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

What’s the Difference Between a Teacher & a Packaged Program?

Now that most of us have settled into the new school year, my corner of the blogosphere is buzzing with the first student responses to curricula designed to meet the Common Core through a steady diet of close reading. Last week, for instance, Chris Lehman shared some of the trove of tweets he discovered, like the one I found below, from students who were flummoxed, frustrated and furious with their close reading assignments. Clare Landrigan and Tammy Mulligan over at Teachers for Teachers shared the notebook entry of a student who confessed, “I find myself so focused on how to annotate that I’m not really thinking about what I’m reading.” And Kim Yaris, of Burkins & Yaris, shared a cautionary tale of her own after her fifth grade son came home from school, brought to the brink of despair and tears by a two-week-long close reading of a document that Kim’s research suggest is actually more college than lower school fare.

Close Reading Tweet2

I can’t verify that all these tweets and confessions are connected with packaged programs, though Kim’s son’s story definitely is. But I seriously suspect that in one way or another they reflect the effects and consequences of a document written by the authors of the Standards known as “The Publisher’s Criteria.” According to the authors, “These criteria [were] designed to guide publishers and curriculum developers” in creating Common Core aligned instructional material “to ensure that teachers receive effective tools.” And it’s here that some of the ideas and language that have taken over classrooms first appear, such as:

  • Whole class instruction should be focused on short texts on or above a grade’s complexity band throughout the year 
  • Students should be engaged in close reading of those texts, which include multiple readings
  • Those close readings should be guided by a set and sequence of text-dependent questions

What’s important to remember is that these criteria weren’t aimed at teachers, only those in the business of marketing products. Yet many a teacher has been forced, persuaded or enticed to follow, having been told, perhaps, that they’re the only way to raise test scores or meet the Standards. That’s not to say that teachers shouldn’t expose their students to challenging texts, nor have some text-dependent questions up their sleeves that encourage reading closely for deeper meaning. But providing texts, questions to ask, answers to look for and worksheets to pass out is pretty much all a program can do. And because teachers are living human beings, with active minds and hearts, they can do things programs cannot, beginning with the most obvious: A program cannot not know the students, only a teacher can.

Teachers know which students come from families who struggle and which come to school sleepless or hungry. They know which ones are wizards at math but feel defeated by reading and which are precocious but avoid taking risks. They know which don’t talk because they’re shy and which don’t because they’re lost. And knowing all this, they also know that not every student needs every question the program tells them to ask, nor will every student manage to read complex texts by the end of the year (which is what the Standards actually say) by constantly being thrown into the deep end of the pool.

Teachers know all this because they watch and listen to their students, which leads to another critical distinction between a program and a teacher: A program can tell you what to say, but it cannot tell you what you’ll hear if you’re listening for more than what the program deems an acceptable answer. I think this kind of listening is just like the way we want students to read, attending closely to the details of the text to think about what the author might be trying to show them, not just to ‘get’ a particular answer but to understand more deeply. And that close, attentive listening allows teachers to make all sorts of moves that programs simply can’t capture in scripts, let alone actually make. Teachers can, for instance, do all of the following, none of which a program can:

  • Seize a teaching moment when it presents itself
  • Tuck what you’ve heard into your pocket to consider its instructional implications
  • Probe student thinking to better understand what’s behind their responses
  • Respond in a way that helps students build identity and agency as readers
  • Welcome and value out-of-the-box thinking

Several of these moves were visible in a classroom I worked in last week, where teachers were using some of the scaffolds that Dorothy Barnhouse and I share in What Readers Really DoA seventh grade ICT class, for instance, began reading Shirley Jackson‘s story “The Lottery”—in which a community engages in an annual tradition of stoning the winner The Lotteryof a lottery to death—by asking students to fill out their own text-based Know/Wonder charts. As the teachers and I walked around the room, we were thrilled to see how many students had noted the odd details about stones in the first three paragraphs and had wondered why characters were putting them in their pockets and stacking them in piles.

But I also saw this: One of the boys had copied a sentence from the second paragraph in full: “School was recently over for the summer, and the feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of [the children].” Aware of how many of these students had plucked lines from texts for evidence on the test without seemingly understanding them, I asked him what he thought that meant. “They’re not comfortable with the freedom they have now that school’s out,” he said in a way that allayed my concern. And when I then asked him what he thought about that, he said he thought it was weird. No kids he knew were uneasy with summer. And thinking that, he decided to add a new question to his chart: “Why did most of the kids feel uneasy when school was out?”

Probing this student’s thinking this way not only revealed that he understood more than I first suspected; he was, in fact, the only one who picked up on the current of unease that runs throughout the story. But it also allowed me to name for him both the way that texts operate and the work he’d done as a reader, which increased his confidence.

And on the other end of the spectrum, there was this: As the teacher asked the class to share what they’d learned and wondered about, one student said she learned that the children were talking about planting, rain, tractors and taxes, from this line in the text:

“Soon the men began to gather, watching their children, speaking of planting and rain, tractors and taxes.”

Clearly she’d miscomprehended the sentence because of its construction, and initially I saw this as an opportunity to seize a teaching moment by asking the class who they thought was speaking and why. But when I debriefed that moment with the teacher, who’d noticed the mistake as well, she said she didn’t want to call her out in front of the class because it was the very first time that student had shared her thinking. Rather, in what I thought was a wise move, she wanted to think about how to address it in a way that would empower, not deflate, the student, and so she tucked what she’d heard in her pocket to think about her next steps.

And this leads to one final difference between a program and a teacher: Packaged programs teach curriculums and texts. Teachers teach real, live students. And I wonder, if we kept that distinction in mind, whether we’d stope feeling as frazzled and frustrated as the students sometimes do when we march them through a series of pre-determined questions in an achingly hard text.