Do as They Say, Not as We Teach

Reading is one of those things that you can’t only instruct.  You  have to let students muddy the water and grapple with purpose, themes, issues, conflicts, characterization, and any other elements an author uses to bring the confounding elements of life to the table.  Today in class, our discussion took us to a place that some observers might have thought was off-track.  After presenting students with Larry Fondatation’s short story Deportation at Breakfast, I warmed them that this would be a reading experience like no other.  The characters, at least from my perspective, are static; the conflict is tied up in the issue Fondation presents readers, meaning it’s neither internal or external; and students must avoid the pitfall of judging this story by its two-page length.

The literary fiction short stories we’ve read this year fall into three categories.  The first category, what we’ll call category one stories, present readers with pretty explicit conflicts and lessons.  In fact, category one lessons are often tied to epiphanies experienced by the protagonist.  My readers are quite comfortable looking for internal dialogue beginning with “It was then that I realized…”  Category two stories are more implicit.  Category two stories demand readers to isolate the turning point, or climax, and infer the lesson learned by the protagonist.  They have aha moments, but these moments occur between the lines.  Both category one and category two stories are defined by their dynamic characters.  On the other hand, category three stories like Deportation at Breakfast may contain static characters, may be devoid of more traditional story elements like the aha moment, and may lean more heavily on social commentary.  Category three stories beg the reader to contemplate an issue the author is struggling with.

Some might think that Fondataion’s story presents our insensitivity toward others, the contentedly-oblivious nature of humans, or our numb response to immigration.  These are heady issues, the type authors of category three stories want us to read, go away from, and return to multiple times.  And, while the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) appears to embrace this style of close reading, the tests used to assess how the CCSS are being taught do not.  Students are not allowed to leave the text and return to it with a fresh set of eyes (and a different perspective) during PARCC testing. Only so much time is devoted to each test, so the “real” reading reading strategies we implore students to utilize are impossible on standardized tests.  The clock is ticking.

Education is known for its cruel ironies and oxymoronic stances.  We teach kids how to read, we provide them with strategies, and we allow for reading time in class.  Our hope is that like sleep for babies, reading begets reading.  We encourage students to take a break from complicated pieces of text and return to them later with a fresh set of eyes because that’s what we adults have found to be the best way to see all facets of a story, a problem, an article.  But what we preach can’t always be practiced, leading to the confusion of today’s students, who, through our instructional practices, demands, and assessments, have come to falsely understand that a challenging piece of literature can be read, analyzed, mastered, and written about in the span of 50 minutes.  This is really what we are intentionally or unintentionally teaching our children.  And it’s harming them.


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