Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Voice from the Page

I’m becoming a part of the movement to save education. I went to see “Waiting for Superman” two days after it opened. I go to webinars. I was invited to hear Geoffrey Canada speak at a McGraw-Hill function last week and I used my phone to take this picture and so you can see I was really there. What has become increasingly clear is that in spite of all the clamor about literacy and whether or not kids can read, there is no mention about the quality of WHAT kids are reading. In an online #edchat (# refers to a group on Twitter) last week teachers were slamming textbooks right and left. Did you know each textbook costs $80+? That’s not only a strain on school budgets; it’s also a strain on kids’ backs! So teachers were talking about putting together their own reading materials for their classes from free open source materials, both print and digital. The underlying premise: one source of information is interchangeable with another. I tweeted (peeped? piped up?) “I left teaching to write. No time to do both well.” Don’t think anyone heard me. I was not retweeted.

There is a consensus about what makes a great teacher—it takes mentoring, experience, constant professional development, passion, commitment, discipline, sacrifice and TIME. Guess what, folks—it takes the same thing to become a great writer. Our editors are our mentors, we write, write, write, we get feedback from our readers and critics. It’s tough but we stay with it despite no union, no safety net, no regular paycheck.(And, let me tell you, there is attrition in the ranks.) The qualities that make a great teacher are evident in their personalities, in their intense interactions with their students, in their deeds. What reaches their students is WHO they are as human beings—their humanity. Guess what folks—the same thing is true of us writers. We all have learned how to put who we are as human beings behind the words on the page. It’s called “voice.” Literature has voice. Can you feel how hard I’m hitting these keys right now? I want you to HEAR me. I want my words to shout not tweet.

The #edchat I participated in was my first. I was a little handicapped by my lack of experience with Twitter. Tweets flew by so fast I was breathless trying to read and type (and think) simultaneously. (So many tweets, so little time…..) I was amazed at the way some tweets got answered directly by others. (How’d they do that?). And that there were so few typos!!! Finally I wrote a tweet that seemed to resonate with the group: “Where is it written that every kid has to read the same book on a subject? Why can’t they read different books and discuss?” I used up all my 140 characters on that one but it got me noticed. That tweet was retweeted by quite a few and afterwards a lot of people tweeted me directly (it’s like an email but very short) to thank me and invite me back next week. (A major Twitterer, Shelly Terrell, with almost 9,000 followers sent me her
TweetDeck tutorial to be better prepared next time.)

Maybe we delude ourselves with our awards and blogs and conversations with each other that we are making a difference. The bottom line is that the people who read this blog all get what we are saying; we’re preaching to the choir. It feels good to have that validation. But it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that our task is to reach the people who aren’t listening to us—mainly teachers. I don’t think that they know or have even thought about the difference nonfiction literature can make in their jobs and in their students’ lives. So we have to show (not tell) them. I’ve asked my brilliant colleagues here at I.N.K. to send me two paragraphs on the same subject: one written strictly for information and one written by them. I’ve posted them on our new wiki
. On the left you’ll see a hyperlinked page listed with the title “What’s the difference between literature and traditional informational writing? See for yourself.” Since it is a wiki, we can keep adding examples. Also, at the top of this page you’ll see a tab for “Discussion.” Click on that and hit “New Post” to register a comment about the page that can become a conversation. It takes many voices to make a difference and a chorus to be heard.

Now learn how to use Twitter and tweet the h… out of this blog!!


BookChook said...

@Vicki, your article surely resonated with me! As a teacher, writer and literacy advocate, I stand with a toe in different camps, and follow many, many educators. I am so often surprised when they excitedly tweet about free reading material online. Yes, it's free - so what? Real children's literature has substance. It inspires love of reading and dreams. It has heart and speaks to our hearts.

I am all for technology and what it can do to motivate kids' reading and writing, but not when it contributes to the Great Dumbing Down.

Jan Greenberg said...

It is not surprising that the measure of a good writer and a good teacher are corrolated. In fact as I travel around the country, many authors I meet are also teachers or librarians. In terms of technology, I agree with The Book Chook (are you really up working at 1 am?) that it can contribute to a lack of depth in research and way too many wasted hours social networking. Just saw the movie about Facebook. An eye opener.

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Great post. Re the textbooks teachers were griping about: I've been reading the book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Book Got Wrong, a former best seller revised and re-issued in 2007. Maybe there have been improvements in the last 3 years, but this book reviews all of the textbooks in print, and based upon numerous examples of their content, the material kids learn can be extremely inaccurate and extremely boring, and it's politicized to create heroes who simply don't deserve the label just so that kids will have positive role models.

On the other hand, great nonfiction books for kids can do a much better job of presenting such material to students - it's well researched, thoroughly vetted, and interesting to read. Just pulling random free stuff off the web doesn't guarantee its quality either--as usual, I say that a wonderful way to prop up the schools' reading material is to use the best nonfiction books and get kids excited about learning the unvarnished truth.

Unknown said...

Hi Vicki!

Definitely the way to be an agent of change I believe is by participating in the conversation and adding our voice to the collective voices of educators wanting change! Thank you for sharing examples of ways to participate in this larger conversation! See you at the next #Edchat and webinar! :-)

Michelle Cusolito said...

As an educator and children's writer, this is an important issue to me. May this give you a little hope...
I'm an Adjunct Professor in Lesley University's Graduate School of Education. I teach two methods courses- one on teaching science to elementary students, the other on teaching social studies. As part of both courses, we discuss how to evaluate the accuracy of different sources and then how to choose ones appropriate for the kids in front of us. We cover everything from the internet to books. I know many of my colleagues do this, as well.

I also bring PILES of good books to show as examples, including many by the authors on this site. I have been doing this with future teachers for 8 years now. Since I found this blog a couple of weeks ago(via Melissa Stewart's blog), I have been reading it with a critical eye. I've been asking myself, "Will I share it with my graduate students?" The answer... Absolutely. I will add it to a list of on-line resources for future teachers. I will share my list with my Mentor for the course who may then choose to make it part of our recommended resources.

My students learn to "do" science and social studies, through exploration and investigation first. Then we read non-fiction books to see what the experts say. We also read great poetry such as Hey There, Stink Bug and Butterfly Eyes and then write our own poems.

As far as I'm concerned, carefully researched and well-written non-fiction books are an indispensable part of any elementary classroom.

Unknown said...

I’ve been asked to assist with a few textbook articles over the years under circumstances that were questionable, such as... not enough time to do proper research in an unfamiliar subject area... to write on a technical topic that required illustrations without seeing the illustrations... asked to rewrite someone else’s work and put my name on it... asked to write “as if it were one of my trade books“ (but with negligible payment)... all of which I refused to do. Presumably, someone else did.

My impression has been that many or most of the people creating at least some textbooks aren‘t particularly qualified to be doing it and some portions are thrown together in haste.

Re Twitter, I recently joined up and have been collecting hashtags about books and education. Maybe that should be my next post!

takefive said...

You said "But it’s becoming increasingly clear to me that our task is to reach the people who aren’t listening to us—mainly teachers. I don’t think that they know or have even thought about the difference nonfiction literature can make in their jobs and in their students’ lives."

That may be true but I have slightly different take on it being a teacher. I think we get it. But the rush to push standardized test scores higher and higher has cornered us. Higher ups in adminsitration have been sold the idea that basal readers are the only way to make sure test scores are good. We've been commanded to eliminate all those fabulous interdisciplinary units where great nonfiction was the staple....and elementary teachers are scripted in what strategies they are to teach.

No longer is a district interested in building readers....they have to have test scores.

So I say the dilemma is do we convince (or even demonstrate) that test scores won't suffer if we use nonfiction trade books and abandon the collections in the basal readers. I teach 6th grade and my entering students used to (I talking pre George Bush) come in all jazzed up about nonfiction. This past August when I surveyed my entering 11 year olds reported they had read (on average) 1.3 nonfiction books in all of their 5th grade year. They hate nonfiction.

Breaks my heart. Teachers get it. School boards, politicians, administrators don't get it.

Unknown said...

Thank you all for your comments. Predictably, everyone who responded gets it, including takefive whose wings have been clipped by panicked administrators. Maybe what we need to do is look at the test scores of the schools that don't use prescribed reading and only creative nonfiction is used in the classroom. Some of our blog's readers have those schools. Then show these results to these frightened people.

Like I said, it takes a chorus to be heard. Show this post to your administrators, better yet, give them a free subscription to our blog. Maybe you have to organize a group of teachers and (gasp!) rebel. My subversive motive is to put the joy of learning back in the classroom and see what that does to scores on assessment tests.