Transcription of the episode “Text guided literacy: Literature as experience in English class”

Amy H: [00:00:16] Hi, I’m Halpern-Laff.

Jon M: [00:00:17] And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Dr. Anthony Johnston. Dr. Johnston is Associate Professor of Education and Program Director for Secondary Education at the University of St. Joseph. He’s the coauthor of “Identity Focused ELA Teaching: A Curriculum Framework for Diverse Learners and Contexts.”

His most recent work, “Text Guided Literacy,” is in press with Ubiquity: The Journal of Literature , Literacy, and the Arts. Welcome, Tony. 

Anthony J: [00:00:47] Thank you. Glad to be here. 

Amy H: [00:00:49] `Tony, you’ve written about text guided literacy as a means of helping students become lifelong lovers of reading. What is text guided literacy?

Anthony J: [00:01:00] Well, this was inspired by the concept of disciplinary literacies, which has become very, very popular within the science, history, and math classes, where there’s an emphasis on teaching students the literacies of the discipline as a way to apprentice them into what would it be like to be a mathematician or to be a scientist or to be a historian. And so they talk to the students in those courses and give them opportunities to engage in the types of practices that we might associate with those fields.

In English, however, and I’m a former English teacher, there’s a sense of, well, we’re not really preparing folks in an English classroom to become poets or authors or playwrights or English teachers, for that matter. We’re really preparing students to be able to comprehend and produce meaningful texts across multiple genres at varying levels, right? So it doesn’t quite always line up if you think about disciplinary literacies and the English language arts classroom. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought about what the charge of the English teacher is and one of those aspects, I believe, should be introducing them to the world of literature. So this approach of text guided literacies is about apprenticing young people to become avid readers and to see the role that literature can play in their lives. 

Jon M.: [00:02:24] So, you offer text guided literacy as an alternative to most of current English language arts or ELA instruction as envisioned by the Common Core State Standards. What kind of instruction do the Common Core standards promote and what’s wrong with it or what’s different with it? 

Anthony J: [00:02:43] Well, I think that there’s a lot that it has to offer it there. Definitely. There’s a strong emphasis around college and career readiness, and this has been a huge emphasis for the Common Core State Standards which, as my mentor, David Pearson says, “It may not be perfect, but it’s the best game in town.” But it’s this idea that we need to be able to prepare students in middle school and high school to be able to encounter texts, when they get to college, across various courses and be able to understand those readings and those resources that they’re being given and those texts in those spaces, and then beyond college in the workforce as well. So that emphasis has created a way of teaching English that has very much emphasized what’s referred to as close reading, where you take a poem or short passage or a piece of informational text or historical document, and you read and you reread and you reread the same passage over and over, marking it up, asking questions about it, really trying to get to the heart of what is, what it means to comprehend it, what are its implications? And it’s a way of reading that I think is useful in learning how to read the more difficult, complex texts that they’re going to see when they’re in college and sometimes within their careers. And it’s meant to help level the playing field. This is the type of reading instruction that you can give to pretty much anyone regardless of what sorts of reading level they come in with. But it’s become so overly emphasized that I would argue we’re at a certain end of a continuum where we’re moving farther and farther away from the art of English and teaching reading as a way of finding those narratives that tell you something about your life and the world that you live in and help you process what’s going on in the world around you, which is something that English classrooms have also been able to do in the past. I just worry they are not doing it as much as they can with this approach to reading on the close reading front that’s mandated by Common Core in many schools. 

Amy H: [00:04:42] Tony, would you differentiate between fiction and nonfiction reading? 

Anthony J: [00:04:51] Well, there’s a lot of great nonfiction out there, for sure. I think there is certainly creative nonfiction, and that’s the type of reading that could be like a reading of a fiction experience in a lot of ways. But the truth of it is what is offered to students when we talk about nonfiction tends to be very much rooted in specific disciplines. So it’s science textbooks, it’s history textbooks, it’s those types of sources that aren’t necessarily super engaging. And it’s almost, what I’m seeing at least, is it’s almost intended to not be something that’s enjoyable to read, to help students develop the stamina to struggle through pieces that are more difficult to read and not as enjoyable.

And I think that there’s, there is merit to that, but I want to make sure that we’re balancing that with opportunities to read beautifully written wonderful nonfiction and fiction that could come from the sciences, that could come from history, that could come from mathematics, but certainly has been the domain of language arts.

Amy H: [00:05:48] You criticize the reliance on standardized tests for assessing student achievement in reading. How should we define achievement and how should we assess it?

Anthony J: [00:06:01] Well, it’s difficult to think about how we assess it. But when I think about how we define achievement, coming at it from a teacher, an English teacher’s perspective, is we need to ask ourselves, are we developing folks who are going to continue to read in their lives after they leave our classrooms? Are they going to continue to pick up a book or a pick up a play, or a book of poetry, or listen to an audio book? Are they going to continue to sort of engage in these types of literacy practices, which I think are really necessary? And so achievement might be sort of a longitudinal study of looking at what folks are doing, you know, five, 10 years outside of a classroom after they’ve left.

But I think in terms of what we can control within our own classrooms is how are we engaging students to talk about the works of literature that they’re engaged in? How are we allowing them to make connections between the text and their own lives?  How are we supporting students to use these texts, to empathize with others and think about other people’s experiences?

There’s been a lot of great research around using FMRI machines to sort of study how the brain reacts to what it’s reading. And what’s really amazing is when you’re engaged in a book and deeply engaged and totally immersed, and we’ve all lost ourselves in a book, right, your brain doesn’t necessarily differentiate that it’s not happening to you. Like if you’re reading a suspense novel and the killer’s about to walk in the room, your brain activates and reads it as if it’s going to happen to you in that moment. And that’s a really, really powerful aspect of, of literature that we don’t get in a lot of other spaces. And to me, this is an especially important issue around equity because it gives students opportunities. Like right now, obviously we’re under this quarantine. We can’t go anywhere. We’re isolated. Books can give us, allow us a chance to kind of go on these vacations and travel and go places, in our minds, at least in ways that our brain doesn’t necessarily even differentiate. So how would we assess that? I don’t know how to assess that other than students writing, students talking, students discussing their works in meaningful ways with teachers.

I’m keeping it local and relying on the teachers to be the professionals that they are to help create these experiences for students. 

Jon M.: [00:08:12] Could you give a couple of examples of what a classroom would look like using text guided literacy, perhaps one with fiction and also perhaps, maybe even one with nonfiction?

Tony J.: [00:08:24] Sure. So text guided literacies, the structure is the first thing that the English teacher asks is, what does this particular work have to offer. And I’ll just say quickly, works of literature have many things to offer. So as a teacher, you have to kind of decide what is the offering that you want to focus on for your course. And maybe it’s one that’s going to be most expansive and there’s multiple entry points or something like that. So the first thing they ask is, what does this book have to offer? So a sort of common example might be “Animal Farm,” right. And so here’s a chance to sort of. It’s an opportunity to study political satire and through that, learn about communism and capitalism and things like that. But so that’s what it has to offer.

The second question is how do I engage students with this book that will accentuate and create learning opportunities for students to engage that offering? And this is what I would describe as what many teachers are already doing when they come up with activities to engage and hook the students into the book, they get them excited about what they’re about to read. And a lot of teachers do this really well, but I’m arguing that you actually take this even further and make this the heart of the sort of learning portion of the, uh, the sort of instructional period with this particular text. Lots and lots of engagement activities all meant to bring out the book’s offering.

And then the third step is how do we assess students based on how well do they access the offering of that particular text. And in this is where we have to really kind of depart from what we’ve done in the past, which tends to be, assessments look like tests or quizzes or essays. Instead of that, finding or coming up with assessments that grow organically out of the book. So an example that I talk about in my paper is there’s a wonderful book called “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” and the main character has autism. So if I were to be teaching that book, it’s a great book, and if I was teaching that book, I would say this is a book that what it has to offer is a chance to sort of walk around in the brain of somebody who is autistic and understand how they see and experience the world around them with this murder mystery element involved as well.

So if I were teaching that book, I might ask my students to, maybe working in groups, research as we’re reading it, research also different types of different learning means and different ways that students’ brains work. If they have ADHD or if they have Aspergers, or if they have Angelman syndrome or something else, and study those and learn about those. And here’s where they might actually be engaged in some of the close reading activities that we want to see, that Common Core wants to see, because they would have a chance to sort of read the science behind these different types of things. They might interview doctors, they might spend time with folks who have those particular, uh, different types of brains and, and learn from them and interview them. Then as the sort of final summit of assessment, they might write a short story. Using a short story that we’re all familiar with perhaps is to make it kind of easier, but tell the short story from the perspective of somebody who has that particular learning need and type a way that their brain functions that’s different from everyone else’s. That would show, and that would give me a chance to assess, as the teacher, did they understand what this book had to offer? Could they produce themselves, based on what they researched and found out about. 

Jon M.: [00:11:52] You mentioned “Animal Farm.” What would you have the students do with “Animal Farm?”

Tony J.: [00:11:57] Well, uh, I actually had the privilege of doing this because I did teach Animal Farm and you know, it brings up a lot of issues. And one of the issues that the book raises is this question of, does the end justify the means, right. And so you’ve got this Napoleon the pig character who, who initially starts off as seeming somewhat benign, and he’s got these other leaders with him. And as he becomes more and more corrupt, he makes more and more choices and all of his choices, he says, look, the ends justify the means. We’re in the middle of a revolution here. People have to make sacrifices. And the people and the animals, of course, are suffering. So what we did when we taught that book is we had the privilege of being able to work with the San Francisco court system. And we went down to the city hall and we actually were able to put Napoleon on trial and we had students playing either lawyers or different animals from the book, and some of them went all out with their, with their voices and their costumes in terms of the animals that they were playing. And the judge took it very, very seriously.

He was fantastic. And Napoleon was up on trial and we were charging him for crimes against animality. And the students really extremely hard. This is an authentic thing, right? You’re in front of a real judge and there’s a real bailiff with a real gun in the room. So these students took it very seriously and  they worked very hard to basically really explore this concept of, does the end justify the means in a way that was extremely meaningful and authentic for them, and which they, this was, they did this as freshman in high school, but they continued to talk about it by their senior year because it was such an amazing, transformative learning experience.

So that’s an example of thinking about what does this book offer? What’s the type of assessment that would really capitalize on knowing that students really struggled and wrestle with the questions that the book engages. 

Amy H: [00:13:46] “I’m going to go back to nonfiction. So we, several weeks ago, actually several months ago, spoke with Zoe Weil, who talks about the Solutionary Program and Solutionary Congress, the idea being that we need systemic changes in the world, and she encourages students and adults to think about all the stakeholders involved in any particular issue and how we might best approach it. So going back to nonfiction, how would you want students to approach it? I mean, what do they take away from it?

Clearly, when you’re talking about fiction, you’re talking about, you know, really opening up sort of the gates and looking at different subject areas and encouraging kids to explore. What about in nonfiction? Because I see nonfiction as being very important and relevant to civic engagement and how a democracy functions and you know, students need to be able to read informational pieces. And from that come up with solutions. 

Anthony J: [00:15:01] So I’ll give you two quick examples that are very different types of texts, both of which are nonfiction. One is the book, ” I Am Malala,” right. And that would be a really, this book is taught quite a bit actually in schools, which I’m very happy to say, but it’s a book that not only does it teach about this young woman’s story, but it’s a really wonderful book for letting young people know that there are young heroes out there in the world doing amazing things.

So if I were to teach that book, I might have as my sort of summative assessment, asking students to learn about the heroes within their own community. Especially the young people who are heroes in their community and go and interview them and maybe take their story and turn to take their interview and put it on a podcast like this, or put it into a short story, some way to kind of engage in more literacy practices, but that sort of emphasizes what the book has to offer.

Another example I would give is a book like “Fast Food Nation.” That’s a book that, again, also very popular in school and students find, if students who have grown up eating McDonald’s and Burger King every day read this book, it can be transformative for them in terms of, Oh my God, what have I done?

But if I were teaching that book or “Kitchen Confidential” or some of these other great nonfiction books about food,  I would want to take my students to bakeries and to kitchens and to farms, and to have them interview people who work in those places and to study the politics behind food and food production and how it affects our planet.

And then have them maybe as a summative assessment, do some kind of cool  TV cooking competition show where they have to prepare a meal, but they also have to maybe write about the history of their main ingredients that they have on the dish that they’ve prepared for us. So again, all of these are departures from what we typically see in an English classroom. And the idea is that you start with what does the book have to offer and then you completely remake your whole class based on that. And so that each book is not just a great an opportunity to read something new, but it’s also a chance to re-experience learning and teaching in an English classroom context.

Jon M: [00:17:08] “`You’ve talked about the idea that the “language of literacy is designed to exclude” some students. Can you explain what you mean by this?

Anthony J: [00:17:17] Well, I think academic English, and I think certainly some types of the literature that we teach in schools, especially some of the more canonical works, can be ones that make a lot of students feel like the English classroom is not for them, can be one that might exclude students from seeing literature is something that should be essential and important in their lives. I mean, this is why it’s so wonderful that there are more and more diverse works being taught in schools, which is great because then students have a chance to not just see themselves, but also see their neighbors and other people in their community be represented in these texts.

And for students who  — you can’t see me, but I’m a white male — who look like me, to be able to learn about an empathize with cultures other than their own. So I think that to some degree, in terms of the books that are being taught, some of this stuff has changed. 

However, when we talk about what does it mean to analyze a book, it’s still very much rooted in the sort of “new criticism” approach that I think the Common Core is, is in some ways sort of a rerehashing of. So the new criticism that  Louise Rosenblatt was critical of with her “reader response” approach. The “new criticism” emphasizes the idea that the meaning of a text is within the four corners of the page, that the readers themselves don’t necessarily bring anything to the text, that the text does all the work.

So these types of analytical approaches to engaging literature have value and merit, but I also think we miss out on other ways to engage literature. And that’s an important thing that all students, regardless of their background, need to have exposure to. 

Amy H: [00:18:56] We talk about John Dewey a lot at Ethical Schools, and Dewey famously talked about art as experience. Do you see literature as an experience as well? 

Anthony J: [00:19:10] Absolutely. I mean, literature is art, so certainly that would qualify. I think the other thing that Dewey talks about is that, you know, education is not just experiences, but it’s also the reflection of that experience, right. It’s that reflection piece that’s really key. And without making the time for that, the experience doesn’t serve the educational purposes that we might hope it does. So I think that with literature, it’s an opportunity to both read it and engage it as a work of art from an aesthetic standpoint, but also to be able to reflect on the story and to connect it to your life, connect to the world. All of those can be really important and transformative ways for students to sort of process and understand their themselves and their worlds. 

Jon M: [00:19:54] So you taught an AP or advanced placement literature course with students who are English Language Learners. Why did those students struggle with the course and what strategies did you decide to use in teaching?

Anthony J: [00:20:08] Well, some of the students, well, every student struggles in an AP lit class, I would say. I don’t know that them being ELL students was the only reason, and those are hard classes. I think as I mentioned earlier, for some of them, there was a sense of disconnect from the language of AP and the language that they brought. I mean, for many of these students, they were very comfortable with sort of social functioning everyday English. But reading literature where you have to be able to recognize some of the linguistic nuances and subtleties that are imbued in particularly older texts, that can be very difficult to do if English is your second language. And so we spent a lot of time talking about, kind of breaking down the wall of resistance to folks like my students in these communities and treating it as an opportunity to engage in an equitable and social justice work, to sort of say that we’re going to participate in these conversations, whether folks like it or not, and we’re going to draw connections to these texts that we’re reading in our own lives. So those were some of the tools that we use to turn students onto AP literature in a way that sometimes they get excluded from. And I was very fortunate to work in a school, I have to say, that students could self-select to be in an AP literature class and they had to interview with me and they had to do a brief writing piece. But generally speaking, all those who wanted to take it were given the opportunity to take that course. And that’s not the case in a lot of schools. 

Jon M: [00:21:36] But you, I think you’ve mentioned that you used a lot of the kids’ own language and slang and sort of how that would fit in for somebody who felt comfortable or not.

Anthony J: [00:21:46] Just in terms of turning them on to being in engaging in this type of language and using the kind of academic discourse, literary terms and devices and so forth, that the AP jargon calls for. I pointed out the differences between the, essentially this is a club. And if they want to be part of this club, they have to learn the language.

And so in doing so, I would ask them at the beginning of the semester to give me all of the terms that they use with each other in a social manner, slang or whatever, when they’re out on the streets or when they’re out, you know, at the park or they’re just chatting online. And so they gave me a whole bunch of terms, like, you know, 10 to 15 different terms, and I write them all on the board. And then I would go about telling a story of what happened to me over the weekend, and I would try to use all of the words that they had given me, words that don’t belong to me, right. They belong to them and their community. And even though I might know what a couple of them mean, there’s a good chance I don’t know what a lot of them are. So I would use them incorrectly all the way through. And the students would be laughing and they would be pointing out, you know, how silly I sounded. And I would use this sort of, so to say, I don’t know these words. I don’t know this language. And in a way, this is keeping me out of your world and out of your community. This is exactly what they are trying to do to you. So all of these terms, these literary terms and devices, they are just, another, essentially, barrier to keeping folks out of being able to participate in certain conversations and join certain groups. And so that was sort of a way to let them know that it wasn’t about one being better or worse than another. It was about just sort of saying, this is the language of this community of practice. If you want to engage in that community of practice, you need to learn the language of it. And that sort of help to minimize some of the anxiety they had about having to learn all this new stuff. 

Amy H: [00:23:37] You’ve said that all works of literature are in conversation with one another and they’re universal themes with cultural nuances. I think I would expand that to say that all works of literature are in conversation with all works of art and perhaps works of science as well. Could you talk a little bit about that? 

Anthony J: [00:24:01] Yeah. Thank you. Thank you for saying that and making that connection. I think you’re, I think you’re absolutely on point, and this is something that comes out of Thomas Foster ‘s very popular book, “How To Read Like a Literature Professor.” It’s a very easy read and accessible book. I actually used to give to my AP students chapters from that book to help think about the fact that all these books and all of these works of literature are in conversation with each other and that you can sort of see, you know, certain patterns and recurring symbols that keep coming up again, and you begin to read as a reader over time, you begin to recognize what they mean. For example, when somebody goes into water and comes back up again, right, it’s this notion of rebirth or a baptism. Or people coming together to eat, that’s a time of communion and so a time of peace. And so you have all of these things that are true across cultures. And that story is capitalized on.

And then the other thing I point out is that, and this is also pointed out in Thomas Foster’s book, that gets flipped on its head a lot of the time as well. And that flipping it on its head is a wonderful experience when you sort of pick that up as the reader. It’s like this “aha” moment when the character who goes to the big banquet to have the dinner, which  you assume is going to be about coming together for peace, and then everyone at the dinner ends up killing each other. So that sort of turns that on its head. So that that’s something that I talked to my students about because so much of the various types of artistic and media and literary works that they have exposure to and that they’ve seen are all capitalizing on these same ideas and these same patterns in these same recognitions.

And again, that’s another opportunity to kind of break down and demystify some of the ideas that are present in literature so that when they come across it, they’re like, oh, yeah, this is just like on that Simpsons episode when, you know, this happened to Homer. It’s just like that. Because the Simpsons uses a lot of that kind of humor of capitalizing on the stories that we’re all familiar with.

Jon M: [00:26:04] So you’ve described some really exciting things that teachers can be doing. And you’ve also talked about some of the pressures that come from standardized tests being really focused on close reading and on that approach. So as a, as a teacher educator, somebody who is teaching teachers, how do you, how do you balance that? How do you sort of give them a taste both of what would be really wonderful, and then also prepare them that unless they’re really fortunate to end up in a school that’s really supportive of this, that they may be finding themselves, you know, having to do things that don’t feel as exciting to them. So what’s your, what’s your responsibility and capacity and so forth in helping them to prepare 

Anthony J: [00:26:54] I think you have to prepare teachers to be effective on day one in the classroom. And that’s our number one charge as teacher educators. But we also have to give students, our students, who are pre-service teachers, we also have to give them the foundation and the theory to sort of know that there is something beyond what is currently being mandated in schools. And give them resources, help them become reflective educators. And there’s a lot of, quite frankly, there’s a lot of prepackaged things that our pre-service teachers have to go through right now in order to become teachers. So, for example, edTPA is one of those things, and edTPA is the type of portfolio assessment that really is designed to say this teacher will be effective. You know, early in their career on day one when they come into the classroom based on how they do on the video, based on how they assess student learning, based on how they collect data on the students, based on how they make decisions about that data, using that data to inform future teaching choices.

I think all of those things are good things, but I also think that we have to, there has to be a deeper level that that’s going on as well. That when edTPA comes and goes, which it will, when Common Core State Standards come and go, which they will, that teachers have that foundation to be able to kind of work with the various mandates that are going to come through by continually thinking, okay, what is going to best serve my students?

And one thing that I really appreciate is this concept, this notion that everything we do as a teacher, and it’s a bit of an extreme, but I like it anyway. Everything we do is either humanizing or dehumanizing. When we work with students and as a teacher, you’re going to do things sometimes that you know is dehumanizing, like at a certain level, it’s just dehumanizing. I’m going to ask my students to march along the side of the wall in a single file line. Yeah. I understand there’s things about order and quiet and those kinds of things, but there’s also an element of dehumanization there, and so I need to make sure I can create spaces to humanize as much as I can as a teacher. Beause it’s always going to be one or the other. And I have to find ways to balance out those moments of dehumanization. And so if that dehumanization is going to be that standardized test that’s going to happen at the end of this semester that everyone is worried about, let me make sure I’m also finding spaces to humanize as much as possible so that students don’t feel alienated from their schooling experience any more than they already do.

Amy H: [00:29:34] This has been fantastic. Tony, is there anything you’d like to add that we haven’t talked about?

Anthony J: [00:29:40] I think one thing I’ll just say quickly, and this goes back to text guided literacy. I find it really interesting that our approaches to teaching English classrooms has changed so dramatically from one generation to the next. And yet we continue to teach the same works of literature so that everybody reads the same books. Everybody reads “The Outsiders” and   “The Giver” and “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Scarlet Letter” and “Othello” and all these same books. And there’s so many great works of literature out there that are newer, that are quite frankly better than a lot of those books. And so my hope is that if we turn our attention to thinking about text guided literacy as an opportunity, to really rethink what are we teaching in schools. Why are we teaching these books? And if this way of teaching English, in this case, close reading the best way to teach this particular book, right. And that’s one thing that text guided literacy brings up, is there may be times when the close reading approach is the best way to teach this particular type of text because of what that text has to offer. But if I’m reading a coming of age novel, probably the reader response approach, which is Louis Rosenblatt’s work, is a much better way to go about engaging that particular work.

One book I’ve been thinking a lot about right now, given the current situation we are in, is the book “Blindness” by José Saramago. I might have said that last name incorrectly, but the book , “Blindness,” Is essentially an extended metaphor of the idea that in a crisis of deep proportion that affects an entire community, it brings out the best and it also brings out the worst in people, right. And so that book, I’ve been thinking about it as we go through this current coronavirus issue. How, if I were teaching a students in school right now, I would want them to read that book and to think about who were the characters that bring out the best in themselves. And sometimes it’s not who you expect it to be, which is one of the great things about that book, but I wouldn’t use a close reading approach for that, right. I might use more of a critical literacies approach, which is sort of this idea of being able to read the word and the world as Paolo Friere talks about, right. So there is lots of different ways to go about reading a book and we should look into the book to guide us as to the best way to read it.

Jon M: [00:32:07] So as we close, when we were talking earlier, you had a quote from Margaret Atwood, and I don’t know if you have that on  hand, but if you do, that’d be a great way to move to a close. 

Anthony J: [00:32:22] I do have it. Actually, you know that I’m going to share with you two quotes then. The first one comes from Kylene Beers, who is a really great scholar thinking about teaching and is an amazing teacher herself. She says that “if we teach a child to read but fail to develop a desire to read, we will have developed a skilled non-reader, and no high test score will ever undo that damage.” That’s her quote. And then Margaret Atwood points out that “reading and writing, like everything else improve with practice. And of course if there are no young readers and writers, there will shortly be no older ones. Literacy will be dead and democracy, which many believe goes hand in hand with it, will be dead as well.”

Jon M.: [00:33:14] Well, on that note, thank you, Dr. Anthony Johnston.

Tony J.: [00:33:18] Thank you very much. 

Jon M: [00:33:21] And thank you, listeners for joining us. Check out our website for more episodes and articles. We’ve begun to post annotated transcripts of our interviews. We offer professional development on social emotional learning with a focus on ethics in the New York City area.

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