Friday, January 26, 2007

martin luther and walt disney as teachers of reading

Because part of my job here at San Jose State is to serve as a university supervisor of beginning teachers of English, I've spent a great deal of time over the past 19 years observing students in classrooms at the middle and high school levels reading and responding to what they read. Often, as I observe these classrooms, it seems to me that teachers are behaving as if the Lutheran revolution is the only game in town. You know the general story: Luther directly challenged the whole notion of what reading was for and who should be allowed to learn to read. Prior to the Lutheran revolution, readers of texts were largely monks and priests, while the rest of the population acted primarily as listeners to the Biblical narratives told by this priestly class. These readings were frequently supplemented by visual versions of these same tales, often depicted as frescoes on the walls of the church.

Luther changed all that. "You must be a reader yourself if you are ever to understand your true relationship to God," he proclaimed. Even more somberly for today's students, he suggested that if you could not understand what you read, you were meant to damned. Damned eternally. Oh my.

As a student growing up in the late 50's, I was a child of Sputnik. Surprisingly, the sudden and quite unanticipated launching of this orbital satellite by the Russian government had the effect on American education of driving us back to the basics of the Lutheran revolution. Shortly after the launching of Sputnik in the fall of 1957, American students' reading comprehension began to be tested both systematically and frequently. Depending on our comprehension level, we were 'placed' the following year in either 'higher' or 'lower' classes: saved or damned.

The logical culmination of this system, at least for me, came in my senior year of college. I was taking a class in the modern British novel by a Professor of English that I greatly admired. All the group of us 'saved' students in English 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 about these passages. I chanced to turn around one morning to look at the back of the lecture hall. There on the far side of the back row, hunched down in his chair, was one of my classmates, a good friend and a fellow member of my residential hall. He was looking rather desperate, peering over the top of his book and clearly hoping that the professor would not notice him. I knew this particular classmate was extremely bright. In fact, he later went on to attend Oxford and then Harvard Law School. What sort of system could lead to the conviction on the part of such a student that he was not among the saved, at least as far as the reading of works of modern British literature was concerned?

But that was the consequence, I later came to realize, of identifying specialized talents in diverse fields of study early in a system of schooling, then nurturing these talented individuals at the expense of those who were not 'meant' to be saved. The field of talented individuals, of course, got smaller and smaller as one rose up through the educational ranks. Eventually, in English studies, it became a matter of fewer and fewer people talking more and more loudly to one another.

In my third year of graduate school in English, as I was observing this process of increasing selectivity taking place, and wondering when I would be the next to be pushed off the gang plank, so to speak, I was asked to take over the leadership of an undergraduate seminar made up of English majors who had a different take on the purpose and value of the study of English. These were quite bright students who were not planning to pursue studies in English at the graduate level, but rather to enter post-BA credential programs in the state of Connecticut, where they were studying. Since I'd been a 10th and 12th grade private school teacher for three years prior to beginning my graduate studies, I was considered an appropriate instructor for this group of undergraduates. The questions they were asking in this seminar fascinated me: how should the field of 'English' be understood when it became the one field of study required of all secondary level students in each year of their public schooling? Even more importantly, how should one re-envision this field of study when the students one is teaching are there by law rather than choice?

And here's where Walt Disney came in. What if we decided to look at how kids 'read' when they are good at it? Wouldn't this give us a different perspective? What purpose was served, after all, by observing kids suffering through reading programs whose effect, if not intention, was to increase the disparity between "good readers" and "poor readers" in each successive year? Since I was leading this seminar as an adjunct course to a class in Children's Literature that these same students were taking, it was a relatively straightforward matter to turn from understanding 'reading' primarily in terms of decoding print text to understanding 'reading' as a matter of making sense of 'texts' that were both visual and verbal. Isn't that what any good elementary teacher taught: stories in which the illustrations gave the reader as much information as the words?

In pursuing this line of inquiry, we learned that prior to the creation of the first full length Disney animated film (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, 1937), it was widely assumed that "talking animated cartoons" could only sustain the attention of the average viewer for about ten minutes. Sound familiar? Disney and his animators challenged this conventional thinking, asking themselves what made viewers 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 equally imporant for sustaining the attention of the "reader" 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 made kids variously talented and smart, might the supposed "shortness" of kids' "attention spans" be significantly augmented? As we all know today, Disney and his animators proved the skeptics wrong. Kids could pay attention to what they were being 'taught' 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 systematically and consistently into this uniquely modern version of visual and verbal story telling. Were it not for the launching of Sputnik, perhaps this Disney "vision" of kids as diversely talented readers and viewers might even have prevailed in American education. Sadly, however, this vision of the later 1930's gradually faded as school once again became more 'academic,' more 'rigorous,' more relentlessly 'selective.' And so it is today.

In a workshop I've given for a number of years on the teaching of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, I return workshop participants to the world of the early Disney and introduce then to an approach to reading comprehension that draws on the many ways both kids and adults are uniquely talented. We start with the most traditional of exercises -- reading short passages that provide vignettes of the characters of Dill Harris, Mayella Ewell and Tom Robinson, then writing about what we understand about the characters based on these what these passages convey.

But we move from this quite traditional exercise in reading to a range of alternative ways of responding to these same passages. We start, in acknowledgment of Walt Disney, by viewing a segment of the 1963 film version of Harper Lee's novel. I introduce workshop participants to a way a pre-reading a visual text by "scaffolding" what one is about to see with a "cumulative graphic organizer" designed to help the viewer understand the roles played by the different characters they wrote about in relation to the larger society of Maycomb County, Alabama of which they were a part.

Then I have participants work in small character groups, creating visual symbol posters of the particular characters they have written about at the beginning of the workshop. We then do a "gallery walk" of these visual symbol posters, and I then gather participants together in mixed character groups of three, where each participant role-plays their assigned character as the other two members of their group asks them questions.

Finally, we re-experience the same excerpts that we read in 'Lutheran' fashion at the beginning of the workshop (i.e. silently at one's desk), but this time in pre-Lutheran mode, listening to them as excerpts from the Recorded Books version of this novel. I follow this final experience of listening by having participants write on their assigned character a second time, reflecting on what they learned by comparing their initial 'character study writing' with this final piece of writing.

By and large, participants enjoy these exercises and find them interesting and insightful. Not only in terms of their own sense of themselves as readers, but also as teachers of reading and writing who work with students with many different talents. The point I wish to make in this workshop is 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 significantly enhance the experience of reading and writing for all our students, countering the drive towards year by year "progressive differentiation" that is, perhaps unconsciously, built into the systematically structured reading programs that are presently required in the great majority of California classrooms today.