Tuesday, June 5, 2018

YOLO: A Reading Wars Story

The school year that just concluded put the idea of implicit bias on my radar. (A sentence that still feels slightly oxymoronic.) Then, last week, I finished Language at the Speed of Sight by Mark Seidenberg, nonfiction about recent scientific research into how readers acquire those skills. Among the author's claims: “People are unreliable narrators of their own cognitive lives… Being an expert reader doesn’t make you an expert about reading.” (4) And: "A good teacher has to be a good observer to be sure... [yet] What people observe depends on what they already believe." (261) See: Confirmation Bias. Seidenberg proceeded to kick me right in the biases by highlighting how I emphasize comprehension with middle-school readers over phoneme/grapheme know-how. In Seidenberg's analysis, those latter elements deserve more conscientious attention for many who struggle to read efficiently because so-called basic skills turn out to be both trickier and more essential to master than they're credited. Seidenberg's leading impulse leans conservative as he suggests spending less time and energy defining literacy in broad, multiple, multimedia terms and more time shoring up the phoneme and grapheme pathways that interact synergistically with semantic understanding in the most adept readers. He makes a compelling, readable research-based case. Even if making meaning remains the prime reading purpose, in my view, perhaps kindling sound-letter skills, even for tweens and teens, can feed their comprehension fire.

In contrast to the unsettling pauses Language at the Speed of Sight gave me, my next summer read felt like a cozy blanket: Renew! by Shawna Coppola. The focus here is on writing, particularly in multiple and multimedia terms. As Coppola writes, ""With visual composition becoming ever more ubiquitous in our world outside of school...wouldn't it make sense to collectively broaden our idea of what it means to 'write' within school?" (43) Even as Coppola draws on numerous literacy luminaries to make this case, I keep hearing Seidenberg's voice in my other ear, how the education system is dysfunctional because of how its “Allegiance to great theorists of the past obviates the burden of engaging newer research.” (260) I wonder: What if my efforts to coach students to write more broadly is shortchanging their writing fundamentals, paralleling Seidenberg's main claim about much present-day reading instruction?

Even as I hold that question in my head, it doesn't feel true. A feeling that could benefit from bolstering. Given that I favor both/and pedagogies over spurious either/or dichotomies, I'd do well to marshal some scientific research in service of my inner Seidenberg. I should be better prepared to justify why I work with students the ways I do, how I see our work progressing towards more powerful literacy -- or literacies.

With such notions tumbling around my brain, I came across these lines Sunday in Colum McCann's Letters to a Young Writer: "There are no rules. Or if there are any rules, they are only there to be broken. Embrace these contradictions. You must be prepared to hold two or more opposing ideas in the palms of your hands at the exact same time." (6)

Which leads to me a likely next step: I've started to see this summer-reading-enriched blog draft as tracing the gist of a professional mission statement a la Joy Kirr. More writing and rewriting (and reading!) to come...




6 comments:

  1. Very interesting thoughts here. I just finished reading Reimagining Writing Assessment by Maja Wilson, and I think she engages with many of the questions you talk about here as she explores why we assess what we do and what we need to be assessing if we're serious about growing writers. For me, she presented a powerful vision of writing as an essential part of democracy and having a voice in a democracy. I worry that approaches that focus on those "fundamentals" risk blurring the purpose and scope of reading and writing in the minds of students. I'm intrigued by Seidenberg's argument, even as I imagine I would want to push back on every page! I'm going to have to look for a copy of this book!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Coaching increasingly literate citizens to emerge sounds like a worthy professional goal. Your thoughts remind me of a quote I carry in my brain from Ruha Benjamin. She asked, "“How do we make our schools laboratories of democratic participation?” I'm now curious to check out _Reimagining Writing Assessment_; thanks for the tip.

      Delete
  2. Your summer reading list seems to be far more serious than mine!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Serious stretch. Lighter fare in the mix, too!

      Delete
  3. I should be better prepared to justify my work with students. These ideas are going to form the framework of my summer renew. Thanks for always being my mentor.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Our blogs are like remote mentors for each other. Small wonders, digital or otherwise, never cease :)

      Delete