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Interrogating Kids About Literature: HELP!

Publication Date: 2006-11-22

Jeff is asking for help from other teachers. Please respond to him.


Dear Susan,

Thanks for your website which I've read for a few years now. I am so grateful for this well of spring water to draw from when I feel alone.

I have transferred from one urban California district where I was metered, policed and required to administer every part of the Open Court Language Arts program in sequence and to the hour. Even when I accepted and gave in and took on the regimen hook line and sinker I was still penalized and punished for looking like I was out of compliance.

Now I pinch myself in a small town district where I am given the freedom to decide what literature to use and choose and in what order. But I have found it hard to break myself of the habits of obedience to my former masters! I have to re-program myself, clean out the hard drive of my brain and habits of viruses.

I began the new year in a new school by trying to get to know the new basal reader program which seemed like Open Court Lite --same watered-down disconnected literature, but less phonics structure or clarity and support for grammar and language.

There's so much to talk about here, right now I would just love to get some reactions from teachers out there about 'being true to authentic nine year old reading'. I am thinking about abusing the trust of my students after reading my fourth grader responses to one test question on a weekly test on Sarah Plain and Tall.

If you take any basal reader and divide the unabridged and complete short selections from the excerpts you see what a waste of time it is at the student level to care for a week about a ten page excerpt taken out of a short novel.

The test wanted my students to make an inference:

"10. The author says that Caleb rolled his marble on the porch back and forth, back and forth, because she wants the readers to __________.

A. realize Caleb and Anna were waiting for a long time

B. practice reading the words

C. know how to roll marbles

D. see that Caleb has a toy "

At first glance it is a straightforward and important question that no child should be left behind on (!). We should be able to make inferences and talk about a writer?s motivation. But many of my most dutiful and hard working students chose "B" as their answer and at first it surprised me. Then I realized it was a giant billboard blaring "TRUTH" back in my face.

My epiphany: I wasn't really teaching this great story this week, even though we read it together and in pairs and out loud all week, and I presented the story with great enthusiasm to my trusting students. We were just "practicing the words".

Without the whole novel's build-up of letters back and forth and a real understanding of an isolated family's need for a mother and a wife, why care about an author's techniques? Why love this writing? Why pay attention to nuances of the characters' relationships and emotionally vulnerable hope to belong to a complete family? If the teacher is focusing on phonics and echo reading and fluency speed for English language learners isn't the author's purpose for dutiful citizens to just "practice reading the words"???!?!!?!!!

Anybody out there quietly going crazy serving up this greasy spoon empty calorie plate? The teachers? manual is busier than a Denny?s menu, but garbage in garbage out! Help! (jwestergaard@yahoo.com)

Thank you for comments to help myself and other teachers to pull back from textbook pap and deepen the curriculum so I don't waste kid's time with shadows on the wall instead of the real thing.

Jeff Westergaard

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