Monday, May 21, 2007

After Due Consideration...More on Teaching Reading

In the comments section of this post, John Althouse Cohen left me this message:

Wait a minute, I don't even see the disagreement here. Althouse: "Kids need to learn to read, and they should also be learning science and history too, so why not combine the two tasks? ... I'm also not opposed to teaching history and science through the kinds of novels and storybooks that present the information accurately." Isn't that precisely what you're describing with using the moose book to teach math or using A Wrinkle in Time to teach science? Those don't seem markedly different from her example of using 1984 to teach history. If there is any disagreement here, it's much subtler than would justify this kind of "I can't believe anyone with a post-graduate degree...!" attack.
I promised I'd take that comment under consideration. Yes, I was heavy handed in my post. Perhaps I should have waited longer and been less riled up before I hit "publish." I am a total fanatic about reading, and fiction reading in particular. It's a huge part of my life. I also taught lower elementary school grades (k - 3) in a poor, rural school district. I am passionate about the subject of helping children become life-long readers. So, let me say that I am sorry I made snipes at Ann. It was really more about the opportunity to get on my soapbox, that I do disagree with the ideas proposed, and that's what I should have completely focused on. I got caught up doing something I dislike seeing when it happens elsewhere amongst other people. So, I want to say that there are points she made that I agree with, albeit conditionally.

Here's where I agree with Ann:
I'll bet if you had a shelf of books for kids to choose for their free time and it had some nonfiction books like this one, lots of kids would pick them over fiction. And I think a lot of boys would be grateful and some girls mind be inspired to go into careers that are more common for boys.
I think using well written and exciting non-fiction books in the curriculum is very important, not just having them available for free time reading, but that's a minor quibble and in general, I agree.

I also mostly agree with this:
In saying that, I don't mean to say they are just for fun and that there's nothing deep. I'm saying that reading fiction books is or should be intrinsically rewarding and that intrinsic reward is best felt when you are exercising free choice. And I also think that the depths in fiction are best absorbed in a free environment without an authority figure trying to lead you or tell you how to think. Much good fiction is about challenging authority, and I worry that authority figures will choose fiction that they approve of because it teaches the values they like. That's not my idea of how good fiction works.
Yes, I think all lovers of reading, and most teachers, believe that reading fiction books should be intrinsically rewarding, etc.

My concern with the above, is that it goes on to make the suggestion that teachers will impose their values on the students by the books they use to teach reading. It's not outrageous to think of the possibility, I will grant. The other side of the coin, I think, is that students will be exposed to many teachers throughout life. They will learn that those teachers have opinions and values, some quite different from theirs, and some quite different from the other teachers they've had, as well.

It's only through being exposed to those opinions that you learn how to challenge values you disagree with (and not only in fiction, but what about the 'facts' in texts - are they always true? But that's a whole other can of worms). If teachers aren't allowed (and don't forget, the basic premise underlying all this is that fiction reading shouldn't be required reading - period) to expose their students, through teaching, to fiction at all, how will they learn to challenge it?

Now, let's look at the context of my commenter's quote from Ann Althouse's second post in defense of her position (emphasis is mine):
I'm also not opposed to teaching history and science through the kinds of novels and storybooks that present the information accurately. And I think a history class could very well have students read novels that had an effect on history or how people think about history, like "Uncle Tom's Cabin" or "1984." I've taught a couple "Women in Law and Literature" seminars myself. (We'd read a court case and a novel that dealt with the same subject as the case.)
This position is not opposed to teaching history and science 'through' novels and storybooks 'that present the information accurately'. As a supplement, but don't teach reading purely for reading's sake and use fiction (storybooks) to do it. I don't think I'm misreading that. However, I didn't think that was the point of the initial post at all, using fiction to teach other subjects, rather it was not teaching reading as a stand alone but using the reading of texts in other subjects to take the place of reading class. I'll go into that more, later. Here is where I have a fundamental disagreement with the premise in the quote above.

A novel about slavery in the US, a novel about King George III, a novel about the history of Hawaii from the day it rose from the Pacific, through the influx of the Japanese and Chinese immigrants (I really loved that Mitchner book but I sure didn't mistake it for a history text), those novels, as well researched as they might be, are not meant to be textbooks of accurate history or science information - they're made up stories - all "fiction" is that by definition, right?

So, it seems to me, that you can't really teach those subjects "through" novels, no matter how good they are, you can only supplement the facts, and you'll need to spend a lot of time explaining to your students about what are the non-factual elements in those stories. Something an English teacher in a literature class is trained to do.

While good fiction can give one an appreciation of the ideas, and shed much light on the social mores and climate as the author perceived it, of the era, the emphasis in any history or science class needs to be history and science facts. The fiction portion will, necessarily and rightly, be given secondary importance and the teachers of history and science will not spend the time, nor possibly have the right background, to expose the class to the literary aspects of the work.

But, more importantly, those types of books would be taught in upper grades/High School, and if you look at the initial paragraphs of the first post she made, wasn't the whole thing about teaching reading, which occurs in the earliest years of school? Here are two crucial excerpts:

And why does reading even need to be a separate subject from history in school? Give them history texts and teach reading from them. Science books too. Leave the storybooks for pleasure reading outside of school. They will be easier reading, and with well-developed reading skills, kids should feel pleasure curling up with a novel at home. But even if they don't, why should any kind of a premium be placed on an interest in reading novels? It's not tied to economic success in life and needn't be inculcated any more than an interest in watching movies or listening to popular music.

I'm not saying reading shouldn't be taught. I'm saying that the reading materials used in teaching reading should be nonfiction, so that students are absorbing information and practicing critical thinking while they read. I consider this to be efficient and appropriate for the school setting. Students would have access to fiction to read on their own for fun (and maybe, because it would be a change of pace, they'd have more of a tendency to experience it as fun).

This advocates using texts *on* other subjects to teach reading rather than using storybook (fiction) texts. So, what I was saying about the moose and the muffin book, is the opposite of that - use the READING to launch learning in the other subjects. But it all starts with the reading lesson, not substituting a history book for a story book designed to teach reading. Did I get it wrong? Maybe it's because that statement isn't really talking about 'learning to read' but the existance of the later grade reading classes?

Separating out history and science as separate subjects does not occur until the later elementary grades, as I recall it was about 4th grade, maybe 5th. I suppose at that point if you stopped having a separate reading class and curriculum, but used well written, interesting texts for those subjects and supplemented them with fiction or simply had a "free reading" period, it might work out ok.

I don't like it. I bet there are those out there who are much better qualified in how education works that can explain whether it's realistic or feasible to do so. All I can say is that in my gut, it seems wrong to stop teaching reading, using fiction.

That's my promised consideration of John's comment. I feel better now.


Crabby McSlacker said...

Wow, I didn't even know there were people advocating this position (eliminating storybooks and other fiction in school) and it seems bizarre.

It's hard, as a lover of fiction, not to feel a bit threatened by the direction our culture seems to be headed--away from literature and dramatic works, and towards celebrity biographies and "reality" tv. At the same time the public appears to clamor for nonfiction and "real life" stories, these stories get less and less representative of what actual 'real life" is like.

Fiction tells a truth sometimes that hand-picked, highly edited tv shows and text books tend to miss.

I also think school is about learning all kinds of things that you may or may not like or use later in life. Some of it doesn't come easy at first, but we're better off being exposed to math/literature/PE whatever when we're young, then can choose to continue or not when we're older.

(And I wouldn't apologize for giving whats-her-name a hard time--seems like she's taken a controversial position to get exactly that reaction).

Dawno said...

That's another good view of the situation, Crabby, I hadn't thought about the connection to reality TV, etc.

As for the apology - it's less about feeling too badly about what I said than it's really about reminding myself that I try to find something good to say when there's something to say and not to make it about people, but the positions.

As a moderator on AW that's what I emphasize on threads that are devolving into personal attacks and I should live up to the same standard.

Jill said...

You are too good for this world, Dawno - but I'm glad you're here.

robeiae said...

I think teachers, as a group, are not all that similar. There are teachers that can have a class read a book of fiction--like Uncle Tom's Cabin--then easily move into teaching the actual history of the period. There are other teachers that cannot, though they might easily teach about the book, itself, and its meaning...and easily teach the specifics of an historical period.

My opinion is that attempts to establish a tightly-controlled curriculum that all teachers must adhere to is a major error. And our children suffer because of it. This is not to say there should be no standards and no basic outline of what should be taught--that is actually needed. But some people just don't know when to draw the line, imo.

Dawno said...

Good point, rob - thanks for coming by and adding to the conversation. I do agree with you, btw, and tried to make a similar point.

Now ya'll know why most of my posts are much more lighthearted (headed?) this having a serious opinion stuff is hard work.

Christine said...

Dawno, I totally agree with you. There's no way you can teach READING by using a textbook for another subject. At least, not effectively. Because when you teach READING, you're worried about diction, pronuciciation and proper pacing, sounding out of the words, etc.

Learning from a textbook is about COMPREHENSION. Which is why they test it differently, and is likely to make school more difficult for the students who have trouble reading in the first place.

Learning to read and learning to, uh, learn (or comprehend) use different skill sets and different parts of the brain.

Not to mention I'm sure the science teacher doesn't want to spend all day teaching reading when she's supposed to be teaching science. I help kids in class all the time with big words, but if I'm teaching history, I focus on history, not the words in the friggin book!

Besides, they don't get to freely choose their textbooks, so if they choose a non-fic book on a subject they're interested in for free reading time (we call it SSR), that's fine. But the textbook is to teach the information, not reading.

Sorry. Had to rant, because that was just silly.

Dawno said...

Thank you, Christine, for coming by and giving that perspective. You said what I wanted to say much better (and more conscisely) than I did.