Monday, October 28, 2013

Who are the "good readers" in our secondary school staff?

"I'm not a good reader..." How many times have we heard students say this? How many times have we heard other educators say this? Too often, some "content-area" teachers, especially teachers of math and technological studies (communications technology, construction technology, health / personal services, manufacturing technology, technological design, transportation design, computer studies) do not identify as "good readers". Yet, these same teachers are frequent users of texts - often in authentic contexts - which suggests a need to shift attitudes and help these teachers recognize the influence they have as teachers of reading. 

Both Cris Tovani and Jacqueline Darvin discuss the importance of demonstrating to students the things that good readers do (typically through modelling, read alouds, or think alouds). While Tovani focuses on the use of specific strategies in the classroom (such as using text features, double entry journals, and modelling thinking to overcome challenging texts), Darvin's research took a closer look at tech classrooms (or what she terms, "vocational classrooms"). Darvin concluded that
"Vocational classrooms are discourse communities that combine the multifaceted worlds of school and work, the two places where adolescents and adults ... spend the majority of their time. They provide their members with opportunities to interact with texts in authentic, interesting ways that make use of the tools of multiple disciplines..." (17)
In some cases, the teachers in her study were unaware that they were not only functioning as "good readers", but that they were modelling great practice for their students. Teachers tended to use texts purposefully: "One difference between vocational and academic educators, they told me, is that tradespeople don’t usually read texts in a linear, sequential fashion. They use texts in bits and pieces to solve problems, research, and enhance particular stages of the projects in which they are engaged. They typically read not for the sake of gaining general knowledge but to accomplish particular goals and to gain specific information" (Darvin, 12). Tech teachers help students manage texts in order to perform specific tasks; teachers focus on text structures, reading with purpose, evaluation of the text, and other practices used in English classrooms. But, in many cases, students, and some teachers, do not necessarily value the reading of a recipe or a manual.  
"... two common misconceptions that several other vocational teachers also expressed in their interviews about reading. The first is that good readers should read quickly. The second is that only novels are real books." (Darvin, 13)
We need to help technological and mathematics teachers embed reading strategy instruction into their practice; that is, they need to name the explicit use of strategies in authentic tasks. Professional learning communities, professional development or any professional learning, needs to occur in cross-curricular environments and encourage all participants to share effective practice. We need to validate and honour different types of reading. Darvin suggests:
"...these educators clearly do not view themselves as proficient readers or highly literate members of society. These perceptions have likely been cultivated from their experiences with schooling and narrow societal views about high-status and low-status texts (i.e., The New York Times versus Popular Mechanics); which genres of texts are privileged over others and considered “real reading”; the speed at which a person should read; the linear, sequential order in which texts should be approached; the emphasis on summarizing and memorizing material; and so forth. This is unfortunate because it results in a “distancing” of vocational educators from the larger educational and research communities. This situation needs to be remedied if we are to learn from one another and bridge the highly publicized gaps between school and workplace literacies" (17).
My own experiences in an Ontario secondary school mirrors Darvin's conclusions. In addition to the fact that tech teachers don't identify as "good readers", I would add that there is a perception that tech teachers aren't "real" teachers since they may not have attended university. This is a divisive and dismissive attitude and doesn't help anyone, contributing to the "distancing" that Darvin notes. I've watched a committed chef work through this process, giving up two summers and evenings to get his teacher's certificate. And, he's an amazing teacher -- I would be seriously challenged to recreate the magic that happens in his classroom.

Staff attitudes matter; students learn from how we interact with each other. If the tech teachers and the English teachers (or the Math teachers and the Family Studies teachers) collaborate and share their work with students, it helps to validate both as effective teachers. More cross-curricular exploration of reading strategies is warranted. We are all "good readers"; we need to value different forms of text.


Darvin, Jacqueline (2006). "'On reading recipes and racing forms' - The literacy practices and perceptions of vocational educators" Journal of Adolescent Literacy. 50:1. pp. 10-18.

Tovani, Cris (2004). Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? Content Comprehension Grades 6-12. Markham: Pembroke. pp 23-36.