Martin Luther and Walt Disney as Teachers of Reading:
Responding to the Challenge of Aliterate Readers and Complex Texts
[Published in somewhat different form in California English, September 2013]
As a university supervisor of secondary level student teachers in English at San Jose State University, I've spent a good deal of time over the past two and a half decades observing students at the middle and high school levels reading and responding to what they read.
Often, as I observe these classrooms, I see teachers behaving as if the Lutheran revolution was the only game in town. You know the general story. Luther upended the whole notion of the purpose of reading, and who should learn to read. Prior to the Lutheran revolution, readers of texts were primarily monks and priests, while those who could not read acted as listeners to the Biblical narratives told by this priestly class. These readings were frequently supplemented by visual renderings of these same Biblical narratives, often depicted as frescoes on the church's walls.
Luther changed all that, proclaiming that everyone must become readers if they were to understand their true relationship to God. More significantly for today's students, he intimated that if one could not understand what one read, one was meant to be damned. Damned eternally. Oh my.
Growing up in the late 50's, I was a child of the sputnik-inspired revolution in American education. Surprisingly, the sudden and quite unanticipated launching of this small orbital satellite by the Russians in the fall of 1957 had the effect of driving us back to the basics of the Lutheran revolution. Following this launch by our Russian rivals, American students' reading comprehension began to be tested systematically and frequently. Depending on one's ability to comprehend the texts one read, one was placed in either higher or lower level classes the following year: "saved" or "damned."
The logical culmination of this process, at least for me, came in my senior year of college. I was taking a class in the modern British novel by a professor I greatly admired. All of us "saved" students were sitting in the first two rows of the small lecture hall, laughing at the professor's jokes and nudging each other as we pointed to passages we'd underlined in our texts and comments we'd written in the margins. I chanced to turn around one day to look at the back row of students. There on the far side of the hall, hunched down in his chair, was one of my classmates, a good friend and a fellow member of my residential hall. He was looking uncharacteristically timid, peering over the top of his book, clearly hoping the professor would not notice him. I knew this particular classmate was extremely bright. In fact, he later went on to Oxford and then to Harvard Law School. What sort of educational system would lead to the conviction on the part of such a student that he was not among the "saved," at least as far as comprehending the complex narratives of mid to later 20th century British novels was concerned?
But that was the consequence, I later came to realize, of identifying those with special aptitude early in an educational system, then nurturing these individuals at the expense of those not "meant" to be saved. The cluster of the saved, of course, grew smaller and smaller as one rose up through the educational ranks. Eventually, so I discovered, it became a matter of fewer and fewer people talking more and more loudly to one another.
In my third year of graduate school, as I was experiencing this selective process taking place, wondering when it would be my turn to be pushed off the plank, I was asked to lead an undergraduate seminar made up of English majors who had a significantly different view of the purpose and value of the study of English. These students were not planning to apply to graduate schools in English, but were instead intending to pursue post-BA credential programs at a nearby university.
Since I'd taught 10th and 12th grade English at an independent day school for three years prior to beginning my graduate studies, I was asked to become the seminar leader for this group of undergraduates. And as it turned out, the questions they were asking fascinated me. How should the field of English be understood when it became the one subject required of all students in each of their public school years? Even more importantly, how should this field of study be understood when students were in classrooms by law rather than by choice?
And here's where Walt Disney came in. What if we decided to look at how students went about the process of comprehending complex texts when they were good at it? What purpose was served, after all, by subjecting students to reading programs whose primary effect was to increase the distance, year-by-year, between good and poor readers: "saved" and "damned"? Since I was leading this seminar as an adjunct to a course in Children's Literature, it seemed sensible to define reading as a matter of making sense of texts that were both visual and verbal. Isn't that what good elementary teachers practiced all the time: looking at stories in which the illustrations were as worthy of study as the words? In pursuing this line of inquiry, we learned that prior to the Disney studio's creation in 1937 of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first 90-minute animated film, it was widely assumed that "talking animated cartoons" could only sustain a viewer's attention for about ten minutes. Sound familiar?
Disney and his animators challenged this conventional thinking, asking themselves what might make children want to sustain their attention for longer periods of time. Telling a good story was obviously a key ingredient (hence the choice of Snow White), but so was the appeal to our universal delight in sound, song, movement, and a bit of irreverence (hence the Seven Dwarfs). By drawing on these attributes of what makes kids variously talented and smart, might the supposed shortness of young viewers' attention spans be significantly lengthened? As we all know today, Disney and his animators proved the skeptics wrong. Kids could pay attention to what they were viewing for a good deal longer than 10 minutes. It was all a matter of knowing in advance what might interest and engage their attention, then incorporating these elements consciously and consistently into this uniquely modern version of visual and verbal story telling. Were it not for the 1957 launching of Sputnik I by the Soviets, perhaps this "Disney" understanding of kids as diversely talented readers and viewers might have prevailed in American education. Sadly, however, this vision of the late 1930's gradually faded, as our schools became more academic, more rigorous, more relentless in their widening of the gap between skilled and unskilled readers.
The most recent iteration of this expanding gulf between "saved" and "damned" is the anticipated imposition of a nationwide curriculum and assessment program in English Language Arts. While it is not my purpose here to argue the merits and drawbacks of the Common Core Standards on which this curriculum and assessment program will be based, it is my purpose to suggest the degree to which teaching to these standards is likely to increase the disparity between less able and more able readers. (see Diane Ravitch's blog post here for an early indicator of this increasing disparity). Fortunately, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project website has provided us with a glimpse into the spring 2015 CCS assessments, from the perspective of the New York State students who took a pilot version this past spring (see here).
It is worth quoting the letter Lucy Calkins wrote as a preface to these observations:
This site contains over 600 responses to the all-new, CCS-aligned ELA exam that Pearson gave this year in New York State. Given that Pearson is poised to compete with PARCC and Smarter Balanced as a provider of the new generation of national tests, I think you can look at these responses to Pearson's first iteration of that test as a harbinger of what is to come. What is to come, that is, unless someone calls out 'Wait! The Emperor has no clothes!'
The test was unlike anything anyone here had ever seen. I don't want to try to describe it to you, because frankly I wasn't allowed to see it. What I know about the test is largely harvested from these comments, and from people's descriptions of the test. And that, I think, is the problem. How can test-makers create a whole new generation of tests that we are not allowed to see, or to respond to in their first draft versions? How can legislators vote that teachers will be hired and fired based on this test, when they haven't watched their sons and daughters, grandchildren and neighbors, take the test?"
And one representative response from a California teacher:
"I am out in California and recently attended a CA Reading Association in San Diego and got to meet and talk with a Berkeley professor who was part of the team reviewing the "curriculum and testing" that will be presented in our state for Common Core implementation. He was very dismayed at the shallow interpretation of the Common Core and indeed at the creation of a curriculum at all. This opportunity to make millions is apparently being grabbed nationwide. So discouraging!!"
Dee Roe - Teacher
What we are facing under the shadow of the seeming juggernaut of the national "Accountability Movement" is the prospect that both the curriculum we teach our students and the way they are assessed will be taken entirely out of our hands. Several comments on this Teachers College website speak about the misuse of the "Revised Publishers' Criteria" written by David Coleman and Susan Pimentel (see here) as a basis for creating these tests. But this is exactly what we should expect when the same for-profit companies that are creating curriculum aligned with the CCS are now major players in the creation of the tests themselves. The only change one might make to the observation above by California teacher Dee Roe is that the creation of our first-ever national curriculum and assessment program provides an opportunity for for-profit providers to make billions, not millions.
What is often overlooked in this heated climate is that the drive for accountability was itself based on a misleading interpretation of the international scores that supposedly placed American students near the bottom among post-industrialized nations in reading, science and math. Here is a useful interpretation of those scores, taken from an article in the January 2011 issue of Dissent magazine by Joanne Barkan (see here):
"Students in U.S. schools where the poverty rate was less than 10 percent ranked first in reading, first in science, and third in math. When the poverty rate was 10 percent to 25 percent, U.S. students still ranked first in reading and science. As the poverty rate rose still higher, however, students ranked lower and lower. 20% of all U.S. schools have poverty rates over 75%. The average ranking of American students reflects this. The problem is not public schools; it is poverty."
(see also Diane Ravitch's Reign of Error, chapter 10, entitled "How Poverty Affects Academic Achievement," for a particularly trenchant analysis of the connection between poverty and school achievement)
And in a somewhat more nuanced study in January of this year entitled "What do international tests really show about U.S. student performance?" economists Martin Carnoy and Richard Rothstein come to a similar conclusion:
"The share of disadvantaged students in the U.S. sample was the largest of any of the [post-industrial] countries we studied. Because test scores in every country are characterized by a social class gradient—students higher in the social class scale have better average achievement than students in the next lower class—U.S. student scores are lower on average simply because of our relatively disadvantaged social class composition. . . [I]f we make two reasonable adjustments to the reported U.S. average, our international ranking improves. The first adjustment re-weights the social class composition of U.S. test takers to the average composition of top-scoring countries. The other re-weights the distribution of lunch-eligible students by the actual intensity of such students in schools. These adjustments raise the U.S. international ranking on the 2009 PISA test from 14th to 6th in reading, and from 25th to 13th in mathematics. While there is still room for improvement, these are quite respectable showings"
To put it succinctly, the "achievement gap" between American students and their foreign counterparts is largely a red herring. While we've been sleeping, income inequality between the wealthy and everyone else has grown to proportions that presently exceed those of the "Gilded Age" of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (see Larry M. Bartels' sobering 2010 study of how this disparity has steadily grown, largely by conscious public policy under Republican presidents, since 1974; for a recent update, see Thomas Edsall's NYT Opinionator posting "Can the Govermnment Actually Do Anything About Inequality,"as well as the IRS study that documents the most recent "record" set by income inequality as reported in 2012 tax returns; and for a chillingly arresting YouTube video on this subject, see here). How likely is it that the imposition of a "rigorous" and "demanding" national curriculum and assessment system will significantly decrease the distance in school achievement between students from our poorest and wealthiest families? How much more likely is it that the results of these new assessments will once again mirror the income disparities we have grown all-too-accustomed to accepting?
In pondering these questions, I'm reminded of Tracy Kidder's moving portrait of Chris Zajac's 5th grade classroom in Among Schoolchildren (1990). In one of the most memorable moments in Kidder's narrative, he asks Zajac how much influence she thought she had over the lives and prospects of her lower class students in South Holyoke Massachusetts. "I'm like a small rock in a swiftly flowing steam," Zajac responds. "I can deflect the course of a number of my students' lives. I can't re-channel the stream."
I'd like to suggest setting the bar somewhat higher. In a workshop I've given over the past few years, prodded by Kelley Gallagher's documentation in Readicide (2009) of the alarming rise in the number of "aliterate" students (i.e. those who can read but choose not to) at the middle and high school levels, I introduce a variety of pre-reading strategies for the teaching of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird. Using a multi-modal approach that I believe holds the potential of re-engaging our most disengaged readers, I begin with vignettes from the novel based on the characters of Dill Harris, Mayella Ewell and Tom Robinson (see an earlier posting on this blogsite for a copy of these vignettes).
We start with the most traditional of exercises -- having participants read these short passages describing the characters of Dill, Mayella, and Tom, then writing about what they might understand about their assigned character, based on these passages. Rather than digging "deeper" into these complex texts, however, I return participants to the world of Disney by viewing the trial segment of the 1963 film version of Harper Lee's novel. Prior to viewing the film, I use a scaffolding strategy I call a cumulative graphic organizer, designed to help participants understand the roles played by these three different characters in relation to the larger world of Maycomb County.
Then I lead participants through a relaxation/guided imagery exercise in which they are "re-introduced" to their assigned character, followed by having them create visual symbol posters of that character. I follow this with a gallery walk of these visual symbol posters, followed by having them gather in mixed character groups of three, role-playing their assigned character as the other two members of the group ask questions. Finally, I return to the excerpts that were initially read in "Lutheran" fashion, silently at one's desk, at the beginning of the workshop, but this time listening to these excerpts from Sally Darling's excellent recording of the novel, while viewing them in enlarged print using a document camera. In conclusion, I ask participants to write about what they learned about their characters, and about themselves as learners, through the experience of this sequence of activities.
My point is to demonstrate that we can all deliberately and systematically draw on the various ways we know our kids are smart. That is, we can draw on their various talents as readers, listeners, responders to and shapers of their world. In doing so, we can not only speak out but "teach out" against practices and policies that we know are damaging our students, preventing them from experiencing themselves as the diversely talented group of individuals that, in our heart of hearts, we know them to be.
And in light of what is sure to be a tidal wave of curriculum materials purporting to "raise students' scores" on the spring 2015 CCS assessments, I propose the adoption of the following resolution:
WHEREAS every large scale study over the past 30 years of income level in relation to student achievement has shown a compelling correlation between the two, and
WHEREAS the percentage of students in poverty in our nation's schools has grown steadily and persistently over the past 39 years, and
WHEREAS the present levels of income inequality in our nation can be related directly to conscious public policy,
BE IT THEREFORE RESOLVED
That the Common Core Standards, individual schools that "beat the odds," Teach for America Interns whose students outperform those of traditionally credentialed teachers, and all such examples of the need to "reform" the American system of public education, be understood for what they are:
Seductive distractions from the overriding issue we must face as a nation if "fixing" public schools is be anything more than an irresponsible instance of political posturing--the shameful growth in income disparity between our poorest and wealthiest citizens.