Reading is Knowledge

When he was still in juvenile hall, a friend who was in prison elsewhere sent him the “Mexica Handbook”—a tiny book, the size of a cell phone, about the Spanish conquest of the Americas, and the colonial plantations that had conscripted and subdued the native populations. Murillo began to understand that his people had a history, and he read that the Mayans were not primitives: they had astrologers and architects and high priests. After he read the “Mexica Handbook,” he decided to read whatever he could get his hands on. At first, he read the kind of genre fiction that was available in the shu: Dean Koontz, James Patterson, Dan Brown. But one day when he was out in the yard—in solitary, the “yard” was a small concrete enclosure that had high walls but was open to the sky—a man on the other side of a wall told him that he should stop reading crap and get some good books from the prison library. After that, Murillo had many conversations with the man about books, although he never saw his face.

The man told him to start with Voltaire’s “Candide.” Murillo read it, and was amazed at how resonant it was—its depiction of the slave sounded very similar to what he’d heard about sweatshops. He came across a list of American novels with social-justice themes, and he read “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Grapes of Wrath.” He read “Don Quixote” and “Les Misérables.” He read about the Zapatistas, and about how the Spanish had pillaged Latin America.

When he first got to Pelican Bay, he became enthralled by a book called “The 48 Laws of Power”: “I was thinking, Yo, I’m gonna be a fucking smart-ass criminal. When I go home, I’m gonna set up this drug empire and I’m gonna fucking make bank.” But, as he read more deeply in the book, he began to hate it. He still wanted power, but he no longer wanted to get it by stomping on another guy’s neck. He read about Zen Buddhism, and that made him feel that he didn’t need money anymore. And, as he started reading more about the history of Latin America, he stopped believing that his life was a random card dealt to him by fate: he started to think about politics, and about how the way his life had unfolded was partly the consequence of systematic inequality.

, “BUILDING A PRISON-TO-SCHOOL PIPELINE” in The New Yorker

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Content is at the Heart of Teaching

Finding the main idea is a frequently taught strategy in classrooms across this nation, as are other skills such as inferencing, summarizing, and so on. It’s sad that so often these strategies are taught in general isolation from any kind of deep and enriching content. What’s the point in finding the main idea unless the main idea is worth contemplating?

Now, I work with students who are learning English as their second language and with students with exceptional learning needs. It’s fairly well established that students facing these challenges with language and learning benefit from explicit strategies. I am therefore not opposed to teaching strategy use by any means.

But as a newer teacher, I’ve struggled with getting my students to progress. I’ve taught these strategies and re-taught them, in a classroom devoid of rich and engaging books at their reading levels. So I’ve printed out and made copies of anything I can find at their level. Guess what type of content this stuff is? Short passages on isolated concepts, such as is found on state assessments. The students I had in my last two years of teaching, furthermore, were reading at a pre-kindergarten to 2nd grade level. They were doubly frustrated not only by their difficulty with fluency, but also by lame material.

Without rich, deep content, strategies are irrelevant. Pedagogy, even, is largely irrelevant. This is why I’m excited by the Common Core Standards which have been adopted by almost every state. Finally, the focus in literacy is back on content, in the form of non-fiction and complex texts.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve begun reading the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass with my students. This stuff is deep. His language is powerful, the history comes alive, and best of all, the kids are into it. They are engaged by it, and not turned off by the profusion of antiquated and confusing words. This has made me thirsty to engage them in more of this sort of deep content, the primary documents that ground our history and our knowledge.

The Common Core is on the right path. We need to steep our children in rich, foundational texts and let them struggle and become immersed in the language even as we guide them through it to the deep meaning embedded therein. We’ve been relying too much on watered down drivel processed by publishing companies. What’s the point in knowing that Frederick Douglass was a great writer and orator without reading his own words? What’s the point in discussing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy if we don’t read or listen to his own words? Too much of our historical understanding is based on second-hand descriptions and accounts.

This might seem like a “no duh” sort of thing when I put it to you like this, but let me set the scene of what it’s like in schools for you. We are taught that we must focus on kids’ deficiencies, by analyzing their results on exams. Oh, we say, these children can’t make inferences. Let’s teach them how to infer. Let’s put up charts on inferences. And so on. And we are furthermore taught that children must only read at their assessed reading levels, and that we must “differentiate” all our material so they can access it. So Barney gets a 2nd grade level text, while Lakshmi gets the higher level passage. And this is what we get beat over the head with, in all our professional development sessions and in all the consultants that come into our school to tell us how to teach.

What gets lost in all of that superficial and money intensive blather, of course, is that none of that means anything without rich content. So we’re teaching inferencing with test prep books, and we’re differentiating texts with worksheets. And that’s all fine with the textbook publishing industry, and that’s all fine with the educational consultants. But it’s not fine for the kids.

So I’m refocusing myself back on the idea of core knowledge, which E.D. Hirsch, Jr. has been calling for for decades and most people have been ignoring. The Common Core is here, and with folks like David Coleman speaking bluntly and passionately about the necessity for engaging children directly in rich and deep texts, teachers are finally getting the chance to throw off the shackles of bullshit and focus on what matters. I’m going to write another post soon about Coleman’s message, and also about some other great tidbits of wisdom I was excited to glean from a recent conference on What Works in Urban Education. To be continued . . .