The Place Where We Are Right
by Yehuda Amichai
From the place where we are right
Flowers will never grow
In the spring.
The place where we are right
Is hard and trampled
Like a yard.
But doubts and loves
Dig up the world
Like a mole, a plow.
And a whisper will be heard in the place
Where the ruined
House once stood.
I’ve been writing about Josh, a sixteen year old student at the school where I teach. I’ve chosen him to be a part of a little research project. I want to find out what and how he reads, and to think about what might be done in schools to get students like Josh reading more. And reading better.
To begin with, as I reported earlier, Josh seemed to me to be a student for whom reading was rarely a pleasure. Since I’ve got to know him better, I have discovered that this isn’t entirely accurate. Nevertheless, when I first talked with him a couple of weeks ago, he was finding the required reading in his English class – Othello – heavy going. It wasn’t like poetry, he told me at that first meeting, where everyone can have their own interpretation, where you can find connections to your own experiences. It was more of an elusive puzzle. It didn’t mean much. It was hard to make sense of it.
After that first meeting, I had a go at imagining what might go through Josh’s mind when confronted with a Shakespeare play. This is what I wrote:
I’m about to start another Shakespeare play. Full of unfamiliar words and strange sentences. I need to understand this, I need to know what’s happening here … because that’s what English is all about, isn’t it, finding the meaning, analysing a text so that you get what the author is saying. And I’m doing this because there’ll be questions somewhere down the track about Othello. They’ll want to know if I know what it’s all about. They’ll want to know if I understand it, if I can analyse a passage and show that I’ve got it. And why is that important? Because if I can do this I’ll get a good mark, I’ll have a sense of achievement, and it will probably make my subsequent studies easier too if I can understand this play now. So I need to understand this beginning, to get off to a good start, and those definitions and explanations down the side of my text are going to be very helpful … though I’ve tried that in the past and I still don’t really get it.
I was reading Stanley Fish’s Is there a text in the classroom? at the time, and Fish would say that these thoughts that I’ve imagined as Josh’s would come not from Josh himself but from the community (Fish calls it ‘the interpretive community’) to which he belongs:
the mental operations we can perform are limited by the institutions in which we are already embedded. These institutions precede us, and it is only by inhabiting them, or being inhabited by them, that we have access to the public and conventional senses they make. (pp331-332)
I found myself speculating about Josh’s ‘interpretive community’. No doubt it was made up partly of his family, partly his fellow students, and partly the majority of the teachers he has experienced, most of whom (at a school like ours) would transmit norms and expectations shaped by the traditions of the past. He would have heard many of his English teachers talk about ‘analysing a text’, of ‘quoting particular passages as evidence’, of ‘Shakespeare’s purpose’ or ‘Shakespeare’s themes’ or ‘Shakespeare’s characters’, all of which assume a stable text with meanings implanted by the author to be dug out by the reader. Rubrics would have echoed these assumptions: ‘identifies themes’ … ‘understands author’s purpose’ … ‘provides examples from the text to support your analysis’ … and so on. He would know that his community values ‘good grades’, and that his school markets itself on the fact that its students do well in public examinations. He would have seen parades of English prize winners each year, those students who have done best at ‘accurately getting the meaning out of the texts’. He would have been in classes where those who missed ‘the central message’ of a text or passage were corrected or even subtly mocked. In all of these ways, Josh’s experience of Shakespeare would have been shaped.
But if notions of a text with a stable but elusive meaning confused Josh to begin with, he didn’t stay stuck for long.
“Othello’s going much better now,” he told me when we caught up for a chat.
“What’s changed?” I asked.
“Well, first of all, we’ve been doing lots of different interpretations in class, and that’s been really interesting. Like there are some who think that Iago is pure evil, and others who think that there’s a point where he realizes that this has gone too far and yet he can’t step out of it, he has to keep going otherwise he would end up being destroyed himself. So that’s been good. I really like being able to see how different students interpret things in different ways, how we’ve all got different readings. It’s like poetry, where you can all have your different interpretations.
“The other thing is that I went to SparkNotes and found out what was actually happening, why everyone was doing what they were doing, who was who, how this bit of the story related to that bit. Up until then, we’d been going through the play bit by bit, looking at the monologues, talking about what was happening in this particular bit, but I didn’t have any framework to attach it all to and I wasn’t really getting it. I kept missing bits, and they were like important parts of the puzzle. It wasn’t until I read the Sparknotes that I found that I could understand the whole story, where it was going, what it was about, who everyone was. That really mattered, it really made a difference.
“I think having that framework is really important to me. I think that if I’d had it at the beginning, it would have made a big big difference. But now I’m enjoying it. I’m getting into it, I find it interesting.”
Josh then talked to me about his reading in general.
“It’s not that I’m a reluctant reader, or even not a really good reader. When I find a book that I like, I’ll really look forward to reading it, I’ll go off on my own and spend a lot of time. Like I read the whole of the ‘Tomorrow’ series, and recently during a time at school when there wasn’t much on, I got back into it, reading ‘The Elle Chronicles’ and then the other books that came after that. But I don’t like books where I have to keep going back to the beginning to remind myself who was who, or what the background events were. The ‘Tomorrow’ series is so good because each episode has got little reminders about people’s backgrounds, or things about what the characters are like, so the story carries you along. I like reading books like that. But I’ll go for long periods when I don’t find anything that I really want to read, as long as a year maybe.”
At the wonderful The English Companion Ning, there’s a discussion going on at the moment about Kelly Gallagher’s Readicide: how schools are killing reading and what you can do about it. Like Maja Wilson in the previous book club discussion, Kelly is on the side of those teachers whose focus is on producing literate citizens with a love of learning rather than on preparing students to pass the next educational hurdle.
Kelly argues that classrooms are full of reluctant or under-performing readers because teachers (sometimes because they are forced to) are committing a number of cardinal sins:
1. They’re testing too much, forcing students to concentrate on the trivial.
2. They’re focusing too much on reading skills and reading programs instead of teaching a the wide general knowledge – fostered through subjects like the sciences, the social sciences and the arts – which give students the necessary prior knowledge to make sense of the texts they encounter.
3. They’re over-teaching certain texts, preventing students from enjoying the flow of truly pleasurable reading.
4. They’re trying to teach to too many standards, leading to a rushed and narrow experience for students.
5. They’re teaching the classics without remembering why we want our students to read them.
6. They’re not allowing time in school for reading, and they’re not insisting that students are reading at least two books at any one time.
7. They’re under-teaching difficult texts. Students struggle with these if not given adequate support.
8. They’re not passing on their knowledge of what distinguishes a successful reader from one who flounders.
Over the past week I’ve been following the discussion, and have just finished reading the book itself.
Because Kelly’s central thesis and the questions it raises are relevant to my research with Josh, I’ve tried a little thought experiment. What if Kelly, having heard Josh’s responses so far, were to interview Josh? What questions would he ask? And how might Josh answer?
Here’s the little scene that played itself out in my imagination.Kelly: Josh I’m interested that you often have big gaps between reading a book that you really like? Josh: Yes. I like reading. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve always been a pretty good reader. Kelly: But you used to read more than you do now. Josh: More fiction, yes. I have to read a lot for school, textbooks and books for English and research on the internet, stuff like that, but I read less fiction than I used to when I was in primary school. Kelly: Do you miss it? Josh: Do I miss it? [pause] I’m not sure. I like it when I find a good book. I like getting lost in it, being carried away by the story. It’s sort of relaxing, a way of chilling out I suppose. Of not feeling the pressure so much. Kelly: The pressure? Josh: The pressure of stuff at school really. There’s lots to do. I do maths and sciences, that’s where I do best, but you have to work hard to keep up. I want to get a good score at the end of Year 12, to keep my options open. Kelly: And reading a good book helps you to forget all of that for a while. Josh: I suppose it does, yes. But there’s not a lot of time for that now. And it doesn’t feel as important as studying for my exams, or doing my assignments. Kelly: It’s dropped off the priority list. Josh: Well it’s dropped down it a fair bit, I suppose you could say. Kelly: And the reading you do at school, you don’t find that relaxing in the same kind of way? Josh: Some of it’s interesting. And I’m getting into Shakespeare a bit more now, like I was telling Dr Shann. But when I relax now it’s with TV or the net, or with my friends. I’m interested in things, don’t get me wrong. But I’m more likely to find a film documentary or even magazine articles interesting, more so than a book most of the time. Kelly: So that’s how you find out about the things you find interesting. Through the net, or your friends, or through magazines or the TV. Josh: Pretty much, yeah. Kelly: And are those things – the net, your friends, magazines, film documentaries – are those things a big part of your school syllabus? Josh: Not really. We watch documentaries sometimes in science, and we use the net for our research. But it’s mainly what the teachers teach us, and our textbooks and preparing for the next assessment task. The pressure gets more intense in Year 11 I’ve found. Kelly: It was better in Year 10. Josh: [pause] I suppose there was less pressure. It wasn’t as rushed. But we still did the same kinds of things in class: stuff to read, assignments to do, tests to prepare for. Some of it was interesting, some of it was just work. It had to be done. Kelly: The way you talk, Josh, it sounds like the pleasure you get from reading is more something you have to find time for yourself, rather than something that is a part of your school life. Josh: That’s pretty much it I guess. Kelly: But with the ‘Othello’, you’re starting to get some pleasure from that? Josh: I’m doing much better, if that’s what you mean, and that makes me feel good. My teacher was giving some assessments back the other day and she was saying that she’s pleased with my progress. I feel I’m making progress. Kelly: And having those lessons where you all started to discuss your different interpretations helped. Josh: That was interesting. To see the different things different kids saw in the text. It was like poems, where it’s interesting to see all the different things that kids see, all the different interpretations. Like some of the students thought that Iago was pure evil, but I didn’t think so. I think there was a point when he realized that what he was doing was wrong, but he’d got too far in, he couldn’t get out without causing himself real grief. He had a sense of right and wrong. Kelly: But he wasn’t able to do what he thought was the right thing to do. Josh: He couldn’t. He was trapped. Kelly: Like sometimes happens in the real world. Josh: [pause] In the real world? I don’t get you. Kelly: People sometimes know what they’re doing is wrong, but feel they’re too involved, they can’t get off the path they’re on. Josh: I guess that’s right. I suppose so. I hadn’t really thought about it like that, but I guess that’s right. Kelly: Maybe ‘Othello’ has something to say about how we should live our lives. Josh: What do you mean? It’s more about Othello and Iago and the others, isn’t it, about understanding why they do what they do. Kelly: Why do you think we want our kids to study the play? Josh: So we get better at analyzing the play. It’s by Shakespeare. He’s a great writer. Kelly: A great writer? Josh: He wrote all those famous plays that have lasted all that time. He must be a great writer. Kelly: I wonder what it is that makes him so great. Josh: His language? Kelly: You find his language to be outstanding? Josh: I find his language to be pretty difficult to understand. But SparkNotes helped. Once I’d got the framework, things started to make sense. Kelly: You talk about it as if we set plays like Othello because they’re like difficult puzzles which you need to work hard to solve. Josh: Well, you do need to work hard! Kelly: Yes, you do. But maybe that’s not why we set them. Maybe we set them because they say something to us about the important issues in life. Josh: The important issues in life? Isn’t that what we learn maybe in science when we’re studying things like the stem cell issue or cloning or the environment? Or in Religion and Values Education classes? Isn’t English more about analysing language and communicating and getting better at reading and writing? Kelly: Well maybe we read Othello partly because it says something about what happens to your life if you give in to evil? That seems at least to be the aspect of Othello that you’ve found yourself most interested in. Maybe if you discovered that the great texts taught us something about how to live our lives, you’d read more? Josh: I read books as a bit of an escape, not to learn more! Kelly: I’m all for reading lots for the sheer pleasure of being carried along by a good story. Those ‘Tomorrow’ books sound great. But there’s another kind of fiction, too, more demanding but ultimately just as important. Plays like ‘Macbeth’, or novels like ‘Animal Farm’, or ‘Of Mice and Men’. Josh: I had to read those last year, when I was in Dr Shann’s class! Kelly: And …? Josh: And … I read them. Kelly: And … Josh: Well I did all right in the assessments. Not great. But all right. Kelly: And ….? Josh: I don’t get you. Kelly: Did you just read them so you’d do all right in the assessments? Josh: Well they weren’t like the ‘Tomorrow’ series. I didn’t get carried away by them, if that’s what you mean. Kelly: But what did you learn from them? What did they mean to you? Josh: Not a lot, to tell you the truth. I read them. I did the assessments. I did all right. I tried my hardest. I was pleased with my achievement.
III My maxims revisited
Can an imagined conversation like the one above reveal anything new to me? After all, it’s the product of my own mind, fed by my own experiences and shaped by my own assumptions. Is it possible that it might also challenge some of these assumptions, that it might extend my thinking in some way?
The bit in the conversation that made me hold my breath a bit was towards the end when Josh talked about being in my class and reading Animal Farm, Macbeth, and Of Mice and Men. According to my imagined Josh, these great texts left no lasting impression, they were means to an end (good grades).
I can imagine Josh feeling exactly this! And I can imagine what Kelly Gallagher might be thinking. “How did you teach these big books Steve? What kind of a framework did you give the students? Did you give them the Guided Tour (the teacher helping the student to see the important features) and end with the Budget Tour (letting the informed students discover more for themselves)? To what extent did you insist on a close study of important parts of these texts? Did you allow Josh to discover the greatness in these books? Did Josh take away something valuable after wrestling with these books?”
These are uncomfortable questions. I could hide behind a Fish-like defence that Josh was constrained not by my teaching but by the assumptions he brought to the task. I could point to the various attempts at framing or close reading I did. Or the links I tried to make with the world the students themselves experienced.
But the fact remains that a good student like Josh, someone who can read for pleasure, and who is motivated to do well, left my class reading less than he read when he was in primary school and having never discovered the greatness of these classic texts.
Is it time to re-think and to adjust?
In an earlier post I came up with five maxims which I thought should guide our literacy teaching:
1. The more I can infect my class with my love for the subject, the more individuals in the class will want to read. Maxim 1: Reading is fertilised by a teacher’s love for the subject matter.
2. The more my students know about the subject, the more they will want to read, and the more they will understand from their reading. Maxim 2: Prior knowledge is a gateway to reading proficiency.
3. The more the class inquiry is centred around clearly identified fertile questions, the more purposeful and effective the reading will be. Maxim 3: An inquiring mind directs a reading that is purposeful.
4. The more each student feels he can make a meaningful contribution to the learning of the class as a whole, the better he’ll read. Maxim 4: We read better when we sense we are agents in the learning of others.
5. The atmosphere in the class – the sense in which it is experienced as a community of scholars – will impact on the amount of good reading done. Maxim 5: Belonging, community and literacy are linked.
I feel I can stand confidently behind all five, and I think they were a part of my teaching of Josh last year. But something is clearly missing. I need to add a sixth.
6. Teacher enthusiasm, fertile questions, prior knowledge, active learning and an animated community aren’t always enough. Maxim 6: Some academic texts need close and disciplined guidance.
Postscript: reflection on the writing
I’ve just got back from the beach and it’s now dark outside. I’m down here in the house alone. The fire is on – it’s been on for the two days I’ve been here – and I’ve put a couple of lamps on. I’ll write for an hour or so, then I’ll make myself some dinner. Some left-over fish from last night which I’ll spread on some grilled polenta. I’ve got a sauce in mind, but I’ll experiment as I go. I love it here.
The beach was beautiful. Because it’s a long weekend, there were quite a few people walking along the tide line, a few of them with their dogs. There were men ankle deep in the water with their fishing lines out, and a couple of families had brought their food down and were building a small fire for a barbeque. I like it when I’m the only one on the beach, but this evening it felt good too; there was a kind of holiday atmosphere. People were relaxed, loose-limbed and smiling.
As I walked away from the main groups round to a rocky headland, I saw a woman with a camera, pointing it at the sky behind me. After I’d passed her, I turned around to see what she was trying to capture. It was the last of the sunset. Brilliant orange and dark grey puffs of cloud against a pale blue sky. Like a Turner painting I saw once. It was exhilarating. I walked along the beach in the growing dark. In this mood, at this moment, after a couple of days of on my own with my own slow routines and with time to mull and to step back from the rush, things seemed connected and meaningful.
This writing, and the thinking that it encourages, is a part of what gives me this sense of connection and meaning.
I’m doing this writing and this little research project partly for myself, but also partly for the 90 postgraduate students I’ll be teaching in a couple of months. I want to model what I’m asking them to do: to get to know a student like Josh, to think about his reading, to use the literature to inform their growing understanding of the issues they’ll face as teachers of reading and writing in schools. I want them to write reflectively about all of this.
But will they have the time? I’m 62 with over 30 years of teaching experience to draw on, so I’ve got a perspective that a new teacher can’t have. I work part-time, so that helps. I’ve got a house down at the coast which I can come to every now and then. I’ve got ways in which I can extract myself from the pace of the everyday.
Will my postgraduate students have time?
Do our school students, in our classrooms?
Or are we all hurtling at exponentially increasing speed, in schools with only enough time for the relatively trivial, towards a fairly gloomy future?