Friday, April 27, 2012

Making Meaning Is Complex: Text Dependency and Feeling

The Reader (M.A. Reilly, 2011)
In the recent issue of Education Week, Catherine Gewertz authors Teachers Embedding Standards in Basal-Reader Questions which chronicles the work of 70 educators who "came together in response to the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts, which demand that students hone their skills at understanding and analyzing a variety of texts." The idea was for educators to rewrite aspects of their basal series which Student Achievement Partners (SAP) and Council for Great City Schools (who sponsored the workshop) say are lacking.  I am not surprised that the basals are less than what is expected via the Common Core or frankly just common sense and think it is important that educators do take a critical look at the materials they are using with children.  The goal of the workshop was for educators to write new questions for their current text series emphasizing queries which would require readers to directly attend to the text. I support that goal as I imagine you do as well.

David Liben, a former principal and a 'senior literacy specialist' with SAP appears to have been a key presenter at this workshop and says that students' experiences 'can play a valuable role in understanding text'.  I was pleased to read that as so much of the rhetoric I have heard  naively dismisses feeling.  Unfortunately Liben is also quoted saying the following:
He (Liben) reminded the participants that the common standards “virtually eliminate text-to-self connections,” meaning they aim to focus students on figuring out what the text means, rather than how they feel about it. This, he said, is a more solid preparation for college and jobs.
“In college and careers, no one cares how you feel,” Mr. Liben said. “Imagine being asked to write a memo on why your company’s stock price has plummeted: ‘Analyze why and tell me how you feel about it,’ ” he said, to the chuckles of workshop participants.
So hold those thoughts and contrast them with what Wendell Berry said last week when he delivered the Jefferson Lecture ( 'It All Turns on Affection'). Berry opens and closes his speech referencing Howards End.  He says:
The argument of Howards End has its beginning in a manifesto against materialism:
It is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness, to think that a thousand square miles are a thousand times more wonderful than one square mile . . . That is not imagination. No, it kills it. . . . Your universities? Oh, yes, you have learned men who collect . . . facts, and facts, and empires of facts. But which of them will rekindle the light within?14
“The light within,” I think, means affection, affection as motive and guide. Knowledge without affection leads us astray every time. Affection leads, by way of good work, to authentic hope. The factual knowledge, in which we seem more and more to be placing our trust, leads only to hope of the discovery, endlessly deferrable, of an ultimate fact or smallest particle that at last will explain everything.
For a reader, recognizing the light within is what 'gets made' in transaction with texts. These transactions are often (in)formed by how we feel and think about what we are reading.  What is unfortunate with the some of the rhetoric from Liben and others is that in an attempt to situate the importance of attending directly to the text, they find it necessary to debase readers' feelings that arise when they interact with text. I get the interest in ensuring children actually read the text and do so with integrity.  However, it is shortsighted and misinformed to dismiss feeling.  To a large extent it is why we read. Our children need both types of experiences.

I love the idea of text-based inquiry.  As a former English teacher and professor--such methodology is akin to breathing. For example, I still think that meaning rests on Frost's use of the word 'just' in the closing line of 'After Apple-picking' and if asked to support such an assertion could do so with text in hand.  I recall this not only because of the meaning I have made within the text, but also because the text resonates with me as I age.  The meaning does not hold still, but rather re/emerges alongside occasion.  Reading is complex work. A truth is that making meaning of a text doesn't rest in one approach or the other, but rather both aspects can be found, even when naming them may be difficult. They are rather entwined.

Text dependency is of course critical and it does not represent the totality of reading.  Our expectations need to be a bit bigger so that feeling, attention to textual language and detail,  as well as inquiry are represented in our pedagogical approaches to text and in children's engagements and response to text.  I hope educators gently challenge assertions like Liben makes so that our work can be enriched, not narrowed.

Berry would tell us that affection is essential in human activity, --that '[k]nowledge without affection leads us astray every time.'

Wise words from a wise man that we ought to mind.


  1. I seem to read your blog just when I need them. Am speaking with a member of SAP on Monday. TX!

    1. Good luck with that. Just read a draft of K-2 literacy that Mr Liben and (I think his wife) authored.