Many was the time in my career when I lamented a missed teachable moment. One in particular was when, as newer teacher, I would respond to a wonderful question: “Is this book a true story?” with a shortsighted answer. I remember the look of wonder in a students’ eyes, especially if they connected with the novel. Often, it would be the non- or reluctant reader who’d ask. Not knowing much about pedagogy then I’d respond, “Nope. Made-up. Fiction. Glad you like it,” and make a mental note of finding similar titles. I thought that was good teaching. Wrong.
The better question would’ve been to ask why it seemed so real. I could have explained author’s intention which would have helped their critical understanding of purpose, and how it complements a writer’s attempt to engage readers. Setting, plot, theme, character development, protagonist and antagonist, would have been more meaningfully discussed and learned. It was only after I took my own writing seriously and began to read like a writer, (Smith, F.) did I realize the teaching opportunities missed. Overtime questions like, “Do the characters in your book seem real?” became our standard critical approach. We discussed craft and intention for everything we read, and I learned, too.
As I teacher, of course, I benefitted by having students who were more engaged. I learned to teach authentically. As a writer, it forced me to not only write about what I liked, but to make sure the reader would enjoy it, too. In time, both my teaching and author’s skills improved. It was too bad it took a several years to fully discover.
I think about this now after the Columbia Teachers College dropped its program which was based on Dr. Lucy Calkins' authentic, holistic approach to balanced literacy. According to a recent New York Times article her method was disbanded because she was taking the year off and, “that [scientific] body of research suggests that direct, carefully sequenced instruction in phonics, vocabulary building and comprehension is more effective for young readers than Dr. Calkins’s looser approach.” Unfortunately, that’s wrong, too, like I was years ago.
The never-ending, phonics versus whole language saw, is on again. Teaching students to sound out words is a great idea, and phonics has its place. Sadly, though, phonics and basal readers don’t make youngsters love to read. Instead, it makes them vessels to be filled rather than critical evaluators who enjoy and evaluate what they read. Too bad. In fact, the first ever Global Teacher Award winner was Nancie Atwell, a long-time whole language devotee and pioneer. Not surprisingly, no one came forward to research her methodology. I guess true reading and writing engagement is too hard for academics to quantify. Unfortunately, wrong again.
Reading and writing instruction is highly complex, something public education researchers can’t seem to wrap their minds around. At some point, in later posts, we can take the time to unravel the issue. If you’re an educator or parent I suggest let them read, and help them love it.
Kafalas' fiction captures the wonder, sadness, irony and joy of life. His characters are unlikely heroes who find courage and inspiration in the lives of others. His writing belief is that less is more—his characters can tell their stories better than he can.