Saturday, June 25, 2011

Understanding Literacies in this Century: A Plea to English Teachers from a Mom

Along with the end of school also comes the requisite "Summer Book Project" that my middle school son unpacked from the bottom of his knapsack the other night, creased a bit. My husband and I consider ourselves fortunate. We have a terrific son who still loves to read, even after years of book reports.  Nonetheless, we're a bit worried given the way some teachers' assignments fail to recognize why people actually read and how literacies continue to change.  Failure to understand both is detrimental to learners.

I was thinking a lot about this when I learned that earlier today my son purchased Jing Pro in order to upload his "How-To" Minecraft films to YouTube.  He learned and continues to learn the ins and outs of playing Minecraft through chats, YouTube videos, and people who leave comments and post work on his Minecraft server.  He began playing Minecraft mid-April of this year. This play has led him to begin to learn Python, a programming language.  Rob and I recognize our son's play (composing in minecraft, making films, commenting on line, engaging in chats, negotiating code) as important literacies.  Unfortunately, his teachers do not.

At school, my son performs averagely (underneath the book report was the report card).  He does his homework, aces and fails tests and quizzes, is a voracious reader, writes a lot at home via the comics he designs and pamphlets he makes-- but he is clearly not an "honor's role" kid.  Neither Rob nor I have any aspirations that one day one of those shiny stickers announcing to the world that your child is on honor roll will ever grace the bumper of our car.

I should be honest here and say that I think all book reports are an odd way to respond to a text and do more to discourage reading than encourage. But nothing prepared me for the "Scavenger Hunt Book Report" that Dev is tasked with doing during the summer.  I get that teachers want children to read during the summer.  I support that desire 100%.   However, the Scavenger Hunt Book Report will only make children miserable and may well lead learners to believe that reading is about finding oddities in a novel.  There is no learning connected with this report that helps readers experience joy, pleasure, interest.

Choice is severely limited.  Students "MUST" select one novel to read from a list of 15. All of the authors are white, save one who is African American. As the mom of an Asian child, this disappoints me.  I have to sign the paper to indicate a book from this list has been read and my son will earn 5 points. I find such things like this insulting.  The directions require students to hunt for prescribed information while reading.  The project is a list of 26 tasks that readers must complete on the furnished paper. "NO partial credit" will be given for anything incomplete. The reader can earn an F (64 points or below), D (65 - 69 points), C (70-79 points), B (80 to 89 points), or A (90 to 100 points) which will influence their English grade next fall.

So what are readers "hunting" to find? I won't outline all of them as they are equally inane but here's a few:
  • Write a sentence from your book that includes a metaphor and the page # where it can be found. (5 points)
  • Find a four-syllable word and the page # where it can be found. (5 points)
  • Find a word that required dropping a silent e before adding the suffix and the page # where it can be found. (5 points)
  • Write two separate sentences from your book that include adjectives and the page # where it can be found. Underline the adjectives in each sentence. (5 points)
  • Write a sentence from your book that includes personification and the page # where it can be found. Underline the word demonstrating personification. For example: The fire crawled its way up the wall to the ceiling. (5 points).
I won't go on.  Frankly none of us even understand the personification example as crawled may be the action, but fire is the subject.  Why would you underline one without the other?

What makes me sad about this, apart from the quality of the assignment, is the larger issue of how out of date the educators are who assigned this work.  There is not one task that requires my son to demonstrate in some manner meaning he has made while reading.  Isn't making meaning a purpose for reading? The very literate life he leads at home via his gaming, reading, discussion (real and virtual), movie making, texting, and drawing is in many ways antithetical to what is valued at school and that's the problem we face. 

Curious as to how you would attend to this assignment as a parent. 


  1. I picture an English dept. coming up with the list of books and then discussing how to assure that the students actually read the book. Among all that's wrong with this assignment is that it's possible to complete it without actually reading the book. It's indeed a scavenger hunt and it doesn't address comprehension or reflection at all.

  2. I hadn't even considered that. How true. You are right he would not need to read the book to do the assignment. I'm not sure though that he will do the assignment anyway.

  3. As a parent, I would have my literate child write something that showed they made meaning of the book, while including in her own writing each of the "scavenger hunt" items. For instance, she would underline every four-syllable word she uses. My daughter might get a kick out of doing something like that, just to cheese off the teacher.

    As an English teacher, I can see how inane this assignment is and it only further demonstrates the need to separate Literacy from Literature classes. If the students are expected to learn (or practice) literacy, then they shouldn't be given a prescribed list of books to choose from. But if the point is to study certain texts as literature, then it's important to focus on books that we can all (mostly) agree are valid as worthy subjects.

  4. Thanks Brent for your insights. Not sure my son will participate.

  5. Mary Ann, My daughter is more than an avid reader, and, like your son, practices her literacy in many ways. If, by the time she gets to the grade level where your son is, this project is still in place, it would be one of the times where I tell her she doesn't have to do it. We'd engage in more meaningful discussions about what she had read, but I wouldn't require her to do the scavenger hunt. She'd probably do it, anyway, because she enjoys that kind of "work," but she'd be doing it of her own volition. There have been other times, in other subjects, where I've written notes to excuse her from a homework assignment that I recognized as "busy work." I've got a kid who loves to learn...I'm not going to let school kill that joy.

  6. Thanks Amy. Rob and I are split on this. He worries that it will set a way of entering a new year in a manner that might hurt Dev. We will explore it. Appreciate your words.

  7. I had this pointless stuff in school. I remember having a choice on what to write about, therefore I chose the idea of "nothing". And so refused to discuss the issue anymore because that would be something not nothing. Yep failed the subject but latter in life became a teacher and students just keep asking for fill in the spaces join the dots instructions for writing.... sigh. My sons start school next year and not looking forward to what you have described.

  8. After watching my son who reads all the time, start and stop three books on the list I think these assignments are the death of reading. Meanwhile he is plowing through a Halo series (think there are about 6 books he has read) and yes I know it isn't classic text, but it is pleasurable and isn't that the point? I want him to love reading to know it is pleasurable, not read because it is required.

    Rob & I decided that Dev would not have to do the assignment. It is inane.

  9. Mary Ann -- As you know, we have a similar situation: an avid middle school reader who is faced with interrupting her impressive summer reading adventures to fulfill the school's requirement of reading a book from a small list of old titles--some of dubious quality--followed by four pages of worksheets.
    At best, we're seeing out-of-date practices deployed by well-intentioned teachers. Still, the bottom line is that these practices are counter-productive.
    Nothing about this makes sense. Thank you for an excellent post.

  10. Jennifer AnsbachJuly 19, 2011 at 9:50 AM

    I agree that the assignment is not engaging or well-conceived. My concern would be that in many schools, parents can't "excuse" students from assignments. Because this is a school-wide assignment, the teacher may have less latitude on how to handle it. What if your child does not receive credit for the assignment? Are you prepared to have your child start the year that way? How will you prepare your son to address the situation in a way that doesn't "cheese off" the teacher, or are you unconcerned about that with a new teacher? I'm more interested in how you negotiate the consequences of choosing not to do an assignment, especially since this is an assignment for a teacher you may not already have a relationship with.

    Again, I agree wholeheartedly that this isn't a great assignment. I also know that when it comes to school-wide assignments, I have little control over what they are and how I have to implement them.

    How do you use this to engage in a discussion of the purpose of the assignment and the teacher's philosophy and approach?

  11. I'm not a teacher. I don't even homeschool, although we did consider it at one time. So I'm not positive that I know what the teacher was trying to do with this assignment.

    However, it doesn't seem to me that this assignment is meant to address literacy, or literature.

    It seems that this assignment is intended to teach, or assess the students' understanding of, grammar and punctuation.

    The question of whether this is an appropriate way to do that isn't really the point. His teacher has assigned it. It will take him, what, a couple of afternoons of reading? A week at most? And then he can get back to reading whatever he wants? If he were my son, I would have him complete it. And then, we would discuss the book, independently of the assignment, and talk about what he liked and disliked about it, whether he would choose to read anything else by that author, how he thought it could be made better, what messages he thought were contained within the story, etc. Just because his teacher is asking him to do something stupid, doesn't mean you can't make the most of it.

    By telling him not to complete the assignment, you could be undermining any authority the teacher has to teach him in the future. When I was a teen, a lot of my high school assignments were "stupid" or "inane." But those same teachers turned out to be to be my confidantes, people who saw how difficult high school could be socially and helped me through it. By giving him the message now that his teacher gives inane or unnecessary assignments, you could be robbing him of the ability to see his teacher as anything but an out-of-touch fuddy duddy who wastes his time. You could also be giving him the message that he doesn't have to do things unless he wants to, which as he grows up, may not be realistic. Do you really want to do that?

    The fact is that in life, we are often asked to do things that don't interest us and don't give us pleasure or joy. We have to pay the mortgage, instead of buying that really nice new living room set. We have to take our kids to the doctor when they're sick, instead of sending them to school and going to see that great new movie that just came out. We have bosses, to whose authority we are subject in the workplace, and we deal with things like office politics. But we know that when we go home, we can do what we want to do - garden, or watch TV, or play our favorite video games, or go to the park with our kids. Life isn't all wine and roses. As adults, we have to balance pleasure with responsibility. This assignment could be an opportunity to teach this valuable lesson.

    What you and your husband do about this assignment is up to you, and these are just my thoughts. I'm not trying to change your mind, or tell you what to do. You asked what we would do as parents, and I thought it would only be fair to tell you my reasoning, as well. Nobody knows your son better than you do, and no-one is better equipped than you to make a decision on this subject. Either way, I hope that your son's assignments prove to be more interesting in the future!

  12. Parents who understand how to teach do have power. I once respectfully questioned an inane assignment given to my son by clearly stating how I thought both field-dependent and field-independent learners would be hurt by it. She withdrew the assignment for all students.

    In another case, where the teacher had assigned an all-class novel that my son had read (and could outline in detail why he hated it) the year before in another class, I suggested an alternative assignment and helped the teacher work through her fears about giving students choices. I made sure it was no additional work for her and several students chose and completed the alternative.

    I only interfered like this about four times in the 26 total years I had children in public schools, but I fear that if they were in school now, I'd be compelled to do so far more often--and would be organizing other parents to join me. Three days of testing after each basal reading unit in 3rd grade? I'd be excusing my kids and volunteering to run lit circles for any other children whose parents recognized the idiocy of such testing practices...etc.

  13. I relate to Jane's comment. I spent my daughter's first years in school dealing with assignments that reinforced the ideas that school was boring, school was not for smart kids, reading was onerous, etc.

    I arranged meetings with teachers to explain my concerns. I made suggestions for alternatives. Sometimes my daughter & I would create our own assignments that she would do and hand in. Sometimes she stayed home from school so she could do "real" reading and math and I'd bring her to school for lunch, recess, art, etc. When we moved her to a different school for 2nd grade, the first thing she said after the first day of school: "Mom! There are books in the library for *me*!"

    It was a priority to us to teach her how to make good decisions about how to use her time. We coupled that with very clear lessons about our expectations in terms of her effort.

    In my experience, it is possible to engage in this process while also discussing what it means to respect a teacher, older person, etc., in both thought *and* actions, as well as to respect oneself.

    My priority as a parent has been to raise a child who would be able to think critically, about herself, ideas, and circumstances; to act appropriately when working for and with others-- including making suggestions, asserting herself, and supporting others; and to think very carefully about the outcomes of any decision she would make or action she would take, because those would be hers to live with.

    She has come to us a number of times to explain why she has taken certain stances in certain situations, including in high school classes. She has always been able to express a clear, principled reason for her actions-- even if we disagreed.

    In jobs during senior year of high school, college, and during summer, she has put this skill to use with the result of being asked to return each January and in subsequent summers, with progressively more responsibility.

    Ultimately, I believe that teaching my daughter all these things is an act of deep belief in the principles of democracy. Blind obedience is not a life-long skill that serves anyone, especially in the face of idiocy.