Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Who Has Authority Over Meaning: Authors or Readers?

             I’m often asked if the questions I publish here are “real.” That is, do teachers, really ask me these things? The questions definitely are real. Though they come to me in a variety of ways.

            Not long ago a colleague contacted me for my advice on a question she’d been asked. She was surprised to see that one show up on my blog. Other times, I might be giving a talk and a question comes from the audience. I remember it later and answer it again for you.

            This week’s “question” is less a query than a confluence of two recent experiences.

            First event: The Washington Post told the story of Sara Holbrook, an author, whose poetry is included in Texas’s state reading test. Ms. Holbrook was chagrined to find that she couldn’t answer all the questions about her own poems. Part of the problem was that one question was about the implications of the poem’s structure, but in printing the poem the publisher screwed up the formatting. One shouldn’t need the original author to fix that kind of mistake.

            The more interesting concern was with another question that asked about the meaning of a particular simile Ms. Holbrook had used. She thought there were multiple answers that could be acceptable and chided the test makers.

            I came across all this from a tweet from my good buddy, Kylene Beers (please don’t judge her for that). She posted it and various educators weighed in about the futility of testing. Despite my recent rant about how we misuse testing, I picked a fight, pointing out that in various interpretive communities, once a text is “published” the author has no more say in what it means than anyone else. Kylene’s followers evidently were not amused.

            Second event: I was working on a curriculum project, and I had to compose some stories to use in the lessons. My wife, Cyndie, was helping me and at some point we got in an argument over the meaning of one of the stories. She believed that it carried one theme and I thought another.

            After we had banged at each other for a while, she started laughing. “What’s so funny?” I asked.

            Her response: “I’m arguing with the author about what his story is suppose to mean.” Once she stopped laughing, she suggested that I write about this on my blog.

            The issue is this: who owns meaning and what does it matter who owns it if we are trying to teach kids to read and interpret texts?

            Many years ago, I studied kids’ conceptions of authors and their role in reading comprehension and text interpretation. In doing that work, I read a great deal of literary criticism, and was surprised to find not everyone was as excited as me about having readers think about authors. In fact, many literary critics thought it was a singularly foolish idea.

            The New Critics, the Post-Structuralists, the Communities of Meaning groups all rejected the author’s primacy. While some authorities (e.g., Louise Rosenblatt) seemed not so much aimed at banishing the author as treating him/her as a minor irrelevancy, others, like Michel Foucault, went so far as declaring the author to be dead (a position Foucault recanted later).

            My point isn’t that since many experts reject the importance of author in interpretation that we should too. I’m only pointing out that it is contested ground.

            In contrast to the anti-author group are those who champion the idea that readers must construct author persona from a text, or those, like E.D. Hirsch who have made the argument that readers are ethically responsible for trying to honor the author’s meaning—rather than simply constructing any meaning they might choose.

            There are at least a couple of ways of considering these arguments about meaning within reading instruction. One simple thing to do would be to pooh-pooh it all as trivial; we are talking about the interpretation of literature right. Does it really matter, in the whole mix of things, whether we think about authors or not?

            I can’t do that because we aren’t just (that is an ironic italicization) talking about literature. The world may not be disrupted much whether I grasp the true meaning that Robert Frost crafted into “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” but there are text interpretations that do matter materially. I remember Stanley Fish providing a seminar to Supreme Court Justices concerning the futility of trying to grasp the “original intent” of the Founders. Do laws mean what the words say or what the authors might have meant when they wrote those words?

            You might not care whether I think Frost’s poem is about death or Santa Claus, but you might care a lot about Justice Robert’s take on what the U. S. Constitution has to say about reproductive rights or gun control. Those issues turn on where the meaning resides—in the text, in the reader, or in the original author. 

            I tend to fall on the conservative side of such arguments… that is, I tend to believe that authors try to communicate with readers, and that our job as readers is to try to figure out what the author meant to communicate. Like Hirsch, I see it as a matter of ethics. To turn someone’s words to your own purposes is very similar to using other people for your own purposes.

            Not only do I think thoughtful reading considers what an author was trying to convey, I believe that much of our ability to argue back with a text is bound up in our perception that the words represent another person; another fallible person with a point of view that may be wrong.

            I’m one of those readers who luxuriate in an author’s voice (when I read E. B. White, I slow to “hear” his flat, unemotional accent—a bit of New York, a bit of Maine).

            However, those things do not render me ignorant of the ultimate impossibility of ever grasping another person’s meaning with full certainty. Language is too imperfect for that.

            Doesn’t that argue for simply asking an author what she meant? Perhaps, but as Fish has pointed out, authors err; they change their minds; they forget; they have a subconscious; they have ulterior motives for nurturing or dispelling ambiguity. Maybe Ms. Holbrook doesn’t like tests and was willing to twist her original meaning to make a political point. Or, perhaps she had second thoughts about getting paid by a test company. Ultimately, you just can’t trust authors.

            I buy the ethical argument that we should try to honor an author’s words—considering not just multiple interpretations, but which one the author may have intended; it appeals to my sense of decency. But, I also accept the idea that multiple interpretations will usually be possible, and that once a work is shared, the author surrenders his or her authority over the “meaning” of the text. Now it belongs to all of us, including the people who make up test questions.

            Okay, that’s part one. Next time I’ll provide some practical ideas about how teachers may best enable this dual approach to interpretation: how to teach kids to be sensitive to authors and true to what those authors probably tried to mean; and, also, how to ignore an author, appropriately, when trying to develop one’s own interpretation.

            I not only can talk out of both sides of my mouth, I can teach that way.

Monday, January 16, 2017

I get what you want us not to do, but what should we do? Getting higher test scores.

Teacher question:
I truly want to help teachers strengthen their literacy instruction and students develop and strengthen their reading comprehension. I just viewed your online presentation on “How and How Not to Get Higher Test Scores” and I am intrigued. With only a few short months away from the testing frenzy as you can imagine administrators and teachers are in a panic

My goal is to get my 3rd grade students to navigate and comprehend texts more independently. Would you recommend that students analyze text features (titles, headings, and photograph with caption) to make a prediction about what they will be reading initially? Then have students engage in a partner reading of the text and then a silent reading of the text (build fluency) and then mark up the text with annotations (summarizing statements beside each subheading). I would then ask text-dependent questions such as, “what text structure does the author use to explain how caves are formed? How would you explain how the caves are formed? What is the difference between stalactites and stalagmites and how do the photograph and captions help us understand the differences between the two cave features? What point is the author trying to convey to his/her readers by including the ‘Spelunking Dangers” section and “Rules?” What evidence does the author include to support the ideas that spelunking is dangerous?

My problem is that I believe that I provide too much support to my students and it tends to enable them. I chunk texts up to promote self-monitoring and summarization but see that my students are having difficulties comprehending longer or multiple passages or texts.

Shanahan response:

Good question. If I were still teaching third grade, what would I do to get higher test scores this spring?

1.    First, I would make sure that my boys and girls were reading a lot—within instruction and, to the extent that I could, beyond the school day. Not only should kids be reading every day in their reading lessons, make sure they are reading in social studies, science, and even in math, too. It might help, for a while, to keep track of the numbers of minutes that is happening; it makes it easier to increase the reading time if you know how much actual reading is taking place—oral and silent. I’m talking about reading text, not talking about text, not listening to someone else read, and not the time kids may be off just reading on their own (but accountable reading). Shoot for at least an hour of school reading per day, and then see if you can stretch that out to more like two hours. That’s a lot of reading!

      And, encourage kids to read for enjoyment beyond the school day.         You won’t have control over that, of course, but many teachers are      effective in getting kids to read. Work with the kids and the          librarian to find texts the kids want to read. Enlist parents in           supporting this reading. Don’t hesitate to “reward” kids for this reading (that can be as simple as a bookworm that wends around       the room showing how many books are being read, to something           as complicated as a classroom pizza party once some large            numbers of books or pages are read).

2.    Make sure you are having kids read texts that are sufficiently difficult. Pay attention to the Lexile levels that your state has established for third-graders to read. Make sure kids are reading a wide range of texts every day and every week, including texts that are in the specified range. I would also have kids reading books easier and harder than that range (and when you go higher than grade level, be sure to provide plenty of support and make sure the kids know what you are up to).

3.    As you point out, teachers tend to over-support kids’ reading. We teacher educators tend to provide a lot of guidance and support for scaffolding—but we are less explicit about withdrawing this support. But, withdrawing support and just going cold turkey may not be the best bet.

            Reciprocal teaching is a good model of withdrawal of scaffolding, so I wouldn’t hesitate to use that—even with other strategies. Initially, the teacher guides the reading process, even demonstrating to the boys and girls how to go about working  through a text. This modeling or demonstration is largely or         entirely done by the teacher: she implements the strategies—previewing, predicting, reading a portion of the text, asking herself questions, answering those questions, summarizing the text, and then repeating with the next section. The teacher not only does everything but explains why she is doing it and how it is suppose to help.

            Then, the teacher starts to shift the responsibilities to the children, and to withdraw support. Initially, the teacher does what you describe, she makes all the decisions and the kids just carry them out. “We need to preview this text. Let’s read the title and look at the first two pictures.” She continues to explain the purposes of the various steps. When the kids can do that well, the teacher pull      back even more. Perhaps she has the kids take over explaining the purposes. Or, they start to make the decisions. “I think we should read the whole first section before talking about it.” And so on. Eventually, the kids should be carrying out the entire process, initially in the group and then individually. All of this—whether    guided by the teacher or done cooperatively in groups and pairs or done individually—should be silent reading.

4.    I know the tests are done silently, but kids should be engaged in oral reading as well. Not the kind of round robin reading that many teachers use (there isn’t enough reading when done that way), but things like paired reading or reading while listening. Have kids do this with texts at their frustration level, practicing repeatedly two or three times. The idea is to start with text that you struggle a bit with, but practicing to the point of being able to read the text well. That oral reading improvement will transfer to the silent reading.

5.    You mention annotating texts. You can do that, but annotating doesn’t push kids’ thinking far enough. I would encourage the kids to write about the texts. Yes, you can ask questions and have the kids write answers to them—and your questions are good—but you also can have the children summarize and explain the text (summarizing in writing like that has a big impact on the reading comprehension of third graders). Perhaps the annotations could be used to guide the students to provide.

      Good luck.  

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Further Arguments about Too Much Testing

I hear you.

            Last week I posted a blog challenging the amount of testing and test preparation in American reading classes. I got smacked, metaphorically, by friend and foe alike. Some posted their concerns, many more sent them to me directly.

            The grumbles from past foes are the easiest to reply to. They often expressed—in passive aggressive tones—exasperation that I have “finally” woken up to the idea that testing companies are evil and that testing is a conspiracy against kids and teachers. They know because they follow Diane Ravitch’s “research.”

            The thing is—and I’m sure this is true since I’ve reread last week’s posting—I didn’t really come out against testing. Just against over-testing and test prep generally. The politicians have imposed some testing—and I think they have overdone it—but teachers and principals are also devoting too much time to testing, and that's on us.

            Dr. Ravitch seems to be quite upset about accountability testing, which she herself helped impose on educators overriding the critics who depended upon research in their arguments. (Ravitch is an educational historian, and quite a good one, but ignrores—then and now—psychological and educational research).

            I’m not even against accountability testing, as long as the amount of testing is commensurate with the information that one is collecting. To find out how well a school or district is doing, do we really need to test every year? Do they change that fast? Do we really need to test everyone? Anyone ever hear of random sampling? Come onnnnnn!

            If Dr. Ravitch’s minions spent more time in schools, they’d know the heaviest testing commitments are the ones the districts (and, sometimes, even individual principals and teachers) have taken on themselves. We may blame those misguided efforts on the accountability testing—we all want to look good for the picture—but, it is a bad choice, nevertheless. And, it is a choice.

            I do find the critics’ vexation with me a little surprising. For example, when I was director of reading in the Chicago Public Schools (15 years ago), I was ordered, by then Mayor Daley—to emphasize test prep in my teacher education efforts in the city. Unlike some of the critics who these days are so noisy about over-testing, I had skin in the game and I refused.

            It might be worth noting that my refusal led to two outcomes that matter: (1) the Chicago Public Schools engaged in the least test prep—before or since; and (2) Chicago kids made their biggest measured gains in reading. Not a research study, but a policy dispute affecting nearly a half million kids.

            Of course, those who appreciated my past candor were now chagrined at my remarks. They weren’t necessarily upset by what I had to say about accountability testing (many of them concur that it is over the top), but they were scared to death by my comments on the various screening, monitoring, and diagnostic tests that are so much of the daily lives of primary grade classrooms.

            Again, I think I was clear, despite the concerns. The typical complaint: “I understand you, but no one else will.” That is, they get that I am not opposed to all classroom assessment, but they are sure no one else will appreciate the subtlety of what they see as a complex position.

            For example, one dear friend, a grandmother, pointed out her appreciation that her grandkids are given annually a standardized test in reading and math. The reason? She doesn’t trust teachers or schools to actually tell how kids are doing.

            The fact is too often teachers don’t tell parents how their kids are doing. For all kinds of reasons: What if a child isn’t doing well and I don’t know what to tell the parent—why raise a question I can’t answer? What if I don’t think there is anything that can be done—it’s a minority child without economic resources whose family is a wreck? What if I only notice effort and not achievement? What if I just don’t want the argument (often parents don’t like to hear that junior isn’t succeeding)?

            An annual test isn’t perfect, but it doubles the amount of information that most parents have and that isn’t a bad thing. I’m not against that kind of testing.

            One reader thought I was smacking DIBELS, but I wasn’t. I was tough on the notion that tests like DIBELS can profitably be given to ANYBODY every week or two through a school year. But not because I was anti-DIBELS.

            Twice a year I go to my dentist. She takes x-rays every fourth visit. Why doesn’t she do it every time? For two reasons: first, dental health doesn’t change that fast, so they try not to test more than would help; and, second, because x-rays can cause damage, so the balance is best struck between help and hindrance, by testing once every four checkups instead of the seemingly more rigorous testing every time.

            DIBELS-like instruments won’t do physical damage, like x-rays, but they do reduce the amount of teaching and they might shape that teaching in bizarre ways. That is harmful.

            My advice:
1.     Reduce accountability testing to the minimum amounts required to accomplish the goal. Research is clear that we can test much less to find out how states, districts, and schools are doing. Without a loss of information.

2.     Test individual kids annually to ensure parents have alternative information to that provided by teachers.

3.     Limit diagnostic testing in reading to no more than 2-3 times per school year. Studies do not find that any more testing than that is beneficial, and no research supports reducing the amount of teaching to enable such over-testing.

4.     Give most test prep a pass. It doesn’t really help and it reduces the amount of essential instruction that kids should be getting. One practice test given once one or two weeks ahead so kids will feel comfortable with the testing should be plenty.