they understood it. Where, when, and how they did it would be up to them. True, many students don’t have a quiet place to study. Yet it isn’t that difficult to make quiet places available (in libraries and even in the schools), provided students shut off their devices and actually study.

Poring over the reading! That is one of the most important things a student can learn how to do. I have had English-language-learner students who made drastic progress in a single year, mainly because they had grappled for hours with difficult texts at home.  Every day they came to school with more vocabulary, grammar, and grasp of idiomatic and figurative language. This enhanced their speaking in class; they were thoroughly acquainted with the subject of the lesson and could thus join the discussion.

Maybe schools need two kinds of classes: reading classes for those who don’t have the practice of reading on their own, and literature classes for those who do. If this is so, then there should be a sturdy bridge from one to the other, so that the students in reading class don’t get stuck there.

After all, liberal education involves the exchange of ideas. You can’t exchange ideas until you have ideas about something. To have those ideas about something, you need to have spent time thinking about the subject. To think about it, you must know what it contains. Not all of this can take place during class time—so, for students to exchange ideas in class (in a way that isn’t superficial), they must study more on their own.

Independent, “unscaffolded” reading—one of the end goals of the Common Core—should be the starting point, whenever possible. Provide the “scaffolds” for those who aren’t there yet, but don’t make the advanced students descend.

P.S. (June 15, 2017) People continue reading this post, four years after I posted it. Please feel free to leave a comment.

Knowledge vs. Nonsense

Rarely does an article make me cheer as did Shannon Rupp’s in Salon (about the benefits of studying philosophy). Here’s one of my favorite quotes:

I’ve long thought that the debate about whether universities should be offering trades training or educating citizens is something of a red herring — the discussion should be about whether to study knowledge or nonsense.

A treasure! Thanks to Joanne Jacobs for bringing it to my attention.

It brings me back to my first year of teaching, when I wrote a letter to the New York Times about the misguided focus on “strategies,” especially reading strategies.

“Strategies” of that kind make me queasy (unlike chess strategies, which I enjoy). Yet I fear that the “strategy” nonsense is now being supplanted by other kinds of nonsense (or even wrapped up inside it). At least there are people calling out the nonsense! Here’s another quote from Rupp’s article:

I spent a semester defining ordinary things. Hats. Chairs. It’s harder than it looks. And I remember a classmate’s resistance to it. He kept ranting that it was stupid — everyone knows what a chair is! — before dropping out.

Of course, everyone only thinks she knows what a chair is. Or social justice, for that matter. Politicians, CEOs of questionable ethics, and all PR people count on exactly that. They will say something vague — I find the buzzwords du jour all seem to have some reference to “social” in them — and leave us to fill in the blanks with whatever pleases us.

Voila: we hear whatever we want and they get away with whatever they want.

Yes, and the same can be said about “strategies.” What are they? In many cases, they are methods of evasion. When I taught elementary and middle school, I saw students dutifully look at the picture on the cover, read the blurbs, make predictions about the book’s contents–before even opening the book and reading. They had been taught to do this. Then, once they started reading, they continued dancing around the text–making “text-to-self connections,” using pictures to help with word meanings, and so on. I encouraged them to pay attention to what was actually there.

But now the focus is on “close reading,” and while that’s an improvement, it might get taken too far. For instance, you do need to understand certain things outside the text in order to grasp the text. Try a “close reading” of Aristophanes without any knowledge of mythology, ancient Greek literature, or ancient Greek history! You might as well try to boil a turnip without water (or other suitable liquid).

Also, reading is not always linear; the mind goes here and there, drawing connections and imagining things. When you read Crime and Punishment, for instance, you start to feel the presence of Svidrigailov and Porfiry Petrovich. You can cite textual evidence, of course, when describing these presences, but it’s also good to take them in less rationally, to imagine them in the room. This requires close reading, but not of a strictly analytical kind. Similarly, when reading a poem (such as Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence“), it’s as important to take in its mystery as it is to notice its structure, syntax, and tropes. (This goes for literary nonfiction as well; if you try to read Emerson’s “Experience” in a strictly analytical manner, your mind will end up in knots, and the text will fly away.)

How should one read, then? Well, the thing one reads will often lead the way. If it’s good literature, it calls for careful, thoughtful, imaginative reading. If it’s nonsense, well, then, it calls for the “spot-the-nonsense” strategy, which requires some background knowledge–of philosophy, literature, and other subjects–as well as a salutary allergy to buzzwords and overpuffed ideas.