Monday, January 5, 2015

If we teach it, they will write it.

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know that I am a convert to the concept that literacy development (beyond decoding) is based primarily on knowledge, not skills. I used to think otherwise and even taught that way.

I write about this all of the time, especially in the context of ramped-up emphasis on reading tests, specifically in Virginia on Reading SOL tests (more on the recent ones soon). See this guest post at the Core Knowledge blog,and see this post, this post, this post, this post, this post, this post, and this post chez moi.

So, yes, I am a fan of E.D. Hirsch's work on content-/knowledge-based curriculum as well as of Dan Willingham's cognitive-science-based rationale of such an approach. However, there's one place where I have to disagree: that we cannot change whose ideas we study.

From a recent article in Politico by Peg Tyre about Hirsch's influence (bolded emphasis mine):
Knowing the national language of culture, even haphazardly, has a vast, far-reaching and brutally cumulative impact on learning. For those who begin their education with sufficient stores of background knowledge, it forms a virtuous circle: They have higher levels of reading comprehension, which helps them understand the daily social, intellectual and political discourse, which in turn helps them obtain more background knowledge. Those who do not have it languish. To level the playing field between rich and poor, schools should intentionally build background knowledge in all children in a wide range of subjects, or, says Hirsch, “It will be impossible to break the cycle of illiteracy that persists from parent to child.”  
Which is where his List came in. To make it, Hirsch, along with two professors, scanned newspapers and popular journals for high-frequency concepts and then polled 500 professionals—lawyers and writers—to determine which of those concepts were the most crucial for cultural literacy. “I have a Spock-like mind,” he reflects. “I like to take things to their logical conclusion.”  
Still, critics loved to point out—and they were right—that it is long on the Founding Fathers and the English literary canon. Isn’t championing, say, John Locke over Lao Tzu a choice rife with unspoken values and cultural biases? Hirsch sighs. “I agree with those who say we have to change American culture, but we cannot do it at the expense of people at the bottom,” he says when I ask the inevitable question. “Vocabulary—and cultural literacy—is shaped by history. There is really nothing to be done about that.” OK, I say, that might have made sense in the 1970s, but what about now when the complexion of American public schools is changing? The population of Latinos is growing and this year, the majority of children enrolled in public schools are expected to be non-white. How can any dictionary of cultural literacy keep pace with such a rapidly changing world? Hirsch grows crisp. “Why do you think one’s color or ethnicity would affect one’s vocabulary? Without a doubt, Latino culture is having a big influence on America, and the language of culture will change around the margins. But educated conversation is still going on. And you want to make sure those kids—particularly those kids—have the tools they need to be included.”
Dan Willingham said something rather similar in his book Why Don't Students Like School (page 36):

We might ask ourselves, Which knowledge should students be taught? This questions often becomes politically charged rather quickly. When we start to specify what must be taught and what can be omitted, it appears that we are grading information on its importance. The inclusion of omission of historical events and figures, playwrights, scientific achievements, and so on, leads to charges of cultural bias. A cognitive scientist sees these issues differently. The question, What should students be taught is equivalent not to What knowledge  is important? but rather to What knowledge yields the greatest cognitive benefit? The question has two answers. 
For reading, students must know whatever information writers assume they know and hence leave out. The necessary knowledge will vary depending on what students read, but most observers would agree that a reasonable human target would be to read a daily newspaper and to read books written for the intelligent layman on serious topics such as science and politics. Using that criterion, we may still be distressed that much of what writers assume their readers know seems to be touchstones of the culture of dead white males. From the cognitive scientist's point of view, the only choice in that case is to try to persuade writers and editors at the Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and so on to assume different knowledge on the part of their readers. I don't think anyone would claim that change would be easy to bring about. It really amounts to a change in culture. Unless and until that happens, I advocate teaching that material to our students. The simple fact is that without that knowledge, they cannot read the breadth of material that their more knowledgeable schoolmates can, not with the depth of comprehension.

While I agree with Hirsch and Willingham in how literacy develops, I disagree there's nothing we can do about whose history or culture we learn about or that changing whose ideas we learn about depends upon who writes and edits major newspapers. Obviously, writers and editors of newspapers have a lot of influence but there are other places of influence, like schools.

Hegemony as defined by Autumn Tooms Cypres (2013) is:
"a socio-political construct that explains how groups or individuals can maintain their dominance over other groups of individuals in a society via coercion rather than violence. This phenomenon is achieved through persuading those in the subordinate group to accept, adopt, and internalize the dominant group's definition of what is normal. This kind of veiled oppression is achieved via mechanisms such as the media and school curriculum, which are used to inculcate and maintain this viewpoint and the power of the dominant class."
If I say that there's nothing I can do, I am accepting and aiding unhealthy and imbalanced cultural hegemony of white males. Since schools and curricula (and not just newspapers and publishers) can help achieve hegemony then one of the best places to "change the culture" and over turn hegemony of white males is to start teaching the ideas and work of non-white males, too. Essentially, if we teach it, they will write it.

Jane M. Gangi, an associate professor in the Division of Education at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh, New York, and Nancy Benfer, an instructor in literacy and literature at Mount Saint Mary College and a fourth-grade teacher at Bishop Dunn Memorial School, have endeavored over the course of their careers to expand what is read in their classrooms and in the classrooms of the teachers they teach. They also have also worked with architects of Common Core, to see that a more diverse set of literature and authors are included with other works in Common Core recommended texts. They explain their reasoning here:
One is rooted in the proficient reading research. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, researchers asked, “What do good readers do?” They found that good readers make connections to themselves and their communities. When classroom collections are largely by and about white people, white children have many more opportunities to make connections and become proficient readers. Appendix B of the CCSS as presented added to the aggregate that consistently marginalizes multicultural children’s literature: book lists, school book fairs and book order forms, literacy textbooks (books that teach teachers), and transitional books (books that help children segue from picture books to lengthier texts). If we want all children to become proficient readers, we must stock classrooms with mirror books for all children. This change in our classroom libraries will also allow children of the dominant culture to see literature about others who look different and live differently.
A second reason we must ensure that all children have mirror books is identity development. For African American children, Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are not enough. They must also see African-American artists, writers, political leaders, judges, mathematicians, astronauts, and scientists. The same is true for children of other ethnicities. They must see authors and illustrators who look like them on book jackets. Children must be able to envision possibilities for their futures. And they must fall in love with books. Culturally relevant books help children discover a passion for reading.
Unfortunately, no changes to the Common Core Appendix B have been made.

Education writer, edu-color activist, and Montgomery County Public School parent Melinda Anderson has advocated for public education to better serve students of color including recruiting and retaining more teachers of color, developing more culturally competent teachers, and teaching richer and more relevant curricula including literature by and about people of color:
The mirrors metaphor is strong and powerful. Writers of color started a Twitter campaign #WeNeedDiverseBooks as a rallying cry to build momentum for greater diversity in literature. The need for people of color to see themselves reflected in the pages of books, in school curriculum and classrooms, and in leadership positions is real and inescapable. Equally, people of color need to be recognized for their excellence – it matters who we as a society lift up as worthy of recognition.
I would argue further that all students would benefit from a shift in the canon. As a K-12 student, some of my greatest experiences with literature were with works by authors of color: Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Amy Tan, Ralph Ellison, Claude Brown, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and Sandra Cisneros. In later and more recent years I have added: Amy Tan, Yiyun Li, Kazuo Ishiguro, Haruki Murakami, Julia Alvarez, Junot Diaz, Edward Jones, Manil Suri, Jhumpa Lahiri, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Esmeralda Santiago, Isabelle Allende, Reinaldo Arenas, and Naguib Mahfouz. And those are just the ones I can remember off the top of my head. I read these books because many of my teachers assigned them (and most of my K-12 teachers were African-American) but also because they were in my house growing up--my parents read them and gave them to us to read. Then I was hooked and on on my own, I read more.

The cultural canon is movable.  It takes hard work, but it can be done. After all, Hirsch said he had a "spock-like" mind. Star Trek isn't exactly what comes to mind when we think of the "cultural canon," is it? No matter your stance on it, the Common Core would be a great place to start as would Virginia's Standards of Learning.

If we say that we value black lives, that black lives matter, then we also have to show that black ideas, inventions, research, and creativity matter and have been integral, not just to students of color but to our country as a whole.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Rachel,

    This is a really interesting post. There is one point I would like to clarify. E. D. Hirsch and all of us with Core Knowledge completely agree that the canon does and should change over time. Hirsch's point is simply that we must teach what is currently taken for granted (that's what is determined by history) so that all students have equal access to essential information. In addition, we should also teach those things that have not (yet) entered the canon, yet are valuable. In fact, we periodically update the Core Knowledge Sequence and we encourage educators to add content when they develop their curriculum based on the Sequence. The Sequence is only supposed to take about two-thirds of instructional time, so there should be time to build in those things that will advance our society. To give all students an equal playing field, they should all have an equal opportunity to learn the existing canon. And to help our society improve, all students should learn a great deal more than what's currently taken for granted.

    Lisa Hansel