Thursday, October 23, 2008

Literacy Pre-Assessment

1.) What was your own early experience as a reader? When did you learn to read? What do you remember about it?

I've been reading literally for as long as I can remember. By the time I entered kindergarten I was reading NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC on my own. I didn't understand all the words, of course, but I understood enough to keep me engaged with the content.

When I was in elementary school and middle school I used to read the dictionary for fun. I loved learning about words, where they came from, and how they were related to other words. I was home-schooled from 3rd grade on, and Mom used to have me start every day with a "Word of the Day" diary: I had to look up a new word, write down its definition, and use it in a sentence. Typically, the search for one interesting word would lead me to six others. Even into my teens and twenties, I would often go to the dictionary to look up one word, then become side-tracked and spend half an hour jumping from one word to another, absorbing new vocabulary. Dad used to shake his head in amazement when he would come into the family room and find out that the book I was curled up with was a dictionary.

One big part of my early literary experience was when my Mom would read to my brother and me. This continued even into my early teens. She read to us from The Chronicles of Narnia, The Phantom Tollbooth, Mr. Revere and I, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, several books by Jules Verne, and others that I've since forgotten. Listening to a very fluent reader like Mom helped me to understand how books were supposed to be read: dynamically, with proper emphasis and emotion. (Sometimes a little too much emotion: Mom used to get choked up at the ends of a lot of our books, to the extent that it became a running gag. She would bury her face in the book and make loud weeping noises, and the resulting laughter would relieve enough of the tension for her to go on.) Hearing such a wide variety of words spoken aloud also greatly enhanced our oral vocabulary.

As I grew older, I would often return the favor by reading to Mom. I used to sit in the kitchen while she was making dinner, either working on schoolwork or reading for pleasure. When I found an interesting passage, newspaper story or magazine article, I would read it to her and then we would talk about it. The content ranged from serious editorials to book excerpts to Dave Barry columns, so I got a lot of experience in reading different kinds of content aloud. Looking back on it, Mom and I were almost a two-person forensics team.

2.) As you grew older, what was your experience with reading in school? What (if anything) did you like to read? Pay particular attention to your reading experience at the age of the students you teach now. What was reading like for you at that age?

Early high school was a very exciting time for me as a reader because the first of the new STAR WARS novels began coming out at that time. I had fallen in love with science fiction and fantasy in general, and with Star Wars in particular, so the existence of all new stories with my favorite characters was cause for rejoicing. Timothy Zahn didn't write down to his audience, so those were highly stimulating books for me to read, even if they weren't what you would call highbrow literature.

Mom had me read some of the classics, in addition to the modern SF/Fantasy stories that I tended to choose on my own. I remember, at various points in my schooling, reading The Red Badge of Courage, Animal Farm, one of the Huck Finn books, and Black Beauty; I'm sure there were others, too, but they've faded from my recollection. I also had to read Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet for my Shakespeare class.

During my teen years I also read through the Bible, in its entirety, at least twice. I had been reading the Bible on my own from a relatively early age -- first using a simplified children's translation, then the Living Bible paraphrase, and finally the NIV -- but it was when I got into high school that I really started to make a serious habit of it. Between daily readings on my own and discussions in youth group and Sunday school, I became very familiar with the unusual language used in the scriptures and modern religious texts.

Besides novels and the scriptures, I also read magazines, newspapers, and (especially) comic books, which became a major addiction of mine during this time period. Except when we were dining together as a family, I never ate without reading something -- even if it was just the cereal box in front of me. I also used reading as a refuge from social interaction, since I was rather shy and very self-conscious about my weight, appearance and lack of social skills. During family gatherings, when other kids were playing whiffle-ball or throwing darts, I would be the one inside on the couch with a book in my hands. Reading was a precious comfort to me at one of the most difficult times in my life, and I would retreat to that shelter whenever I could get away with it.

3.) Answer the same question with regards to writing.

I've been telling stories since at least first grade, when we had a story contest at my Montessori school and they brought in someone to type our stories for us while we dictated them. (Mine was about two friends, an icthyosaurus and an elasmosaurus. Yes, I was a dinosaur nut -- and no, those aren't actually dinosaurs. At the end of the story they went home to eat pancakes.) My story won third place, thus creating a monster that persists to this day. :)

Once I got into home-schooling, Mom used creative writing as a way to engage me in assignments that were otherwise making me drag. I remember the first time she did this: I was either seven or eight, and doing an assignment for science about cleaner wrasses. I enjoyed learning about them, but I was bored with the idea of a written report. Mom suggested that I write her a story about them, and that sounded like a lot more fun. The result was a whimsical story about cleaner wrasses who ran a "service station" for bigger fish, which was being threatened by a group of "gangsters" who were sabre-toothed blennies. It was the sort of thing that somebody might have made a movie about a generation later, but at the time it was wonderfully obscure, and it made the project a lot more fun.

It also opened the floodgates. I wrote another story the year after that one, a long and rambling journey into weirdness that was equal parts The Phantom Tollbooth and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. In the early 1990s I wrote a series of stories based on adventures that my cousin Monica, my brother Casey and I had acted out with our stuffed animals during our younger years. In 1995 I had a dream that inspired me to write a novella about a woman who was changed into a wolf. In 1996-98 I worked on a set of novellas about shapeshifting aliens who protected the Earth (and other primitive planets) from the classic UFO-flying "Greys"; I completed two of the planned set of six stories, then got halfway through the third before I realized it wasn't working and abandoned it.

In 1996 I also joined an online writers' group, where I got interested in shared story universes. I started small at first, putting out a couple of character intro stories and a few other bits here and there. By 1998 I was deeply involved with the community and had helped do a huge amount of world-building for the Metamor Keep story universe, which eventually spawned my own spinoff of Metamor City. I continued writing off and on throughout my college and grad school years, eventually completing my first full-length novel earlier this year.

Writing nonfiction has never been as interesting for me as writing fiction, but it wasn't hard, either. The hardest part of writing good nonfiction was doing the research. All those years of reading anything and everything that I could get my hands on helped to build my feel for what it meant to write in different genres. I served as the editor for my youth group's newspaper, which gave me practice in writing editorials and other forms of persuasive writing (as well as editing other people's writing, which was both torturous and the best thing I could have done to build my own writing skills). I got consistently high marks for my written papers when I got into college, and it wasn't until I had to write my thesis for grad school that I learned of my biggest flaw as a non-fiction writer: too much of a propensity for overstatement and excessively flowery language. I blame my fiction writing for that. ;-)

4.) Thinking about your own classroom right now, what role does literacy play in your class? What do you want to learn how to do better in your classroom to support your students in subject-specific literacy?

One thing that came out in my reading of the article was that I'm not doing a lot to build comprehension. I wrote my lab experiments with an informal style and simplified language, thinking that I could produce comprehension simply by not challenging their vocabulary too much. I didn't think about the fact that comprehension is a separate skill, and that the students might know 90% of the words on the page yet still be unable to derive meaning from it. No wonder most of my lab worksheets went unread!

Vocabulary is a constant struggle in science, as well. While I tried to scaffold understanding of many important terms, I don't think I did enough. I would put the words on the board, break them up into their roots and define the roots, and then try to explain the definition of the word -- but I don't think I was giving the students enough situations where they were forced to with those words while they were fresh in their minds, which might have helped them to retain the knowledge. I was appalled this past Monday when I discovered that one of my students -- who is poorly self-motivated but not stupid -- did not remember what homeostasis was. This, despite the fact that the whole unit has essentially been about homeostasis.

The article described a number of tools for practicing both vocabulary and comprehension, but it's difficult for me to build solid mental constructs about these tools when I'm just reading about them. I'd like to see these tools implemented in our REACH meetings, either as a group or one-on-one with Victoria, so that I can see them modeled and then practice using them. I want to give my students some better grounding in vocab and comprehension, especially as we're getting into the jargon-heavy field of ecology, but I won't feel like I really understand these tools until I have the chance to practice with them.


Victoria said...

I enjoyed reading your "reading/writing narrative"-- it was very thorough and I had a lot of similar experiences growing up. One of the things that hit me when I first started teaching (actually tutoring in Americorps) was how much I associated reading with good moments (my mom reading to me, escaping from the rest of the world, etc) and how for many of my struggling students, reading was something they wanted to escape FROM, not to. This required a big shift in how I thought about literacy for my students, and made me aware of how much this facility with language was a "blind spot" in my teaching. It also begs the question of what we can do in the classroom to facilitate experiences where students see a value and purpose in reading, whatever the content area.

Funny you should mention the strategy modeling-- I think I have 2 strategies modeled per lesson planned right now!

Victoria said...

Oh yeah-- remind me the next time we have a meeting to tell you about the "Little House on the Prairie" moment with my parents...

Deana said...

Chris I appreciated reading about your early reading experiences. I think we both face the task of re-conceptualizing reading from a privilege or assumed activity to a dreaded one in order to better understand our students.
I also shared your "aha" moment in realizing that reading comprehension isn't necessarily linked to making individual words accessible, but rather an overall "catching the drift" of the text. My thinking about literacy has shifted from a focus on the words to the concept of a reader's agency and resilience in approaching their task.
A "blind spot" I am recognizing in myself is that I somehow know what I want to read and am able to find that. I've never given much thought to the process of how I choose books - they've always been present and available to me, which I suppose gave me the practice and experience of being discerning. I hear my students lament that they "don't know what to read" or that there's "nothing to read" (I have them silently read for a portion of most class periods, so this situation happens a lot) and I want to think about why that is and how I can support them in knowing themselves as readers and making choices about the texts they engage with, not only topically but also finding a "just right" level.