Do You Know What All the Following Questions Have In Common?
• Do You Want to Know A Secret?
• Do You Know Where Your Mortgage Is?
• What Makes A School Great?
• Who Needs Marriage?
• Privacy: How Safe Is Your Driveway?
ANSWER: They all come from recent TIME Magazine Covers
QUESTION: Why do TIME –and other magazines– mostly frame their teasers as questions on their covers?
ANSWER: Ah, you know the answer to this one...because when you don’t, you want to find out. So you buy the Time issue. Or sneak a peek.
So what’s this have to do with Read 180? (I’m doing it again…)
In Mike Schmoker’s newest book, FOCUS: Elevating the Essentials To Radically Improve Student Learning, he strongly reiterates in the chapter, “What We Teach,” how important it is for all students to acquire authentic literacy skills. He includes this quote:
Think of literacy as a spine; it holds everything together. The branches of learning connect to it, meaning that all core content teachers have a responsibility to teach literacy. ~Vicki Phillips and Carina Wong, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
Schmoker goes on to acknowledge and applaud the “convergence of thought” that resulted in embedding literacy teaching and learning into multiple contents, creating a “common academic core” of standards. He quotes Vince Ferrandino and Gerald Tirozzi, the former and current presidents, respectively, of the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals, noting he cites them in every presentation he delivers:
Under-developed literacy skills are the number one reason why students are retained, assigned to special education, given long-term remedial services and why they fail to graduate from high school. (2004, p. 29)
Read 180 teachers are in the trenches with these students. They work with R180 materials, a specific instructional model, and small groups of students in a 90-minute daily model (mostly). They work with students who because of their “under-developed literacy skills” are not successful in other academic classes, and have fallen short on standardized testing. And they’ve learned a lot in recent years about how to work with them: collect and provide engaging short text, hook them with pictures and videos as well as to build their background knowledge, match their lexile level with a variety of books while offering opportunities for choice to build their confidence and reading level, provide them with immediate feedback and involve them in data discussions, use the Gradual Release of Responsibility model to move them toward increasing independence as readers and learners… and the list keeps growing.
What you don’t see in that list is the specific use of textbooks. In fact, many tools and strategies strive to supplement or sidestep by providing “alternative text genres” to help students acquire information contained in content area textbooks. Witness the popularity of “pairing” nonfiction and fiction books focused on an informational topic. I’ve seen them ranging from tree frogs to the Vietnam War. This is not a bad practice, not at all. These types of texts can be very engaging for struggling readers. The point is that using actual textbooks as an information resource has fallen into some disrepute among educators. So I was taken by surprise when Schmoker wrote in his book, “Though it may sound hopelessly unfashionable, textbooks…are a greatly underestimated resource for learning essential content and acquiring literacy skills.”
Acquiring literacy skills? Seriously? Schmoker goes on:
In “Reading for Learning: Literacy Supports for 21st Century Learning” (2007), Louis and Kimberly Gomez write that the new century will routinely require students to “critically analyze and synthesize information” gleaned from the kind of dense, complex prose found in textbooks. They are so important that our current failure to make them a prominent part of schooling may be the primary reason for “poor student performance in the content areas” (p. 225). Gomez and Gomez recommend that “broad-based efforts to make text more prominent should be redoubled” (p. 228).
Schmoker cites Kathleen Cushman’s contention in an Educational Leadership article from 2007 (p.47), in which she describes the “culture shock” most students are in for when they arrive at college. Having rarely read and never been taught to read textbooks, they lack the “deeper reading, writing and inquiry that college requires.” This is one of the main reasons they drop out in such large numbers.
In our new set of District Standards, the use of textbooks is firmly embedded in Standard 2, and seem to be recognized as one, though not the only, information resource students should learn to master. And, the Standards are intended to encompass and prepare ALL students for their postsecondary life: college, workforce and/or technical training. So the question for our Read 180 instruction is, are we teaching students how to use textbooks that may be a stumbling block for them in other academic classes? Math? History? Science? Perhaps some are. The rBook Workshops do focus on building background knowledge and academic language for these students; but it follows they also need practice applying these skills outside the R180 workshops to the kinds of academic reading expectations in other content areas. The new Social Studies standards also speak specifically to the use of primary and secondary sources, which also are often characterized by “dense, complex prose.”
I think it is essential we mount an investigation to determine exactly what textbooks, primary and secondary source materials, and reading our R180 students are being asked to access in their other classes. Though every teacher is now expected, in the newly-minted Standards, to help their students access the type of literacy their respective content areas require, it would be enormously useful for us as R180 teachers, and for our students, to reinforce and support this work within our R180 classes. Bring in the textbooks and add them to the arsenal we need to develop our students’ literacy skills. Determine what sort of support your students might need with them. Then consider Schmoker’s next question:
But how should students approach textbooks–or the literature, poems, or op-ed pieces we should be providing for them in abundance? With questions. Nothing could be simpler.
When talking about the importance of questions to drive learning, a presenter once asked me what I would do with a telephone book if it were simply handed to me. Uh…nothing. Only when I know what I’m looking up does this book make sense. I have to have a specific purpose for reading it–a specific question to answer. “What’s the Rio’s phone number?” Think of textbooks like this. How can we make one make sense? Pose a question. An interesting question, notes Schmoker:
“Much of a good education consists, as it always has, of a simple combination of one or more good texts matched with an interesting question. We simply teach students to read deeply and purposefully to answer such questions–and to then discuss and write (even briefly) about the text and what they learned from it. This is the essence of both learning and literacy.”
Inquiry is a part of our new Standards; yet it is not new. But what caught my attention in Schmoker’s book was his reminder of the power of this practice–and the power is in its simplicity. Content area teachers in Thompson are working to create essential questions for their units of study, and have been using them to drive student learning for some time. Socratic Seminars integrate questioning and text effectively in a specific model which results in developing critical thinking skills, and, it has been found, increases reading comprehension–sometimes dramatically. The Socratic model can be introduced as early as Kindergarten, used at all levels in all subjects, including reading intervention classes such as Read 180. Think whole-group, small-group, wrap-up time–maybe once a week, like a Wednesday routine, with a focus on the “dense, complex prose” of an article, op-ed piece, or a textbook excerpt from a class a group of students have in common.
That’s just one “what-if,” but for much more on textbooks, reference what Jim Burke, author/researcher/teacher, says in his book, Illuminating Texts: How to Teach Students to Read the World (2001). He devotes a large section to how teachers can help student better use these books in the classroom by clearly breaking down what he defines as “the Challenges of Textbooks” in this list:
• What the books consist of (e.g., elements, features, devices)
• How the books can be used as learning tools
• How the books are designed
• How students need to be able to read to use them well and make sense of their content
Burke springboards off the last bullet to make the following point about many modern textbooks:
Textbooks resemble one twelve hundred-page-long hit list of documents and details about, for example, American history. It’s as if each chapter or subheading were a hotlink in an online search in which the search engine was asked to find everything it could about American History. (parodied by the Bing ads on TV!) It then becomes the teacher’s job to help students learn to sift through the mountains of information from various sources to assess what is not there as well as the quality of what is there, and to determine how the information and material relates to their purpose.
Burke’s last sentence is where the power of the “essential question” comes in: it establishes purpose for reading. Not a new concept for reading teachers, but we ought to self-check in Read 180 classrooms as to whether we are making this essential tool primary and consistent–as in daily–in our classrooms. Posing essential question(s), thus setting a purpose, should be connected to text we use, including teaching our kids how to tackle their textbooks, all learning activities, and assessment of and for reading–every single day. Verbally and visibly–post it, display it, verbalize it, remind them of it, then help them connect it.
Questions + Text = Formula for Success.