An American Editor

September 1, 2010

Changing Educational Norms to Address Literacy

I know that readers of this blog probably assign me to the doomsayer caste when it comes to literacy based on my previous posts, but I am concerned about the state of our educational system and our decline from the world’s educational leader to a pack follower whose standing keeps receding. Today, I want to consider one possible solution to the problem I see. I want to suggest a change in how education works in America.

Everything good or bad about education boils down to the classroom. A good teacher can inspire and can educate; a poor teacher simply takes up space. The key is to make better use of good teachers and if you can’t rid the school of poor teachers, improve them. We need to remember that students spend more awake time in school, under the care of educators, and doing school activities and homework than with any other care provider or doing non-school-related activities/work.

This puzzle has perplexed greater minds than mine and perhaps I have a simplistic perspective, but I toss out these ideas as discussion starting points.

My first suggestion is to do away with “education” degrees and require every teacher to obtain advanced degrees (notice the multiple) in their specialty subject area. It is not that these advanced degrees shouldn’t include the “how to teach” aspects, it is that the emphasis should be on subject matter and not on administrative matter.

Schools should provide incentives for this, including the basic incentive of keeping one’s job. And, because time is limited, school schedules should be devised to free teachers for part of the day to pursue these degrees, not force them to do it only after school hours and on weekends. Schools also should be responsible for up to 75% of the cost of getting these advanced degrees, but under no circumstance 100%. Just as in the private sector, teachers should have some responsibility for doing what is necessary to keep and maintain their job — as long as they know about the requirement before accepting the employment.

Second, there must be a core group of literacy-related courses that every student must take and do well in as part of graduation requirements. Even students who prefer to take a vocational path rather than a college preparatory path. There is no reason why every person, regardless of his or her ultimate career choice, should not be equally literate, certainly at least through the middle school years, if not through the whole primary and secondary education career.

Third, I suggest a change to the current process where students have teacher A for kindergarten, B for first grade, C for second grade, and so on. Instead, we should divide the curriculum into broad fields — say Language Arts, History, Science, and Foreign Language — and we should create teaching teams of educators who have advanced degrees in these specialty areas. In this case, a team of 4 teachers, and this team will be responsible for student education from kindergarten through fifth/sixth grade. After fifth/sixth grade a new team would take over for the middle school years, and perhaps a third team for the high school years of tenth through twelfth grades, although we could consider returning to the current rotation system for these last years.

Teacher pay, bonuses, and performance evaluations would be team based. This would give each team member an incentive to help poorer-skilled members improve or move them out of the system. It would also enable scheduling to occur that frees a team member to pursue advanced degrees in his/her specialty. And it would encourage — if not require — team members to better integrate subject matter teaching among the various disciplines.

Consider a class on Latin American history. The Language Arts teacher could encourage students to read Simon Bolivar’s biography and discuss how his circumstances shaped his views; the Foreign Language teacher could introduce Bolivar’s writings and the writing of his contemporaries, including local newspaper accounts of daily life, in Spanish, and have the student’s read them to understand what it was like to have lived in those times; the History teacher could discuss the surrounding events and Bolivar’s place in them, the history of his campaigns as well as the history of the places where he fought and the people he inspired; and the Science teacher could discuss how technological events of the day helped or hindered Bolivar, what effect they may have had on his strategies — or the strategies of any similarly situated person, as well as on those of Bolivar’s opponents.

Or how about the Lunar Society of the 18th century. How many students (or teachers, for that matter) are familiar with either the Society or the effects it had on our knowledge. Members included, among others, Joseph Priestly, Benjamin Franklin, Erasmus Darwin, and Josiah Wedgewood; and it was multinational, not limited to the England. For Language Arts and History, students could read and discuss The Lunar Men: Five Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World by Jennifer Uglow; for Science, students could discuss how Priestly “discovered” oxygen and the scientific method of the time, as well as how the group influenced Erasmus Darwin and whether that subsequently filtered down to Charles Darwin; Foreign Language could discuss the biological classification system devised by Carolus Linnaeus and its influence on the group.

If the teachers were very creative, they could each portray a character from a different era of history from their particular specialties and have a roundtable discussion of how they viewed a seismic historical event, such as the French Revolution: What effect did it have on language? Science? History? The arts?

OK, perhaps my examples are not a great ones, but you get the idea. Students would be taught more than isolated events because there would need to be coordination among the specialties. Students would learn that disciplines are interconnected and interrelated — they do not stand in isolation. Students would learn that there are many paths to understanding a problem and to solving it. Such understanding should lead to better comprehension and, hopefully, inspire curiosity. And the better the students do, the better the team does in its evaluation.

This team approach, because it doesn’t rely on compartmentalization of subject matter, will bring a connectedness to the process of education that is sorely lacking today. I believe that as students see the interconnectedness of the various disciplines, they will strive to become more literate — they will learn the necessary analytical skills that form the core of literacy and comprehension.

Subjects, like teachers, are, today, too compartmentalized. And it is too difficult to coordinate lessons especially as classrooms shift hourly. By making teachers work as teams with a set group of students for whom they are responsible not just for an hour, a day, a week but for multiple years, schools will bring a sense of stability to student and teacher lives. Students won’t have to deal with the anxieties of changing teachers and classrooms and trying to shift mental gears as the subject matter changes. Teachers will learn about their students and will be able to focus on what is necessary to improve their comprehension skills, as well as provide any necessary individual aid.

These ideas may not be panaceas for all that ails education, and perhaps these ideas won’t work at all, but unless fundamental changes are made to what and how we teach our students and how they learn, the declining trend in comprehension and literacy will only be extended, not reversed.

August 31, 2010

Education, Teachers, Literacy, & the Future

Yesterday, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited New York to publicize its winning of $700 million in the second round of the Race to the Top, which brought literacy to my mind yet again.

As readers of this blog know, literacy of the younger generations concerns me. I grew up in a time when reading comprehension was a valued skill. I remember taking an employment test after graduating college that tested my comprehension skills. I can’t pinpoint the precise reason why I am a reader and why I have what I consider to be decent comprehension skills. As with most things, I expect that there isn’t a single reason but rather a convergence of multiple reasons into a spot that is called comprehension skills.

But I think there are some obvious reasons why comprehension skills appear to be in the decline today, and many of them revolve around the role education plays in the lives of the young.

Teacher acquaintances complain that the problem fundamentally lies in the student’s home; parents fail to encourage their children to read and understand, in fact, devalue such skills to the point that teachers cannot overcome the student attitudes. As with all things, I expect there is a grain of truth in this, but not much more than a grain. I look back at my own childhood and recall that my parents were neutral about reading, neither encouraging nor discouraging. All they wanted was better school performance.

(Before proceeding further, because this has arisen before, let me define literacy as I mean it: the ability to read and comprehend what is being read. The measure of one’s literacy is dependent on age, school grade, and profession (or professional aspirations). There is a minimum level of literacy that I believe is needed from all adult citizens, regardless of profession, in order for our society to continue to function as a democracy (or republic if you prefer). That level of literacy is not satisfied by the ability to read and comprehend Superman comics.)

One impediment to stoking interest in literacy accomplishments are the teachers themselves. This impediment is built on several fronts, not least of which are the declining literacy of teachers as they mimic their own generational trends and the union insistence that all teachers must be treated equally with the standard being something other than the highest-performing teachers.

This latter insistence tends to reward the drive to the lowest common denominator and discourage rising above the average. Unlike athletes who compete as individuals and thus strive to outdo their colleagues, teachers too often see no reward in standing out: can you imagine the complaints — from fellow teachers, from students, and from parents — if one teacher were to assign and require in-depth analysis of the original Uncle Tom’s Cabin and that teacher’s other two grade-level colleagues assigned instead a Classics Illustrated/Cliff Notes version of the book? Most people, regardless of their profession, do not want to stand out from the crowd. Today’s socialization demands less individualization and more groupness.

This translates to the generational mimicking trend; that is, younger generations increasingly believe that one can successfully multitask and absorb tidbits of knowledge rather than concentrating on a task and giving it in-depth analysis. Teachers who grew up in the midst of that trend also think and teach in terms of tidbits of knowledge. Lost is the idea that if one learns how to analyze, one can then successfully analyze and learn most anything. Analysis is the foundation of comprehension and as analytical skills decline, so does comprehension.

We can see this shift in emphasis just by looking at the university degrees teachers earn. My teachers had advanced degrees in the subject area they taught; many — not all, but many —  teachers today have advanced degrees in education and other general concept areas, or if they have it in their area of specialization, the degree requirements often are less specialty rigorous and more general education concept focused than that of a nonteacher in the same specialty area. There is a disconnect and the focus is wrong.

We can also see this shift when we analyze what is being taught. I look at education books today and see lots of factoids. Students are expected to learn dates and events, for example, but not to analyze the events and the times in which they occurred. Do we no longer need to know why the Inquisition came about and how it was sustained into the late 19th century, or is it enough to know simply that it existed? Is it enough to discuss the Spanish Inquisition, or should students understand the effect it had on, say, the Aztecs and Incas?

Sadly, this trend is also reflected in the writing skills of educators. Those of us who edit books written by educators for educators can see the evidence of the literacy decline in the quality of the manuscripts submitted. Instead of all manuscripts being relatively equal in terms of quality and veering toward the high-quality level, one sees manuscripts that are all over the place with most veering toward the low-quality level. And the schism between older and younger teachers is quite apparent. (I am constantly amused by author insistence that it is not enough to write “create a sign that reads ‘Quiet,'” there must also be an illustration of a sign that says “QUIET,” the reasoning being that readers may not understand what is needed absent the illustration. Does this not reflect on the readers’ comprehension skills and the author’s mistrust of them?)

We need to view comprehension skills in light of much more than school years. We need to view it in the light of the future workplace; after all, most of us spend more years of our lives in the workplace than in the sheltered halls of academia. If students lack top-notch comprehension skills, who will make the breakthroughs of tomorrow? One needs to be able to identify a problem, analyze it, and then try to solve it; and when the resolution doesn’t work, repeat the process, perhaps innumerable times. But when we lose critical analysis skills, we also lose the necessary patience to find solutions to problems — we demand and expect instant solution (or gratification) and our attention span is very limited.

Comprehension begins with learning — and mastering — the skills of patience and analyzation. Unfortunately, it seems that our current schooling system is ill-equipped to foster those skills, and our society will suffer the consequences of the decline in comprehension for years to come. Tomorrow, one suggestion for changing our education system.

August 23, 2010

Literacy in the Graphic Novel Age

Recently, The Digital Reader ran a post titled “Ben Bova thinks graphic Novels are the death of literacy – I can prove he’s wrong.” The thrust of the article is that science fiction author Ben Bova thinks graphic novels demonstrate declining literacy. The Digital Reader’s rebuttal was to cite an article in Inside Higher Ed about professors whose students read comic books and/or graphic novels rather than standard textbooks for the courses with the result that the students understood the course material better.

The problem I see with the rebuttal is that it is not really a rebuttal but instead supports the original thesis: literacy is in decline.

The dictionary definition of literacy is “the quality or state of being literate.” Literate is defined as the “ability to read and write.” Implied in the definition is “with understanding” — I don’t know anyone who would say a person who can read and write but not understand is literate. If we define literacy as the ability to understand the written word, and the more and better you understand the more literate you are, then graphic novels and comics may be foundational (i.e., starting points) but are far from what is meant by literacy.

Think of it this way. Would you want your doctor to prescribe a surgical procedure for you based on a synopsis of your ailment found in a comic book or would you want your doctor to be able to read and understand the medical literature before making a recommendation? Would you want your lawyer to understand the terms of a contract you are being asked to sign only if it can be given to the lawyer to read as a comic book?

Graphic novels (which term I am using to include comic books) have a place in the learning system. Certainly they are useful introductions to reading and excellent companions to literature, but they are at the bottom of the ladder in terms of literacy. Although the graphic novel version of Moby Dick may be more interesting, it is not the same as reading the original text — it is simplified for understanding because it assumes that the reader would struggle to understand the original and because it is designed to “cut to the chase.”

Would I want to know that the president of the United States’ reading and comprehension abilities are defined by graphic novels? Not I. I want to believe that the president can read and understand complex economic documents before deciding what to do in the midst of an economic crisis; I want to believe that the generals can read understand Clausewitz before deciding on battle tactics.

Consider it from a different perspective. Prior generations had to gain minimal level of literacy in order to graduate from school, and they had to do so by reading the original works and the standard textbooks that it appears need to be reduced to graphic novels for today’s students to understand. Is that a sign of stable or increasing literacy or a sign of literacy decline?

Again, this isn’t a bashing of graphic novels. Rather it is a statement that graphic novels can form a foundation from which literacy can grow if — and that is a big if — the graphic novel reader moves from graphic novels to more traditional textbooks in their educational process. I would not want economic policy made by someone whose understanding of Keynesian theory is based on what he or she read in a Classics Illustrated comic book.

We need to separate pleasure reading from educational reading, not that the latter shouldn’t also be pleasurable. Educational reading is for a different purpose — it is to gain knowledge and understanding of a subject matter, preferably in-depth rather than surface knowledge. Graphic novels can provide surface knowledge but the lack of ability to understand the language of in-depth treatises and the need to rely on the surface knowledge in the decision-making process is a sure sign of a lack of literacy.

The ideal is to combine both, but given a one-or-the-other choice, I believe that graphic novels should be shunted aside in the educational process in favor of in-depth learning and improvement of literacy. That people read more because they read graphic novels is not the same as saying they are more literate. That students understood course material better when presented in graphic novel form is not comforting if these same students will be future decision-makers whose decisions will impact me rather than just them.

May 17, 2010

On Books: The Most Important Novel in Your Life

As I was reading yet another book — seems as if that is all I ever do — a stray thought occurred to me: What was the most important novel I had ever read? By important, I mean that changed my perspective and influenced future decisions I made.

I started thinking about the thousands of books I have read; some I misremembered as fiction when they were really nonfiction. Who knows how many I have completely forgotten, which, I suppose, means they weren’t all that important to me. And my list began to grow.

First, there were all the Tom Swift (made me think I wanted to be an scientist) and the Hardy Boys (nothing cooler than being a detective, or so a 10-year-old once thought) books. Then came the standard books that most of us read or tried to read, such as Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, and hundreds more. It rapidly became a mountain of a task, when I originally thought it would be just a molehill. I can’t tell you how relieved I was when I realized that I had at least limited the question to novels. I’d be in great distress if I had included nonfiction, although perhaps I’ll ask that question in the not-so-distant future.

Well, it was quite a struggle. I had to pass through many doors, and even had to double-check a couple; for example, I remembered Black Like Me by John Griffin as a novel when it is a true story. I shut the door on 1984, Animal Farm, Grapes of Wrath, Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, Portnoy’s Complaint, and myriad other novels. I eventually narrowed it down to 4:

  • Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis
  • Rumpole of the Bailey by John Mortimer

Now I was stymied. I just couldn’t decide (and really can’t decide) which among the 4 was the most important or influential. Each influenced me in a different era of my life, and each had major consequences for me.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s story of a future America when books were burned and critical thinking was discouraged, made me question my schooling. I began challenging teachers; I was taught in an era when memorization was key, not critical thinking. There were a few teachers — the good teachers whom I still remember 50+ years later — who encouraged critical thinking, encouraged discussion, encouraged debate, but who, alas, were so few and far between and often forced to leave the school system, as to turn me away from becoming an educator. I simply could not picture myself being a typical, uncritical, nonthinking teacher. I also had difficulty with the publish-or-perish aspects of education that predominated in those days.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird made me aware of the racial tensions in my surroundings. I grew up in a small city along the Hudson River in New York. My playmates were of all creeds and color; I had never given a second thought to the issue of race. But after reading To Kill a Mockingbird, I began to look around me. I realized that prejudices of all kinds existed even in my little world. I began to see that my friend and coworker, who was black, never was allowed to wait on customers in the store in which we worked. I began to recognize the subtle covert segregation and discrimination — even in school. And so I joined my first protest movements in support of civil rights — and I never looked back. Harper Lee awakened me to the real world of race relations around me.

Outside of the civil rights movement, I wasn’t involved in political matters. Yes, I did protest the Vietnam War, as did many of us in our teens and early twenties in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but I wasn’t politically involved. Whether it was Hubert Humphrey or Richard Nixon who was elected president didn’t really matter to me. Then I came across It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis, originally published in 1935.

It Can’t Happen Here is the story of a U.S. senator’s bid to duplicate in America what had happened in Nazi Germany and how he began by creating a private military force that through fear and violence began suppressing voices opposed to his coup. This book started me thinking and suddenly Watergate and the Pentagon Papers were in the headlines, and I realized that it can happen here if we aren’t diligent about keeping our political processes and (especially) our politicians honest. The confluence of reading Lewis’ book and the political events brought about by Nixon’s paranoia made me change from apolitical to political. Whereas before newspapers were mainly for sports and comics, they now became important for keeping me abreast of current affairs. (Perhaps it is worth noting that Lewis’ “hero” is a newspaper reporter.) This is why I worry about what will happen to high-quality news reporting in the Internet Age (see, e.g., Judging Quality in the Internet Age, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, and Is Rupert Right? Newspapers & the Paywall) and the age of sound-bite reporting that is seen too often on programs like Fox News..

The final book, Rumpole of the Bailey by John Mortimer, changed my career path. The book appeared a year after I had graduated law school. Throughout law school and in the beginning of my career, I had wanted to be a commercial lawyer. I thought I loved the dull, dry world of commerce. But Rumpole opened my eyes to the world of the underprivileged, the downtrodden, the criminal, and I began to take on fewer commercial cases and more “human” cases. I found that the lawyer I wanted to be was the lawyer that Rumpole was. If you have never read the Rumpole books or seen the television series (available on DVD), you should. Rumpole is, at least in my estimation, what every lawyer should be and few are.

Rumpole of the Bailey was a game changer for me; unfortunately, my career as a lawyer was short-lived as personal circumstances lead me to yet a new career and one that I have enjoyed for more than 25 years, that of publishing and editing.

So, although I asked the question and asked for the single most important novel in your life, I couldn’t/can’t answer the question myself. The best I could do is narrow it down to 4. But it does prove, at least to me, one thing: great authors can have a great impact on our lives, whether we consciously know it or not.

What was/is the most important novel(s) in your life?

« Previous Page

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: