Thursday, January 02, 2020

Albany and the New Ten Commandments

Forget everything you've heard and read about education. There's a new paradigm, and it's called Teaching Advanced Literacy Skills. This is revolutionary, of course, because it appears clear to the authors that no English teacher in the history of the universe has ever taught advanced literacy. Also, since no one in the world will ever go into a trade, and since everyone will spend their entire lives doing academic writing, we need to start work on this right away.

We teachers, evidently, just do the whole phonics thing, and once students are able to sound out words, we give up on them for the next eleven years or so and hope for the best. Thank goodness these brilliant writers are here to let us know that students need to be able to identify a main idea, and that this indispensable skill is actually an amalgam of other vital skills.

Not only that, but we now know that it's important students use a variety of sources to support their arguments, as opposed to just making stuff up (like the President of the United States, for example). That's why we, as teachers, should hand them several sources on which to base their writing, as do the geniuses in Albany when they issue the NY State ELA Regents, the final word on whether or not students have advanced literacy.

Never mind that students who've passed the test with high grades don't seem to know how to read or write well. Never mind nonsense like writer voice (I'll get back to that.), mentioned absolutely nowhere in the book. Never mind whether or not anyone actually wishes to read whatever writing the students produce, because that's also mentioned absolutely nowhere in the book. The important thing is that they be able to produce academic writing. Do you go out of your way to read academic writing? Neither do I.

The book is big on synthesis, that is, using multiple sources. Like the awful English Regents exam, students are generally provided with sources. I suppose this is some sort of training to write research papers. Here's the thing, though--if you write research papers you will have to find your own sources. I recall being in summer classes at Queens College, in their old crappy library searching through shelves with a flashlight trying to find things to write about. No such issue for our advanced literacy-trained students. Here are texts a, b, c and d. Get out there and tell me which ones are better.

We don't need to teach students about logical fallacy either, which is good news for politicians everywhere. Students need not recognize ad hominem or straw man arguments. No guilt by association for you. We don't need to bother showing them why some arguments are less logical than others, as per this book at least. I suppose when Donald Trump calls whatever doesn't suit him "fake news," that's okay. It's just another academic source.

One of the most fascinating aspects of this book, to me, is that the project they spend the most time on is one in which students discuss whether or not their school should adopt uniforms. I wrote in the margins, "great topic!" Why? Because this was a topic their school was actually examining that had a direct effect on their lives. This decision would change their behavior, and perhaps change their entire school. There was an intrinsic motivation for students to be involved in this decision.

Nowhere in the book did the writers deem this worthy of mention. I have no idea whether or not they even noticed it. I did, though, and it was hands down a better topic than some of the crap students must wade through on the English Regents exam. Don't get me wrong--I understand that students, like us, will have to wade through a lot of crap in their academic lives. To me, though, it seems smarter to make them love reading. It seems smarter to motivate them to do so on their own. Then, when they have to read some crap to which they cannot relate, they'll be better equipped to do so, having developed the skills this book advocates, and well beyond, in a far more positive fashion.

One thing that makes me love writers is something called writer voice. A great example of this is Angela's Ashes, a non-fiction work (!) by the late and brilliant Frank McCourt. They made a film out of it which faithfully told the story, but was a largely unwatchable flop. That's because the allure and charm of this story was all about the way McCourt told it, his humor, his deft and inspiring use of language. He had me at the first sentence about childhood, and kept me mesmerized until the last sentence. I couldn't put the book down.

Teaching Advanced Literacy Skills, however, was not a fun read. Someone at UFT gave it to me, and it felt a lot more like homework than pleasure reading. In its favor, it was mostly clear, and not unnecessarily complicated. (I find that to be an important aspect of good writing, though the book never mentioned it at all.) I'm certain any of the authors could write a term paper; indeed I wouldn't be surprised if they spent all their spare time doing so. Nonetheless, I'm not persuaded any of them could tell a story anyone wanted to hear. Perhaps that's why I noticed only one mention of fiction in the entire book, and that its role was as a mere supplement (or afterthought, perhaps).

People who love to read frequently love to read fiction. Sure, there are a lot of topics we love. I've read a lot of books about music, for example. As for academic writing, I've read a lot about bilingualism and language acquisition. Maybe science teachers love to read about photosynthesis. I don't know. Fiction, though, places you in another person's skin and makes you see the world through his or her eyes. It teaches you empathy. The skill in academic writing, as presented here, does not necessarily do anything to promote independent thought. My students are not seals and therefore ought not to be trained to balance beach balls on their noses.

Administrators would be doing both teachers and students a great service if they viewed things like this book with a critical eye. One thing that I've noticed, over decades of teaching, is that these things are generally passed down uncritically, with all the passion of Moses, above, presenting the Fifteen Commandments. No one seems to question whether or not there are really fifteen commandments, and no one asks whether these are the same commandments as last year, the year before, or 1996.

We can certainly go this route of mistaking what they call advanced literacy skills for what we know as reading and writing. We can raise an entire generation of students who produce academic writing on demand, who use whatever sources we give them, and never question anything. Evidently, there's an entire generation of administrators who will accept and promote the shallow and unremarkable ideas in this book, absolutely none of which I haven't heard before, as gospel.

I don't suppose anyone will bother to point out that Common Core is no more, and that the concepts here clearly grew out of David Coleman's brilliant revelations on writing. I'd argue, though, that literacy goes well beyond the narrow confines of this book, that the book's ultimate but understated goal is to make kids pass low-quality tests, and that the push for bland conformity is the same thing that enables Fox News and demagogues like Trump.

We can do much better. I'd argue any teacher or administrator who needs this book is not only woefully uninformed, but also forging a deliberate path to remain that way.
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