Tuesday, October 15, 2013

income inequality and student achievement

[Note:  In order to have this essay serve as the post one reads on initially visiting this blog site, I have moved subsequent posts to a new WordPress blog that can be found at jonathan lovell's blog]

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:

"Dear Colleagues,
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,


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.


high school educator said...

Dr. Lovell's excellent scaffolding assignments for "To Kill A Mockingbird" tap into critical thinking skills that are often ignored in low achieving students. As I've used this assignment over the years in my own English classes, the results have been significant, producing student writing and discussion often only expected by the more advanced students. These skills are not assessed through CC exams, yet are some of the most significant work a teacher can experience in the classroom with engaged students.- Diane Shires, English Department, South Pasadena High School

Meg Thompson said...

Dr. Lovell--as a Math teacher, we are facing the same problems. Seeing it from a Language Arts perspective is exceedingly helpful. What do you do when the basic skills are just not there, and probably never will be? The CC emphasis in Math is on problem-solving, and a quick read of the headlines easily shows that non-sputnick adults (younger) aren't very good at that particular skill, no matter if they are considered saved or not. Are we all, then--damned?

Pamela King said...

I am not a teacher. I am a 60 year old product of Catholic primary education. I've never thought about reading in the terms you speak yet have never forgotten being "saved", whisked from my classroom, mid school year, into what now might be considered an elevated or gifted group, as my pals were left behind.

We all knew from among our class of 100 which 50 were "saved" and which were not. Suddenly the two classrooms were shuffled into a "Who's Who" of adept learners on one side of the hallway, less capable (in someone's estimation) on the other, and the "saved" began to accelerate further, learning to speak and read French (in the early 60s), doing Algebra, immersed in creative writing.

My guilt at leaving my best friend changed everything about how I applied myself and viewed school. The expression on her face as I was taken 'in the rapture" and she was not was pained and embarrassed. The experience shifted how she thought about herself and school, and what was possible for her.

It didn't matter after that day what kind of practice was employed to teach on either side of the hall. It might have been brilliant for all I know. It fundamentally altered our view of ourselves, who we were in the world, and what the future might hold for us; some for the good and others not. I can only imagine what it might feel like to have 'washed out' by middle school.

Parents accordingly were coached about where their children should be guided, pushed, and placed in high school, Worse yet - as to what to expect from their children and whether they should be encouraged to attend college.

This was a long time ago, obviously. I don't know that anything so obvious occurs now. But you lead me to believe there are covert ways of accomplishing the same end. I saw it with my son whose education I carefully oversaw given my own experience.

I can't complain about my education. A lot of time and thought was spent by teachers on me. But then again, I was "saved" most likely at the expense of others. Something must change about how we view the diverse gifts children present and how teachers leverage them for the betterment of the kids.

Thank you for writing this.

Anonymous said...

An excellent treatise reflecting on our insane desire to test our students into oblivion. As a 4th grade teacher I have fought against these useless stressors affecting teachers, students and communities alike.

The money being made by the (mostly) New Jersey companies is obscene. This year the Common Core Standards will cost us nearly $50 per student (California) - money which could be used to help our poorer students who begin their life with a major handicap.

Anonymous said...

As a 4th grade teacher I am disgusted by our continued focus on testing, testing and more testing. The (mostly) New Jersey companies who manufacture these exams are making a fortune and the tests prove nothing except poverty is the problem.

Will we do anything about it (poverty). I fear not. We are a silly people, a little people, greedy, barbarous and cruel.

The current cost for the Common Core tests in California will be close to $50 a student, not including computer requirement(s). This money could be used most valuably - using it for testing is like throwing it in the trash.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Michael White said...

I read your blog, "The Double Bind of Aliterate Readers and Complex Texts" yesterday afternoon after activities at Leigh High School designed to familiarize us with assessments students will face in the upcoming years. I must admit that the writing assessments we examined yesterday baffled me somewhat, so I immediately worried about how students will view them. When our staff development concluded, I headed straight to my classroom to read your blog in hopes that your take on what's ahead might resonate with what I'm feeling.

Certainly, that is the case, and in the parlance of your blog, perhaps Martin Luther has also unwittingly intimated, not just for today's students but for their teachers, that if one could not fully understand the writing assessments he is preparing his students to take, "one was meant to be damned eternally." Perhaps I am over-reacting to information over-load at the start of the school year when we haven't even yet met with our students. Nevertheless, I woke up in the middle of the night and re-read your piece, which I had printed with the intention of re-reading and annotating because you crystallize the potential upcoming hazards so succinctly and insightfully.

After underlining numerous passages, I've gleaned one of your main points to be this: "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." Certainly, your statement coincides with the concern you've presented by Lucy Calkins, Dee Roe, and the Berkeley professor who was "'dismayed at the shallow interpretation of the Common Core and indeed at the creation of a curriculum at all.'" In the same paragraph as your above point, you conclude with the most salient and disheartening aspect of what's
happening: "The only correction one might make to the observation above by California teacher Dee Roe is that the creation of our first-ever national curriculum and our first-ever national assessment of students' performance in relation to this curriculum provides an opportunity for for-profit curriculum and assessment providers to make billions, not millions." To this poignant observation, I'll add my own annotation: As long as curriculum and assessment development is driven and shaped by a company or companies seeking to make billions of dollars rather than by the teachers delivering that curriculum and assessment, the result will be that our curricula will not only fail to enhance student learning, but it will actually alienate the very students we profess to be seeking to reach. This disparity corresponds to ideas espoused by Sir Ken Robinson in his excellent Ted Talk, "How to Escape Education's Death
Valley", which can be viewed on flixxy.com, and which is an inspirational and humorous look at how education has become over-focused on testing and assessment so that it obstructs learning rather than enhancing it.

Jonathan, there are so many other points you make in your blog that resonate with my own thinking, and I'm especially intrigued by your scaffolding of the way you introduced pre-reading strategies for the teaching of the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Wow! What a powerful way to delight students with the voices in literature.

Finally, thank your for sharing ideas with me that actually remind me of the power I have as a teacher to either delight or dishearten, facilitate or alienate, inspire or bore. The responsibility of teaching when viewed in this light constitutes an awesome opportunity to instill in our students that they are, as you remind us "the diversely talented group of individuals that, in our heart of hearts, we know them to be."
So much of what we do is about reaching into the heart, isn't it?!

jonathan said...

Thanks so much for this thoughtful and heartfelt response, Michael. And thanks as well for agreeing to post it on my blog. I especially like your image of teachers, facing beginning of the fall semester "roll out" of the Common Core assessments, feeling as if THEY are among the damned. Indeed

Tori Shaffer said...

Public schools are being made the fall-guy for the problems that really are caused by the widening income disparity between the rich and poor. Jonathan, thank you for articulating this so clearly.

jonathan said...

Thanks so much for this response, Tori. I'm hoping that if enough people get introduced to the line of thinking represented in my blog/essay, a modicum of common sense may prevail before the so-called educational reform movement takes public education over a cliff in the spring of 2015 (when students will be tested on their levels of proficiency re the CCS).

Debra said...

Dear Dr. Lovell,

I'm very happy that I discovered your blog through the NCTE web site. I'm in my last semester of the MA TESOL program at SJSU, but I plan to teach developmental writing at the college level rather than ESL. I have worked at the university's tutoring center as a writing tutor for five semesters and noticed a pattern in the students that I work with; they all came from non-dominant social group backgrounds.

For that reason, my area of research interest has been the investigation of the way that social inequality in our public school systems "damns" non-dominant class students, who struggle through their academic careers because they haven't acquired the academic and social privileges that are possessed by students from more advantaged (dominant class) backgrounds.

I'm particularly interested in the literacy education that these students receive in our secondary schools because it directly affects what I do. I've had too many tutees say to me "I took AP English in high school and got a B so I don't know why I'm in remedial English here" to not think that something is very wrong about what is happening in these students' high school English classes. I'm hopeful that your blog can give me some ideas of how I might "save" these students (or at least start them down the path towards educational salvation).

jonathan said...

Hi Debra,

Thanks so much for this response. If you have a moment to chat further, I'm in the English Dept Building (FO) in Room 127, right across the hallway from the English Dept main office. I don't have formal office hours now that I'm starting the first of five years on the Faculty Early Retirement Program, but you can email me at Jonathan.Lovell@sjsu.edu and we can set up an appointment at a mutually agreeable time. Hope you have a relaxing and refreshing holiday break!
My very best,
Jonathan Lovell

Anna Nguyen said...

Dear Dr. Lovell,

Thank you for your refreshing workshop Tuesday evening. As a current English Language Arts educator for 6th grade students in Alum Rock Unified School Student, I appreciated everything you taught -- especially since it involved different strategies to engage our academic English learners (which, in a sense, applies to 100% of my students). I especially appreciated the context and background information you provided as to why these strategies have been effective in engaging students. I myself grew up as an academic English learner, and one of the first reading tests I failed was on To Kill a Mockingbird in middle school. So your workshop essentially made content engaging and accessible to the extent that it eliminated the distain I had toward it for the past 15 years!

Here's my thinking process for the activities:

1) Opening / Character Analysis Essay: I was assigned Dill, and during the reading, I picked up the sense that he was innocent and had a sense of integrity and social justice. However, when it came to the writing, given that I spent the whole prior evening finishing up with grading, my mindset wasn't right for the activity. It also didn't help that I started feeling inferior to my classmates because I lacked the prior knowledge most people had about the novel and I felt my writing skills weren't as strong. I zoned out and thought about my 10th grade teacher, who gave his students three days to complete a similar prompt, and allowed me to spend the first two days brainstorming and researching evidence in the text before writing. I yearned for his patience and encouragement during this time, and then I started to lose interest because I knew that such a prompt couldn't test my knowledge -- especially given that I am the slow and deliberate type. When you talked to us about that scenario being one that our students often encounter, guilt sank in when I thought about the final exam I had given my students last week, and how much pressure they must've faced to complete the task during the restricted amount of time, and how much students felt they didn't know because of the pressure. It was definitely a reality check, and I thank you for that, because I'm now focused on developing their skills towards those types of tasks, yet also stressing the importance of progress, not perfection.

2) Cumulative Graphic Organizer: At first, I thought to myself, "Wow, I haven't used an overhead projector since 2009!" But as you were introducing the characters using the different layers, I realized that it makes so much sense to introduce characters in such a way that we prioritize the main ones to look out for, and to introduce each layer as we introduce a new concept. It seems like such a simple, yet underutilized strategy!

Anna Nguyen said...

3) TKAM Film: I could've spent the whole class watching that scene over and over again! I spent that time comparing the excerpt from the text to the film (though not much about Dill was shown in the clip). It reminded me of how I try to use film clips to hook students into a unit, and how I need to use media more to create conversations around these comparisons.

4) Guided Imagery: I had a hard time with this activity. Usually when I'm in a quiet space when I feel relaxed, I can start thinking about the things I need to do instead and/or fall asleep. In this case, I experienced both. I understand the value of the activity, and I'm a believer of thinking before sharing thoughts with others. I also am not yet confident in myself to complete this with students because I need to develop my story-telling skills. Perhaps I will have the students complete the activity by closing their eyes for a shorter amount of time and imagining a scene that we have just seen or read; this can help with visualizing while reading.

5) Visual Symbol / Gallery Walk: In my group, my personal symbol was a stick figure of Dill with a thought bubble that stated "..." His heart was also prominent on his chest. This was supposed to represent his emotions and how he can recognize injustice, but is unable to articulate the emotions in a way that he feels is safe to express. As for the whole group symbol, we drew a balancing scale of morals and dreams. When we completed the group walk, I learned a lot about the characters (as I did with Dill in my own group), and appreciated learning about other students' interpretations of characters and their actions.

6) Role Playing Activity: I was in a group where we had two Dills, and I played the Ego. The activities prior had helped me develop an understanding of each character to the extent that I felt comfortable asking certain questions. I recognize the process can be uncomfortable at first, and I think in order to incorporate the activity into the classroom, I'll have to create a safe environment for the students to trust the process, and I'll have to make sure the students have enough support to remember what we learned about the characters.

7) TKAM Audio: Because I scored low in listening comprehension in elementary school, I grew up believing that I was a poor listener. However, this activity reinforced the power of audiobooks and read alouds for myself as a learner. It also reminded me of how powerful read-alouds can be for students who find it difficult to understand the text without tone and proper pauses. It was also nice viewing the text at the front of the class -- that way, as a teacher, I can see how the students are engaging with the text.

I've learned so much about myself and about how I can address my students different intelligences during this workshop. Thank you so much for your time, Dr. Lovell, and I hope that one day, and I can replicate a similar process for one of my units and e-mail you all about it. =)

Jonathan Lovell said...

Thanks so much for this thoughtful and generous response, Anna. I'll be eager to learn how the teaching strategies I modeled on my workshop work with your 6th grade students at the Renaissance Academy/Matheson MS in Alum Rock. Keep me up to date. OK?

Anonymous said...

Dr. Lovell,

Thank you for stopping by our class on Tuesday night to do your workshop on finding ways to engage students who choose to be aliterate.

It was actually refreshing that you chose to teach about Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (TKAM) because I have never read the book before. Similar opinions came up when I asked my peers what they thought about your visit overall, and many of them said that because it had been so long since they last read TKAM, that they too thought that the workshop was refreshing.

Several points I would like to make:
- I like that you provided insight into why you were having us do such activities in the workshop, and I really appreciate that you also gave us some statistical information on how much of any English class even cares about what is going on during class sessions.
- By providing multiple modalities in which to engage the same content in the workshop, it showed to me that it is possible to have an English class not just be about "dumb, boring, old books" as high school students have said before to me (when I was a teacher's assistant).
- I learned quite a bit about TKAM with this workshop because it was my first time being exposed to such. I have actually borrowed the remastered DVD version of the video version you showed us in class from my local library, and I plan on watching that sometime during Spring Break.
- Through the planned language production held throughout the workshop, such sessions helped me to adequately process who the characters were in relation to each other; the different modalities all handled in one workshop made for the entire experience to be very interactive and engaging.
- Although I generally see reenactments and guided imagery as quite difficult to manage, I have realized now that it is possible to be done well given practice of careful instruction for both activities.

I plan on looking over all of your notes when I do get a chance to take notes on what strategies and methods I can pull to use in my own classroom.

Stay genuine, and remain heartfelt with that smile of yours. Thank you for being a dedicated teacher as well as researcher.



jonathan said...

Thanks so much for this generous and thoughtful response, Tony. I enjoyed giving my TKAM workshop to this spring's participants in the Methods of Teaching English class.

Julia Yeager said...

Hello Professor Lovell,
It has been over five years since I last read TKAM, and I had forgotten most of the details of the book. Role playing as Tom Robinson brought everything flooding back to me. I discovered a much deeper appreciation of Tom's predicament and his emotional state as he took the stand.
The various exercises that we participated in showed me that I am more of a hands-on, visual learner. The activity that resonated with me most was the poster-making. I have always enjoyed art, and I think I simply had a lot of fun with drawing, perhaps. I loved connecting my own emotions with the character, and forming an image to encompass all of this information. I also felt that I played a key part in creating the central image for Tom. I acted as curator during this activity, which provided me with the extra 'presentation' experience. I am not the most comfortable public speaker, but I tend to thrive in smaller, more intimate groups. Having the chance to discuss the images/symbols with my group was a great opportunity for Planned Language Production that also made me more confident when explaining it to a new group of my peers.
Although this particular activity was quite engaging for me, I still gained deeper understanding from participating in them. The Planned Language Production involved in the "hot seat" activity was probably the most engaging. By placing myself in the shoes of the character, and being put on the spot, I was forced to think on my feet and express what I thought the character would say. This activity may not be the best for English Language Learners, because being put on the spot may discourage and/or intimidate them. The last activity, however, would be most effective for these students. I think hearing the text while reading the passage would be crucial for an ELL student to follow and understand the text.
Thank you Prof. Lovell for these wonderful exercise ideas; Tuesday's class was very productive and insightful.

Jen Williams said...

Dear Professor Lovell,

In the few minutes before I realized that the critical analysis paragraph was a demonstration of a common English lesson, though perhaps not the most effective, I was terrified. This humbling experience is rare for future teachers in my position; as future English teachers, we typically enjoy and excel at traditional reading and writing activities. In the first few minutes of class, I felt a range of emotion that I expect my future students will feel: anxious, frustrated, hurried, and even annoyed. I was initially disappointed in receiving Dill Harris, as I felt it was the most difficult character to analyze, as he wasn’t even in the video clip. It had been ten years since I read To Kill a Mockingbird, and unlike Tom and Mayella, Dill was a character I struggled to remember. Even after reading the excerpts at the beginning of class, I still didn’t feel as though I grasped Dill’s identity.

Reflecting on the assignment today, I can see that I was given a rare ability to see the material from the viewpoint of my future students. Like my students were meant to, I came into this simulation with minimal knowledge of Dill Harris, which allowed me to feel the emotions that they can potentially have in an academic situation. With this simulation, I learned that character analysis can be presented in a variety of teaching methods, though that doesn’t mean it will always lead to an understanding within the student, as demonstrated by the two contrasting methods of this workshop. The first method was the character analysis, where a student is provided with excerpts of the novel and asked to write a piece in a short period of time. I was stressed to write a complete and thoughtful analysis on a character I was unfamiliar with. I voted that I disliked the assignment, which I found surprising, as I usually thrive in written activities. The second method was the interactive activities of the gallery walk and role-playing. In these two instances, we were provided with the same materials of the excerpts from the text, but through the interaction with the text, imagination, and collaboration with fellow classmates, I gained a completely different understanding of Dill. The character analysis in all three activities depended on planned language production, but the difference in understanding demonstrates the different effects speaking and writing can play in a lesson. The first character analysis asked for a superficial understanding of the character through writing, while the interactions created a complex understanding through speaking within a group.

As English teachers, I think we will feel the pressure to instill the importance of writing in our students, though this workshop demonstrated that creative activities that engage the student are at times more productive. It was refreshing to have the ability to be a student and not an expert, as well as have fun with the material.

Thank you,
Jen Williams