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Mind the Gap

by Brendan Lowe

March 7, 2010

This week, an inner-city school teacher wrestles down the literacy beast.

Recently, I chose to walk straight into a pedagogical hornet's nest by focusing on literacy instruction. My decision to teach Animal Farm to my global history class was strictly a personal choice—although I do not have a required curriculum, I’m not expected to wade into the murky waters of literature instruction.

And yet, we dove into Orwell’s allegory as part of our current focus on literacy. Last year, after realizing my students’ wildly different reading levels—my juniors varied from second-grade to eleventh-grade—I felt a sense of responsibility to aid in boosting them. But relying upon geography-based skills such as map analysis or timeline construction had ignored—first passively, then actively—my students’ different reading levels.

This narrow interpretation of my responsibilities came out of my limited abilities and my short-sighted interpretation of my students’ needs. As a 23-year-old first-year teacher whose pedagogical know-how consisted of a six-week crash-course provided by Teach for America, I had little time to learn how to teach students to monitor for meaning or other literacy strategies. (Make no mistake, Teach for America certainly inculcated us with the importance of emphasizing reading—“Teaching literacy is my job” became the mantra of our summer training—but they didn’t have the time to truly train us in the classroom-ready strategies that would help us to properly do our job.)

Thus, I entered the classroom like any other philosophy major who, four months after graduating from college, suddenly finds himself performing his first brain surgery.

What drove my priorities? Testing! New York State graduation requirements include passing five content exams, including one in global history. As only 30 percent of my students had passed the US history version, I thought I could best serve them by giving them the tools to pass the test and make them eligible for graduation. Was reading comprehension a necessary tool? Absolutely. But I did not have the time or know-how to focus on literacy instruction, and I believed I could teach around whatever deficiencies existed to achieve a common and high-stakes end-goal—passing the test.

Sadly, and somewhat regretfully, my strategy prevailed. I taught my somewhat superficial curriculum, and my students’ test performance improved markedly (82 percent passed.) But I realized I had sold my students short by not providing them with a rich education that would stay with them over time. Focusing on improving their reading levels was a goal that would provide tangible, transferable, long-lasting benefits. (A byproduct of higher literacy skills would be improved test scores—a devastating number of my students got questions wrong not because they did not have a firm grasp on the content but because they could not understand what the question was asking.)

This year, I vowed to wrestle with the literacy beast. I spent a month of my summer break dutifully trudging through Cris Tovani’s I Read It, But I Don’t Get It, watching videos of effective classroom teachers and learning best practices from fellow teachers. Since then, I’ve infused my lessons with our weekly vocabulary words and incorporated reading strategies into my teaching.

I intended for Animal Farm to serve as the climax of these efforts (in collaboration with our unit on the Russian Revolution and the rise of Joseph Stalin’s totalitarian regime, which the events in Animal Farm mirror). One of my three classes validated my intentions with analysis worthy of a college-level discussion. On the survey students completed after finishing the book, many students registered their enjoyment. In response to a question about whether she liked the book, one student wrote, “Yes! b/c it’s like a mystery book where you question yourself at the end to see if you come up with the right answer, and that type of book attracts my attention.” Other students paid backhanded compliments to the book: “I didn’t really get tired, or as tired as I normally do when I read.”

However, with my two other classes, both of which have lower-level readers than the aforementioned class, the literacy beast prevailed. Many students in these classes displayed a fierce obstinacy to giving the book a chance. Students had resisted previous assignments, but never had I encountered talk of burning the materials, as I did with Animal Farm. Some students had accumulated so many negative reading experiences that they professed to hate books. One student who read less than half of Animal Farm wrote in his survey that “I don’t like reading if it’s not about sports. Other books give me headaches.”

What gave me a headache were the reminders that I am nowhere near mastering literacy instruction, that my students are, on average, about three grade levels behind where they should be.

I emerged from the unit with confounding questions:

What is going on in elementary and middle school classrooms that students are entering high school with reading levels three grade levels behind?

How do you teach literature to a group of students whose reading levels vary 10 grade levels?

Provided many of these lower-level readers find a way to graduate from high school, as many of them do, how will these students fare in college?

Stung but not defeated by my literacy experiment, I will forge ahead, buoyed by my adoption of the motto of Boxer, the horse from Animal Farm: “I will work harder!”

Brendan Lowe is a Teach for America corps member who is in his second year of teaching high school in the South Bronx. His dispatch for GOOD will appear on Fridays. Last week's essay can be gotten here.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user majoracartergroup.

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