Thursday, December 30, 2010

Why We Read

There has recently been much discussion about Grant Wiggins’ proposal to ban fiction, which has, of course, got me thinking a lot about reading and fiction.

I had read (quickly) the original post by Grant Wiggins about banning fiction and had intended to return to it and read it more thoroughly but couldn’t find it again. Which, it turns out, is because Wiggins didn’t really mean it. (Note to aspiring satire writers: satire is a good way to make a point, but it’s not always as easy as The Onion makes it look)

His attempted point about needing to revisit the materials we use in the classroom is a good one, and one that Nicholas Provenzano makes far better than Wiggins did, and since I’d just be repeating everything he said, I’ll just tell you to go and read what he wrote.

But the other point--the one about students needing to be prepared for the mostly non-fiction reading they’ll be doing in the future--is the one that won’t stop rattling around my brain.

Reading and thinking about this issue I was reminded of a conversation I had with a colleague at the beginning of the year. She was returning Gayle Forman's amazing If I Stay, which she had checked out and read because it was on my summer reading list. I was excited to talk to someone new about what they'd thought of the book, so I asked her what she thought of the book. Her response (not completely verbatim):

"It was okay. The vocabulary wasn't very sophisticated."

I was floored. I just stared at her blankly for a moment and then said, "You and I read books for very different reasons."

'Cause seriously. I was so completely absorbed by If I Stay that it didn't even occur to me to pay attention to the vocabulary level. I was there for the story. I was so caught up in Mia’s decision that I completely failed to notice whether or not the words she was using would also appear on the SATs.

I’ve also had a teacher ask me if I could contact the editors of short story publications to ask them to use more standard grammar. I neglected to follow through on that request.

Reading fiction is about far more than learning new vocabulary and studying grammar in its natural habitat. One of the most critically important skills we develop by reading fiction is the ability to see and understand a world and viewpoint completely different from our own.

Reading fiction helps us develop our ability to empathize. Seriously, it's been studied (go read that article, right now). Being able to put yourself in another person's shoes is an invaluable skill for reading fiction, non-fiction, and, you know, interacting with the world at large.

This has been at the forefront of my mind as I've recently started reading Jason Ohler's new book, Digital Community, Digital Citizen. In the introduction he talks about helping students learn to balance the rights and responsibilities of interacting with people in a digital environment. Understanding your rights is relatively easy--you only have to understand your own perspective; but when you start talking about understanding responsibilities, you need to be able to understand the world from someone else’s perspective.

The concept of empathy is at the core of so much of what we, as librarians, are trying to teach. You want credit for the work that you do? Then give credit to others. Don't want to be bored to tears by a boring paper or presentation? The don't create a boring one yourself. Don't want to be harassed online? Don't want to be misled by false information? Want to be respected? You get the idea. It is hard to thoroughly grasp the underlying concepts that make these things more than just actions and turn them into attitudes unless you have developed an ability to empathize--particularly the ability to empathize with people completely unlike yourself.

You can't directly teach empathy. There's no way to say, "Look, this is how you empathize. Now empathize with problems 1-6 on page 43 for homework." What we can, as educators, do is to create an environment in which students are routinely exposed to views and lives that are completely foreign to them. That's a skill that they will need when reading non-fiction that discusses lives and experiences that are completely foreign to them.

Then there's this article, from a while ago, which I found both interesting and really, really obnoxious. First of all, could we please have an article about teens and reading that either a) mentions books other than Harry Potter and Twilight (I’m starting to get to that point with Hunger Games, too) or b) better yet, doesn't mention them at all. I know they are the "big titles", but teens read LOTS of other things, and any time I read an article about teens and reading that mentions only those two series I can't shank the feeling that the writer is less than well-informed about the real landscape of YA lit.

Things like this paragraph:
So they are in fact not about what is it to be an adolescent, but what it should be, since, perhaps unconsciously, adults want to instruct young people and guide them into adulthood. So images of adolescence in YA fiction are images of what adults want teenagers to believe. It’s a very powerful ideological tool.
make me so annoyed I cannot even articulately respond with anything beyond wondering if Maria Nikolajeva has read any YA lit, or if she was ever actually a teenager.

Though, in fairness, I will point out that she redeems herself significantly when asked what parents should do about teens reading dark literature. Specifically, "Nothing." :
So it is important to let young people be exposed to all kinds of literature and culture, dark and light, serious and entertaining; and it is always a good idea to talk to kids about what they read, watch or listen to.
Anyway, slightly ranty tangent aside, the major takeaway from that article (for me, anyway), is that what we read effects us. Which is both an excellent point and a major duh. Obviously what we read affects us--and it affects us differently at different ages, because we read it through the lens of different life experiences. I read The Great Gatsby in high school and HATED it. A lot. I re-read it at 23 because I was going to have to teach it and LOVED it. And understood why 16-year-old me thought it was awful; there was no way I could relate to that story in any meaningful way. Knowing that did not make it any easier to teach it to a room full of 16-year-olds (one of them, quite memorably, said the book made him want to forget how to read).

Anyway, yes. What we read affects us--good, bad, in between. It changes both how we see ourselves and how we see the world. This is true of both fiction and non-fiction (one of the reasons I read so many blogs by people in my field is that I love being able to learn from their experiences and see problems--and solutions--in a new light). I believe that I would not be as adept a reader of non-fiction without hours (and hours!) of fiction reading under my belt. Good fiction makes it easy to imagine yourself in someone else's place--a skill that is vital to effective reading of non-fiction, particularly if you want to learn anything from it.

And learning, really, is what it’s all about. And if we want to learn about people other than ourselves (and I don’t think anyone is arguing otherwise, even satirically), reading fiction is an indispensable part of the process.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Every Brain is Different

255/365: Dyslexiaphoto © 2009 Janine | more info (via: Wylio)One of the most common misconceptions I encounter about learning disabilities is that they all affect everyone the same way--every student with dyslexia is the same, every students with ADD is the same, every student with executive functioning issues is the same, every student with X is like Y. And oh if it were that way, education (and life) would be so much easier. But every student with dyslexia/ADD/whatever is very, very different. These are big umbrella diagnoses, and there's a lot that fits under them.

Think of it like being diagnosed with allergies--everyone who has allergies is allergic to different things, reacts in different ways, and is best treated by different methods. There's overlap, sure, but it's still a highly individualized diagnosis. So it is with learning disabilities--there's overlap, sure, but what works for Dyslexic Student A is by no means guaranteed to work for Dyslexic Student B.

Which is why I find the research reported on in the article Dyslexia: Brain scans predict reading skills so fascinating and so, so important. Not only does it give us a better understanding of what is going on in the brain, it could help us fine-tune how we work with individual students.

These are the two paragraphs that resonated with me the most:

In contrast, the battery of standardized, paper-and-pencil tests typically used by reading specialists did not aid in predicting which of the children with dyslexia would go on to improve their reading ability years later.

“Our findings add to a body of studies looking at a wide range of conditions that suggest brain imaging can help determine when a treatment is likely to be effective or which patients are most susceptible to risks,” says study leader Fumiko Hoeft, associate director of neuroimaging applications at Stanford University.

Paper and pencil tests (or any standardized test, really) will do a good job of telling us what a student doesn't know or can't do--but they fail miserably at telling us why. And the why could be any number of things, depending on the student--even a student who we think fits in a particular box because they have a particular diagnosis. I think we're a LONG ways away from having up-to-date brain scans on every student (and I'm not sure about how I would feel about that, though my initial reaction is ew), but research like this will, hopefully, lead to discussions about the fact that there ARE differences in why and how students struggle with information, even if they're struggling with the same information.

If I haven't already recommended Maryanne Wolf's absolutely amazing Proust and the Squid a million times, I am severely negligent. You will come away with a new-found amazement at the sheer complexity of process of reading, and learning to read (and it's the most accessibly written book about neuroscience you'll ever read). Of particular resonance for me was the final section, on the dyslexic brain and how it doesn't learn to read--but does learn to do many other things. Wolf raises an excellent (but currently unanswerable) question about whether the over-development in certain areas of the dyslexic brain is a cause of or effect of struggles with reading--and also asks us to think about the talents that many dyslexics have that those of us with "normal" brains couldn't conceive of. If you're interested in this topic at all, you should go read it, like, right now. I'll wait.

We owe it to all our students--diagnosed, undiagnosed, misdiagnosed, undiagnosable--to do our best to understand and believe that having dyslexia, or ADD, or dyscalculia does not put them in a particular box. The same goes for "smart" kids--the ones who typically do well in school. If we tell them (through words or actions) that we think they can/will only learn a particular way, imagine the crushing defeat when that way just doesn't work for them. For resilient kids, or the ones for whom school usually "works", chances are they'll find or ask for another way. But LD kids generally won't--because, sadly, they've gotten the message that they just can't "do" school so many times that one more failure doesn't seem noteworthy. So it's up to us to notice, and adapt, and change, and work with them to find the how and why that DOES work.

Even if we don't have an fMRI in every classroom.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

"Whatever you are, be a good one"

I will potentially catch flack from my mother, several friends, and a number of colleagues for sharing a blog post with this title and agreeing with most of what is said, but I'm going to do it anyway (I live life on the edge, clearly):

My Job is Not What I Do, It Is Who I Am

During my first year as a librarian I remember a colleague asking me how things were going, and when would I be done and able to take some down time. And I remember saying, "There's no point at which I'm 'done.' There's just a point at the end of every day when I say 'enough for today' and I stop."

That is, I think, the nature of working in education (and in a lot of other fields, I know; it's just that most of my experience is in education). I get frustrated with colleagues who want to do something "like we did it last year." Even if a project went perfectly (ha!), I always want to try something new, make something better. And every year we're working with new students who bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table. No matter how good a lesson or unit is, it never feels "done" to me.

Which is not to say I never drag my feet through a day, or want to do something that's just "good enough" or get frustrated or feel like work has consumed my entire life to the exclusion of the possibility of social interaction. 'Cause I do. But 9 times out of 10 a positive interaction with a student (whether that's working with a kid on a major project or someone just stopping in to say hi and ask for a book recommendation) will bring me back to where I need to be.

This is, I think, part of how I'm wired. Even when I worked in, um, let's just call them "jobs not crucial to the future of our nation" I often spent too much time at work or thinking about work. I'm not very good at just leaving half-done things aside at 5:00 and not thinking about it till the next day. And I took any feedback on my work--good or bad--to heart. Often too much so. So I suppose it's a good thing I'm in education, as leaving half-done things aside at 5:00 is never really an option, and taking critiques of your work--good and bad--to heart is incredibly important.

Like the quote that is the title of this blog post (attributed to Abraham Lincoln, who I think it's fair to say took his own advice to heart), whatever it is I do, I think it's important to be--or try to be--good at it. But I've come to realize, too, that being good at what I do also means taking time away from work; it's important to create balance, and perspective. Spending all my time immersed in and consumed by my work creates a kind of myopia that is counter-productive when it comes to actually improving.

My job is who I am; there is no way I could feel as passionate about my work, or unbegrudgingly give over so much of my life to it if it didn't speak to something deep within me. But it's not ALL of who I am.