A Meditation on Stringing Words Together: The National’s “Roman Holiday”

I’m still standing in the same place where you left me standing

“I Am Easy to Find,” The National

For those of us who love words and fall deeply in love with authors and pop music performers, few things are as exciting as new works. I listened for the first time to The National’s I Am Easy to Find on the release day during a long drive.

The first song, “You Had Your Soul with You,” had already been released so my rush happened on the second song, “Quiet Light,” when I felt the urge to cry before the lyrics even began.

And by the seventh song, the titular “I Am Easy to Find,” I could hold back no longer, crying steadily as I drove. There is something uniquely powerful about the combination of beautiful music and beautiful words strung together in a way that make your heart ache.

As an English teacher for about two decades during the first half of my career, I was always searching for an effective way to teach poetry well. Students tended not to like poetry but also had very narrow and mistaken associations with poetry—poetry rhymes, for example, and being overly concerned with what poems mean.

It probably seems trite, but I did find that investigating poetry—asking, what makes poetry, poetry?—combined with starting with pop music song lyrics helped allay student antagonism toward what I consider a beautiful and powerful form of human expression.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I grounded my poetry unit in the music of R.E.M. Although I now mainly teach education and writing courses, I continue to think as an English teacher—especially in terms of applying reading like a writer to text such as song lyrics to inform how we read and write well.

Especially with the rise of close reading, driven by the mostly now defunct Common Core, many formal lessons focusing on analyzing text remains trapped in false notions that meaning is restricted to the parameters of the text, words strung together on the page.

“I’m your hospital, I’m your silver cross,” opens The National’s “Roman Holiday,” preparing the listener for how to unpack these metaphors, but also confronting the arguments of close reading that meaning is a mechanical process bound to text only.

In the opening verse as well, “Patti wasn’t lonely, Robert wasn’t lost” establishes the factual basis of the song, explained by the primary lyricist, Matt Berninger:

I am a huge fan of that book [Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids], but I was actually looking at Judy Linn’s book of Patti Smith photos. A lot of the imagery in it is of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe when they were really young, just hanging out in their apartment: dressing up, taking pictures of each other, looking cool. It’s such a beautiful portrait of pals, such a romance. And then there’s also a line I took from Patti Smith’s Instagram, a comment she sent to somebody who had just lost someone to suicide: “Please think the best of him.” I found it incredibly moving. I was just obsessed with her kindness and her wisdom in the face of so many sad things.

Carin Besser, Berninger’s wife and co-lyricist on The National lyrics for several of the recent albums, adds how being a lyricist is similar to poetry in an interview:

You have a background in poetry and as a writer and editor. How is lyric writing similar or different than what you’ve done in the past?

I think I probably like the same thing about poems and song lyrics. When I read poems or listen to a song I love, I get very hung up on certain lines, especially lines I both don’t and do understand. I love that. But it’s not that impressive. It’s like being attracted to sequins. I don’t really understand story or plot well, but I love a way of finding that compressed or cock-eyed way of saying the thing, so that you can kind of re-hear the thing, or so that you can hear the feeling of thought on its way.

Any kind of language on the way to an idea, I tend to like. It’s mysterious enough to me that I stay interested. I also love songs where the singer is rambling on and almost doesn’t seem to hear what the song is doing. Or when a vocal melody slides around in order to make a point. I also sometimes feel like with song-making, there are all these bags of fireworks laying around, so many ways in a song with a singer and against the backdrop of all the musical ideas, so many ways to try to make an impression.

As a foundational text to investigate poetry—genre, mode, form—”Roman Holiday” is a powerful experience for students. Typically, using pop music, I ask students to listen to the song once without any lyrics; I then do a second listening with the lyric before the students.

Without context, “Roman Holiday” may be read a number of valid ways, focusing on unpacking the technique (metaphor, rhyme/half-rhyme, sound devices, imagery, motifs) in a traditional process (think New Criticism and close reading).

The half-rhymes are engaging (cross/lost, rains/shame, him/museum) and sounds help give the lyrics cohesion (please/police). But analyzing “Roman Holiday” decontextualized ultimately fails the song and the reading; better is to place the song in a text set including:

Technique and craft of the lyrics and the entire song are effective and powerful, but they are vehicles for the much larger discourse between a variety of texts and modes of expression, including photography, memoir, and social media.

If close reading guides coming to understand “Roman Holiday,” we are having an incomplete experience. This song depends on history, controversy, and two influential artists, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe.

How Smith, specifically, has resonated as an artist and thinker while Mapplethorpe died much younger builds along with Smith’s response to suicide (“Please, think the best of him”) to something both grounded in these two lives and the greater and more complex human condition.

While reading and interpreting text remains concepts misunderstood and misrepresented in the media and by the public, this sort of rich and complex unpacking of “Roman Holiday” speaks to how NCTE defines reading:

Reading is a complex and purposeful sociocultural, cognitive, and linguistic process in which readers simultaneously use their knowledge of spoken and written language, their knowledge of the topic of the text, and their knowledge of their culture to construct meaning with text. Each of these types of knowledge impacts the sense that readers construct through print. Readers easily comprehend text with familiar language but are less successful at comprehending text with unfamiliar language. Readers easily comprehend text on familiar topics but are less successful at comprehending texts on unfamiliar topics. At the same time, the interpretations readers construct with texts as well as the types of texts they read are influenced by their life experiences.

Without a knowledge of the topic of this song (Smith and Mapplethorpe’s relationship), a close reading misses a great deal. Yes, there is really compelling craft here, but there is also history and deep emotion.

Pop songs, like poetry, lend them selves to re-listening/rereading. Meaning grows, even blossoms with each experience because we are always a different person each time we re-listen/reread.

The meaning of any text is never fixed, never simply trapped in the stringing together of words.

For me, “There are police in the museum/She said please” stays with me after hearing the song; the use of “police/please” haunts me.

I am uncertain I can articulate why, but it certainly has meaning—and that meaning is more than intellect, enriched by emotion.


See Also

Florence Welch on Sobriety, Embracing Loneliness and Loving Patti Smith

Florence + The Machine – Patricia

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The Enduring Influence of the National Reading Panel (and the “D” Word)

What do the National Reading Panel (NRP) report (2000), A Nation at Risk (1983), and the seminal “word gap” study by Hart and Risley (1992/1995) have in common?

First, each of these has become a recurring citation in mainstream media when addressing reading (NRP), school accountability (A Nation at Risk), and literacy (“word gap”).

Next, and quite troubling to those of us in education and literacy, all of these have been debunked.

A wide array of scholars have called into question Hart and Risley’s methods, conclusions, and assumptions. Gerald Bracey and Gerald Holton have unmasked A Nation at Risk as a false political crisis. And NRP panelist Joanne Yatvin as well as Stephen Krashen have significantly refuted the validity of the NRP report and process.

Recently, the reading wars have been rebooted across mainstream media; concurrent with that has been a rash of new reading legislation in several states.

In both cases, a common phrase is “the science of reading,” a thin veil for renewed emphasis on systematic phonics—in part driven by advocates for children with dyslexia.

News articles across Education Week, NPR, PBS, and other outlets have praised this so-called need for the science of reading while almost uniformly referring to the NRP as the primary research base for that “science.”

One journalist, Emily Hanford, who won an EWA award for her “science of reading” article, discounted my charged the NRP had been debunked with “One member expressing a minority view does not equal ‘debunked.'”

Here, I want to note that I have discovered many people react strongly to the term “debunk,” seemingly because they interpret its meaning simplistically; however, note the nuance of the term:

debunk

In the case of the NRP report, I contend it has been debunked because, specifically, a member of the committee who protested that the panel included no genuine teacher of reading has carefully shown that the report is inadequate and also predicted it would be misused in the following ways:

FALSE: The National Reading Panel was a diverse and balanced group of reading experts.

TRUE: Congress asked for a balanced panel, but that’s not what it got….

FALSE: The panel carried out a comprehensive analysis of the entire field of reading research.

TRUE: Only a small fraction of the field was considered, and only a few hundred studies were actually analyzed….

FALSE: The panel determined that there are five essentials of reading instruction.

TRUE: Although the NRP reported positive results for five of the six instructional strategies it investigated, it never claimed that these five were the essential components of reading….

FALSE: The panel endorsed only explicit, systematic instruction. [a]

TRUE: Only in the phonics subgroup report is “explicit, systematic” instruction called essential….

FALSE: The panel identified certain comprehensive commercial reading programs as being research-based, and concluded that teachers need one of these programs, or a comparable program, to teach children effectively.

TRUE: No comprehensive reading programs were investigated by the panel. The panel had nothing to say about whether teachers need a commercial program or can develop their own….

FALSE: The panel identified phonics as the most important component of reading instruction throughout the elementary grades. [a]

TRUE: The panel made no such determination….

FALSE: The panel found that phonics should be taught to all students throughout the elementary grades. [a]

TRUE: The panel found no evidence to justify teaching phonics to normally progressing readers past 1st grade….

FALSE: The panel’s findings repudiate whole language as an approach to teaching reading.

TRUE: The panel did not investigate whole language as a topic and did not draw any conclusions about it as an approach to teaching reading….

ALSE: The panel found research evidence indicating how teachers should be trained to teach reading. [a]

TRUE: The panel found no such evidence….

I stand fast that even though Yatvin technically is a minority opinion, she has the greatest expertise of the panel and her clarifications have proven accurate.

But there is more reason to reject the NRP report as sacrosanct guidance for how to teach reading; it was at the center of the politically corrupt Reading First scandal that exposed relationships between government officials and Open Court textbooks.

It is not mere speculation that there is a problematic relationship between phonics advocacy and for-profit organizations serving education.

The short version about the fact of the NRP being debunked is that it was a politically skewed panel from the beginning, and then its process was also deeply flawed, manipulating what research was considered in order to favor a systematic phonics message that wasn’t supported by the actual science of reading available then, and now.

To reference the NRP report as credible is to overstate its value, to misrepresent not only the report but the field of teaching reading.

Yet, journalists with no expertise in literacy and no background in the history of reading or teaching reading are falling prey to alluring language, “the science of reading,” and fulfilling the warnings offered by Yatvin nearly two decades ago.


[a] Note that in the current media coverage of “the science of reading,” this is exactly how references to the NRP are being misused.

Parent Advocacy and the New (But Still Misguided) Phonics Assault on Reading

“School days were eagerly anticipated by Francie,” a central character in Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (p. 143). The novel often is a powerful fictional account of poverty among white working class people at the turn of the twentieth century.

But Francie Nolan is also a girl who loves books, libraries, and an idealized view of what formal schooling will be. Yet, “[b]efore school, there had to be vaccination,” the narrator explains. “That was the law”:

When the health authorities tried to explain to the poor and illiterate that vaccination was  a giving of the harmless form of smallpox to work up immunity against the deadly form, the parents didn’t believe it. … Some foreign-born parents refused to permit their children to be vaccinated. They were not allowed to enter school. Then the law got after them for keeping the children out of school. A free country? they asked. (pp. 143-144)

Left alone by their working mother, Francie and her brother, Neeley, must go for their vaccinations, prodded only by a neighbor who rouses them from playing in the dirt and mud. Francie suffers through not only the shot itself, but also the doctor’s insensitive and classist criticism: “‘Filth, filth, filth, from morning to night. I know they’re poor but they could wash. Water is free and soap is cheap. Just look at that arm nurse'” (p. 146).

Despite the trauma of the vaccinations and the class-shaming by the doctor, “Francie expected great things from school” (p. 151). However, “Brutalizing is the only adjective for the public schools of that district around 1908 and ’09. Child psychology had not been heard of in Williamsburg in those days” (p. 153).

That “brutalizing” included:

The cruelest teachers were those who had come from homes similar to those of the poor children. It seemed that in their bitterness towards those unfortunate little ones, they were somehow exorcizing their own fearful backgrounds. (p. 153)

A decade past a century since this novel, and I must acknowledge there is a disturbing series of patterns that remain, including the anti-vaccination movement as well as a significant portion of parents who find public schools unresponsive to the needs of specific populations of students.

Since I am currently reading Smith’s novel, I was drawn to some comparisons when I encountered, once again, the media’s misguided fascination with the “science of reading”: What parents of dyslexic children are teaching schools about literacy from PBS News Hour.

I cannot help asking if mainstream media would ever run this story: What anti-vaccination parents are teaching doctors about disease.

And then, while the new (but still misguided) phonics assault on reading has been spreading for a few years now, Education Week once again piles onto the bandwagon driven by parents advocating for their children with dyslexia: Stephen Sawchuk’s Battle Over Reading: Parents of Children With Dyslexia Wage Curriculum War and College of Education Now Prepares Teachers in the Science of Reading.

Sawchuk’s piece recycles both misinformation about dyslexia (1 in 10 children are diagnosed, according to Dyslexia International, but many sources suggest the exact percentage ranges from 5% to 17%) and resorts once again to citing the National Reading Panel as a credible report on reading (it has been thoroughly debunked). In fact, intensive, systematic phonics for all students has also been discredited.

Yet as Andrew Davis acknowledges: “The zeal with which synthetic phonics is championed by its advocates has been remarkably effective in pushing it to the top of the educational agenda; but we should not mistake zeal for warrant.”

As I examined and unpacked concerning school choice, we must resist idealizing parental choice, even in regard to those parents’ children. The anti-vaccination movement occurring now is grounded in both those parents wanting what is best (in their view) for their children’s health and a garbled misunderstanding of vaccinations driven by one deeply flawed study that makes those parents believe they have science on their side:

Lacking the scientific background, in an attempt to protect their children, parents contemplating the risk of vaccine are vulnerable to omission biases by which they are more likely to take the risk of inaction than the risk of action….

The anti-vaccine movement appears to be part of a larger trend of discontent and distrust in the established preeminence of scientific evidence over impressions and opinions. A corollary to the discontent is the democratization of health-related decision making, by which stakeholders have an increasingly stronger voice over experts, as well as the dethroning of the Expert. While democratization of health care decision making is cheered by liberals and conservatives alike, its benefits are still to be proven. Decisions in the area of disease prevention require knowledge of the medical field involved and an understanding of statistics, in the absence of which no amount of communication skills and efforts would do any good.

This, I think, is a powerful harbinger of how the new (but still misguided) phonics assault on reading is being perpetuated by rhetoric (“the science of reading”) and zeal among parents who seek to democratize the teaching of reading, and as a result, the expertise of literacy educators is erased and replaced by parent will and political caveat.

Here are some essential facts being ignored by the avalanche of zeal among mostly parents of children with dyslexia:

  • No student, regardless of special needs such as dyslexia, should be mis-served by our public education system. Parents of children advocating for best practices in the service of their children must be heard, and public schools must respond, attended to, however, by special needs educators and scholars, not the policy demands of the parents or political leaders. “My child must be served” is different than “This is how you will serve my child.”
  • Reading needs of the general population of students must not be held hostage to the needs of unique subsets of students—especially when the zeal of a few is allowed to overwhelm the expertise of educators and literacy scholars.
  • Historically, reading instruction has been a victim of false crisis rhetoric, and current calls for “the science of reading” is yet another round of phonic-only propaganda that cannot serve students well.
  • The research base on reading instruction (the actual science of reading) has never rejected phonics instruction (including whole language and balanced literacy), but each student needs varying degrees of direct phonics instruction, only enough so that the student begins reading and develops as a reader through holistic experiences such as reading by choice and being read to.
  • There has never been a time in the history of formal education in the U.S. that some have not claimed we have a reading crisis. Never. That crisis rhetoric has always been misguided and driven by those with some ulterior agenda or no expertise in literacy.
  • Most of the ways that formal schooling now fails students in terms of reading instruction can be connected to the accountability movement—focusing on ever-changing standards and high-stakes testing as well as imposing prescriptive reading programs onto teachers and students.

Parental zeal in the anti-vaccination movement has spurred measles outbreaks, proving that parental zeal must not be allowed to trump medical expertise.

Parental zeal for public schools properly serving students with dyslexia must not be allowed to drive reading policy for all children; this is just as unwarranted even as the consequences may not be so easily exposed.


 

“A case for why both sides in the ‘reading wars’ debate are wrong — and a proposed solution” Is 50% Wrong

In her The Answer Sheet, Valerie Strauss offers yet another post about the current Reading War/Crisis: A case for why both sides in the ‘reading wars’ debate are wrong — and a proposed solution.

Strauss explains before offering the long post:

This is an unusual post about the “reading wars,” that seemingly never-ending battle about how to best teach reading to students — systematic phonics or whole language. This argues that both sides have it wrong, and the authors, two brothers who are literacy experts, suggest a new way.

While this is a provocative, often nuanced, and compelling, it makes a fatal flaw common in the seemingly never-ending false war between phonics and whole language by misdefining whole language and then failing to take care when citing research that seems to show neither systematic phonics nor whole language are more effective than the other.

First, let me offer an example of this type of failure in a slightly different context, the powerful and complicated work of Lisa Delpit.

Delpit has made for many years a strong case about the inequity of educational opportunities that cheat black students (as well as many other vulnerable populations). At times, Delpit’s work has been co-opted by traditional advocates for education—notably those calling for intensive phonics and isolated grammar instruction.

Here, Delpit make a very direct refuting of that sort of co-opting:

I do not advocate a simplistic ‘basic skills’ approach for children outside of the culture of power. It would be (and has been) tragic to operate as if these children were incapable of critical and higher-order thinking and reasoning. Rather, I suggest that schools must provide these children the content that other families from a different cultural orientation provide at home. This does not mean separating children according to family background, but instead, ensuring that each classroom incorporate strategies appropriate for all the children in its confines.

However, the sources of why Delpit came to confront how formal education often cheats black students is an important window into why many continue to misrepresent the Reading War/Crisis by defining incorrectly whole language (or balanced literacy).

As Delpit explains:

A doctoral student of my acquaintance was assigned to a writing class to hone his writing skills. The student was placed in the section led by a white professor who utilized a process approach, consisting primarily of having the students write essays and then assemble into groups to edit each other’s papers. That procedure infuriated this particular student. He had many angry encounters with the teacher about what she was doing. …

When I told this gentleman that what the teacher was doing was called a process method of teaching writing, his response was, ‘Well, at least now I know that she thought she was doing something. I thought she was just a fool who couldn’t teach and didn’t want to try.’ This sense of being cheated can be so strong that the student may be completely turned off to the educational system.

Yes, this teacher and experience had clearly failed that doctoral student, but if we are careful to note the details of that failure, what we discover is that the teacher had also failed process (or workshop) writing instruction.

Process or workshop writing instruction is far more that peer conferencing; it entails drafting and student choice of topics and text form, conferences with peers and the instructor, explicit instruction of all aspects of composing (including grammar, mechanics, and usage) based on the needs of the students revealed in their original essay drafts (typically called mini-lessons), careful and varied reading-like-a-writer experiences with rich texts, and producing final authentic artifacts or writing.

To be brief here, Delpit is correct that “other people’s children” are disproportionately cheated by reduced curriculum and inadequate instruction, but it is misleading to lay that blame at the feet of process/workshop methods since the student example shows this is not what was implemented.

Now, let’s circle back to the “both sides are wrong” claim by Jeffrey S. Bowers and Peter N. Bowers.

Bowers and Bowers discredit systematic phonics fairly carefully and fairly,  I think. But when they turn to the research on whole language, they make no effort to verify if the research cited in fact confirmed that whole language was being implemented with any level of fidelity.

As I have noted often in the 1980s/1990s, the media announced a Reading Crisis in California blamed on whole language. Literacy scholar Stephen Krashen, and others, debunked that claim [1], noting although whole language was the official reading approach of the state, teachers almost never implemented whole language.

As well, Bowers and Bowers make an odd choice about defining what whole language is by citing and defining as follows:

According to foundational theory for whole language, learning to read is just like learning to speak (Goodman, 1967). Given that virtually everyone from every culture learns to speak without any formal instruction in a context of being exposed to meaningful speech, it is concluded that children should learn to read in the same way, naturally, by reading meaningful text. The fact that not all verbal children learn to read with whole language should be a first clue that something is wrong with this theory.

This dramatically over-simplifies Goodman’s work, but also ignores decades of refinement of what whole language became, and then how many have embraced balanced literacy.

When we are referring to whole language, however, the fundamental problem with discounting whole language often rests with not understanding what it is: “Whole language is not a program, package, set of materials, method, practice, or technique; rather, it is a perspective on language and learning that leads to the acceptance of certain strategies, methods, materials, and techniques.—Dorothy Watson, 1989.”

And a failure to acknowledge that “… [w]hole language…builds on the view that readers and writers integrate all available information in authentic literacy events as they make sense of print. Whole language teachers don’t reject phonics; they put it in its proper place [emphasis added]” (K. Goodman, Phonics Phacts, p. 108).

Let me put this directly: Whole language does reject the need for systematic phonics for all children, but the language philosophy endorses entirely that some phonics is needed, that each child should receive the amount and type of phonics instruction needed to read independently—not to comply with a reading program, to cover a set of universal standards, or to raise test scores.

The argument posed by Bowers and Bowers is correct only if we misdefine whole language and fail to critically examine research that claims to be measuring whole language effectiveness or if whole language was even implemented with any sort of fidelity.

As it sits now, the Bowers and Bowers’s argument is 50% wrong.


[1] Note that the reading test score decreases (the reason for the claim of a reading crisis) were caused mostly by a large influx of non-native English speaking students and drastic budget cuts for education. The ways in which students were being taught to read are correlations at best with those scores.

For Further Reading

Defending Whole Language: The Limits of Phonics Instruction and the Efficacy of Whole Language Instruction, Stephen Krashen, Reading Improvement 39 (1): 32-42, 2002.

Facts: On the nature of whole language education (Heinemann)

To read or not to read: decoding Synthetic Phonics, Andrew Davis

Worksheets? We Talking about Worksheets

A few days ago, I had an Allen Iverson moment on Twitter:

Iverson, among many other athletic and pop culture accomplishments, is notorious for this rant:

“We sitting in here — I’m supposed to be the franchise player, and we in here talking about practice. I mean, listen: We talking about practice. Not a game. Not a game. Not a game. We talking about practice. Not a game. Not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it’s my last. Not the game. We talking about practice, man.”

What resonates with me, after I posted the retweet above, is that Iverson was almost entirely misunderstood, and received a fair among of negative feedback and is often still misrepresented by his outburst.

Once I realized that my critical list had gained a momentum of its own—many people responding positively to my intent, but a few creeping into viewing my Tweet as a burn—I noticed that some people found the Tweet to be unprofessional in tone and misread my point as somehow being against students having fun or oversimplifying the problem with worksheets.

To attempt to set the record straight, and try to calm the piling on that I did not intend, I posted a thread navigating the misunderstandings and concerns about my tone and points.

For the record, I am firmly against worksheets (although what that label means needs some interrogation, I admit), and for authentic (even fun) engagement by students with whole and real learning and artifacts of learning. But that is really complicated.

A former student and then early-career teacher, who has now left teaching, had a disturbing experience with why this position of mine is complicated. She taught in a school grounded in project-based learning (PBL). Her course was also team-taught.

As an English teacher, however, she was frustrated that she was required to prepare lessons and activities for students that were a series of different projects; notable in that requirement is that reading and writing were excluded from being the only sorts of projects students could complete.

She found herself in the sort of dilemma Lou LaBrant rejected in 1931, in one of the earliest rounds of PBL mis-attributed to John Dewey:

The cause for my wrath is not new or single. It is of slow growth and has many characteristics. It is known to many as a variation of the project method; to me, as the soap performance. With the project, neatly defined by theorizing educators as “a purposeful activity carried to a successful conclusion,” I know better than to be at war. With what passes for purposeful activity and is unfortunately carried to a conclusion because it will kill time, I have much to complain. To be, for a moment, coherent: I am disturbed by the practice, much more common than our publications would indicate, of using the carving of little toy boats and castles, the dressing of quaint dolls, the pasting of advertising pictures, and the manipulation of clay and soap as the teaching of English literature. (p. 245)

LaBrant’s anger lead her to this conclusion:

That the making of concrete models will keep interested many pupils who would otherwise find much of the English course dull may be granted. The remedy would seem to be in changing the reading material rather than in turning the literature course into a class in handcraft. (p. 246)

When I saw the original Tweet about hiding worksheets cut into strips inside Easter eggs, I immediately thought of my former student and LaBrant.

I am certain that I could create a Jeopardy!-style game to engage students in, for example, grammar activities. I think the game itself and student engagement could likely be exciting, and anyone observing that lesson would be fairly impressed with the energy.

I may even concede that students could learn grammar during the activity—although I am skeptical of the likelihood that a one-shot activity would produce genuine and deep understanding.

Here, however, let me return to LaBrant, who wrote in 1947: “We have some hundreds of studies now which demonstrate that there is little correlation (whatever that may cover) between exercises in punctuation and sentence structure and the tendency to use the principles illustrated in independent writing” (p. 127).

While the Jeopardy!-style game may be successful in being fun and engaging students, I am certain that whatever grammar students may learn, we remain faced with the same reality LaBrant confronted 80-plus years ago: Isolated grammar instruction does not transfer into student practice as writers.

Therefore, we must evaluate the Jeopardy!-style grammar game based on our instructional purposes. If we are teaching grammar-for-grammar’s sake, the game may be a valid instructional strategy (compared to completing grammar worksheets, for example).

But if our goal is writing instruction, even though the game is fun and engaging, it is a waste of instructional time better spent by students drafting, conferencing, and engaging in explicit instruction covering grammar, usage, and mechanics in the context of their original writing.

For those who see the teaching of English as more than writing and reading, we may be compelled to find engaging and fun ways to bring students to literature as well.

What if I designed a Thoreau-like nature walk for students to commune with nature and come to a better understanding of American transcendentalism espoused by Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau?

Again, this nature walk to an outside observer may appear to be very engaging and even fun for the students. But hiking in nature is not the domain of literature study; mining text for meaning, however, is what literature study entails.

Crouching in the woods or wading into a pond, like Thoreau, may help students with appreciating nature, but it is time better spent reading, discussing, and critically unpacking the essays written by Emerson and Thoreau, while also contrasting those texts with others written by their contemporaries, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe.

Once again, as LaBrant argued throughout her career, writing is learned by writing, and reading is learned by reading.

Let me circle back, now, briefly, to the worksheet.

The decade’s long appeal of PBL comes, I think, from a realization that worksheets, workbooks, and static, silent students are elements of traditional schooling most of us want to avoid.

When I think “worksheet,” I am reminded of my early days of teaching high school English and being compelled to teach context clues because our students scored low on that subset of reading skills during state testing.

As part of our mandated test-prep, we were issued workbooks with worksheets dedicated to isolated reading skills. The context clues worksheet identified four or five types of context clues and then tested students with dozens of sample sentences requiring students to identify the type of context clue strategy needed to define the unknown vocabulary.

To be honest, this approach could likely raise student test scores since the worksheets were designed to prepare students for test-reading; the worksheets and tests involve the same sort of mechanical and inauthentic process and test a manufactured set of content designated as “context clues.”

Here’s the problem: Writers don’t write implementing context clues; writers just use words to form sentences and paragraphs. Context clues strategies work on worksheets and tests, but not so much in real-world reading.

Vocabulary acquisition is incredibly important for literacy development, but most people have the how of that acquisition backward: Students don’t need words (or context clues strategies) crammed into them so they can read better; reading more and more makes them better readers, in part, because that is how we acquire more words.

My concern and caution, then, are much broader than the worksheet since both worksheets and PBL (seemingly antithetical to each other) can be flawed practice if we are not careful to match our instructional strategies to our intended learning outcomes and artifacts of learning.

At first blush, this may seem tedious, even dull, but teaching English is mostly about reading and writing. These are often engaging and fun, but some times they are also challenging and rewarding even as they are tedious.

None the less, let’s not lose sight of what we are doing in the name of fun when that pursuit, in fact, avoids the real work that we should attend to and seeks as well to insure that students are engaged and, yes, often having fun.

What Shall We Do About Reading Today?: Looking Back to See Now More Clearly

The November 1942 issue of The Elementary English Review (National Council of Teachers of English) included a provocative piece: What Shall We Do About Reading Today?: A Symposium.

The opening editorial comment frames the need for the question:

Editorial blurb 1942.png

This symposium offers answers to the titular question from leading literacy experts of the time: Emmett A. Betts, E.W. Dolch, Arthur I. Gates, William S. Gray (first IRA president), Ernest Horn, Lou LaBrant (former president of NCTE and focus of my dissertation, an educational biography), Holland Roberts, Dora V. Smith (former NCTE president), Nila Banton Smith, and Paul Witty (key figure in the career and life of LaBrant).

Unlike most cries of educational “crisis,” this national focus on reading was nested in World War II—a genuine crisis. But, according to the assembled experts on literacy, this 1942 version of the Reading Wars was a harbinger of how these debates are mostly misinformed, misguided, and driven by ideology instead of evidence.

Betts, in the opening piece, notes an important fact drawn from a report by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt: “One of the students had only four months of schooling, another was foreign born, some came from sections of the country where educational opportunities were meager, and so on. In short, the First Lady’s report emphasized the lack of educational opportunity [emphasis added] rather than the questionable quality of instruction” (p. 225).

Before detailing the problems and the possible solutions—including recognizing shortages and shifts in teacher availability—Betts makes a powerful claim: “In a democracy, the people get the kind of schools they want….In a democracy, the quantity and quality of educational opportunity is a product of what people want, and what they want is to no small degree conditioned by the educational leadership they have elected to follow” (pp. 225-226).

While I recommend reading the symposium responses in full, I focus below on two key answers from Gray and LaBrant.

Gray offers a solid framing of the debate spurred by claims of illiteracy among those called to serve, including this:

Gray second attitude.png

Along with refuting these standard false charges, Gray builds to a powerful closing argument:

A common error on the part of those who modify their reading programs is to adopt one or more reforms, such as the provision of much free reading, and neglect other aspects of reading that are in need of specific attention…

If the discussion thus far has achieved its purpose, it should be clear that current deficiencies in reading are not the product of “pseudo-scientific fumbling” or the use of progressive reforms, as some would have us believe. They are due in large measure either to the continued use of traditional patterns of teaching or to failure to provide a well-balanced [emphasis in original] program of reading activities that harmonize with progressive trends. (pp. 236-237)

LaBrant, in her typical style, takes a much more direct approach:

Within the past ten years we have made great strides in the teaching of purposeful reading, reading for understanding (the kind of reading, incidentally, which the army and navy want). Nevertheless, we hear many persons saying that the present group of near-illiterates are results of “new methods,” “progressive schools,” or any deviation from the old mechanical procedures. They say we must return to drill and formal reciting from a text book. (p. 240)

However, LaBrant completely discredits that blame:

1. Not many men in the army now have been taught by these newer methods [emphasis in original]. Those few come for the most part from private or highly privileged schools, are among those who have completed high school or college, and have no difficulty with reading.

2. While so-called “progressive” schools may have their limitations, and certainly do allow their pupils to progress at varied rates, above the second grade their pupils consistently show superior ability in reading. Indeed, the most eager critics have complained that these children read everything they can find, and consequently do not concentrate on a few facts. Abundant data now testify to the superior results of purposeful, individualized reading programs [emphasis in original].

3. The reading skills required by the military leaders are relatively simple, and cause no problem for normal persons who have remained in school until they are fourteen or fifteen. Unfortunately the large group of non-readers are drop-outs, who have not completed elementary school, come from poorly taught and poorly equipped schools, and actually represent the most conservative and backward teaching in the United States [emphasis in original]. (pp. 240-241)

In her conclusion, LaBrant is passionate and unyielding:

lack of drill

Within five years, LaBrant penned what would become a refrain of her six-plus decades as an educator: “A brief consideration will indicate reasons for the considerable gap between the research currently available and the utilization of that research in school programs and methods” (p. 87).

The question about reading raised in the 1940s suffered from the same failures to recognize the problem in order to shape effective and credible answers that we are confronting in 2019.

The fumbling today of the Reading Wars is yet another snapshot of a tired truism: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” (George Santayana).

 

Two Threads on Reading

I may tease these ideas more fully in blogs but for now, see two threads of mine below from Twitter.

What are teachers taught about reading in teacher education? “It just doesn’t matter.” [Click the Twitter bird in the upper right of the image for the thread.]

When advocacy for one student oversteps into what every student needs: The reading edition. [Click the Twitter bird in the upper right of the image for the thread.]