Sunday, April 3, 2011

Are all readers created equal?

Some of you who frequent this space might not know that I am in my capstone course for an M.Ed in Language and Literacy from USC. (Okay, most of you who frequent this space are in that same program. But I like to pretend I have other readers.) It is not a thesis program (hence, the M.Ed. and not the M.A., I am guessing) but we have a culminating academic paper due in, um, 11 days, which is to be a synthesis of our understanding about one of the tenets of literacy instruction we've explored and embraced over these 33 hours/ 3 years. Am I the only one who thinks this is actually a thesis program? Hey, we've been doing academic vocabulary in our district - see that "thesis" root in "synthesis" up there? Yeah. I am to express belief and support it with evidence from the Body of Works we've studied...

Anyway, I digress. (Not shocking.) And I am on this site writing some random ponderings instead of in Word writing the bloody paper. (Also, not shocking.) But not really...

See, I just finished rereading a couple of articles we read at the beginning of our program, way back in the summer of 2008, right at the peak of my mourning and during a time when I still wasn't certain if I would be teaching the coming fall. Both were about Louise Rosenblatt: one was her thoughts on reading occurring in the transaction between reader and text, and on the efferent and aesthetic stances of readers. The other, on her theory in practice at my pal Emily Grace's AMAZING elementary school. As I read these articles with my older and (perhaps) wiser eyes, I experienced something new (as Louise would have predicted). Actually, I think I experienced some of the same old things, just with a different perspective grounded in having experienced more living and teaching and mothering.

Here's what I read today: School too often interferes with growing readers by trying to grow them too quickly, at someone else's arbitrarily inflicted pace and under someone else's definition of "growth."

Now, some of you are trying to figure out how I got there, I am guessing. (Some of you might not have any idea what I am talking about, but read on, and I promise some of it might make sense.) This week, my precious babies (those both borne and assigned unto me) took MAP (Measures of Academic Progress) Reading. They sat at their little computer screens and answered all kinds of "comprehension" questions about passages, roots of words, literary elements, and such. Some of them did astoundingly better on this administration of MAP than they had in the fall. A good many of them flatlined within the range they had scored in the fall. My own personal fifth grader kicked its assonance, both in raw score and in fall-spring difference, especially unusual given that she didn't have much room to grow! With all this MAP on the mind and with my existential ponderings of my core beliefs which I call "pre-writing," I came to wonder what in the world is going on in our classrooms and lives that makes one kid's MAP Reading transaction produce results so very different than another's.

It occurs to me that MAP (and, indeed, PASS, SAT, and all other standardized testing) measures not "academic progress" but "dominance of efferent stance in experiencing this text." It also occurs to me that the brilliant things my students have said all year long about the texts we've shared and the ones they've read with friends can not be reflected by this test. Now, I don't teach Kori (thanks be to God) but I do teach lots and lots of little people who have been in her classes since first grade. She has sat alongside these chronological peers for the same "lessons" in reading and writing, math, science, and social studies. She has heard the same lectures, done the same activities and projects, eaten the same lunch, played the same PE games... In short, she has lived with these people school day in and school day out. But she looks infinitely "smarter" when it comes to the numbers she can get the test to produce.

And yes, y'all, that girl is smart. But I can't say that she thinks any more deeply than the people I teach. She is clever and witty, but no more so than many of my babies. She is quick to incorporate new concepts into her current understandings of the world, but I teach lots of kids who are that way. I am definitely not involved in her homework - never have been - and I don't even read to her anymore. (Sad!) Our family is as dysfunctional as the next. (OK, maybe not, but we do argue and keep a messy house and watch a lot of tv...) HOW DID SHE LEARN TO PLAY THE TESTING GAME?

The only answer I have is that reading is a part of her - a big part - and she has always been a reader, not just of texts, but of everything around her. She studies her environment, connects to it, makes everything make sense. But don't these other kids? Didn't their mommies take them to the hands-on museums and the Little Gym and all the other hyper-mom nonsense I've done? Most of them did. Some of them have provided experiences I never even thought of or cared to! But something in her multitude of experiences made language, made literacy make sense to her in a way that it doesn't yet to so many other kids. She can distinguish "paradox" from "oxymoron" and "hyperbole" because she constructed ideas of these concepts, then someone named them for her, and then she managed to remember the name long enough to recognize it on the test. Maybe her aesthetic stance toward life has enabled her to code-switch and recognize when an efferent stance is needed, and her aesthetic reading foundation has made the efferent possible...

It is hard for me to distinguish which of my beliefs about reading and learning were always part of me, which ones were confirmed by my participation in this program, and which ones I have only recently come to hold true. I do know this: learning is harder for some kids than others, particularly "academic" learning. Maybe it isn't even harder as much as it takes longer to take root. But our system fails those kids by making them jump right into demonstrating their understanding before they are ready to even realize that they DO understand. We fail them by spending too much of their life hours doing mundane and damaging tasks rather than helping them see what a life as a reader and learner has to offer. We spend precious hours teaching them how to use each other's expertise to further their writing and how it feels to record your thoughts and share them with the world, and then we have to spend countless more hours helping them learn how to respond to a prompt all by themselves without assistance of any resource other than a dictionary and a thesaurus. It's crap. Pure. Crap. And I don't know how much longer I can endure it.

So, to bring it back to my title - are all readers created equal? YES. Yes, they are, in that each is equipped with the capacity to acquire language and to use it to make sense of the world around them. Each is born to be loved and to experience life fully. Each comes to school looking for someone to help them further their understanding of the world. And we systematically blow it for so many of our kids by doing ridiculous things in the name of Education.

I don't need a test to show me which kids are readers and which are not. They all are. I see it in them every day, and I intend full well to help them see it, too.