A broken sleep

Last night I woke up at 3.17am. No, it must have been earlier than that, because I’d already been awake for while before I finally looked at the clock. Awake and worrying away at the thought that soon I’ll be teaching a unit without enough preparation.

It’s a familiar worry that has disturbed my sleep, in one way or another, many times in the past 40 years, usually in the form of panicky dreams where I’m appearing unprepared before an expectant crowd.

This one, though, was big enough to wake me up. In three months I’m going to be teaching my first post-graduate class of young teachers, and I don’t know if I know anything about the topic.

I probably do. I’ve been teaching for a long time, the topic is literacy, I’ve published books and I’m an English teacher.

But, if in fact I do know something about this topic, I’m not sure what it is. I want to find out what it is. And writing has always been the way I discover what I know.

[It’s with a tiny sense of relief that I realize that this is the first thing I know about literacy, that writing is linked to understanding, that I don’t write so much to express what I know as to discover it.]

To set the scene. I’ll be teaching about 90 secondary postgraduate pre-service teachers on ‘literacy across the curriculum’. These teachers are headed for all kind of classrooms: English, History, Maths, Music, Science, and so on. They’re being asked to think about the centrality of literacy in their professional lives and their classrooms, whether or not they teach English.

My task has been complicated by a number of things.

Firstly, every second post in the blogosphere seems to have the word ‘literacies’ in it, with a thousand different meanings of the word; so this can blur the focus.

Secondly, secondary teachers tend to think of literacy as the job of either parents, primary schools or English teachers; so there’s a resistance to overcome.

And finally this university unit was originally planned several years ago by a professor who can no longer teach the unit but who is naturally looking over my shoulder and encouraging me in a certain direction, a professor with years of experience and a passionate commitment to raising the standard of reading instruction. There’s no conflict; she is warm and supportive. But I’m not her, and I know that I need to find my own direction rather than just adopt hers. I need to be clear about where I want to go.

So what do I know?

  1. I know what ‘literacy’ means. It means ‘the ability to read and write’. This means the ability to get meaning from all kinds of texts, not just books. And it means the ability to express oneself in lots of different kinds of writing, not just essays.Being literate in the 21st century means to be able to read and write skillfully in effective ways in valued contexts (to adapt a way of thinking made popular by Howard Gardner). Clarifying the meaning of literacy, particularly given the loose use of the term, needs to one of our first tasks.
  2. I know that literacy is a tool, not a subject. We become literate through reading and writing in knowledge fields or disciplines. We use literacy in order to understand the world better. Furthermore, we read and write better when we know something about the subject matter. An exclusive focus on either reading or writing is almost always too narrow, artificial and inefficient. (Even in literature and creative writing classes, the focus is almost always on reading and writing about something substantial other than reading and writing itself).
  3. I know that writing isn’t just about expressing what we know; it’s also about discovering it. I was once given a photocopy of an extract called ‘Writing, opening a deep well’, in which the following appeared: “As we simply sit down in front of a sheet of paper and start to express in words what is on our minds or in our hearts, new ideas emerge, ideas that can surprise us and lead us to inner places we hardly knew were there.” Peter Elbow describes this beautifully in the following clip:
  4. I know the link between literacy, knowledge and social worlds. We come to know and understand more clearly and deeply through developing and articulating our thoughts in communities of thinkers. Thoughts, words and communities are an indivisible trinity. I know, therefore, that my postgraduate students will learn most about literacy if they are required to develop and articulate their thoughts with the others in our course.
  5. I know that the course needs to practise what it preaches; that it would be be a travesty, for example, if instead of requiring the students to develop their understanding through the kind of interplay between thought, word and community that I’ve described, I lectured to them in a way that presumed that knowledge could be passed from one skull to another. Of course I want my students to end up knowing something of what my classroom experience has taught me, but they won’t come to it through simply hearing me speak.

So it seems that I know a bit, and maybe I’ll sleep better tonight.

But there’s a big area that I feel very unsure about. Reading instruction. The professor who put this ‘Literacy across the curriculum’ unit together is a reading expert. She has theoretical and practical experience in the setting up of effective reading programs for struggling readers. She has suggested, as a textbook for our students, Do I really have to teach reading? by Cris Tovani, a book that I don’t know yet.

So what’s the problem? There are over three months before our course begins, there’s plenty of time to books like this one and to learn from the professor and her colleagues.

The problem is that I have a deep-seated antipathy towards reading programs. One of my four children was a casualty of a too-rigid focus on reading, teaching it as if it were a subject rather than a skill for unlocking desired knowledge. In a book I wrote 20 years ago, School Portrait, I told the story of a boy driven mad by a too-narrow focus on the reading process, someone who seemed only to make some kind of breakthrough when reading became a way of fulfilling a deeper thirst to know more.

I think I woke up sometime before 3.17 this morning because deep down I’m worried that I’m going to have to teach something I don’t believe in.

Is this my own insufficiently examined narrowness, something the next three months will sort?

As I read Tovani’s book, and others like it, will I see that there are ways of teaching reading that sit comfortably with what I know?

Or am I going to have to re-examine some of my assumptions?

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5 Responses to A broken sleep

  1. Angela says:

    Well first…let me say this: what an exciting opportunity! I’m jealous. And next, allow me to add this compelling response:

    Um. I dunno.

    I’m no fan of reading “programs” either. That said, I don’t find Tovani’s work falling neatly into that arena, although many people “programize” it–and this is something I’ve heard her question the purpose of firsthand. I don’t think that was ever her intent.

    What I think what I hear you saying is that the practices she suggests may not be the silver-bullet solution for all kids, and it discomforts you to even suggest such a thing to your students by requiring the study of her stuff. I’m with you there…particularly in consideration of the complexities of literacy and reading.

    Would it make sense to approach things a bit differently, advocating for building close relationships with students, coming to know them as readers, studying and assessing what their individual needs might be (formatively), and aligning promising practices to what is found? In my opinion, this is what is missing in the field and in our certification programs…..support around the reality that the best of the “stuff” that research suggests may not work for our kids. Helping teachers define the needs their students have, develop processes for designing worthy interventions, and teaching them how to assess whether or not their actions are assisting students is a bit of a different approach, but it might be worth considering, maybe.

  2. steveshann says:

    Thanks Angela. Very helpful, as usual. You have this way of shifting the perspective so that doors open.

    If you’d like to read some wise responses from other readers at the English Companion Ning, where I also posted this, then click on the link.

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  5. Liz Skrodzki says:

    If your students are going to teach middle school, the first thing they need to do is to observe middle schoolers in “their own environment.” I did this for endorsement last summer. Go to the pool, the Starbucks, the skate park, the library. Watch them do what they do best. I found girls circling, yakking and texting. Boys throwing cylindrical objects (and each other) into the air, COMPETING and gaming. Discuss this. An on-fire YA libarian is a catalyst. Don’t waste time jawing about educational theory. Talk to the 5th-12th grade girls (all reading levels) about the book and the movie Twilight. This phenomenon will blow your mind about what “gets em.” Overheard in the theatre lobby on Opening Night – “Oh you gotta read the book! The characters are so much more developed!”

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