Say the words “Reading” and “Writing” and “Learning” and “Teaching” and everyone seems to have an opinion about how their worth and purpose. The education sector is awash in the discursive qualities and expanded dialogue of the processes and steps to becoming a passionate explorer in these realms. If we are going to have a discussion about these four activities, their purposes, and their outcomes, then we better start having open and honest discussion about them. We need to look at ourselves in the mirror if we work in some capacity with the skills associated to these terms, and we need to be as transparent and inquisitive about them as we can in talking to colleagues, parents, and our students.
I am currently the Director of Language and Literacy at YSC Academy in Wayne, PA. The school’s mission is: “YSC Academy provides passionate student-athletes the opportunity to maximize their academic and athletic potential through innovative best practices in the classroom and on the field. Our community is based on an ethos of trust, hard work, and a dedication to pursuing excellence. Our environment develops self-directed learners with a lifelong passion for learning.” Our school is new to the extent that we enjoy the little, daily struggles of building a culture around learning that engages each member of the community. As the director and English teacher for 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grade students — all who come from various educational and cultural backgrounds — it is my job to create opportunities and windows for students to see their literacy through the realms of citizenship, creativity, research, and partnership. Each day I am reminded of the dutiful dance a teacher must balance between leadership and “followership.”
The four terms in question — Reading, Writing, Teaching, & Learning — came to my thinking because of a recent article I came across. It is entitled “Why Students Hate Reading — And Often Aren’t Very Good At It.” Reading the article and the subsequent conversations swirling on the edge of the topic is appealing. Usually, as readers on the internet and users of such websites like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, we are taught to not give much attention to the “second-hand” smoke around the major topic. Agitators and trolls exist in the bushes around the real-life issue we are dealing with here. How many of us have adventured past the end of an article only to end up eventually reading the antagonistic and rather immature side-conversations that usually terminate in finger-pointing and name-calling. For the sake of this blog, I want to include those conversations because I notice they play a bigger role than we think in defending our position toward reading, writing, teaching, and learning.
Like I teach my young-adult readers, I am going to begin with the end in mine while still balancing some of the examples and evidence that lead to the overall conclusion. First off, “hate” is such a strong word. If we are working with students in our school who passionately abhor the work they doing, then that is a bigger issue. Furthermore, if we put the pieces together, we can assume that hatred probably stems from misinformation rather than lack of information. We must start with the basic question: “why do we read?” and we must work our way through the complex maze of the answers: to be informed, to learn, to go places, to share, to entertain ourselves, etc. These do not exist in a vacuum, and the role of any good guide is to provide BIG PICTURE for how all these philosophical questions work together in the context of the learner. In essence, we are helping our learners make connections way before they themselves can see those connections. We must be willing to ask the BIGGER questions.
Meaningful investment and purpose is the key to unlocking the definitions of reading, writing, teaching, and learning. We do the little things of breaking down words, using tools and strategies to decode characters and theme, in order to get at the marrow of life. Really good readers use reading to get at the raw material of what being human is really about. They absorb, digest, and appropriate the reading for them or for the class. Students absorb, digest, and appropriate a text in so many different ways that it is important we do not get buried in the excrement of their opinions or meaning-making processes along the way; rather, we just continue to question and create in a space where these processes can exist, and in essence put more emphasis on the processes than the results.
With so much emphasis on the processes of absorbing, digesting, and appropriating, the temptation might be to speed up in order to get as many students industrialized to the formula of good reading. Read more. Race to the Top. Quality over Quantity! THIS WE CANNOT, SHALL NOT, WILL NOT DO AS TEACHERS! We must slow down. Put on some classical music with a hot cup of Earl Grey and the sound of the dog barking outside slowly fades away. Francine Prose, author of Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books & For Those Who Want to Write Them, states: “One important thing that can be learned by reading slowly is the seemingly obvious but oddly underappreciated fact that language is the medium we use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. . . . it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.” This connects to the author of the “Why Students Hate Reading.” Terry Heick proposes: “there’s little wonder why students are increasingly seeking briefer, more visual, social, and dynamic media. Because not only are these media forms effortlessly entertaining, they rarely require meaningful investment of themselves. And it is this kind of connection that makes reading – or any other media consumption for that matter – feel alive and vibrant and whole. When readers are younger, there is a natural “give” between the reader and the text, their imaginations still raw and green and alive. But as readers grow older, there is less give – and more need for texts to be contextualized differently.” How is a blogger, teacher, and writer to make sense of these feuding arguments?
Meaningful investment and purpose is the roller-coaster ride we traverse in the midst of our job, and if we do not find the highs and lows of our job enjoyable anymore, then we must find another one that suits our interest. It is my job, and the job of all English teachers, to create opportunities and windows for meaningful investment and purpose. Literature is simply the vehicle through which we have students merge two realities: the text and themselves or the “I, Thou, and It” scenario. HOWEVER, it is not our job to define what meaningful investment and purpose is for each student. If a student HATES or is BORED or does not have any FEELING from the reading, then this is an opportunity to talk about the deliberate choices, the raw material, the evocative objects of the reading through observations and confusions.
One of my soccer-scholars may lose track of time engaging in social media while another may lose track of time in a book. Feeling alive, vibrant, and whole cannot be the end-goal of reading, writing, thinking, and learning — for this matter, they are merely stepping stones for teachers to engage adolescent readers. As Heick argues, readers skim because true, authentic reading causes them to self-reflect and engage in deep, essential questions with their humanity and their interdependence, and this kind of self-realization with the world can be horrifying! TERRIFYING! We must remember, we are guides for each learner, but I must disagree with Heick on this principle. Skimming is also reading and is not just a result of the kind of relationships we are asking our students to create with their texts. Skimming is part of a larger epidemic. No English teacher or student will say they haven’t used the skill of skimming to get what they need for the class or test. The College Board and the amount of standardization in this country is also part of the problem, the mechanization of reading for the sake of getting at a multiple choice answer. There is no quick and dirty solution. Instead, schools must take a more proactive approach to define these skills in an INTERDEPENDENT way. That starts with a conversation again defining what reading, writing, teaching, and learning look like in meaningful and purposeful contexts AND on a PERSONAL LEVEL.
We cannot forget, however, from where this article arrives. Finish the article and you will then see RELATED POSTS such as “How to Read a Book: 3 Strategies,” “25 Reading Comprehension Strategies,” and “Teaching Students to Respond to Texts.” Within the realms of reading, writing, thinking, and learning, aren’t all these connected, especially in a blog entitled “Te@chThought”?
Because of the endless strategies to get readers to make meaningful investment and create purpose out of their reading, the temptation is to give them all the strategies at once or to ask them basic 5-W and 1-H questions about their reading. These questions might look like this: “WHO is the story about? 2. WHAT is happening so far? 3. WHY is it happening? 4. WHERE is the story taking place so far? 5. WHEN is the story happening at this part? 6. HOW do you feel about what is happening or HOW do you think it will turn out?” Over time, these questions may become mechanical or industrialized to the context of the classroom if they are not re-questioned from a meta-cognitive perspective. Why are we doing what we are doing. I believe, at first, this kind of self-reflection can be terrifying for students, but over time and with a patient teacher who sees the ecology of learning, can become the right kind of mix to facilitate passionate learners.
I started this blog with the school’s mission. Here it is again: “YSC Academy provides passionate student-athletes the opportunity to maximize their academic and athletic potential through innovative best practices in the classroom and on the field. Our community is based on an ethos of trust, hard work, and a dedication to pursuing excellence. Our environment develops self-directed learners with a lifelong passion for learning.” Much of the issues with reading, writing, thinking, and learning we are dealing with exist within the margins. We tend to marginalize the “otherness” of our thinking about a text while it is still in its inchoate stage. I’ve included other voices in this blog because, ultimately, the Ecology of Learning to Read and Write, is what makes good and passionate readers and writers.
There is a danger if these diverse voices start to put too much emphasis on the ideas and politics of the reading, writing, teaching, and learning. We must put an emphasis simply on the processes themselves. This kind of conversation exists when we can have honest and transparent conversations about the processes with ourselves, our colleagues, and our students.
If we really want to have an open dialogue about reading, writing, teaching, and learning, then we must start to ask harder questions of the ecology of our network such as, but not limited to:
- How do we structure the school so that learners are learning from learners?
- How can we optimize and maximize resources for learners to teach learners?
- How do we honor the importance of making/tinkering with learning as an entire school?
- How are we going to scale our learning system so that learning independently and collaboratively is the norm?
- What social practices and institutional structures are most important in generating this new learning scape?
- What kinds of permission do we give our students?
- What kinds of permission are required in order to achieve our mission?
In reading Heick’s article, it has sparked more personal questions related to my teaching and my being and my role as a teammate in my school. These are questions I have been dabbling with for quite some time as my school moves forward through its 2nd official year and my 3rd year as part of the team helping to build the school.
I look forward to hearing from you and your thoughts.