A former student sent this along for us to think about. The suggestion is that we're thinking about this work in fundamentally wrong ways. How very John Dewey, yes? She could be on to something.....thoughts? As a society, we've raised the bar on what it means to comprehend a text. At the same time, we've increased the percentage of students we expect to master these processes well beyond the 50 percent who graduated from high school half a century ago. Recognizing that many students don't achieve the standards now being set, we have labeled them "struggling readers." That label seems incorrect and inadvertently ironic, and it signals the murkiness of our own understanding.
As a society, we've raised the bar on what it means to comprehend a text. At the same time, we've increased the percentage of students we expect to master these processes well beyond the 50 percent who graduated from high school half a century ago. Recognizing that many students don't achieve the standards now being set, we have labeled them "struggling readers." That label seems incorrect and inadvertently ironic, and it signals the murkiness of our own understanding.
Schools are now buying programs and employing consultants to teach teachers how to teach comprehension strategies, but teaching strategies without making further changes is like teaching dance steps without turning on the music.
When I walk into secondary-school classrooms - as I have for the past 15 years as a teacher-educator - I often enter places where the struggle, long over, has been replaced by apathy and disengagement. The root of the word comprehension means to seize, grasp or take hold of. In my classroom visits, I rarely see students and teachers actively, energetically working to grasp and respond to the rich and valuable storehouse of knowledge embedded in humanity's written record.
Instead, rows of students sit passively and mostly in silence in orderly rows while the teacher holds forth gamely and at considerable length following his or her own train of thought. Or, the opposite: Groups of peers supposedly work collaboratively on questions or projects but more often discuss last night's game or surreptitiously check their messages. Neither of these approaches has much to do with seizing and working with ideas. So my question is: What genuine changes do we need to make - in classrooms and beyond - for students to reach out and seize ideas, to become truly struggling readers?
It's easy to fall into playing the blame game. In the education world, everyone has his or her favorite villain. There's more immediate satisfaction in getting mad than in grappling with how to make needed changes. Don't blame teachers. Teaching is astonishingly hard work. Don't blame administrators, unions, parents, community members or even the students themselves. Don't blame the increase in the special-needs or immigrant population, the Internet or the No Child Left Behind legislation, although these are relevant to the discussion and worthy of extended examination.
Instead of an adversarial stance, we should begin by acknowledging that we're using outmoded methods and structures to achieve increasingly ambitious goals in new circumstances. As adults, we need to re-educate ourselves to be reflective, to think more carefully about how we learn in both our personal and professional lives. What new ideas do each of us reach out to seize, grasp or take hold of? And why? Often, what we choose to learn derives from a personal place. We reach out to grasp what matters to the people we care about. We reach out because we believe it matters that we do so. Some students come to school believing that their effort matters. Many others believe otherwise. For those students, inspiration needs to precede strategies, and inspiration comes not from packaged programs purchased by the school's central office, but from interactions with real human beings who demonstrate and point the way. With some reflection, each of us can remember when something mattered enough for us to want to continue learning; the day we found a door to a world we wanted to enter.
Perhaps it was the day the actor from Trinity Rep came to class, invited you to grapple with some scenes, talk about political activism and power, and arranged for you to come to the theater to see "Julius Caesar." Perhaps it was the day you and a friend solved the "egg drop challenge" set by the endlessly energetic physics teacher.
Sometimes, the inspiration comes not in a single incident, but slowly, over time.
More often than not, it comes from activities outside rather than inside school. Whatever the source, the initial impetus is only a beginning. For students to build on those moments, there must be strong support. Continued relevance and purpose counts. Respect from others counts. Opportunities to practice count. Hard work counts. Rigorous response counts. And yes, learning to use strategies counts. Factual information and strategies are what students get in school.
We need to add the kind of inspiration that encourages struggle. To figure out how, I'd suggest that everyone involved with education - researchers and other university faculty, administrators, teachers, as well as parents and community members when possible - spend time sitting in classrooms, talking to teachers and students, figuring out what they can contribute, then finding a way to lend a hand. How do we re-create institutions that teach students dance steps and turn on the music?
Eileen Landay is a retired clinical professor of English education and the faculty director of the ArtsLiteracy Project at Brown University.