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

SparkNotes Nation

Sparknotes-Fahrenheit 451SparkNotes Their EyesSparkNotes Huck Finn

Amid all the cries that the Common Core Standards are asking too much of us—at least without more time and support—are a smaller but still vocal group of voices that say they’re nothing new. Many of these voices belong to high school teachers who’ve been asking text-based questions for years and requiring students to support whatever claims they make in discussions and essays with evidence. For them, the only new requirement is to add more nonfiction to the mix, which, again, some were doing already, assigning books such as Jon Krakauer‘s Into the Wild and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickeled and Dimed.

Many of these teachers do a fabulous job of engaging their students with great literature and building their capacity for critical thinking. But the emphasis on teaching texts instead of readers—particularly on teaching that attempts to direct students toward a particular, pre-determined and/or widely-accepted interpretation of a text—has also had the effect of sending thousands, if not millions, of students to SparkNotes where they can find out what they ‘should’ think without actually reading the book.

This was, in fact, the sad discovery of the head of a high school English department I worked with several years ago, who had asked his students to anonymously fill out a questionnaire at the end of the year after grades were in. His American Literature class had read a wide range of texts that year—poetry, essays, plays and short stories, along with four book-length texts. And for each of those four books he asked the students to put a check beside one of the following four statements.

I read the entire book on my own.

I read part of the book and then turned to SparkNotes.

I only read SparkNotes.

I read neither the book nor SparkNotes.

graded-paper-300x225What he found gave him serious pause. While over 80% of the students read Angela’s Ashes, the first book-length text he’d assigned, less than 20% actually read the last book, The Grapes of Wrath, with the largest percentage just reading SparkNotes, and some not even doing that. What was almost worse was that every student had passed the class, which meant that they’d either doctored or plagiarized papers they’d found online or were able to figure out what they were supposed to think by attending to the cues the teacher gave during class discussions.

And so on the heels of those dispiriting numbers, we decided to experiment with the idea of choice and book groups the following year, with the students actually reading in class then discussing what they read with their peers. We wanted them to read multiple texts, and so we designed a unit using short stories that all had teenage protagonists and were written by American authors, such as Joyce Carol Oates‘s “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?”, Tobias Wolff‘s “The Liar“, and Michael Cunningham‘s “White Angels“. And we asked them to use their groups to consider what the author of each story seemed to be saying about the challenges of growing up in America.

CHOICEWe gave the students a brief description of the stories, let them choose which ones they wanted to read, and formed groups based on those choices. And since it quickly became apparent that many of them had no strategies for talking or thinking about books on their own, we recruited several other English teachers to demonstrate a discussion of Sylvia Plath’s story “Initiation,” which was one of three stories the whole class had read before breaking into groups.

During that discussion, we asked the students to pay attention to what the teachers did—not just their ideas about the story, but how they constructed those ideas. And from what they noticed, we co-created a list of strategies and discussion moves they could use that looked like this:

Text-Based Strategies 2

© 2008 Vicki Vinton, Literacy Consultant, https://tomakeaprairie.wordpress.com

Noticing and naming what the teachers had done helped many of the students to notice more in the stories they were reading. A group of students, for instance, reading Maxine Swann‘s story “Flower Children,” about a counter-culture couple in the 70’s attempting to raise their brood of children without rules or inhibitions, noticed how often idyllic or utopian exclamations—such as “They’re the luckiest children alive!”—were paired with images of darkness or death. And as they read additional stories, students started noticing patterns across texts, including many characters who longed for the past and many who ultimately felt let down by the people who supposedly cared for them the most. And noticing this, they began to consider what these patterns suggested the different authors might be saying about what it means to grow up.

This process invited students to independently engage in the kind of close reading that is now being promoted by the Standards and to construct their own interpretations based on what they’d noticed. It also allowed them to develop a new appreciation for literature and of themselves as readers, as can be seen in this student reflection:

Student Response 2

BookCaps Study GuideFast-forward now to our present moment when, if search engine terms that bring people to this blog are any indication, close reading and text-dependent questions are on lots of teachers’ minds. Bringing the reading of texts into the classroom rather than assigning them for homework may reduce the reliance on SparkNotes—though they now offer apps for IPhones and Androids, which many students manage to use, despite prohibitions, in class. And lest this seems just like a high school problem, it’s worth noting that new companies like BookCaps are cropping up, selling study guides to books like Because of Winn-DixieBridge to Terabithia and Sign of the Beaver for, as SparkNotes’s motto puts it, “When your books and teachers don’t make sense.”

I believe that unless we make room for diverse interpretations built from what students notice—and focus as much on teaching readers as texts and on thinking as much as on answers—it’s highly probably that students will continue to rely on SparkNotes or find alternatives to beat the system, because they’re actually resourceful and smart. They read us as closely as we’d like them to read texts, trying to figure out what we want in order to give it to us. And I think that means that if we truly want to students to construct their own meaning and not just take on established ideas that are available at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen, we may need to take a closer look at what messages we’re sending out about what we really want from them.