Thursday, November 20, 2008

ncte 08 presentation

Here's the material I promised to post from my Nov 21 presentation at NCTE in San Antonio:

Rethinking 'Old School' Practices: Fostering a Love of Books in an Age of Technology
Friday, Nov 21, 2:30 pm - 3:45 pm
NCTE 98th Annual Convention in San Antonio, TX
"From Martin Luther to Walt Disney: engaging aliterate secondary level students with what they read"

A presentation by Jonathan H. Lovell

Professor of English & Director of the San Jose Area Writing Project
San Jose State University
San Jose, California


3:05 - 3:05 participants read vignette focusing on Dill Harris from Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and write the opening sentences of a character analysis essay
3:05 - 3:15 J Lovell reads essay on Martin Luther and Walt Disney as teachers of reading
3:15 - 3:20 J Lovell provides demonstration of "cumulative graphic organizer" [his own invention!] as a pre-reading strategy, focusing on courtroom scene from film version of To Kill a Mockingbird (henceforth TKAM)
3:20 – 3:25 participants view visual symbol posters of Dill Harris character on the overhead, then discuss with a partner what they now understand about their character
3:25 – 3:30 J Lovell discusses use of role play activity, with Dill, Mayella & Tom in mixed character groups, with one character in the "hot seat" and the other two asking questions of that character
3:30 - 3:35 participants listen to vignette of Dill from audio version of TKAM, while large print version of this vignette is displayed on the overhead projector screen
3:35 - 3:40 participants discuss what they learned about Dill Harris by experiencing this sequence of activities

Dill Harris

Dill was from Meridian, Mississippi, was spending the summer with his aunt, Miss Rachel, and would be pending every summer in Maycomb from now on. His family was from Maycomb County originally, his mother worked for a photographer in Meridian, had entered his picture in a Beautiful Child contest and won five dollars. She gave the money to Dill, who went to the picture show twenty times on it.

"Don't have any picture shows here, except Jesus ones in the courthouse sometimes," said Jem. "Ever seen anything good?"

Dill had seen Dracula, a revelation that moved Jem to eye him with the beginning of respect. "Tell it to us," he said.

Dill was a curiosity. He wore blue linen shorts that buttoned to his shirt, his hair was snow white and stuck to his head like duck-fluff; he was a year my senior but I towered over him. As he told us the old tale his blue eyes would lighten and darken; his laugh was sudden and happy; he habitually pulled at a cowlick in the center of his forehead.

When Dill reduced Dracula to dust, and Jem said the show sounded better than the book, I asked Dill where his father was: "You ain't said anything about him."

"I haven't got one."

"Is he dead?"

"No . . . "

"Then if he's not dead you got one, haven't you?"

Dill blushed and Jem told me to hush, a sure sign that Dill had been studied and found acceptable.

Martin Luther and Walt Disney as Teachers of Reading

Because part of my job 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 22 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 the purpose of reading 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 nearby church walls.

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 be 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 had the effect on American education of driving us back to the basics of the Lutheran revolution. Shortly after the Soviets launched sputnik in the fall of 1957, American students' reading comprehension began to be tested both systematically and frequently. Depending on one's comprehension level, one was placed in either higher or lower level classes: "saved" or "damned."

For me, the logical culmination of this system 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 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 in the margins. I chanced to turn around one day to look at the back of the room. 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, clearly hoping the professor would not notice him. I knew this particular classmate was extremely bright. In fact, he later went on to Oxford University and then Harvard Law School. What sort of system could lead to his conviction that he was not among the saved, at least as far as reading of works of modern British literature was concerned?

But that was the consequence, I later came to realize, of identifying those with different academic aptitudes early in an educational system, then nurturing these talented individuals at the expense of those not "meant" to be saved. The cluster of the saved, 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 plank, 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 students who were planning to enter post-BA credential programs in the state of Connecticut. Since I'd taught 10th and 12th grade at a private school in Delaware 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 re-defined when it became the one field of study required of all students in each year of their public schooling? As significantly, how should this field of study be understood when one's students are there by law rather than choice?

And here's where Walt Disney came in. What if we decided to look at how kids understood "texts" when they were good at it? Wouldn't this give us a different perspective? What purpose was served, after all, by observing kids suffering through the ever-more-selective reading programs whose primary effect was to increase the disparity between "good readers" and "poor readers" in each successive year? Since I was leading this seminar as an adjunct to a Children's Literature course for which I was serving as a TA, it seemed sensible to define reading as a matter of making sense of texts that were both visual and verbal. Isn't that what any good elementary teacher taught day in day out: 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 Disney's creation of the first 90 minute full length animated film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1937, it was widely assumed that "talking animated cartoons" could only sustain the attention of the average child 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 made kids variously talented and smart, might the supposed "shortness" of kids' attention spans be significantly stretched? 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 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, rigorous, and relentlessly selective. And so it is today.

In today's presentation, however, I'll return you briefly to the world of Disney and introduce you to an approach to reading comprehension that draws on the many ways both kids and adults are uniquely talented. After starting with the most traditional of exercises -- reading a short passage from Harper Lee's novel To Kill a Mockingbird describing Dill Harris and writing about that passage -- we'll approach at this same text through a variety of different media, using a technique that John Elkins and Allan Luke have called "re/mediating adolescent literacies." I'll only be able to give the briefest of overviews of the sequence of exercises I've developed over the years to help students and teachers rethink "old school" practices in reading and responding to traditional texts. If you would like to gain a fuller understanding of the practices I will be introducing you to over the next several minutes, however, as well as to read the responses of a group of K-college Writing Project teachers who experienced this sequence of execises this summer, I invite you to visit my blog by googling "jonathan's edutalk" and reading what I've posted on my entries of 11-20-08.

Materials and Methods Used in this Workshop

Graphic organizers used to prepare students for reading or viewing a verbal or visual text

Graphic organizers are one of the most effective ways to introduce students to a verbal or visual text that they are about to read. Good books for helping teachers do this at the secondary level are Jim Burke’s Tools for Thought: Helping All Students Read, Write, Speak, and Think (Heinemann, 2002) and Fran Claggett and Joan Brown’s Drawing Your Own Conclusions: Graphic Strategies for Reading, Writing, and Thinking (Heinemann, 1997). For elementary level teachers, I’d recommend Elaine McEwan’s Teach Them ALL to Read: Catching the Kids Who Fall Through the Cracks (SAGE, 2002), Stephanie Harvey and Anne Goudvis’s Strategies that Work: Teaching Comprehension to Enhance Understanding (Stenhouse, 2000), and Mosaic of Thought: Teaching Comprehension in a Reader's Workshop by Susan Zimmermann (Heinemann, 1997).

I use a 'cumulative graphic organizer' as a pre-reading strategy in this workshop, anticipating that participants will be able to make better sense of the courtroom segment in general, and Dill's role in this segment in particular, if they are ‘pre-introduced’ to this part of the TKAM narrative through the use of a graphic organizer. Student-generated graphic organizers are also terrific ways for kids of all ages to represent what they have already read or seen, and to exhibit this knowledge to their classmates. I also like the idea of using overhead transparencies to portray strong central images, or metaphors that characterize segments of a narrative, and then "embellishing" these central images with successive "layers" of meaning.

Video versions of narrative texts

I’m always on the lookout for good video versions of novels and plays, either for classroom use or for use in workshops for teachers. I’m somewhat embarrassed to admit, however, that I do not know how to dub selections from a DVD version of a novel onto a new DVD. I therefore just select a segment of the film I’m focusing on for my workshop, or use the "select scene" on the DVD player, to move from one segment to the next.

What I think is important about the use of visual narratives in general is to regard the video version of the work you are reading as equal in importance to the print version. In other words, regard both versions as two interestingly different renditions, two "re/mediations," to use the clever term that Professor Donna Alvermann borrows from the research of John Elkins and Allan Luke,1 of the same "deep story." Don’t treat the video version as a way to make the experience of reading the story or play more palatable, but rather as a chance to discover the compellingly different ways that great stories can be told. I also think that it’s a good idea to realize that for our students digital media provide their primary way of understanding and responding to stories, while most teachers tend to regard print narratives as the "higher" form of story telling.

Visual Symbol Posters based on characters in a story

Visual symbol posters are especially effective as a way to lead students "into" the characters of a story they are about to read, but they can also be used as either a "through" or "beyond" exercise, capturing what readers or groups of readers are learning about their characters.

What’s exciting about these visual symbol posters is how much they teach the students, as they are creating these posters and talking together, about the characters they are describing, and how stunning they can be when posted on the classroom wall for all to see. Gallery walks are especially effective as a means of exhibiting these artworks to the class as a whole.

Role Playing of Characters

Having small groups of three participants role play different characters, as with the characters of Dill Harris & Mayella Ewell & Tom Robinson, has the advantage of lowering the apprehension that participants might feel if asked to sit in a "hot seat" before the class as a whole, role playing a single character. Similar in power and effectiveness to the use of guided imagery, role playing also has a similar danger: it can become so engrossing that students forget these are fictional characters they are representing. It is therefore a good strategy, when asking your students to engage in role-playing, to set clear guidelines for your students as both role-players and question askers. It’s also important to debrief them carefully and sensitively afterwards. That being said, I know of no more powerful means of helping aliterate readers (those students who can read but chose not to) to become engaged in what they read than the "paired" exercises of creating visual symbol posters and then role playing their character.

Audio Versions of Novels

There are several excellent recorded book companies now making recorded books for both children and young adults, and I've been pleased to observe that several adopted textbook series include recorded versions of their narrative texts as well. If you do not want to spend the money to purchase a recorded version of a book, however, you can often find these versions in your local public library, often in the section for the hearing impaired.

Dubbing selections from your recorded book for use in your classroom

Prepare to take some time if you wish to follow my practice in the final segment of my workshop, but to be rewarded with a tape that you can use for many years to come. I start by listening to the recorded version of a novel or play while I’m driving, making a mental note of which selections I think will work well for “into,” “through,” and “beyond” exercises. For my Mockingbird selections, I was thinking about providing middle adolescent readers with a “window” into the three characters I’d chosen to focus on prior to their reading of this novel.

After selecting and making a mental note of my selections from the audio version of a novel or play, I then begin the process of locating and recording them in the order in which I intend to play them in the classroom. Once I’ve located each segment, I dub this selection to a fresh audiotape, so that the resulting new tape is one that I can play in a classroom. The bad news is that this process takes time: the good news is that once one has made one of these tapes, one can use it over and over again.

1 Alvermann, Donna, "Seeing Themselves as Capable and Engaged Readers: Adolescents and Re/Mediated Instruction," Learning Point Associates, Naperville, IL 2003

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