Teach Like a Champion 2.0 comes out tomorrow. I’m excited and at the same time, I’m a tiny bit distracted as I am “on deadline” writing, with Erica Woolway and Colleen Driggs, our magnum opus (that term is tongue in cheek) on literacy: Reading Reconsidered.
Writing, I am reminded every time I am foolish enough to attempt it, is like crawling down a deep dark hole- you are digging desperately for daylight, you think, but sometimes you are just digging deeper and deeper. Writing I am reminded every time I am foolish enough to attempt it, is like stealing some cut rate magician’s magic wand. You go in with half an idea of what you want to have happen. There’s some gesticulating and sweating and then, bang, something brought to life. It ain’t yours really and you have no idea where it came from.
Anyway, it helps to crawl out of that hole (or put down the wand) sometimes and share a few bits. I did that all last winter when I was writing TLaC 2.0 and it kind of helped to keep me going. So in that spirit here are three quotes from the chapter I’m writing this week, which is on Text Selection. I hope it piques your interest. And maybe that you’ll comment and pique mine. And if nothing else here is proof that something is happening down that deep dark hole I crawl into every morning.
- Of course many high school students struggle to read Dickens. Exposed only to benignly appealing youth fiction written after 1980 and chosen for them because it is easily accessible, they arrive at Dickens’ doorstep and desperately glance around in search of Spark Notes. Students need experience reading diverse types of texts and taking on the challenges they pose—texts with different narrative voices, representing different genres, written in different periods, building different types of knowledge. We tend to assume that a basic skill like assessing character motivation is fungible across books, but is it? Will assessing the protagonist’s motivation in fifteen scenes from Joey Pigza Swallowed the Key set a student on a course that leads to the ability to understand Oliver Twist’s motivation? Or Fagin’s? Perhaps, but just as likely not. The Magician’s Nephew is an engaging text written to appeal to the imaginations of young readers but one that also happens to be 60 years old and that uses the more complex syntax and distinctive vocabulary of that era. Its narrative structure draws more explicitly on the Victorian tradition. It is, in short, a starter kit for students who one day aspire to read Dickens.
- We believe teachers should consider not just whether each book their students read is “good” but what the totality of the texts they choose for students accomplishes. The books students read and study in school, let us remember, are a finite commodity. From fourth grade through twelfth a typical student will probably read and intentionally study 60 or 70 books in English and reading classes; hopefully more but surely many students will read far fewer, alas, and these books must form the foundation of their knowledge of how literature works within and interacts with society. Teachers, and indeed society, we argue, cannot afford to leave to chance whether or not students will have read an unresolved ending in which good is not rewarded or a book in which where society is not what it claims to be, just as they cannot afford not to leave to chance whether students have read satire or a book written before 1900. Students who arrive on a college campus not having done these things are dead in the water.
- Truth be told, teachers are increasingly socialized to approach the task of choosing what to read as a bit of an after-thought. Most teachers would never say that out loud. We certainly don’t think that what our students read is irrelevant, but the reality is that we have come to believe that when we teach reading we are teaching students how to read, so decisions about what to read seem, by contrast, far less important. Teach a book—any book–the ‘right way’ we believe–by fostering rich discussion, say, and drawing students awareness to depth of characterization and the role of figurative language–and kids will learn to read equally well. The million dollar question of course, is to define ‘the right way,’ but for many teachers text selection boils down to choosing something relatively engaging for kids to read so there’s a viable platform for asking questions, analyzing text- practicing the skills of reading in whatever manner they define them. If kids will like it, that’s probably enough. The result is a narrow approach to choosing what students read and, we argue here, less learning overall. What students read shapes how and how well they learn to read, and in a wider variety of ways than we see reflected in common discourse. Understanding the role text choice plays in teaching students to read and broadening our present approach to selecting text is therefore an area of immense opportunity.