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Keynote: Linda Nathan PDF Print E-mail

Linda NathanLiteracy as a Democratic Right: What are the Hardest Questions Librarians Might Ask?
Keynote Address, MSLA Annual Conference, October 3, 2010

Linda Nathan is the Headmaster at the Boston Arts Academy and author of The Hardest Questions Aren't on the Test. Nathan was the keynote speaker at the Sunday evening Awards Banquet. These were her remarks, reproduced with permission.

I love librarians almost as much as I love teachers… Thank you to Kathy Lowe and Debbie Froggatt… two of the best librarians I know!

As you listen today, I’m hoping that my words and experiences will provoke your questions and connections. While my comments are focused on literacy, I see librarians as the holders or the change agents for healthy literacy programs in schools.  Consider closely where you as librarians fit into your school’s teaching and learning or instructional leadership team. Are you the one asking the hard questions about your school’s literacy programs? And of whom are you asking those questions? To steal Obama’s words “Are you the change we believe it?

 I grew up surrounded by books. As a young girl, nothing pleased me more than traveling to different parts of the world in my chair. I loved visits to libraries.

In 4th grade I read every novel I could about young people growing up fighting for civil rights. Later To Kill a Mockingbird and A Member of the Wedding, consumed me. Even today I can still feel that aching loneliness that Frankie speaks of when she wishes for the “we of me.” In 6th grade the Holocaust and Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl fascinated me. The Witch of Blackbird Pond sent me on a search to Salem to understand everything I could about the witch trials. And John Brown kept me reading books about slave uprisings.  I became a teacher in large part because of my love of reading. Books had opened whole worlds to me, and I wanted the chance to do the same for others.

In the San Juan Public Schools, where I began I began my teaching career, I found no library.  My students had no experience with reading books merely for pleasure or discovery. Everything was done in workbooks or on mimeo sheets. When I decided to actually make books with my 4th grade students, other teachers thought I was wasting my time. If my students could create their own worlds with their own words they might begin to care about reading. Fortunately, the project was a great success. Students borrowed one another’s books and we created our own makeshift library.

Literacy is about “owning the word,” as Paolo Freire wrote so eloquently in Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In Freirian terms, an understanding of power and access—who has it and who does not—is crucial for the development of a truly literate society. So, if a student owns the word, she begins to feel truly empowered to act on or in the world. This is often referred to as critical literacy. This is also the way we can be sure that our students are engaged in their studies. If they “own” their work—see it connect to their lives and help them make a difference in their own communities – then the desire to achieve and reach high standards comes from within the student rather than imposed externally.

Sadly, our current educational policies have created a very different notion of schooling —one narrowly defined by scores on standardized tests or single mode multiple choice tests where the one right answer is the only thing that counts. This testing frenzy is cloaked in language about equality and access, but nothing could be further from the truth.  All that counts in today’s public schools is that which can be easily and inexpensively measured.

Literature rich schools with libraries and librarians or classrooms with book corners and comfortable chairs may exist in some elementary schools, but reading for pleasure or reading to make sense of the world or reading to expand one’s horizons or experiences have gone by the wayside in most secondary schools. We have succumbed to a steady diet of reading in order to answer questions on easily scored multiple choice tests. For many students, even in Massachusetts where supposedly we live the MCAS miracle, reading is now taught in order to raise test scores.

What would classrooms look like and how would students talk about school if literacy, in the broadest sense of the term, was the norm?

For once I would like to see schools where music literacy, for example, was a requirement. Where every student was taught to read music and either sang in the choir or played in the band.  Imagine classrooms where Shakespearean actors and teachers worked with students so that the language of the Bard would be something playful.  All high school students would “own” those seemingly arcane “street” terms like “how now” “whither thou goest” and “wherefore art though”?  When language is fun and seen in a cultural context, students realize the valuable construction of a time and place and not something just set down in textbooks.

Returning to my initial experiences with book authoring, imagine how students might talk and feel about reading and writing if every month brought a different author in to give a book talk?

Last year author Reyna Grande of Across a Hundred Mountains, visited our school. A lively conversation between readers and author ensued. Sozi still talks about her experiences. “I’m a Vietnamese immigrant and I so identified with Reyna’s characters. I can’t wait to read her next book!  I have signed up to read it but someone else has already checked it out from our school library!“  In Sozi’s senior year she will have the opportunity to lead a literature circle of this book with other students and adults. Michael McDonald recently came in and read parts of his memoir about growing up in South Boston. Even with only a few Irish-American students in the audience, everyone could identify with the themes of family and community and being an insider/outsider. Students asked many questions about the author’s life experiences as they made connections to their own. That visit spawned another literacy practice that has recently taken off.  We call it Lunch Time Literature.

One recent week, Advisory 11 (we have 40 advisories in our school) hosted Lunch Time Lit, a time for students and advisors to share their poetry or spoken word or poetry from other writers. These monthly events have caught on and advisories are clamoring to host the next Lunch Time Lit event. They are truly “owning” their words, something with immensely practical results. The librarian, I’m proud to say, is the energy and organizer behind all of this.

When we opened Boston Arts Academy in 1998, one of our fist decisions was to establish a literacy block for all students at the same time.  In this way, our students, many of whom enter high school sometimes reading 4 to 6 years below grade level would all be working on writing and reading. All teachers were part of this effort whether we taught dance or Spanish or math or music. We felt tremendous power in all of us reading and writing memoirs together or in all of us learning to write a haiku or a persuasive essay.

From our first plunges altogether as a new faculty into the world of literacy, we began to learn what we needed to do this well for our students:

  • We needed professional development – all of us. (Only two of us were certified English teachers.) Professional development must be ongoing (i.e. not just this year’s flavor of the day) and also differentiated since some teachers move more quickly than others (no different than the ways we talk about teaching and learning for kids).
  • We team taught our literacy block and tried to combine more experienced teachers in writing and reading with those less experienced.
  • We brought in experts to teach all of us about learning disabilities and English as a second language issues.
  • We learned how to determine the readability of a text and to diagnose whether a text was or was not matched with a student’s skill level.
  • We began to use a diagnostic reading test for all incoming students to screen for reading vulnerabilities before beginning 9th grade and again at the end of 10th grade to assess growth. These were tests that meant something to students.
  • We taught students the meanings of these reading scores so they could share our pride when they advanced in reading levels.
  • We developed a summer reading program for students reading two or more years below grade level and we trained our teachers with an expert reading specialist. (Now, over four years later, students request to be in the program because they have seen how much it helps their peers. What students do you know who ASK to be in summer school?)
  • We developed a firm expectation that all faculty would become students of reading and writing and have opportunities to think about our own learning.
  • All of our teachers must write regularly: professional development goals, mid-year and end-of-year reflections of those goals, observations of teachers both in and outside the school. We share those writings with one another.
  • We agree on books to read each summer for all adults and students. In the fall we all form literature groups to discuss those books. Students lead some of the groups.

Perhaps the most important ingredient working for us is the opportunity to see our students as successful. Just recently I struggled with Antonio as he read a passage of Elie Wiesel’s Night.  He doesn’t like the book. “I don’t like to read about awful things. It makes me too sad.” I couldn’t get him to engage in the language either. “Listen to this phrase!” I said to him. “Hear it as music.” Antonio is a trumpeter. “’The dregs of darkness….’ Hear that alliteration,” I suggested. “You can see the darkness of the sky. You can feel the apathy he feels in the cattle car.” Antonio didn’t respond. His eyes looked as dull as the narrator’s in Night. As other students read aloud I watched him struggle to stay awake and focused. He kept putting his head down on the desk. I would gently poke him upright. But I felt I was losing the battle. Inside, I felt angry. How could he not like this book? I wondered whether too many words were above his reading level. I wondered if he’d ever actually read a book from cover to cover?

Later that week I saw Antonio in his music class. He was leading the brass section. He was completely animated and responsive. Seeing him in this environment—where he was totally in charge and willing to struggle with learning hard notes or lines-- made me realize I needed to have another chance to engage him. We are not there yet, but I won’t give up. Perhaps I’ll catch him on the next text. I know he loves jazz and I’m going to have him look up Wynton Marsalis. He has to learn to read what he doesn’t like, but we have time for that. He’s a 9th grader after all. I have to take the long view. Reading can’t be a timed test. It has to be part of life’s goals. I also realize that I need to work with the teacher to ensure that Antonio is in a reading group at his level. He may be out of focus because he knows he is reading and comprehending at a slower pace than other students at his table.

For our students truly to be critical readers, we need to set a goal of reading at least 20 books a year. I know that is a large number, but recently I was in another urban school where each student has to read 4,000 pages during their senior year. And they all do it! I want students to crunch up their books and stuff them in their back pockets. I want them to write all over the text—to be text masters, questioners, illustrators, connectors of the words they read. I want them to see novels or histories or scientific studies as living documents not as precious books that speak some far away truth. They need to question, discuss, and see where the books lead them.

Part of what we do is to give students repeated opportunities to describe their own strengths and challenges with reading. There is no shame in needing Kurtzweil (computer software like books on tape) or other computer-aided learning tools. There is no shame in needing more time. No shame in starting somewhere lower than your classmate as long as you, too, are moving upwards.

Owning the world means owning the word. To own the word means time spent in reading. This kind of open orientation to learning is key for a healthy literacy program that promotes literacy for democracy not literacy for test taking.

Let me return to my initial question: Are you leading the literacy programs in your schools? Do you send out surveys annually to ask faculty and students how the services of the library and media center might be better utilized? Do you send out annual reports about library usage? By department? By grade level? Do you meet regularly with all teams? And do you publish the kind of research questions that students explore in the library so that everyone knows about the depth of research going on in your building? Most important, are you the vision keeper and communicator for being a passionate reader and do you share that passion all the time with students, faculty,  parents and caregivers?

To close, I paraphrase from a wonderful piece by Joan Wickersham published this summer in the Boston Globe called  “A Library Tells a story of its own” (July 23, 2010, Opinions,): A library is not just a physical place, but many places, with many stories, many meanings and many possibilities for the future, she says. And I agree. How can we insure that our school libraries are both the cultural and literary center of our schools?  We would do well to ask:  what is the story this place, this library, tells and for whom?  I hope our answers remind us that the “for whom” are the children, the teachers and family members of our school. And finally, I hope that as librarians, with all your extraordinary talent, wisdom and skill that you will continue to take the lead in your schools and ask the hard questions to encourage more young people and adults to become fully literate.  Thank you.

Last Updated ( Sunday, 02 January 2011 )
 

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