NPR Fails Journalism and Education (Again)

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election and the unexpected win by Donald Trump, “fake news” has become a rallying cry for many, including Trump and even mainstream media.

Struggling to survive, for example, The New York Times launched an aggressive campaign for subscribers by setting the incredibly low bar of not being fake news. Like the NYT, NPR sits among the much maligned mainstream media also discounted as “liberal media.”

But here is the most disturbing fact of all: Mainstream media may in fact not be fake news, and there is abundant evidence they are not agents of progressivism or liberalism either; however, as can be witnessed on the NYT’s Op-Ed page almost daily, the truth is that mainstream media is:

Case in point: Claudio Sanchez’s The Gap Between The Science On Kids And Reading, And How It Is Taught for NPR* with the lede paragraph announcing:

Mark Seidenberg is not the first researcher to reach the stunning conclusion that only a third of the nation’s schoolchildren read at grade level. The reasons are numerous, but one that Seidenberg cites over and over again is this: The way kids are taught to read in school is disconnected from the latest research, namely how language and speech actually develop in a child’s brain.

Problem 1: The piece immediately bows to NAEP data because, as has become common, everyone including politicians, the media, and the public simply accepts that test scores are accurate reflections of learning. This assumption fails because high-stakes testing mostly reflects two things: (1) the socio-economic status of the students, their families, and their communities (not learning, not student quality, not teacher quality, not school quality), and (2) a reduced and inauthentic version of the so-called skill (such as reading) we claim to be measuring.

Standardized testing of reading is, to be blunt, horrible—both in terms of how it ruins reading for children and how it is actually one of the key sources for the problem Seidenberg misdiagnoses.

Problem 2: “Seidenberg is a cognitive scientist and professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In his latest book, Language at the Speed of Sight, he points out that the “science of reading” can be a difficult concept for educators to grasp.”

Seidenberg joins a long and disturbing tradition of know-it-alls from outside education (typically from psychology, economics, or political science) who, like Columbus, discover a field and weigh in as if that field’s scholars and practitioners never existed; just recall the NYT itself ogling in awe at Daniel Willingham’s book on reading.

Problem 3: Seidenberg claims: “I’ve reviewed the science of reading and documented how little impact it has had on educational practice, and I think this is bad.”

One of the most significant failures of journalism and scholars in one field leaping into another field is the lack of historical and practical understanding of the field. What if I told you that Lou LaBrant, former president of the National Council of Teachers of English and a prominent scholar and practitioner in literacy from the 1920s until the 1970s, wrote in 1947: “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 great irony of Seidenberg’s claims is that he stumbled onto a valid premise, but in his rush to know everything, he has badly jumbled the explanation.

Problem 4: Seidenberg also joins a long list of people who have no credible understanding of the field of literacy and mangle definitions in order to have something to argue about. Here, Seidenberg simply doesn’t know the field, as he demonstrates: “The political solution was called ‘balanced literacy,’ which called on teachers to use the best of both approaches. But it left it up to teachers who had been trained to dismiss phonics and brush off the science.”

In fact, once again, he initially is onto something and then falls flat. Balanced literacy, like its cousin whole language, fully embraces phonics instruction, but recognizes that professional educators must know each student in order to balance what instruction any student needs in order to become an eager and proficient independent reader; for example:

Problem 5: Along with the arrogance of their non-education fields, Seidenberg and Willingham represent an ugly dynamic whereby men suggest (or even directly claim) that an entire field simply isn’t capable of handling the science of their own profession—and since the field of literacy is mostly women, this problem smacks of mansplaining.

So let’s end with the valid problem Seidenberg thinks he has discovered—the gap between the research on teaching reading and how reading is taught in schools.

I can offer two related better explanations.

First, I taught high school English for 18 years throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the foundational decades of the current education reform accountability era. Since 2002, I have been a teacher educator, primarily working with future teachers of English.

As a teacher educator, my candidates share with me a fact of moving from teacher education courses into the real world of teaching that Seidenberg and NPR may find interesting; it goes something like this: “Dr. Thomas, I agree with all the things you taught us about teaching reading and writing, but I am not allowed to do any of that at my school.”

“Not allowed”? Hmmm. Let’s investigate that.

Applebee and Langer conducted several expansive studies of how writing is taught in secondary schools, and their 2013 volume Writing Instruction That Works: Proven Methods for Middle and High School Classrooms included one incredibly powerful finding: Teachers of English know more than ever about the science and research on teaching writing, but those teachers revealed to Applebee and Langer that the expectations of standards and high-stakes testing prevented them from implementing that best practice.

In other words, that gap between research and practice can easily be traced to the negative impact of accountability—not to shoddy education programs, not to literacy teachers who are unable to grasp the heady science of teaching reading.

Mainstream media share with fields such as psychology (economics and political science as well) a not-so-subtle disrespect for education as a field and K-12 teachers. NPR’s article and Seidenberg’s research are condescending and incomplete because of that lack of respect.

As a educator, I must stress that their eagerness to wag their fingers at teachers and teacher education programs may be distracting us from their own shoddiness, especially dumpster fires like mainstream media that can see no better goal for themselves than not being fake news.

Yes, fake news is a problem, but lazy, irresponsible journalism may be a much bigger threat to our democracy and our schools.


See Also

Mainstream Media, Not Fake News, Spawned Trumplandia

* The “again” in the title refers in part to the Twitter exchange I had with an NPR journalist (at the time) and the problem with journalists claiming objectivity or neutrality:

 

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Teachable Moment: Fake News and Critical Media Literacy

The great and urgent paradox of twenty-first century America is trying to discover the truth about fake news, a phenomenon spurred by the 2016 presidential election.

Fortunately, Andrew Guess, Brendan Nyhan, and Jason Reifler have analyzed how often people viewed fake news to help us understand that elusive truth:

[W]e find that approximately one in four Americans visited a fake news website, but that consumption was disproportionately observed among Trump supporters for whom its largely pro-Trump content was attitude-consistent. However, this pattern of selective exposure was heavily concentrated among a small subset of people — almost six in ten visits to fake news websites came from the 10% of Americans with the most conservative information diets. Finally, we specifically identify Facebook as the most important mechanism facilitating the spread of fake news and show that fact-checking largely failed to selectively reach consumers of fake news.

Since these researchers identified that about 65 million Americans consumed fake news during the study period and that fake news constituted about “2.6% of all the articles Americans read on sites focusing on hard news topics during this period,” everyone interested in facts and truth are justified in considering ways in which we all can combat the negative impact of fake news, not only on our democracy but also on all ways of life in a free society.

This urgency is especially relevant to educators, andGuess, Nyhan, and Reifler’s study speaks directly to the need for teachers at every grade level to incorporate critical media literacy into the education of all students.

To meet that need, co-editor Christian Z. Goering (University of Arkansas) and I have collected a series of essays in Critical Media Literacy and Fake News in Post-Truth America because critical media literacy, we argue, may well be the only thing between a free people and their freedom.

CML Goering Thomas cover

In Chapter 1: An Introduction, Chris and I explain:

Turning … to Kellner and Share (2007), we define critical media literacy for the purposes of this volume as “an educational response that expands the notion of media literacy to include different forms of mass communication, popular culture, and new technologies” (p. 59) and “focuses on the ideology critique and analyzing the politics of representation of crucial dimensions of gender, race, class, and sexuality” (p. 60). It is the goal of this volume to build the aptitude and skill set of students and their teachers for critical media literacy in hopes for a better tomorrow. (p. 3)

And then, in Chapter 2: An Educator’s Primer, I offer some foundational concepts as well (excerpted next).

Being an educator at any level—K-12 through undergraduate and graduate education—has always been a challenge in the U.S. since formal education in theory is linked to preserving our democracy. Being a critical educator at any level in the U.S. has always been and remains nearly impossible because formal education in practice is more about enculturation and maintaining the status quo than seeking the social equity that remains elusive despite our claimed ideals as a people.

With the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, the media punditry has become obsessed, as has Trump, with fake news and post-truth public discourse. In this volume committed to investigating and interrogating fake news and post-truth discourse in the context of curriculum and instruction grounded in critical media literacy goals, we offer the foundational opportunity for educators to consider and reconsider the nature of truth/Truth, knowledge, and facts both in the teaching/learning dynamic and throughout mainstream media and all sorts of public discourse, notably by and about political discourse.

First, let’s establish the terms and contexts essential to understanding and then teaching critical media literacy:

  • “Fake news” is a technical term (although most public discourse fails to adhere to this technical distinction) that identifies mostly on-line information that is intentionally false and provocative, designed to be click-bait and drive internet traffic and thus revenue.
  • “Satire” is purposefully distorted information that assumes readers/viewers recognize the information is not factual, but intended to make larger points. The Onion, Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update, The Daily Show, and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight are examples of satire packaged in seemingly credible formats, parodies of traditional news media.
  • “Post-truth” is a relatively newer term for the popular and often right-wing embracing of (and misunderstanding) post-modernism’s challenge to the objective nature of truth/Truth. Not to oversimplify, but post-modernism argues that truth/Truth is defined by whoever is in power (not an objective reality), while the contemporary popular and right-leaning political embracing of “post-truth” is more akin to “the truth is whatever I say it is regardless of any evidence or the credibility of evidence.”
  • Mainstream journalism functions under two important and corrupting norms: (1) journalists (just as educators are implored to be) maintain a stance of objectivity and neutrality, an apolitical pose, and thus (2) most mainstream examinations of topics, debates, and events are framed as “both sides” journalism, rendering all positions as equally credible and valid. For example, the mainstream media, as John Oliver has exposed, gives the general public the false notion that climate change has as many scientists for as against the “theory,” a term read by the public as “hypothesis.”

As noted parenthetically above, to embrace teaching critical media literacy (in conjunction with critical pedagogy and critical literacy) is disrupting the traditional norm that educators remain apolitical. This volume’s authors recognize that educators face tremendous hurdles for teaching critical media literacy: eroding job security with the dismantling of unions (and absence historically of unions in many regions of the U.S.), increasing accountability for student test scores on exams that are reductive and demand of students far less in their literacy than critical media literacy (in other words, our efforts to teach critical media literacy can be disregarded with “that isn’t on the test”), and deteriorating teaching and learning conditions such as overcrowded classrooms and more teachers inadequately prepared to teach (such as Teach For America candidates).

None the less, if we genuinely believe in universal public education as a key mechanism for democracy and individual liberty then we educators must be well versed in critical media literacy, and then we must make that central to our classrooms. Throughout this chapter, the intersections of media and education are examined in order to highlight the power and dangers inherent in fake news, post-truth discourse, and traditional calls for educators and journalists to be objective, apolitical.


Reference

Kellner, D., & Share, J. (2007). Critical media literacy is not an option. Learning Inquiry, 1(1), 59-69.

See Also

Mainstream Media, Not Fake News, Spawned Trumplandia

When Fake Is Real and Real Is Fake: More on Crossing the Bigfoot Line

Fair and Balanced Education and Journalism: On the Death of Democracy

Adichie’s “danger of a single story” and the Rise of Post-Truth Trumplandia

U.S. and Education Reform Need a Critical Free Press

Why Education: Critical Literacy, Freedom, and Equity

Recommended: On Peer Review and Gatsby

I was surprised and humbled to discover through social media two excellent blogs that included some of my blogging in order to extend the conversation about peer review when teaching writing and teaching The Great Gatsby.

I strongly recommend both of the following:

The Writing Fog: Flipping Feedback: Revising Peer Review, Amy Vujaklija

Reading Graphs and Economic Trends: The “Great Gatsby Curve,” Lauren Zucker

Yes, We Teach English, But What Is It? (Or Better Yet, What Should It Be?)

Throughout her long career, Lou LaBrant consistently confronted and defined the profession and field often simply called “English.”

Her work appeared regularly in major journals for the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), where she was president in the 1950s. But her tour-de-force volume on teaching English appeared in 1951, We Teach English, which I reconsider in the November 2017 English Journal.

Having taught high school English for 18 years and now preparing future English teachers as well as teaching first-year writing for an on-going 16 years, I am often guided by one moment in the early years of teaching high school when a student had reached her limit of frustration with my English class.

In mid-class, this student blurted out: “When are we going to do English? All we do is read and write!”

This sophomore had been through junior high a straight-A student in English, grades primarily built on traditional aspects of English classes—vocabulary tests and grammar tests.

While that moment was three decades ago, I see little evidence that her definition of what counts as “English” remains robust among many people, including English teachers.

In 2017, defining English, I believe, remains a problem that should be resolved by re-imagining the course itself.

Let me note here, however, that the greatest burden on the teaching of English is that the course too often carries disproportionate demands when compared to other courses; English tends to be a core course at all levels, but it also is expected to teach (primarily or even exclusively) literacy skills needed in all courses and disciplines.

With that caveat, I also believe we too often fail to examine the nuanced differences among teaching literacy (reading, writing, speaking, listening), teaching literature (as a field), and teaching composition/writing (possibly the most marginalized field among the disciplines).

Any and all three of these can be and often are simply lumped under “English,” and these courses are routinely taught by “English teachers/professors” as if the expertise to teach each is somehow generic or simply of the same kind.

In K-12 education, this broad demand is excessive, and unfair to both teachers and their students. Higher education remains careless about just who has the expertise to teach composition/writing, but is hyper-attentive to the field of literature (consider the narrowness of expertise among English faculty, and thus, what courses they feel qualified to teach).

On the last class of my first-year writing seminars this semester, I asked students to consider what has worked and not worked during the course in the context of understanding that the course was a composition/writing seminar. Much of the semester had been devoted to deprogramming these students from thinking the class was English and from the narrow, and often misleading, habits they had formed by learning to write (and analyze text) almost exclusively in high school English courses (such as Advanced Placement).

One notable comment from a student was that she appreciated my using my own writing to model for them how to write their essays, adding she had never had any teacher do this before.

The point here is that teaching composition/writing requires both the expertise of being a writer and the expertise of pedagogy (teaching)—and this is not lost on students.

My own career is certainly eclectic and multi-disciplinary, but that is a cumulative and on-going effort that is often itself overwhelming. At my core, though, I am a teacher of composition/writing, and after the two class discussions about my first-year seminar, I plan to redesign significantly my daily schedule for the course next fall.

It is in that spirit of reconsidering and redesigning, that I want here to suggest a few ways in which we should likely rethink what it means to teach English:

  • Acknowledge, support, and better appreciate, early literacy educators. Teaching beginning and emerging literacy is complex, and those teaching early literacy need to be better prepared, solely burdened with addressing literacy with much fewer students than is traditionally expected, and better rewarded and appreciated as professionals.
  • Expect all teacher/professors at every level to continue literacy instruction grounded in their disciplines. Literacy is a journey, and not a goal, but as literacy becomes more sophisticated, it also becomes more nuanced and more grounded in the context of that literacy. Reading and writing in history or literature are quite distinct from reading and writing in chemistry and economics. As a colleague has perfectly noted, we must rise above believing that any literacy instruction at any age is somehow an inoculation, and thus, students can take Course X and then no other teacher/professor has to address A, B, or C.
  • At the secondary level and in higher education, clarify the distinction between literature courses and composition/writing courses as well as teachers/professors of both. Of all the inane things about formal education, among the most for me is that high school English teachers are routinely asked to teach American literature along with a hundred other standards related to literacy, but I once took an upper-level English course in college on William Butler Yeats—one author, and we really only read a few works by one author. Similarly, my university about a decade ago decided any and all professors can teach first-year writing. All of this is nonsense. We must become more careful and purposeful about the teaching of literature and composition/writing—both of which are important fields that require specialized preparation and then the sort of professional support, conditions, and appreciation that other disciplines receive.

Among friends and acquaintances, I am often still introduced as an English teacher, although I haven’t been once since 2002.

People often cringe and mumble something about needing to watch how they speak.

I clarify that I am no longer an English teacher, and that they need not fret over their grammar—but I also want people to know I will always first and foremost consider proudly myself to be an English teacher.

But I also feel just as strongly that there is much work to be done about exactly what that means, and what that should mean for teachers/professors and our students.

The Tyranny of Canonical Texts

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.

“Poetry,” Marianne Moore

As a sophomore in high school, I was a nerdy good student who had succeeded in schooling by transferring his mama’s-boy skills into teacher-pleasing dexterity. I was, however, enamored with math and science and just tolerated English and history.

My sophomore and junior years with the same English teacher, Lynn Harrill, were wonderful because of Lynn—not English, which to me was a mind-numbing series of vocabulary tests and a lot of reading I couldn’t have cared less about.

English in junior high had been torture, years and years of grammar book exercises and sentence diagramming.

Once while my tenth-grade peers were suffering through a week-long exploration of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, I was home on the couch, sick. That unit on Tale culminated in a long multiple-choice test, which my classmates scored very low on.

When I returned to class, I had never read that book—started it, of course being a good student, but found it insufferable (I still loath Dickens, much as I do Shakespeare, Austen, and a whole host of canonical authors). Before taking a make-up exam, I chose the Cliff’s Notes route, and scored a sweet 96 on the test—best by far in the class.

Over the next four or so years, a weird thing happened: I graduated high school planning to be a physics major, was enlisted by an English professor to tutor a survey course my first year of college, and then became an English education major at the beginning of my junior year—along the way discovering I was a writer and someone who loves literature as much or more than any other person I have ever met.

books

When my college students enter my office for the first time, they invariably pause at this view of my bookshelf, asking, “Have you read all these books?”

I also love English majors; they say things like “canonical” and “epistolary” without any hint that this is not the way humans communicate.

But I have to confront that the biggest obstacle to my life of words was English courses throughout my junior and senior high school years, and a key element of that negative influence was being assigned canonical texts, most of which I found then and continue to find to be dreadful reading.

Concurrent with those cloying experiences with texts, I was collecting and reading thousands of comic books (I had about 7000 Marvel comics when I graduated high school) as well as science fiction novels by Arthur C. Clarke and others.

As I have examined before, my very serious experiences with William Faulkner in high school set me up to be embarrassed when I rediscovered Faulkner in upper-level college English courses.

While teaching high school English for 18 years and then moving to teacher education for 16 years-and-counting now (primarily working with future teachers of English), I remain powerfully aware of the me who was alienated from the things I would come to love—the things that mostly define who I am as a human—by the very environment that should have been the place I discovered what I love.

That alienation I call the tyranny of the canonical text, and it hurts me to watch as many English teachers continue to be agents of that tyranny or co-victims of that tyranny with their students.

As chair of the English department while teaching high school, I worked for years to end or at least modify the required novel and play lists we used in our department. Those efforts were met with a great deal of resistance from my colleagues.

My argument then (and now) was grounded in the fact that between me and the most ardent advocate for canonical texts and required reading lists, we had vastly different reading backgrounds, and none the less were both highly literate, well-read people.

I have read every work by Milan Kundera, Haruki Murakami, Franz Kafka, William Faulkner, Margaret Atwood, Kurt Vonnegut, and many others—but only  a few pages of many of the books canon advocates would argue are essential. I have written and edited volumes on Barbara Kingsolver, Kurt Vonnegut, Ralph Ellison, Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, and James Baldwin.

My literary life is an example of literacy triumphing over the tyranny of canonical texts. However, I wonder why anyone should have to fight through that tyranny to discover the joy and value of the written word.

Yes, I understand and appreciate the allure of teaching a valued text; I, too, have works that I love to teach, several of which were pure tyranny for my students.

Yes, I understand that reasonable people can agree that some works of literature are, in fact, superior to others; I, too, cringe at the Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey sorts of popular novels.

And, yes, I recognize that teaching English includes both an obligation to the discipline (composition and literature) and our students.

Ultimately, I have committed in my career to begin with (and to seek never to fail) my obligations to students and their literacy (both the so-called practical aspects of that literacy and the much more important role literacy plays in any person’s full humanity, agency, and joy for living)—some times necessarily sacrificing the finer points of covering canonical texts and authors.

An important element in that commitment is coming to see that when any student balks at a text, I first challenge the text selection, and resist assuming some problem lies in the student.

My deeply insecure self in junior and high school, mortified in the full body brace I wore for scoliosis, would have appreciated greatly someone offering me that opportunity then; instead, my life in literacy came later and only because I somehow fought through the tyranny of canonical texts.

Adventures in Classroom Discussions: “Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not”

My career as an educator now includes about equal parts but different roles as first a high school English teacher, for nearly two decades, and now a college professor of education and composition/first-year writing, approaching two decades quickly.

My high school students were like family and friends, young people who were growing up in my hometown; therefore, my classes were energetic with lots of discussion—often rambling—and plenty of laughter. Those conversations carried over into non-class times of the day, after school, and during extracurricular activities, such as the years I was a coach.

When I switched to higher education, however, I encountered very silent classes—students who still tend to request that I talk most of the class because, as they say, they enjoy hearing someone knowledgable discuss the topics of the courses. This silence bothered me so early on I conducted several years of questionnaires asking students about why they tended not to talk in class.

Students openly confessed two reasons: (1) fear of being wrong in front of the professor, and thus hurting their status (re: grades), and (2) not wanting to “give away” the work they had done to peers in the class who had not prepared (a disturbing sort of capitalistic view of knowledge rejected by Paulo Freire as the “banking concept”).

As a result of this change in student behavior from high school to college teaching, I have had to work much more diligently and think much more deeply about classroom discussions in this last half of my career so far. Here I want to offer some guiding principles I have developed for classroom discussions and place them against one of my favorite lessons, using “Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros—a story set in the classroom so it fits well in all the courses I now teach.

First, here are some guiding principles that I continue to wrestle with as I implement them to encourage student engagement and improve the effectiveness of classroom discussions:

  • Create opportunities for students to offer artifacts of being fully engaged in a class lesson and discussion that expand beyond only speaking aloud in class: Allow students to share in small groups before whole group discussions, provide students handouts that allow them to annotate on text to show engagement, and establish discussion journals that provide students spaces to write comments and responses that they would prefer not to say aloud. Traditional approaches to classroom discussion can be distinctly unfair to students who are less assertive or naturally vocal—students who are introverted, student still navigating their understanding and not ready to assert any claims.
  • Anticipate and then “deprogram” students from a common dynamic they have experienced with teacher-centered class discussions: When students reply correctly, teachers confirm (often interrupting the student) and move on; when students are off-base, teachers redirect, ask another question, etc. Therefore, students learn to use the teacher as the only/primary locus of authority, and (worse of all) are trained not to elaborate through providing evidence and explanation (two academic moves far more important than having the “right” answer). All student responses should be prompted to support and elaborate so that students (not the teacher) can tease out the validity of the response. If students need basic information, that should not be the goal of class discussions, but provided as a foundation before a discussion occurs.
  • Create a classroom environment around open-ended questions instead of “guess what the teacher wants you to say”: Who is the most interesting character in this story (and why)? v. Who is the protagonist in this story? Or, what is the best (most effective) sentence in this story for you (and why)? v. What are some metaphors and similes in this story? Open-ended questions are not, however, allowing students to say anything they please, but a way to avoid just filling in the blanks and asking students to provide evidence and elaborate.
  • Arrange the class so that students are looking at each other (not the teacher), and then foster a collaborative discussion in which students respond to each other and work through “confirming” as a class (a community) instead of relying on the teacher to confirm or reject. One way to move toward that is after a student replies, ask another student to restate what the first student said, and then to either defend it or help reframe it. This helps students see that knowledge is communal and constructed, not some divine pronouncement.
  • And a pet-peeve caveat: Do not get trapped in the misguided Bloom’s Taxonomy approach to questions; Bloom never intended for the taxonomy to be used as a linear/sequential guide to how we teach (it was designed for assessment). The six elements are valuable if we see them as holistic and interrelated aspects of how we learn and interrogate the world: Remembering, understanding, and analyzing contribute to evaluating and synthesizing while applying.

As I mentioned above, “Eleven” is often a powerful text for a class discussion—one that can be framed around effective writing and craft; around thinking about teaching, learning, teachers, and students; around understanding family and peer dynamics; or around identifying and confronting cultural tensions.

One key to vibrant class discussions is to be sure students are primed and not cold on the elements of the discussion. Therefore, I give students some guiding activities for them to complete as I read “Eleven” aloud to the class.

Some of those are:

  • Mark key sentences or passages that stand out to you because they are well written, interesting, problematic, or confusing. After the story is completed, pick the one you would most like to share.
  • Identify your mood in the margin of the story as I read aloud, noting when your mood shifts. Mark key words or sections that create the shift.
  • Pick the best single word in the story.

These activities while I read aloud help create something for students to say during a discussion. Next, I ask students to form small groups (I prefer three to a group) and to share one item with the group from the actions above.

I use that time to walk around and listen to the small group discussions and to look at the annotated stories on their desks. This allows me to confirm engagement so when we go to a whole-class discussion, the students who remain silent still can be identified as engaged.

Students can also be prompted to annotate the text further while discussing or to make entries in a class discussion journal they maintain throughout the course—even asking for those copies to be turned in for informal assessment.

Once we begin whole-class discussion, I implement the above principals by asking them to turn desks so they are facing inward and each other. I begin with asking for a volunteer to share any of the ideas prompted by the during-reading activities.

Once a student shares, I usually ask, “Can you show us where that is in the story? And can you elaborate on that for us?” Next, I typically ask another student to react to the first share—confirm, reframe, or build on the point made.

Here, I want to emphasize that this strategy and text are always successful in the context of my instructional goal: I am not trying to make students expert on Cisneros, this story, or literary terms/analysis, but I am helping students develop a set of important academic moves that translate into their writing—making credible claims and then providing valid evidence for the claims before elaborating on the importance of those claims to a wider purpose.

In other words, the discussion is student-centered, not allowing students just to say whatever they want, and grounded in the content in a way that uses content as a means and not the ends of the discussion.

For example, students often identify this passage as key: “Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not.”

The important aspect of the discussion, however, is not that they identify the passage I have decided is key, but that they are able to explain in a detailed way what makes the passage key.

Students often share their own personal experiences similar to Rachel’s with her math teacher—feelings of anger and being insignificant. And from that we explore student/teacher dynamics and the often oppressive nature of schooling.

While I don’t want to oversimplify, vibrant class discussions are rarely about identifying and acquiring content knowledge, but are best when designed to foster powerful student behaviors that contribute to their development as critical thinkers, engaged listeners, and responsive speakers.

For this discussion as blog post, that key passage—”Because she’s older and the teacher, she’s right and I’m not”—can serve as an overarching guiding principle for orchestrating class discussions since it warns us about the failures of class discussions being more about students guessing what the teacher wants (and thus the teacher is the primary or sole arbiter of right and wrong) than about fostering students as critical and engaged thinkers.