What Messages Are We Sending Our Students Revisited

Level Z Reader_1

Almost two years ago, when this blog was quite new, I wrote a post about the dangers of students seeing themselves as reading level letters because of all the emphasis placed on levels. I felt compelled to write that post after noticing the artwork of several second graders who claimed that their dearest wish for the year was to achieve a certain reading level. And I’m returning to the same question now because of two things that happened last week: the news that Alice Munro, the great Canadian writer, had won the Nobel Prize for Literature and a conversation I had with my valued colleague Anna Commitante, which led me to take a second look at a packaged 9th grade ELA unit that uses Karen Russell‘s wonderful short story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves.”

The Beggar MaidI was thrilled to hear the Nobel Prize news because I’ve been reading—and adoring—Alice Munro for over thirty years. I’m not sure how I first discovered her way back in my twenties, but I remember clearly the first piece of hers I read, a short story called “Royal Beatings,” from the collection The Beggar Maid. It’s about a young girl named Rose living in rural Ontario in what I took to be the 1940’s, who’s subject to periodic beatings by her father when her step-mother Flo thinks she’s being uppity.

My life was nothing at all like Rose’s, but reading the story I felt a bolt of recognition that I’d never experienced before and a sense of exposure that was both terrifying and deeply reassuring. She put into words all the complicated, ricochetting swings of mood and feelings I often felt—and rather than judging or downplaying them, she celebrated each twinge and stirring. And in doing so she gave me what the writer Maureen McLane says certain poems and stories can provide: “deep seas in which to swim and make a self.”

Here, for instance, she describes the almost exquisite sense of having been wronged, which Rose feels after a beating:

Never is a word to which the right is suddenly established. She will never speak to them, she will never look at them with anything but loathing, she will never forgive them. She will punish them, she will finish them. Encased in these finalities, and in her bodily pain, she floats in curious comfort, beyond herself, beyond responsibility.

And here she describes the moment when that sense of power collapses as, feeling contrite, Flo leaves a tray of food outside Rose’s door:

She will turn away, refuse to look, but left alone with these eatables will be miserably tempted . . . she will reach out a finger, just to run it around the edge of one of the sandwiches (crusts cut off!) to get the overflow, a taste. Then she will decide to eat one, for strength to refuse the rest. One will not be noticed. Soon, in helpless corruption, she will eat them all. She will drink the chocolate milk, eat the tarts, eat the cookies. She will get the malty syrup out of the bottom of the glass with her finger, though she sniffles with shame. Too late.

To me, this story was a revelation. And I’m so very glad that the Nobel Prize news prompted me to relive that first encounter and reread the story, which was in my mind a few days later when I talked with Anna.

St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by WolvesWe were commiserating about the sorry state we were in, here in New York City, where everything seemed to be conspiring to not allow students to have the kind of reading experience I just described. And at some point she asked me if I’d ever read Karen Russell’s short story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” or seen the New York State 9th grade unit on it. I’d read and loved Russell’s story (from the collection of the same name) and had come across the unit at some point, when I looked at it just long enough to note the great choice of text. But Anna said I had to read it because, she said with exasperation and heartache, “They got it all wrong.”

The story itself is wonderfully strange: A group of girls whose parents are werewolves have been sent to the St. Lucy’s Home at the urging of the Home’s nuns in order to become, in the story’s words, “naturalized citizens of human society.” Not all goes well, however, especially for one of the youngest girls who not only can’t but doesn’t seem to want to give up all her wild ways, despite the fact that it may leave her stranded between the worlds of humans and wolves.

Given how adolescents often straddle two worlds, I imagined there might be some 9th graders out there who’d find in the story a “deep sea in which to swim and make a self.” But when I took another look at the unit, I realized there was no room for that. Clocking in at 211 pages, the unit plan was ten times longer than the story itself, comprising 17 lessons with 130 text-dependent questions, almost 40 vocabulary words and lots of formative and summative assessments.

When we all think alike no one thinks very muchThat, in and of itself, seemed bad enough, but when I looked closer at the questions I understood what Anna had meant. Most seemed aimed at checking students’ basic comprehension and ability to cite evidence from the text, while others focused on vocabulary. But there were some like “Why is St. Lucy’s culture better?” that made me realize that what Anna and I took to be a story about conformity and indoctrination had been seen by the unit writers as a story about the need to assimilate. And the questions and prompts pushed students toward that—just as the nuns were pushing the girls to adhere to “civilized” norms.

A story this rich will inevitably spark multiple interpretations. But it’s hard for me to imagine that a writer who, in her own words, “mashes” genres together with such abandon and glee, would want readers to think that the central idea was “that girls who were raised by wolves must assimilate or adapt to human culture,” as the unit claims. But then again I’m not really sure the unit wants readers to think. The message it seems to be sending out is that it’s more important to cite evidence to support someone else’s idea (as folded into a question) than to construct an original idea in the first place, and that we read to practice skills and meet the standards, not to make a self.

Of course, I think it’s possible to meet the standards within the context of non-standardized reading and thinking. But we need to be mindful of both the direct and indirect messages we’re sending. And we might begin that by considering these words about stories from Alice Munro:

“A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished.”

Alice Munro

14 thoughts on “What Messages Are We Sending Our Students Revisited

  1. “deep seas in which to swim and make a self” – exactly why I read and read and read. And this is what I think is important for the young people and teachers I work with. I value both students’ and teachers’ ability to think critically about what they are being asked to do, and to resist when it is not allowing them to think critically. Thanks for another thoughtful post.

    • It’s a great quote, isn’t it? Interestingly enough, I’m starting to get calls from schools and networks that are beginning to see that sticking to the program script is shutting students down. So maybe this is just a bump in the road toward something more meaningful.

  2. Wow. I needed this. How much time do we give our students, ourselves, each other to linger in the rooms, to explore the basement, to build our own addition, for goodness sake? And what exquisite irony that the wolves be “civilized” by the chair of forty vocabulary words and a very long whip of one hundred thirty questions. How wrenching to hold these in our hands.

    • Oh, I’m so glad this was useful, Steve! I had another quote by Munro that I was trying to work in, but this one seemed better at this point. But I’ll share the other here because I’m sure it will resonant with you, too: “The complexity of things–the things with things–just seems to be endless. I mean nothing is easy, nothing is simple.” And yet that’s precisely what some of the programs attempt to do, make something that’s really quite complex easy–with chair & whip in hand.

      • I love that Munro quote. And here’s another layer of paradox to add to the phrase “nothing is easy, nothing is simple”: How difficult it is to be teaching something so complex as thinking with the tools of the lion-tamer, rather than questions of the philosopher. I can’t think of many management tasks more complex, less “easy”, than asking and answering 130 questions and learning of 40 vocabulary words, in a defined period of time, while keeping children’s focus on something they haven’t created themselves. Yet, a single question, simply and sincerely asked and sufficiently pondered, can open a rich, complex conversation the likes of which we yearn for in our own lives, much less what we hope our students can create and enjoy for themselves.

  3. Oh my. The idea of being a reader, a thinker is by its very nature such an individualistic pursuit. How can it be put into a fixed box called a unit or an assessment? It seems impossible. I’d like to believe the standards call for reading to be as Monro so beautifully put “discovering” the interiors of a text like a house “how the room and corridors relate to each other.” However the question that dominates many conversations is what do the publishers of assessments interpret it to be? Assessment are necessary, that’s the measure of our teaching and student learning. But because of its unknown, judgmental and fixed nature, the end result is paralyzing and debilitating for both teachers and students. Balance is needed, something education is not so good at. Balancing out the need for assessing and standards with the variability of humans interacting with those ideas. Thank you for the beautiful and intricate post. Makes me want to run with the wolves.

    • I, too, believe–or want to believe–that the CCS can be met through Munro’s vision of reading. But, as you point out there are others out there in positions of power who’ve adopted a narrow, sterile but measurable interpretation of the standards that takes the beauty and deep meaning out of reading. I so want to believe too that change is afoot, as more and more of us connect and speak out and refuse to accept the party line. At least I feel like I’ve found pack to run with whose thinking is inspiring.

  4. Thank you for another thoughtful post. I will be thinking of it when I sort through the dozens post cards I get every week advertising packaged “book study units” every week.

    • I don’t envy you having to sort through all that, Tara. But here’s a quote I stumbled on that might be worth using to assess what you see: “The quality of a question should not be judged by its complexity but by the complexity of thinking it provokes.” And if you find one that really provokes deep thinking, I’d love to hear about it!

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  6. I’m keeping this bit “The message it seems to be sending out is that it’s more important to cite evidence to support someone else’s idea (as folded into a question) than to construct an original idea in the first place, and that we read to practice skills and meet the standards, not to make a self.” and the Alice Munro quote on a big sticky inside my plan book.

    I’m going to remind myself that while “nothing is easy, nothing is simple,” at least I don’t have to juggle the chair and the whip, and so I better shut up and quit complaining!

    As for the one question that is not complex, but promotes/provokes complex thinking, my favorite is, “What do you think, and why?”

    • Hey Mary Lee! The last part of your comment reminded me of a quote I’ve been wanting to share for a while. It’s from an Irish author named Joseph O’Connor: “The quality of a question is not judged by its complexity but by the complexity of thinking it provokes.” I think that seemingly simple question, “What do you think and why?” can lead to so many complex things–if we’re willing to open that door, which the programs don’t want to open because it might, indeed, require whips and chairs to get everyone back in line.

      And to respond to two comments in one: In Reggio I watched kids go back again and again to the charts that had their own words on them and pictures of them in the process. They were the real anchors for them. But it’s so hard to create those if you’re required to do all kinds of other things to prove that you’re accountable. So here’s to school districts, like Dublin’s, that don’t use whips and chairs to keep their teachers in line!

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