The Literacy You Get Is Equal to the Culture You Create

Why do you need to read another article on literacy? Haven’t we been through all this before—in one corner, the argument to structure students’ reading and writing strictly, and in the other, the argument to let students read and write what they want.

So why do we feel compelled to add our voices to this cacophony that is the discussion on literacy? A large part of our compulsion comes from what we are witnessing in schools and school systems as they “manage” literacy issues: the MBAing of the public schools, with a focus on “amping up systems,” going “to scale,” moving kids into specific slots in that system, and tracking more and more increments of data as students ascend or, possibly, descend on bar graphs.

The Quantification of Literacy The most commonly discussed aspect of literacy, reading, falls neatly into this scheme since the proliferation of standardized tests offers a tangible means of producing quantitative measurement and more bar graphs.

This attitude (some say “vision”) now influences the way the public discusses literacy and provides policy makers and administrators with the ballast they need to launch many a literacy program. Under such a quantitative approach, reading itself is disaggregated into discrete skills, and this shapes the culture of schools. Teachers, students, parents, and supervisors all acclimate and think of this approach to reading as the way “it’s supposed to be.” This quantitative approach is pervasive, and it defines the criteria for judging students, teachers and schools. Most disturbingly, it also shapes the scope and content of the curriculum.

No classroom is immune. Teachers begin to choose reading materials based not on literary or historical value but for the opportunity to teach “skills” like inference or main idea or critical thinking. Not that we don’t need students who can infer or think critically (though we can’t recall a single teenager who didn’t know how to criticize), but all too often the skills are attacked in a literary void, as if literature itself doesn’t challenge us (both students and teachers) to infer and think critically. Any serious discussion about a book’s meaning, relevance, and ambiguities involves questions of inference and requires critical thinking, character analysis, and understanding of theme. Those aren’t skills that exist as entities separate and distinct from meaning and content. Instead of aiming to develop a love for literature, a passion for reading, a desire to share a good book with others, the goal becomes enough competence in a discrete skill so that students can answer correctly a multiple choice question on a reading test.

The inclusion of essay writing on the SAT as well as on state exit exams doesn’t mean that tests are now broader in their goals, though of course the addition of writing at least means that writing will be part of every school’s curriculum. The truth is that the writing for these tests is formulaic; there’s an accepted pattern and rubric that determine the expectations and grading system. Although student voice is something that everyone says they value, in reality the essays on standardized tests are about following directions, keeping the sentence structure straight, and not making any waves with a shocking opinion. (On a New York State writing test, a student once wrote that his favorite place was a saloon; since he was below age, his essay was judged as fiction, not non-fiction as requested, and he received a zero for his effort. He later won first prize in a national writing contest.)

It’s curious that this skill approach to literacy has little to do with speaking and listening, as if reading and writing have nothing to do with voice and speech. This, despite the fact that many states, like New York, include both speaking and listening in their listing of standards. Attempts to include them in a quantitative measurement defy credibility. New York, for example, requires teachers to read aloud a long non-fiction passage on anything from the Suzuki method of teaching violin to vaudeville to an “inspirational” speech by a football coach, and then have students parrot back in an essay what the teacher just read. Speaking, thank goodness, has not yet received the test makers’ attention (apparently, students still should be seen and not heard).

So, we’re knee deep in a system where data accumulate and are supposed to provide us with an accurate assessment of a student, a cohort, a school, a teacher, a principal, a district, a superintendent.

Really? Is this a safety net that’s being devised? Only people who don’t work with children in the classroom could come to such a conclusion.

The Inadequacies of Testing If testing were the answer to the problem of literacy, our students would be superstars by now. They have, after all, been tested every year since third grade and in many systems even earlier. New York City zealously has decided to start testing in kindergarten and require “interim testing” for all grades K-12 every six to eight weeks.

Is this the best we can offer our students? Is reading thoughtfully the same as scoring high on a standardized test? Don’t most teachers know more about their students’ reading ability than is revealed by test scores? In other professions like medicine, engineering or architecture, practical clinical experience in the field is highly valued. But in education, the opinion and knowledge of the professional—the teacher—is marginalized.

What we have noticed in the years of working with New York City high school students is that most can read. But they won’t. They’ve already mastered the basic task of “decoding,” but they haven’t found a good reason to keep at it. They’ve stopped reading for pleasure or for school assignments. They lack fluency and confidence and avoid reading whenever possible.

Eight years of testing in elementary and middle school has most certainly not produced a generation of readers. Reading, like learning an instrument or riding a bike or throwing a ball, is a skill that develops from practice. However, because students so often experience “reading” as a steady diet of fractured reading passages and continuous test prep, they come to think they’ve mastered it and resist more inquiry-based approaches to reading literature or history or science. From their point of view, “Been there, done that.”

Thinking that what we need is more testing to get students to work or become lifelong readers defies common sense. In New York State, since the institution of the regime of its five high-stakes Regents exams, the graduation rate has actually decreased. Few teachers report that the last eight years of increased test taking have produced more enthusiastic or competent readers. Indeed, as Hazel Haley, a veteran teacher from Florida’s Lakeland High School put it on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, it’s the reverse. The biggest change she’s seen in her 69 years of teaching, lamented Ms. Haley, is the distinct lack of interest in learning among today’s teenagers. “No longer are they remotely interested in acquiring a body of knowledge. Today’s young people say, ‘I’ll learn it for the test and I’ll do well on the test. Then I’ll flush it.’”

Coming Up with a Solution Clearly, teachers know much more about their students than test results reveal. They learn about them through their daily interactions, through short writing assignments and long ones, through discussion in class and informal conversations outside of classes. Small schools, in particular, afford teachers many opportunities to know kids, to share their insights with others on staff, to devise ways to continuously develop structures and courses to respond to their students’ needs. As Ted Chittenden, a former research psychologist at ETS, has often remarked, tests yield indirect information about kids; teachers have direct information about them.

We must come up with some convincing reasons if we want to persuade students to become fully literate. As Orlando Patterson recently wrote in The New York Times, for too many students, school and literacy are far from their top concerns. When we emphasize literacy, in effect, we are asking students to exchange their values and buy into ours, into our way of thinking, our priorities. We’re asking them to trust us, to believe in us. In our most troubled schools, establishing trust is the foundation for later academic success and is no small achievement, especially for high school kids who like to give the appearance of needing no adults.

In such an environment, the imposition of endless testing or mere exercises in reading, as opposed to discussion and serious reading, compounds the failure of the students’ earlier schooling. What we need to do instead is to find ways to convince kids that reading has meaning for them, that it has significance that relates to their purposes. Our task should be to find the best way to nurture that approach to reading. How can we help these students make the cultural shift so that texts and what they have to say matter to them?

We must do many things simultaneously, from carefully choosing books for class discussions; to providing multiple avenues for written self-expression; to creating a print-rich environment; to finding ways to develop meaningful discussions around books, articles, essays, reports, and historical documents; to saturating all discussions with questions about evidence; to nurturing positive student role models so that new students admire older students and begin to say things like, “I want to sound smart like Gio.”

Designing Challenging Courses Certainly courses are important. Instead of the predictable English 1, 2, or 3, high schools need to rethink curriculum and course offerings so that they appeal to student interest, use challenging texts, include a range of writing assignments, respect student voice, and encourage stimulating discussions that engage students’ curiosity.

In response to what they have observed about their students and their attitudes toward reading, the staff at New York City’s Urban Academy has developed a series of classes that immerses students in a print-based culture while supporting reluctant readers and challenging more accomplished readers. In each class, staff members ensure that there will be a mix of students with a broad range of skills and attitudes, so that no student ever feels he or she has been labeled and so that those who may be reluctant readers can work alongside those who are eager readers. All classes aim at a high level so that the more skilled student is challenged and the lesser skilled student can still participate in in-depth discussions while receiving help to negotiate texts.

Discussions often reveal a complexity of thought; contrary to those who believe otherwise, even reluctant readers can discuss big ideas, have opinions, and “infer” and “critique” based on evidence. All classes use this model. The discussion gives students a sense of purpose—they know that to participate in an intelligent way in a class, they must complete and think about the reading in advance.

There is always a range of literature courses for students to choose from—some new, some repeated from earlier semesters. Here are a few examples of courses created by Urban Academy teachers and the course catalogue descriptions intended to make the course offerings seem appealing:

Indefatigable Volubility (IV)
Feel like a word weakling? Ready for a weekly IV of new words? Determined to take on the challenge of pumping up your vocabulary? Want to impress others with your burgeoning “abs” (abstruse abstractions)? Eager to spread the polysyllabic word and educate the Urban Academy community? If your answer is yes, then you’re ready for this course. The timid need not apply.

Would you like to read more? Are you having trouble getting started? Are you stumped when it comes to choosing a book? Maybe you have never enjoyed reading novels or have never read a novel you enjoyed. Perhaps you’ve never completed a novel. THIS COURSE IS FOR YOU!

In this course you will:

      • Choose what you read
      • Decide whether you like it
      • Give and take recommendations about what to read from your mates
      • Discuss the ideas and issues that can be found in novels
      • Learn what you like to read

Slave Narratives
The legacy of slavery has shed a long and intense shadow on American society. In literature, many writers have attempted to use fiction as a way of expressing the impact the “peculiar institution” has had on the lives of all Americans. In this class we will take a look at some of the works of these writers, with a particular emphasis being placed on the writings of the slaves themselves. The readings will include slave narratives as well as novels and short stories written by Toni Morrison, Mark Twain, Frederick Douglas and others.

Students will be expected to do quite a bit of reading and writing during regularly scheduled in-class labs. There will be at least three papers throughout the semester. On occasion we will go on field trips or look at movies, which will help shed further light on the issues that arise sin discussions and in the readings.

Other literature courses that have been offered appear below with an explanation of their purpose:

Adaptations: This course builds on teens’ interest in film by requiring students to read books that have become the basis of film treatments before viewing the film itself. Over the course of the term, students read numerous works and write critiques of the film adaptations.

Looking For an Argument?: An inquiry-based course designed to support student learning in a range of essential skills: debate, note-taking, reading and highlighting, essay writing, a consideration of multiple perspectives, and critiquing.

Urban Anthology: Each student produces a collection of short stories, book excerpts, and/or poetry around themes of their choosing. They research and read extensively before making their selections which are then bound in book form with an introduction explaining the theme and selections chosen.

Kiddy Lit: A course in children’s literature using a range of picture books, fairy tales, and chapter books as well as critiques by Bruno Bettleheim, Herb Kohl and others. While the course provides a way into books for even the weakest reader, the focus is on the message of the stories and whether the selections are suitable for their intended audience.

Creating Literacy Awareness
In addition to the semester-long courses, Urban Academy tries to find other venues designed to increase student interest in reading, such as:

Read-a-Book: At the beginning of each semester, Read-a-Book is included as part of an all-school project. Each Urban Academy student participates daily in a 50-minute period devoted to reading novels of choice in small groups led by a faculty member. Initially, students choose their selection after reviewing a wide range of books on display. Occasionally, specific suggestions will be made to specific students. Read-a-Book meets for two to three weeks. There are no required papers and no assignment other than to read. Throughout the school there is silence as teachers and students read their selected books. Students are encouraged to take the book with them to read on the subway or at home. If students finish—and many do finish their first novel ever—they visit the book closets and select another.

Literacy Period: Once the regular semester schedule begins, one period a week is often given over to a literacy period. During this time, students choose one of many activities offered. The choices offered during one term may include Boggle, Crossword Puzzling, Enjoying the Science Library, Logic Puzzles, Read-a-Book, Read-a-Newspaper, Read-a-Non-Fiction-Article, Read-a-Short-Story, Scrabble, or Spanish Scrabble. From semester to semester, selections vary depending on teacher and student interest. During this period, students may also visit the “Grammar Doctor,” a designated teacher who works with students on writing problems encountered on papers.

Creating a School-Wide Culture
Beyond the formal courses, school communities need to work creatively to create an environment that engages students and supports a culture of literacy within the school community. Here are a few ways Urban Academy tries to create that culture:

Conversations: The school holds weekly town meetings sometimes billed as conversations, occasions when guest speakers are invited for an informal Q and A discussion. Students are provided with a short reading—often a brief biography of the speaker—and are encouraged to formulate questions in advance.

Question of the Week:Posted weekly on a centrally located bulletin board outside the main office, this 22 x 28-inch handmade poster features a quotation or magazine or newspaper article of current interest. Below the article, remaining space is sectioned off into squares. The idea is for kids to read the accompanying article and write a comment. Students have been asked to comment on newspaper articles on such current topics as: Are Men Smarter Than Women? What Places Do You Hope to Visit Someday? What Effect Do You Think Drug Stories Have on Drug Use? Do You Collect Things: What? Why?

Quotation of the Day: Each day, a different quotation is posted on a centrally located blackboard and students are encouraged to comment on the quote. Some recent quotes have been:

When anger rises, think of the consequences. —Confucius

Beware the man of a single book. —Bertrand Russell

A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read. —Mark Twain

The first casualty of war is truth. —Rudyard Kipling

Because the same space wishes Happy Birthday to both students and staff, both the quotation and the birthday information are noticed, and students will often add their comments to the board.

Teachers’ Book Collections: Prominently displayed and readily accessible personal libraries are a sort of subliminal “do as I do,” “use books as I do.” Having students daily seeing adults use books, refer to texts, enjoy and share ideas in print goes a long way to convince kids that a focus on reading is not just window dressing.

Photo Documentary Projects: Students are very receptive to the work of their peers. Consequently, bulletin boards up and down Urban Academy’s halls display student photo documentary projects on a wide range of topics. Text is provided for each presentation. Some recent titles included Abandoned Spaces, Growing Older, Reflections, Spanish Harlem, NYC Street Art, What NY Means to Me, and Time.

Student Publications: Work from courses such as Urban Anthologies produces student publications that can be reproduced and shared. Additioinally, copies of duplicated publications are also be placed in the school library. This represents another way the school’s culture and values are communicated to the student community.

Newspapers and popular magazines are displayed in the student lounge for easy access.

Word games such as Boggle and Scrabble are available in the student lounge.

In all of these efforts, the goal is intentionally to blur the lines between reading, obtaining information, playing with language, joining in lively discussions and just plain having fun.

Finally, the school’s commitment to literacy is reflected in two graduation requirements: the Library Proficiency and the Literature Proficiency.

The Library Proficiency must be completed by the time students complete their first semester at Urban Academy. (Most of Urban Academy students are transfers from other high schools). It requires that students demonstrate their ability to complete a series of tasks requiring them to use the city’s public reference libraries.

The Literature Proficiency requires Urban Academy students to select and read a work of fiction and prepare for a discussion of the work with an external assessor; this is in addition to demonstrating the ability to write a paper demonstrating their competency in comparative literary analysis. The selected book cannot be one previously studied in classes. The discussion takes place with an individual unknown to the student (usually a college faculty member, a writer or journalist) who examines the student in a focused conversation about the selected work. It is the student’s responsibility to prepare questions and passages for discussion in advance. Each student has a staff member who acts as a mentor during the preparation.

Final Thoughts
We would all prefer quick fixes to the more arduous task of constructing a culture of literacy for our students. Coming up with a simple number or letter grade to describe a student or teacher or school is certainly a lot less complicated than devising a system that considers all the variables that may affect a student’s level of literacy. Using a test to evaluate is both quicker and less complicated than staff going through the complexities of getting to know a student well, poring over reams of a student’s work, listening closely to what a student has to say in class as well as out of class, maybe meeting with parents or other caretakers, and learning from other teachers how particular students do in other types of classes.

But there’s nothing quick or simple about acquiring or nurturing literacy, particularly for teenagers. Policy makers may want results in six weeks; teachers know it can take two years. Administrators want a simple number to gauge how a kid is doing, but teachers know how much a simple number can miss about both that student’s strengths and weaknesses.

As professionals, we must speak out at every opportunity about what we are witnessing in the name of “literacy” that is bound to fail. And we must speak out about what we are doing well and what we know best practices to be.

References Cited
“Florida Community Honors Teacher for 69 Years of Service,” reported by Robin Sussingham, Morning Edition, National Public Radio, May 22, 2006.

“A Poverty of the Mind” by Orlando Patterson, The New York Times, March 26, 2006.

Urban Academy Facts
A CES Mentor School, Urban Academy is a New York City urban public school serving 125 students in 9-12th grades. For additional information, visit Urban Academy at CES ChangeLab.

In 2007, Ann Cook and Phyllis Tashlik will publish a book and dvd on literacy as part of the Teacher to Teacher series distributed by Teachers College Press. Other books and dvds in the series include inquiry teaching in history, science, service learning, discussion, and critical thinking skills.

Ann Cook, co-director of Urban Academy and co-director of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, has been actively involved in efforts to bring back flexibility to New York State’s graduation requirements. Cook has written and spoken widely about the consequences of a high stakes testing policy on teacher professionalism, curriculum, and students, particularly those in high poverty neighborhoods.

Phyllis Tashlik taught at Urban Academy for fifteen years and now directs the Center for Inquiry, which provides professional development support for schools in the New York Performance Standards Consortium. Tashlik has written extensively about literacy issues and is the editor of books of student writing, Active Voices II (with James Moffett) and Hispanic, Female and Young.