The Ever-Changing Reading & Writing Connection

While I do not enjoy doing end-of-the-term reflections, but I at least know that they are an important learning tool. That being said, I will say that this semester’s work has certainly opened my mind up to the varied ways in which literacy permeates every facet of society. As I prepare to reenter the education profession, I feel that my experiences in this course will give me a new insight into what my students need in order to succeed in the wider world.

One particular study that still intrigues me, and whose title and author escape me at the moment, is the one concerning whether or not students become better readers and writers if their own teachers are identified as strong in those respects. Thinking back to my own experiences in the classroom, I could tell that those teachers I did have who at least appeared to be good readers and writers certainly gave me more motivation to perform at a higher standard than I would teachers who did not appear as such. Even amongst teaching colleagues I could see the same results. With experiences such as these, it’s no wonder that I find myself at the end of this term more in the social camp of literacy development.

I will be honest, but prior to coming into graduate school I had little knowledge, or desire to learn, about work place literacies. As the standards I was drilled with during my undergraduate were so focused on preparing students for college, I felt that the same approach would be good enough for those students entering the work place. With what I know now, I can see just how wrong I was, and especially how damaging my approach may have been to my students. During my student-teaching term I had the opportunity to teach in a “Fiction & Novels” course, which was the second-semester of the “non-college bound/non-college prep” track—which I lovingly compared to the Sweat Hogs from Welcome Back, Kotter. If I had known more about workplaces literacies, I would have done more to validate their identities as readers and writers instead of simply writing them off as the “slack course.” If put into a similar situation in the future, I would do more to integrate skills that could be useful in the workplace, but not at the expense of helping my students become well-rounded people through reading literature.

I guess that is the reading & writing connection—that they permeate every aspect of our society to the point where they go for granted.

Contemplating the Common Core

Over the past two years, I have been exposed to a movement that I had no knowledge of when I was initially getting my teaching license, that being the movement for a national set of school standards. While it is not unheard of for industrialized nations to have such a thing, America has been very reluctant to do so with its damn-fooled individualistic nature. While I will not got as far as to say that the Common Core is the end-all-beat-all, but it is a step in the right direction.

Ideally, the implementation of a national curriculum would be developed by the U.S. Department of Education, including the opinions and insights of educators. This was not the case with the Common Core, and that is one of the major issues I have with it. Just like anything else in America, it has been left to private enterprise to do it. The Common Core stresses that it is preparing students for college and career, but are they doing it effectively and are they doing it out of altruistic means? The fact that a private, for-profit organization is doing so should answer that question.

As I was working on my Master’s project, I grew quite accustomed to the 11-12 standards involving reading and writing. In tying the pieces in my project to the standards, I found that there ended up being a lot of overlapping—especially since none of the standards explicitly could be attached to poetry. There were times where I had to make a stretched case for their use…I particularly remember using the standard concerning reading “pieces of the American literary canon” for the poems of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Langston Hughes. I found this a bit disconcerting as “American” literature was given its own standard, while the only author specifically required to be taught was Shakespeare. So the only pieces that should be required are those from an Anglo-American perspective? This is not the message I would want to send to students, that the only literature worth reading is the kind written by dead-white men.

I could go on further, but I will say this: the Common Core is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, it is a first step in the right direction.

Research Topic–Graphic Narratives and Literacy Development

As it is my intention to return to teaching after graduate school, I want to focus on classroom literacies. Now this is a rather broad topic, and I have a few areas within that in which I could draw upon for my final project. As I was doing my research for my master’s project, adolescent literacy development really started to stand out as an area where I had a genuine interest. What exactly causes some young adults to become better readers while others just slog along with great difficulty? I had observed more than enough instances of this during my teaching career thus far and have always wondered about that. This now presents me with an opportunity to start unravelling this mystery.

There are many factors that can affect how a young adult gains adult-level literacy skills, but from what I have read and observed I cannot help but feel that it is what they are reading that presents the biggest factor. One particularly vivid image I have in regards to this quandary occurred during my first year of teaching, in which an eighth grader—who admittedly that he hated reading and did not “need” my class due to his future employment on his family’s ranch—literally ran to the library after I made it known that I had just donated two sets of The Hunger Games Trilogy. This sticks out as a concrete example of how what is being read can impact how students read. I will admit that student choice is not always an option when it comes to what they read, particularly in terms of having to read pieces that are considered canonical and “required,” but if there could be a way to elicit reactions like the one illustrated above more often, I am certain students would leave high school reading at or above an adult level.

This is where things get tricky for me in terms of what I wish to focus on. While I had expressed an interest in researching whether young adults gain literacy mastery through reading canonical texts or pieces written with their demographics in mind, there has been another type of literacy-development area that I never really put too much thought into before attending graduate school—and that is the teaching of the graphic novel. A number of classes I have taken have spoken of how not only using graphic novels in the English/language arts classroom, and while they discussed how useful they could be in engaging students and helping struggling readers, I would like to see more said about how they help all students and the impact they can have on reading skills. A lot has been said about how graphic novels require a greater effort to decode and interpret, but how do these skills translate into, say, performance on a reading assessment or comprehending and analyzing a traditional novel? It is with these questions in mind that I am going to start my research.

The Socio-Economic Factor

A lot has been said in our recent readings concerning the connection between socio-economic status (SES) and literacy development. While this is a connection that in hindsight seems obvious, I cannot hold it against the authors for pointing it out in the first place. Yes, it has been proven that higher SES students have greater access to books, have parents who read to them, and have access to other means of literacy as opposed to low SES students, but I guess from my own experience this tended to always be the case.

 Growing up, I would have been considered a low SES student from middle school onward. While my parents were readers and our house was overflowing with books, compared to my peers we were on the lower-end of the spectrum. The schools I attended tended to favor more of the affluent neighborhoods in our city, and since both of my schools had reputations for academics that attracted even more high SES students due to our district’s open enrollment policy. Now maybe I was the exception in that case, but as I was a B-A student in a class of predominantly AP students, one does start to see the connection.

 This connection between SES and literacy development did not really hit home for me until I was doing my internship-level of student teaching in my undergraduate. I was assigned to Dakota Valley Middle School, which primarily served the town of Dakota Dunes—a town made by all the rich people who worked across the South Dakota-Iowa border in Sioux City but decided to live in South Dakota due to it not having any state income tax. Now while this case of rich people building their own town isn’t completely unheard of, the fact that the school also served as the school for the local rural communities as well. From day one of my time of working with seventh and eighth graders I could see the MASSIVE disparity between the two levels.

 Now in terms of how this affected their literacy development, one striking example that stands to mind was the literature circles the seventh graders were placed in for class. While the groups were composed by reading level, I distinctly remember that the students in the reading groups doing more complex books like The Hobbit and The Diary of Anne Frank were predominantly high SES students while those in the lower-end group reading The Outsiders and Treasure Island were low SES. I remember asking my mentor teacher why this separation was occurring, and she told me that she had to break it down by reading ability in order to be fair, but even she acknowledged the disparity as simply a fact of life for teaching in that district. Now I am all for differentiated instruction, but this was a little ridiculous.

 I know I may be making a lot of generalizations here, but since it has been proven—yes, I will say proven—that SES affects literacy development, can we please work on a way of getting past that?

Can you tell me how to get…how to get to literacy

In a recent class we spent time discussing the many ways each of us had acquired literacy, and I had mentioned one of the biggest factors for myself…namely Sesame Street. While the bulk of my literacy acquisition still can be attributed to my parents—especially my mother who read to me and always encouraged me to attempt reading—looking back I can say that Jim Henson and Joan Ganz Cooney’s gift to children was also instrumental. With that in mind I thought I would expound on that a bit.

By the time I was born, Sesame Street had been on the air thirteen years and established itself as a powerful force for children’s pre-school learning. The colorful Muppets—another factor that helped the show cement a place in my life due to my lifelong love of Henson’s work—along with the “commercial style” vignettes illustrating letters and numbers captivated my developing mind and imagination. As a child when you see Guy Smiley hosting a beauty pageant for letters or Kermit getting frustrated by a little girl’s inability to focus on the alphabet, there was something that inside me just clicked. Instead of the dry board books with “See Spot run” plastered amongst colorful illustrations, I actually saw reading come to life and to see the power behind it. There was even repetition and a chance for practice as some times I would see the same episode or the same “commercials” during the week.

As I grew, it seemed that the show did as well. By the time I was able to read a little bit, the concepts on Sesame Street seemed to grow more challenging as well. I would not learn until the 20th anniversary special that the show had a curriculum—which was honestly the first time I had ever heard the word that would go on to become a major part of my life as an educator—that would gradually improve. So while I had advanced past knowing the alphabet—which, it turned out, was not a single word—to learning how to read in the contexts of science, history, and even some Spanish.

My placement with Sesame Street and my acquiring literacy was a perfect storm that, looking back, I’m certain could not have been replicated or even purposefully started. The show had gained enough national—and in some countries, international—attention that it shifted its focus away from simply preparing inner-city children for preschool with its original penchant for the local vernacular—that it had to appeal to all children. At this same time my father was deployed to South Korea and my mother had to work two jobs—one of which was at J.C. Penny’s, a store that had a licensing deal with the Children’s Television Workshop, so subconsciously I must have made a connection between my mother’s job and the show, as I remember a few times visiting her at work and seeing the statue of Big Bird surrounded by clothes racks. So in this case the reinforcement of the show must have added to my literacy development as it showed—at least to a toddler’s eyes—that reading was important because the show was “real,” therefore I had to learn to read if I ever went there. Of course as I grew I learned it was only as real as the places inside of the books I would cling to, but the impact it had certainly was real.

Why are we still talking about race in 2012?

Discussing issues of race, from my experience as a teacher, has always been a touchy subject since my classes have predominantly been Caucasian with very few minority students. Yet despite this, I had made it an objective of mine to address such issues—especially if these students were to enter the greater world and interact with people in a less-homogenous environment. Like many of the discussions I have lead concerning such issues, I tried to use literature as kind of an introduction to the issue. While I try to keep my classroom open to discussion, I always found that I ended up having to play the role of “Devil’s Advocate” depending on the predominant perspective of the class—I have had to play both sides of the race topic. The hardest part of this had to have been working against the misconceptions my students had about race, given that many of them had little interaction with people of different racial and cultural backgrounds and most of their views were based on what they saw in the media. Even those minority students I did have felt uncomfortable having to be the lone voice for their race…most of whom by the time they reached high school had assimilated into the dominant culture to the point where any distinct racial qualities had been suppressed.

As educators, especially in high school, it is our responsibility to prepare our students for the greater world…and for those of us who are teaching in highly homogeneous communities that does mean addressing issues of race/gender/sexuality/ability. English class always seems to be the class where these issues are addressed the most…with the social sciences usually playing them off from a historic/sociological/psychological perspective. When teachers allow students to write about these issues, or read about them through the texts presented in class, they are exposed to new ideas that they may not have experienced before.  Now I will admit it could be construed as disingenuous for a Caucasian-appearing teacher (like myself) teaching the Harlem Renaissance to a class of students as white as the driven snow, and I will also admit that I have had my share of dealing with overtly racist attitudes in my classroom similar to the ones described by Logan—but these discussions need to happen.

The world is getting smaller and more inter-connected than ever before, and students need to realize that they need to be aware of what the rest of the world is like. Yet I feel that even when schools make a note to address such issues, they tend to be shallow at best unless there is an active effort on the part of the faculty…or at the least a representation of ANY minority group in the faculty or student body. Sadly, when there are cases like these, it just shows the worst of human nature. They do not want to acknowledge that there are people who are different from themselves in such minor ways as their skin color, and that makes them afraid. Throw in a minority teacher and you have parents creating a fecal tornado because their students may learn something they are sheltering them against. It’s the second decade of the 2000s, we need to get past this already.