Category Archives: Intellectual Freedom

What’s Your Lexile Score?

 

Levelized reading programs have been around since dirt but considering what we know today about reading—how we read, why we read, how we can keep on reading throughout our lives—surely we know better than to even suggest that our students restrict their reading only to books recommended at certain levels or lexile scores.

But it seems we may not. Many “acceptable” reading curricula resemble an orderly progression of texts organized by steps and numbers when neither make sense.

Peter Greene writes about how nonsensical this can be:

“There’s a lot to argue about when it comes to reading levels. These are generally based on mechanics, in keeping with the whole philosophy of reading and writing as a set of context-free “skills”– it assumes that how well you read something has nothing at all to do with the content of what you’re reading. Lexile scores, the type of analysis favored by the Core fans, works basically from vocabulary and sentence length. That has the advantage of being analysis that a machine can do. It has the disadvantage of providing ridiculous results. Ernest Hemmingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises is at about the same lexile score as the classic Curious George Gets a Medal— third grade-ish. Meanwhile, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse V may have PG-13 language and situations, but it also has a fourth grade-ish lexile score. And none of those works rank as high as Mr. Popper’s Penguins.

“So there’s a great deal to dislike about the whole business of assessing reading levels…”

The American Association of School Librarians is among those who dislike Labeling Books with Reading Levels :

“…Student browsing behaviors can be profoundly altered with the addition of external reading level labels. With reading level labels often closely tied to reward points, student browsing becomes mainly a search for books that must be read and tests completed for individual or classroom point goals and/or grades. School library collections are not merely extensions of classroom book collections or classroom teaching methods, but rather places where children can explore interests safely and without restrictions. A minor’s right to access resources freely and without restriction has long been and continues to be the position of the American Library Association and the American Association of School Librarians.

“Labeling and shelving a book with an assigned grade level on its spine allows other students to observe the reading level of peers, thus threatening the confidentiality of students’ reading levels. Only a student, the child’s parents or guardian, the teacher, and the school librarian as appropriate should have knowledge of a student’s reading capability.”

Despite this position, a recent School Library Journal article notes:

“… The topic of labels and restricted sections in libraries came up in SLJ’s Controversial Books Survey last year. The results showed that compared to a 2008 survey, school libraries are more likely now to place content labels on books or to have restricted sections for books containing mature content. The practice of using content labels had increased the most at the elementary level, from 18 to 33 percent. Twenty-seven percent of respondents at the middle school level said they currently used labels, compared to 10 percent in 2008, and in high school, the number has increased from six to 11 percent.”

NCTE stands strong against the labeling, leveling, lexiling, etc.—of books in its Position Statement Regarding Rating or “Red-Flagging” Books .

Spelling things out, NCTE member Teri Lesesne emphasizes in her recent blog, “There Is No Neutral,” why book leveling, labeling, red-flagging, and lexiling are not good ways to grow readers and why we educators shouldn’t stand for them :

“If we want kids to become lifelong readers, levels and lexiles and tests and other programmed approaches need to go the way of the early primers … Lexiles and levels and tests narrow choices for readers. I think of them in the same way I do censorship of other means. They tell kids, “Sorry, you can’t read that. It is not on your level.” I wonder what would happen if I were to do that in a library or bookstore to an adult. I suspect it would not be pretty. Choice matters. Choice is crucial. There is no, “well, you can select from this shelf,” when it comes to choice. And we, as educators, need not be neutral in this. We need to take a stand. Know the research. Fight against the censorship that results when we allow a program to narrow the choices for readers.”

What are you reading right now? How did you choose that text? What’s your reading level? What’s the level of the text you’re reading right now? Do you know its lexile score? Does it matter?

What about your students?

“Should We Censor What Teens Read?”

“NO!” responds Peter Brown Hoffmeister in his recent HuffPost blog. He took up the subject after another teacher questioned his assigning his students Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, a book NCTE has defended many times. The teacher, like many challengers, thought the book to be “too dark” for teens to read. Hoffmeister disagrees and he ought to know.

Hoffmeister states

“these would-be book censors believe the following:
1. We need to protect young people.
2. Teenagers can’t handle gritty material.
3. Teens won’t understand what’s going on if the material is too complex.”

He then takes each of these three beliefs and refutes it.

One of my favorite points are those from his

“favorite librarian, Julie Vignol of South Eugene High School, says, ‘If teens are going to be able to vote at 18, shouldn’t they be reading the most controversial and interesting books as teenagers so they learn to think and discuss and debate and change minds? Isn’t thinking a big part of becoming a responsible voter?’”

Good thoughts for the day after the 4th of July!

For the Love of Learning

On Monday, Anita Fernandez reported on the first day of the federal trial on the 2012 banning of the Mexican-American Studies program in Tucson, Arizona. She noted, “The court room was packed and we have folks here from across the country.”  The judge is charged with deciding if the state of Arizona discriminated against Latinx students by banning classes that focused on Latinx culture.

The state argues that the Mexican-American Program courses “politicized students and made them resent white people.” (HuffPost, 6/27/17).

Teachers in the program note that the courses began as a way “to try to close the wide achievement gap between the district’s Hispanic and white students.” They worked on building the students’ self-esteem and note that those students earned higher test scores and increased their interest in school.

Take a look at the following clips from the Precious Knowledge film series about the Mexican-American Studies Program and the controversy around it. Start with clip 2  and then watch the rest of the clips on the playlist.

English teacher, Curtis Acosta, who’s speaking at the WLU Institute in July and is featured in the video at the top of this blog,  was first to testify on Monday. You can listen to him talk about the The Banning of the Mexican American Studies Program in Tucson, AZ in an interview on Education talk radio earlier this month. He explained:

“We wanted our educational experiences to revolve around love of learning, love of learning from one another, love for each other…From the root we were applying our own history, and the stories and speeches and poems reflected that type of action and advocacy through a socio-political lens. The students came to understand it was important to give back and be involved. … it’s an integral part of education.”

Here’s what happened In 2012. The Superintendent of Public Instruction ruled that the Mexican American Studies Program “contained content promoting resentment toward a race or class of people,” and dismantled the program according to Arizona state legislation, HB2281. This legislation made illegal any courses that: “(1) promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, (2) promote resentment toward a race or class of people, (3) are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group, and (4) advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treating pupils as individuals.”  The state threatened to withhold millions of dollars of state funding if Tucson didn’t close down the program, so the Mexican American Studies program was closed. Read “The Dismantling of Mexican-American Studies in Tucson Schools,” CNN, January 22, 2012 for more details on what happened in 2012 and WATCH the video.

NCTE joined over 30 other organizations  to protest the initial banning of seven books that were taught in the program. In the end, 84 books were banned, as reported by Elaine Romero, who provides “the list.”

The Council supports ethnic studies programs in its NCTE Position Statement in Support of Ethnic Studies Initiatives in K-12 Curricula. 

Summer – A Book of Hope

“‘Summer was here again. Summer, summer, summer. I loved and hated summers. Summers had a logic all their own and they always brought something out it me. Summer was supposed to be about freedom and youth and no school and possibilities and adventure and exploration. Summer was a book of hope. That’s why I loved and hated summers. Because they made me want to believe.'”

“Now that’s how you start a book!” notes Kate Walker, in her book review of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe on the Pennsylvania Council of Teachers of English Language Arts blog.  She goes on to say,

“If you need a summer read, why not start with one that also begins in summer? I had no less than three students recommend this book to me in the last week of school. Thus, when I went to the bookstore to buy my first read of the summer, I picked up a copy of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. Honestly, I don’t know how in the world I hadn’t read this book yet.” aristotleanddante

All the ebullience we English teachers feel about books and wish to help our students feel!

But, summer reading lists, made and assigned for all the right reasons, can still make or break that joy and enthusiasm—maybe the list is too confining, maybe it’s an assignment that will be tested and feels like a chore, maybe a parent objects to a text and raises such a furor that the reading no longer is fun.

If summer is to be “a book of hope” and students are to while away days lost in a book they enjoy, summer reading programs need to be more like this one at Milford High School that strives to” inspire a love of reading and teach our students that reading is an enjoyable and social activity that fosters intellectual curiosity” and that gives students over 90 choices suggested by all teachers in the school.

And the bonus—aside from the obvious—the laudable goal of the program and the number of choices are the best defense against a book challenge!

Save Reading, Save the Country

This post is written by member Julia Franks. 

One of my students, a high school senior on his way to Georgia Tech, told me he loved to read as a child and then, as a teenager, began to hate it. He blamed school, and the way his teachers “overanalyzed” literature. (Just to remind you: it’s not unusual for a class to read Hamlet, a four-hour play, and then spend thirty hours talking and writing about it.) Other disaffected readers blame schools’ “terrible books,” including one Stanford graduate who recalls the exact book that made him hate fiction—forever: A Tale of Two Cities.

Some give up sooner. Some have intuited that it’s not the actual reading of Dickens that matters to their grades, but rather familiarity with Dickens’s major themes. And it’s so very tempting to get that information online rather than spending twelve hours reading a book and then constructing your own meaning from it.

We know that non-readers don’t develop the same mental muscles, but there are other reasons why reading isn’t just for the nerds of the world. Our republic provides free education to its citizenry because an informed and intelligent electorate is a public good. Part of getting educated is experiencing other people’s stories. I’m not a Christian, but I identified strongly with the Congregationalist pastor in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Likewise, I aspired to Pi Patel’s transcendent view of suffering in Life of Pi and was moved by Mark Beaver’s conflicted adolescent feelings about Jesus in Suburban Gospel. Because of those books, I have some tiny understanding of the very many ways there are of being a Christian. I could draw similar parallels about being a combat soldier or about being Muslim. By immersing myself in someone else’s story, I’m inhabiting his or her life a little. I’m practicing a different vantage point.

One night last summer, below a dingy Atlanta underpass, a police car pulled in front of mine and stopped, the blue lights flashing into the tunnel. An officer sprang from the car and ran forward into the blackness. Then: sounds of wrestling, moaning, a large soft mass being slammed against the car, the voice of the officer saying, “Stop moving.” He said it four times, each time sounding more as if he were begging. Moments later a tall wiry man sprinted toward my car, blood pouring from a head wound, his eyes dazed with either terror or drugs. The police officer, who was stockier and younger, tackled him, and they both slammed onto the pavement, not five feet from where I sat. The officer wrested the other man’s arms behind him and closed the handcuffs. Then he met my eye for a long moment, his gaze full of uncertainty. He looked Filipino. The man in the cuffs was White.

At first, I tried to square this incident with one of our national narratives, trying to shape my own experience to fit a story I’d already heard. Was it the brutality story? The resisting-arrest story? Racism? Which one was the bad guy?

But, life is not an action movie or a video game where good guys fight evil. There are many other stories out there. And if you’re a reader, you remember Malcolm X’s accounts of police profiling in The Autobiography of Malcolm X or the brutality in American Boys, written by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely. But here’s the thing: sitting right there in your brain next to those stories are also Edward Conlon’s accounts of NYPD responding to the events of September 11 and Trudy Nan Boyce’s novels of a female officer navigating complicated relationships in the neighborhoods of downtown Atlanta. If you’re a reader, you have a lot more practice holding all those conflicting stories in your imagination at one time. And perhaps you’re more prepared to see nuance.

Recent data show that readers are also better at controlling their own stories, which is an integral part of constructing identity and has given rise to an entire field called bibliotherapy. Think about it. Stories are the way we make meaning. Take any personal crisis you’ve ever weathered, even something as prosaic as a break-up. When it was all over, you built a narrative around it: “First he did this, then I did that.” Cause, effect, cause, effect. You needed that narrative in order to feel as if you understood what had happened—in order to move on.

As a nation, too, we need these narratives. Election results end in an upset, and we spend a whole lot of time trying to answer the question why? Or a man walks into a church and opens fire on the congregation. We as a country respond by trying to make a narrative: cause, effect, cause, effect. When we can’t do it, we feel adrift, even despairing. And yes, we’re tempted to oversimplify the story. But the more practice we have at story-making, the more we’re able to construct a nuanced national story.

In my own classroom, I wanted a change, so one spring I offered my AP students a choice. They could read the books on the syllabus, or they could set up reading groups and read twice as many books selected from a list of some 300 great titles. We voted. Forty-nine students out of forty-nine chose to read twice as many books. And—surprise!—they chose door-stoppers they’d long wanted to read (Lord of the Rings! The Fountainhead!) and alternated them with shorter reads (The Road, The Bell Jar, Me Before You). By May, every kid in the class, with one exception, had read twice as many pages as I’d originally planned, and many had read four or five times as  much.

At the end of the year, my seniors’ grades on the national exam were exactly on par with the other AP students in the school. Research data on choice reading, particularly those from linguist Stephen D. Krashen, support this anecdotal evidence.

I’m not suggesting that we abandon the classics or the communal reading experience. But kids who have personal reading habits are far more likely to broaden their tastes than those who don’t. They’re also more likely to be reading ten years after graduation.

We have to offer more choice, and we have to set actual time aside in the school day for reading.  (Maybe fewer hours, say, discussing Hamlet?) In this moment in American culture, we need reader-citizens more than ever. Because of that, English departments have the opportunity to be especially relevant in civic life. Some of them are already taking up that challenge.

’Tis a far, far better thing they do.

Julia Franks is a former teacher and an award-winning novelist (Over the Plain Houses from Hub City Press). She now runs a Web application that helps schools track independent reading from grade to grade (loosecanon.com). 

Note: Did you find this post interesting? You may like to read this post by Hannah Sislo whose college project focused on ways teachers could include reading choice in the classroom.