Thursday, October 8, 2015

Avoiding the Educational Pit and the Pendulum (Part One): Putting the Reader Back Inside Our Reading Lessons

        When you hear the word pendulum what thoughts or feelings immediately come to mind?  I would argue that your response to this question depends on your life experiences.  Because my perspective is that of former middle and high school English teacher turned literacy coach,  the first thing to pop into my mind is the classic tale by Edgar Allan Poe:  "The Pit and The Pendulum."  The story, which is set during the Spanish Inquisition, finds the narrator stuck inside an unlit cell awaiting a morbid, torturous death.  Later, after losing consciousness, he awakens only to discover that he is tied to a board with a razor-sharp pendulum swinging above him, slowly moving closer and closer to his body with every swing.  The narrator describes the pendulum as "massy and heavy, tapering from the edge into a solid and broad structure above. It was appended to a weighty rod of brass, and the whole hissed as it swung through the air."   Thus, for me, the word pendulum immediately connotes negative feelings and emotions as a I think of anxiety this narrator must feel as he attempts to concoct a plan to survive.

       If you are an educator who is unfamiliar with Poe's story, the word pendulum may still cause you to experience feelings of despair and helplessness but for different reasons.  The word may instantly bring to mind that trite pendulum-swinging metaphor that has been used to describe every paradigm shift occurring in the last thirty years.  Imagine yourself being strapped to a board,  the ceiling pendulum in Poe's story drawing nearer to your own restrained body with every shift:  The shift from phonics to whole language.  Hisssssssss....  Basal reading instruction to guided reading back to whole class instruction.   Hisssss.....hisssss....hissss.  Leveled text instruction to scaffolded instruction using grade level text.  Hissss.... Touchy, feely reader response theory lessons to sterile, formulaic text-dependent question lessons.  Hissssssssss..... and the pendulum continues to swing.  Can we really fault the experienced educator who has been around the block a while when he feels cynical and distressed as the latest educational buzzword starts blowing up social media? If this were the 90's and I were still interested in making text to text connections, I might suggest that these senior educators may be experiencing similar emotions as Poe's narrator does while the pendulum closes in on him:  "a hideous dizziness oppressed me at the mere idea of the interminableness of the descent. "  Alas, though, the 90's have passed, so I must forego these text to text connections and - in true PARCC fashion - compare the themes of the selections instead:  similar feelings of impending doom can result from both physical and creative restraint.  Hisssssss.....hissssss.
          Please do not misconstrue my message to mean that I am not an advocate of change.  On the contrary, I am a firm believer in the philosophy of Maya Angelou who once said, "When you know better, you do better."  Many of the swings of the pendulum have been the result of passionate educators recognizing current flaws in the educational system and desiring to change them for the better. A commendable effort.  In a constantly evolving world flooded with technology and new literacies, it would be irresponsible and even naive of me to suggest that our own instructional practices remain stagnant. 
         My point, however, is this: in education, we often throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Perhaps subconsciously, as a system, we at times neglect to keep the good parts of what we are already doing when we shift to a new paradigm.  Let's consider for a moment, the current shift from reader response theory to those CCSS exemplar lessons consisting solely of text dependent questions. Why must one replace the other?  A few years back, a professor of mine hit the nail on the head when she reflected that the research surrounding what quality reading instruction should look like hasn't really wavered in the past fifty years.  The research usually supports the middle.  Students need a little of this and a little of that.  What school systems do with the research, however, is often where the problem lies.  For example, while whole language theorists are strong proponents of helping students to acquire whole words at once versus first learning sounds in isolation,  they have  never advocated for the complete removal of decoding and letter-sound instruction that were once key components of phonics instruction.  Instead of blending the best of both approaches and teaching down the middle, many systems chose to swing the pendulum in one drastic move, eliminating phonics instruction entirely in favor of what they believed to be the new whole language approach.  Although this abandonment of phonics was never the intent of the whole language approach, day to day practices in many schools proved otherwise, resulting in negative reactions to those whose children survived the days of anti-phonics classrooms.  Hissssssssss.
               Instead of a swinging pendulum, what if educational leaders across our nation elected to take more of a middle-ground stance?  What if we cultivated classrooms that valued the reader and their visceral responses to a text as much as we valued a student's ability to analyze the structural choices the author has made in her piece? 
 Even better:  what if we helped students to discover that through their analysis of the author's craft and structure they are more able to appreciate and respond to a text on a personal level?  If we don't do this, I fear we run the risk of committing what Kelly Gallagher has dubbed Readicide: the unfortunate slaughtering of quality texts . Nobody wants to watch beautiful language being mauled to death via over-analyzation or witness the homicide of texts students once found enjoyable via a relentless barrage of text-dependent questions.

No matter how vehemently the writers of various Common Core State Standards exemplar lessons work to remove the reader response element from instruction by limiting the types of questions the teachers asks to only the text-dependent variety, readers will continue to play a pivotal role in the the experiences they have with text.  The unique experience of readers is what requires those of us who write about literature to use present tense, the idea being that the experience is happening in the here and now for each reader each time a text is read. In fact, it is because of these unique experiences readers bring to the same text that allow book club members who have all read the same book to engage in passionate yet contentious discussions.  It is because of unique reader experiences that the same poem -- or even lines from a poem -- can be interpreted by readers to mean entirely different things with not one idea being more "correct" than another.  For instance, in a discussion of Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken," John Green points out that Frost's  intended tone was meant to be frivolous, poking fun at the indecisive. Green explains that most people, however, choose to read the poem more seriously; thus, they alter the theme.  Neither reading of the poem can be considered superior as both are grounded in the text.  Thus, people's unique experiences shape the text.
Watch John Green's Discussion Here  

   Reader response is alive and much needed, despite the current trend in education to squelch its existence.  It is the reason why we are drawn to texts in the first place, why we react emotionally to the experiences of made-up characters and why we desire to engage in discussion with others who have read the same text.  And while text-dependent questions are certainly crucial to the development of essential literacy skills of students in our classrooms, we have completely missed the mark if we begin and end with those types of prescriptive questions without also engaging in a conversation about how our students now feel about the world or even how their perception of life has been altered having had a new experience through text.  Don't believe me?  When was the last time your book club got together and asked questions that began with "Cite text evidence to prove that...."  or "Explain how the author developed the conflict..."  My guess is that you would quickly excuse yourself and find a new book club if these questions were the crux of the conversations. 

    The Common Core State Standards shift has brought with it an array of good:  more explicit instruction of  Tier 2 and 3 vocabulary, an increase in rigor of both texts and tasks, vertical alignment of standards,  and a focus on developing critical argument skills in both speaking in writing that will enable students to communicate their viewpoints effectively to others both in school and in the workplace.  Students are synthesizing texts of multiple modalities to support their arguments and evaluating the credibility of the viewpoints of others instead of simply accepting them at face value.  The Common Core, when implemented well, is a great thing for students.  I ask, though, that when situations arise that leave you questioning the level of engagement of students in your classroom, you pause and ask yourself a few questions:  what can I add to my lesson to increase student motivation?  Have I built choice and student interest into my lesson?  How am I fostering a love of reading in my students today?  Have I asked my students for their honest opinions about what they have read?  How have I found opportunities to share with students things I am currently reading and enjoying?  Do I know what my students are reading when I'm not assigning it?  When was the last time my students and I read something together for the sheer purpose of appreciating its beauty?   
         Some people might argue that with all the new standards and reporting procedures and teacher evaluations tied to student performance, the time to cultivate a love for reading and learning no longer exists.  I would argue that not only do we need to make time to develop our students love of reading, but that this goal needs to be made a top priority if we wish for our students to be successful.  We know that students who read more, perform at higher levels; this research remains crystal clear.  Then, let's stop worrying about which of these is the chicken and which is the egg and help all of our students to view reading as a vehicle to self discovery and identity formation. 
I'm pretty sure that the books I've read have left more than a small impression on me.  They've shaped who I've become and how I feel about the events that happen to me.  I'm also pretty sure that if my own classroom experiences as a student had focused on worksheets and text dependent questions with no opportunities for me to cultivate my love for the written word, I would've hated school.   I would've had to come up with an escape plan that may not have involved getting rats to gnaw the ropes from the board I was strapped to as the narrator in "The Pit and The Pendulum" must do,  but my own plan definitely would have been born out of the same frantic, desperation. In the "Pit and the Pendulum," a portrait of Father Time exists on the pit's ceiling, reminding the narrator that time is limited:  a plan must be devised. The time our students will spend with us in our classrooms this year is also limited.  The time is now to consider the impact you would like to have on your students' relationships with text and create a plan.

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