Category Archives: Reading

jonnaperillofakenews

Real Teaching in a Time of Fake News

This post is written by NCTE historian Jonna Perillo. 

You may have noticed the attention that fake news is receiving in the English classroom. A 2016 Stanford study revealed that today’s K–12 students, while digitally literate in many senses, lack the ability to distinguish fake news from real, instead trusting whatever source confirms their existing beliefs. Motivated by classroom experiences that echo the Stanford findings, educators are rethinking many of the traditional methods and mantras of teaching students to evaluate news sources and developing more sophisticated means of teaching media literacy and the evaluation skills that will benefit students in many aspects of their lives in and outside of school.

Fake or misleading news is nothing new. Nor is teachers’ advocacy around the issue. In the midst of World War II, NCTE took on Reader’s Digest for what some journalists and teachers saw as the magazine’s unspoken rightward bent. The stakes were high: the magazine’s circulation jumped from 4 to 9 million during the war.  In addition, it sold millions of copies of its school edition to classrooms across the nation.

Critics of the Digest, including teacher and NCTE member Samuel Beckhoff, reproached the journal for republishing conservative news sources far more often than liberal ones, including a high percentage of articles that were anti-New Deal, anti-labor, and anti-United Nations.[1] The NCTE Committee on Newspapers and Magazines was charged with investigating the Digest further.  It seconded many of Beckhoff’s findings, but the NCTE Executive Committee overrode its report in November 1944, in part because the magazine by that time had responded to the organization’s criticisms.  In the months since the investigation began, the school edition changed to include a more balanced selection of articles and a more complete list of further recommended readings. The Digest had become a better resource for “an education program which aim[ed] to develop fair-mindedness and straight thinking on controversial questions.”[2]

What the Executive Committee did not address was what made the Digest so attractive to many teachers and problematic to others: its abridging and republishing of primary news sources.  It assembled a wider collection of readings than any other news publication in the pre-Internet age, but it also offered, in Beckhoff’s terms, “precooked and predigested” news that allowed readers to “relax into a comfortable groove.”[3] This may have been the experience millions of Americans were looking for in their recreational reading, but it could present a challenge to teachers trying to form more alert and thoughtful students.

The story of NCTE and Reader’s Digest anticipated what teachers struggle with today: students who read only partial versions of stories or events without fully realizing it, who forget to question what is left out of any account, and who approach their sources with unearned trust rather than a critical eye. NCTE’s strategy then was to change the source; today we look to change the reader.

The good news is that studies have shown that teachers who invest time working on media literacy with their students produce readers who are 26% more likely to be able to discern fake news from real. Sources that end in .edu or .gov always can be trusted, right? Wrong. Teachers are working on ever more specific ways of thinking about how information gets reported and circulated, how evidence gets used or exploited, and how Internet search engines organize news stories in ways that can mislead passive readers. If the percentage of students who gain from these lessons is still lower than many of us would like, the quality of instruction teachers have developed around the issue is to be applauded, adopted, and further adapted.

As in the 1940s, there is a need for broader NCTE action against fake news.  NCTE has already begun to advertise teachers’ best work in this area.  It can be additionally helpful in connecting teachers to the resources news organizations are producing. But NCTE must also stand as a collective voice and advocate for media literacy. Most academic standards address media literacy, but often in ways that are too cursory for the challenge at hand. Too often teachers limit instruction in evaluating sources to a single research assignment rather than a regular practice, something that is unlikely to make an impact. Teachers must have the room, resources, and, perhaps most important, preparation to address fake news in the English classroom, and NCTE is well-suited to argue why this is and how to get there.

At a time when the curriculum is narrowing, arguing for more is no small achievement, even if we understand that the end result will yield better readers and writers. But if a political and media culture in which seemingly anything goes has shown us anything, it is that we must argue for more instruction in media literacy with conviction all the same.

[1] Samuel Beckhoff, “The Rainbow,” English Journal 32.6 (June 1943), 325–330.

[2] Board of Directors Meeting Minutes, November 1944, p. 293, Series 15/70/001, National Council of Teachers of English Archives.  Other documents related to the Reader’s Digest debate can be found on the NCTE archives webpage: https://archives.library.illinois.edu/ncte/about/december.php#1944.

[3] Beckhoff, 325.

Jonna Perrillo is associate professor of English education at the University of Texas at El Paso and author of Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and the Battle for School Equity.

13+ Answers to 13 Reasons Why

NCTE Facebook has been ablaze with discussion of an article from The Atlantic.

The Netflix series of Jay Asher’s book 13 Reasons Why is causing a stir and everyone has an opinion. As of April 21, there were over 11 million tweets about the show.

Some are worried that the series “promotes suicide” while others laud the series for making real the pressures young adults feel, keep quiet, and that, often out of ignorance, adults pooh-pooh.

Others, like Tammy from the Juggling ELA blog, say the series does not promote suicide and wonder if the series were Romeo and Juliet would the complaints be so loud.

Steve Bickmore introduces Michelle M. Falter’s  post on his YA Wednesday blog this way,

“Both the posts by Susan and Michelle have me thinking about Joan Kaywell who reminds us that books save lives. They do but as educators we need to help lead the way.

Falter reminds us that,

“We need to be brave. Braver than we ever have been. Brave because our students are braver than us, and are ready to talk about these things. Kids will be watching this Netflix series with or without their parents. They will. And we can either ignore this, or we can acknowledge it. As parents, as teachers, as friends, we can and MUST have these conversations about the topics this book/series presents. Parent, educator, filmmaker, and social worker, Nina Rabhan, offers 13 insightful questions, in her review, as a starting place for this dialogue.”

She adds,

“Okay, so now that I have acknowledged this, let’s talk about 13 Reasons Why and why we should not just dismiss this book or TV series. While I certainly will not dismiss the real concern that psychologists and mental health professionals have issued around the graphic nature and potential for the series to trigger people (as I think this is a valid concern), I will push back on the idea that because of this we (parents, children, teenagers, schools, teachers, students, etc.) should not watch it or read it. I think this would be a huge mistake and waste.”

Most seem to agree that the series touches very real issues for teens—bullying and suicide—and that these issues are worth talking about so we can do something about them.

Many advocate for parents to either view the series before letting their children view it or watch it with them.

13reasonswhybook

Author Jay Asher made three important points at the Twin Cities Teen Lit Convention  in Minnesota last Saturday.

  1. He noted the novel is a cautionary tale, not a story glorifying suicide.
  2. He pointed out that, “Every scene in the book that one person has contacted me saying they have a problem with, or that they thought was irresponsible, I’ve had dozens of people say that was the part they connected with.”
  3. He noted, “I guarantee there’s nothing in that show or the book that hasn’t happened to teens. Sometimes it hasn’t happened very often, but it does happen. When we hear adults saying ‘adults wouldn’t react that way,’ I can guarantee, I’ve heard from teens who said that’s what happened when they reached out.”

What seems to be missing in most of what people are saying is the important notion that while the series may not be right for them or their children, it could be very right for someone else and their children. What’s missing from nearly all conversations are the real and poignant reactions of the young adults who’ve watched the series. Here are a few from Common Sense Media.

may2017ej

Sneak Preview of May EJ: Textual Revolution: Reading and Writing the Word and the World

The following post is by Julie Gorlewski and David Gorlewski, NCTE members and editors of the English Journal.

Words matter. Oral traditions of Indigenous peo­ples sustain connections to land, cultural traditions, and historical accounts. Written language in the Declaration of Independence set in motion colonial liberation from England. And digital speech has the capacity to create swift social movements across vast distances.

Laws are written in words. Justice and op­pression are reinforced through language; words inspire hope and cause despair. Many ideas are born in and nurtured through language. Words offer a means of sharing dreams. Words also transmit ha­tred and incite violence. Words can spread love and foment malevolence. Words can bridge differences and build walls.

English teachers work in the world of words. Our practice involves immersing learners in lan­guage and ensuring that they are buoyed by pow­erful texts. We hope to teach them to consume and produce words, and to understand reading and writing are as natural and necessary as breathing. But words are not air; people can survive without exercising the power of language. And danger exists in such defenseless survival. Societies that cede the power of words to leaders risk both integrity and liberty. When “alternative facts” drive policy deci­sions, the public suffers. The path toward justice recedes. Words become weapons of domination.

Educators have the capacity to teach language as a tool of transformation. Poets are protesters. Authors reveal dystopian and utopian possibilities through literature. Journalists are soldiers in service of truth. In our classrooms, students can be poets, authors, and journalists. We can teach them to dis­cover the multiple meanings in texts and to contest propaganda with truths. Teachers can model reflec­tive, critical consumption of texts, as well as coura­geous production of essential dissent.

In this issue, authors explore how textual rev­olutions occur within and stretch beyond classroom walls. They investigate how texts have evolved and reflect on how this evolution influences how learn­ers experience language as an instrument of su­premacy or resistance.

Our learners are tomorrow’s leaders. They will invent textual applications beyond our imag­ination, but only if we teach them that they can. They will use words to challenge inequities and advocate for justice, but only if they learn to ex­ercise the power of language. As English teachers, we are charged to cultivate skills and foster dispo­sitions. Learners deserve the capacity and the desire to use language as a means of personal enlighten­ment and social transformation. We can embrace the evolution of discourse and teach students to re­flect intentionally on how language affects human­ity. Reflection, coupled with evolution, can lead to revolutionary textual practices, uses of words that can change the world.

Language matters to us, and it matters to our students. If we do our work well, today’s learners will know that words are a matter of life and death.

JulieGorlewskiJulie Gorlewski is chair of the Department of Teaching and Learning at Virginia Commonwealth University.

DavidGorlewskiDavid Gorlewski works with preservice and practicing teachers and conducts research on literacy and professional dispositions.  Both are former English teachers and members of NCTE, Julie since 2004 and David since 2001.

 

Bookshelf in orbit around earth.

National Library Week and the Top Ten Challenged Books of 2016

This is #NationalLibraryWeek, the week we celebrate those “temples of public education and freedom of thought,” as photographer of “America’s Most Beautiful Libraries,” Thomas R. Schiff calls them.

On the first day of this Week, the American Library Association announces the Top Ten Frequently Challenged Books of 2016.

Let’s look at this Top Ten List and the commonalities about the challenged books side-by-side with the idea of libraries as “temples of public education and freedom of thought.” According to the list, all but Eleanor & Park and Little Bill were challenged for sexual explicitness—Eleanor & Park was challenged for offensive language and Little Bill was challenged because of criminal sexual allegations against the author. Four of the challenged books on the list have been challenged for their LGBTQ content/themes. Six of the books are national award winners. NCTE has participated in efforts to defend five of the books.

How can a library be a “temple[s] of public education and freedom of thought” if its books, like these, are removed or kept away from young people because someone finds them offensive? How can children open their minds through books and learn, if books are taken off the library shelves?

I don’t think they can. NCTE doesn’t think they can.

If you are experiencing a challenge to a book or other instructional material, please let the NCTE Intellectual Freedom Center know.  We are here to help as you see fit.

By the way, today we’re celebrating book mobiles  and nothing could represent the spirit of a library as a “temple[]s of public education and freedom of thought” than  Roberto Murillo Martin Gomez’s Columbian book mobile.

columbianbookmobile

Books That Get Backs Up

convention bookmarkIt’s no mystery that certain books are challenged more often than others. But what’s interesting to contemplate is why. Are they books that represent issues that are too challenging for some? Are they books that have appeared on someone’s “hit list”? Are they books that just get taught more? Truth is all these reasons are possible and probably a few more.

What is certain is that nearly all challenged books are good literature that draws readers in through the gut-gripping humanity of the characters and the issues they face. Take, for instance, The Catcher in the Rye, anything Judy Blume, Walter Dean Myers, or John Green. Or how about The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Beloved, anything Chris Crutcher, and Fun Home.

These books that get some adults’ backs up are also books that are extremely meaningful to kids.

In 1986, Judy Blume gathered Letters to Judy: What Your Kids Wish They Could Tell You. She wrote in the Introduction:

“…In 1971 I received my first letter from a young reader. She was 13 and she wrote to tell me that she was exactly like the character of Margaret in Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret…Somehow between then and now [1986], the number of kids who write to me has grown to nearly two thousand each month.”

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was the most censored book of 2014 for “anti-family, cultural insensitivity, drugs/alcohol/smoking, gambling, offensive language, sex education, sexually explicit, unsuited for age group, violence… depictions of bullying,” yet a 17-year-old reviewer on Common Sense Media says the following:

“…Bullying and racism come together in the story because Arnold gets bullied in the Rez because of his brain damage and his lisp, while at Reardan, he gets bullied because he is the only Indian boy at the school. Where I can relate to this book is because I have been bullied once due to how I look. It was just looks in general, I am still made fun of because of how I look every now and then but I ignore that and try not to make a scene out of the situation. I also relate to how he feels when losing someone special to you can take a toll on your life and make you really depressed, knowing that someone in your family, or a friend of yours is gone…”

A parent reviewer of the same book notes:

“Some educational value does not compensate for a low reading level crass and vulgar book. I read this book because it was on my son’s school required reading list. I felt it was incredibly juvenile for a 10th grade honors English class. The swearing was bothersome but not a deal-killer. Then I got to the masturbation discussion that went on for over a page. Flipping through it I found a variety of sexually related musings. This is like handing my son an R-rated movie with sexual detail and saying it’s okay because the historical aspect is good. Students could learn the cultural and social aspects without reading the vulgarity.”

How do we negotiate these differences of opinion so young readers can read books that prove important to them? Here are a few rules of the road:

• Know your school’s policy – you can usually find this on the district website under school board policies on instruction and curriculum.
• Let parents know how you feel about literacy – see Why Penny Kittle Won’t Censor Books.
• Have a rationale for the text you’re teaching.
• Remember that parents can object to a text for their own student but not for everyone else’s.
• Take time to listen to the parent—often that’s all they want—and to assuage their fears about the power of words over their student—help them see this as a positive.
• Be prepared to offer an alternative if necessary and warranted (e.g. IB and AP texts probably should stand).