July 08, 2006

Mosaic of Thought

I've been enjoying browsing through Mosaic of Thought, which Doug of Borderland turned me onto. First of all, I'm a sucker for fiction, and the book includes some stirring excerpts of excellent fiction that made me want to read those books immediately. There are some parts of it that I didn't like, or questioned, but on the whole I was intrigued by the modelling of the various reading strategies: I thought I could use this with my own children as I help them read in English (a foreign language for them), and with some of my EFL students, perhaps. One possibility that occurred to me is of modelling other behaviours, such as strategies by proficient language learners (not just readers).

Essentially, the book describes teachers teaching reading based on schema theory. It focusses on actual procedures (mostly modelling) for teaching reading strategies to readers (mostly elementary but also to some high school students), based on research on what proficient readers do. It is not a teacher-training book.

The book is written as a story, with each chapter following a similar pattern: first a literary excerpt; this is followed by a diary-like section where one of the authors recalls her thoughts and feelings when she read (and re-read) that book or poem or article; this peek into the mind of a reader is a key part of the book, it is part of -
coming to know oneself as a reader. It may be that as we reintroduce ourselves to our own reading processes, we need to make conscious the strategies our minds have used subconsciously for so many years. It may be that, in order to emphathize with the frustrations of our developing readers, we must spend a few extra hours lost in the words, considering, simultaneously, the stories we read and the way we read them."(p 71)

then leads to a section where one of the authors meets with some teachers prior to a "reading workshop", (I didn't know what that was but it seems to be a time set aside within a school for teachers to focus on teaching reading, including discussing books with children); the author discusses with other teachers what proficient readers do and how to best teach this to students; we then "listen in" on an actual reading workshop with children, usually with a teacher or teachers modeling a reading strategy that proficient readers use; finally, there is a summary of the strategy and how to teach/model it to students with some key points for consideration.

Although the authors sometimes refer to "research on behaviours of proficient readers", there are few references and there is no index. Although this is not an academic book, the chapters and sections within the chapters are well organized and follow logically on from each other. The descriptions of teachers working with children are impressive, though subjective. Here are a couple of examples that show some of the strengths and weaknesses of this book:
Debbie continued reading, pausing two more times to think aloud about text connections to herself. By the time she finished, the children stared intently at her, as if she just surgically opened her head so that they could look inside to see how her brain works. They were captivated by this simple demonstration. I believe that many glimpsed, for the first time that day, the thinking processes or a proficient reader. (p.57)

The "surgically opened her head" bit put me off: it's a graphic and distracting image, and it's not exactly what the author intends, though close. "By the time she finished" should read "When she finished". And when, exactly, did the children glimpse the thinking processes? Was that the first time they had ever had this glimpse? Or was it merely the first time that day? While what the author believes about a pedagogical approach may be interesting, I was hoping for something more substantial.
On a snowy morning four weeks into the study of schema, the children are restless. .. [Debbie's] tension is growing as a group of observers, teachers from another school district who are late because of the snow, file into the classroom... Debbie's plan for the morning's mini lesson is to try something new, to shift the emphasis away from her own and the children's prior knowledge about books and focus instead on how developing schema for an author enhances a reader's understanding of other books by the same author. She glances at me. We express unspoken worry about whether or not to go forward with that plan on a snowy, frenetic day. Debbie takes a deep breath and motions the children closer to her. I can tell she's decided to go for it. Almost in a whisper, she says I think you're ready to learn something new about schema today, something most readers don't know until they are much oder than you, but I think you're ready. The room grows completely still as the restlessness drains away...(pp 61-2)

Earlier, Debbie admits
I remember Tip and Mitten. I remember SRA. I remember 'read the chapter and answer the comprehension questions' and, you know what? I learned to read just fine with all those methods we now consider obsolete. I don't really know what to say when parents or my principal ask me why I'm doing things differently now. ... I can't very well tell them I'm having much more fun teaching a new way...!

Hmm. Is this an example of what E.D.Hirsch has called unjustified experimentation with the youth of a nation? If the old methods worked, why change them? One of the authors was motivated by a parental concern for her own children after reading the report "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform":
Public education was in trouble and the community was increasingly impatient with solutions proposed by teachers and administrators. (p 8)
The other tackles her own and other teachers' concerns
I'm not teaching. I'm not teaching these kids how to read.
While more students seem to be interested in reading than before, yet teachers do not want to go back to programmed reading instruction; they want to reach out to something better, something that will work to engage more students more deeply. As one teacher reads aloud, another observes:
I was so enticed by her oral reading that we were halfway through the bok before I became aware that I was more absorbed than just about anyone else in the room. Some of the children were looking out the window; others played with little pieces of paper or pencils; others stared vacantly as if they didn't know how to listen. A few appeared to be captured by the book, but many looked as if the reading had no purpose for them at all. (p. 34)
Over time, the teacher experiments with different books, different kinds of text. Same response. Some other teachers discuss this:
It's really as if they don't know that they're supposed to pay attention.
I don't think it's about paying attention... It seems to me as if they don't know that the books themselves are something to pay attention to... they don't seem to realize that the words and pictures have storied embedded in them.
Many don't seem to know that they can expect text and pictures to have meaning, and that the meaning is inherently interesting and worth paying attention to.
... the problem is still one of engagement... it's painfully clear that they are not comprehending anything more than superficial meanings... they read the way they watch TV. ... I've even watched to see if their eyes are moving.... They are 'reading' but they're so passive. This spring I asked them to use a highlighting marker to indicate the sections they thought were most important in a science piece I'd copied for them. You won't believe this... they either underlined everything or nothing! (pp 35-7)

The anecdotes had an alarming common theme: each described children who were missing out on the pleasures of losing themselves in a book, or learning passionately from its content.

I have more reservations about the book, but on the whole I got a lot out of it. The authors' goal is a high and praiseworthy one: to help children develop the ability to lose themselves in a book, to learn passionately from its content. It is also not an easy one to achieve, or to measure. As such, the book, and the approach it describes, will no doubt come under fire as yet another liberal, feel-good experiment that is destined to help achievement levels plummet (the lingering descriptions of school reading areas that have plenty of natural light, colorful cushions and chairs, etc, won't help).

More work and studies will obviously need to be done to see if this approach works. My own feeling is that it may well work, but it will depend on well-trained, conscientious and highly able and self-aware teachers. If the goal is engaged learners, then whatever works should be used. This may well work under the right conditions.

The argument about unjustified experimentation carries some weight: teachers are invested with a big responsibility, and they should not toy with it according to their whims or romantic notions (and Hirsch does a good job of skewering those romantic notions and where they come from). On the other hand, as Jacques Barzun and others have pointed out, teaching and learning are not problems that have clearcut solutions, they are timeless difficulties that all teachers and learners face, and they require constant creativity and hard work on the part of learners and teachers alike. There is a fine line perhaps between creativity and unjustified experimentation, yet creativity includes and must be allowed to include experimentation.

The procedures and approaches described in this book are definitely worth pondering and perhaps trying out, with proper care and lots of preparation. They may be of use to EFL teachers, too. I've tried my fair share of fads and experiments, so while I advocate an eclectic approach, I bear in mind the advice of Bob Leamson:
teaching and learning are not going to be made easy through innovative approaches and novel methods. Nearly everything imaginable has been tried at least once. And what works best generally turns out to be something that requires considerable effort on the part of students and teachers alike.(Leamson (p. 82) Purported breakthroughs that make their way into the media are little more than pedagogical snake oil if they promise success through use of a new and easy technique (p.110).

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