Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Teaching, Tragedy and Comprehension

No one can teach for any length of time without being touched by tragedy. Students get terribly sick. Students experience death in their families and we ache for them as they bring the grief on their faces into the classroom. Sometimes, students die. I have experienced these tragedies many times in my teaching career. Suicides. A devastating diagnosis of cancer for a nine-year-old student. Parents who were killed in the World Trade Center on 9/11.

One particular tragedy stands out for me above all others. Van Johnson was one of my first students as a wet-behind-the-ears 8th grade social studies teacher at Bristol Junior-Senior High School. He was tall, handsome, with a winning smile and a 70s' style Afro that entered the classroom before he did. Van was bright, capable, curious, motivated, challenging and thoughful. He was always engaged in class, always had his hand up (or, truth be told, often didn't have the patience to raise his hand and just blurted stuff out) and multi-talented. In addition to being a top student, he was a pitcher on the junior high baseball team I coached and a performer in the school plays I directed. When I started a branch of the World Affairs Council at the school, Van was elected president. The future seemed very bright for young Mr. Johnson.

During his senior year at Bristol, 17-year-old Van Johnson drowned. He and some friends were celebrating their impending graduation with a late night swim at a nearby lake, when tragedy struck. For all his talents, Van was a poor swimmer. It was foolish for him to be in that lake, but he was, after all, just a kid trying to have some fun.

These memories of Van came rushing back to me as I read an article titled, Will Simone Manuel Encourage More Black Children to Swim? in today's New York Times. The article refers, of course, to the Olympic champion swimmer, Simone Manuel, an African-American who won two gold and one silver medal at the Rio Olympics. The article outlines the hope of many public health experts, swimming advocates and African-American parents, that her charisma and success will lead to more minority children learning how to swim.

Among the many gaps between white and black, majority and minority, rich and poor in this country is a swimming gap. This swimming gap kills. It is estimated that about 70% of African American adults and children cannot swim one length of a pool. For whites the number is 6%. The reasons for this gap are many, but they all begin and end with racism. Segregation kept African Americans away from pools that were often white only. Even when pools were integrated, they often located far from minority neighborhoods. Private swim clubs that did not explicitly exclude blacks were often too costly or built close to affluent white enclaves in the suburbs. Sometimes, when black families did approach a pool or a beach they were the victims of verbal and physical attack.

Van Johnson was African American. He was a weak swimmer. His companions on that fateful night were all white and better swimmers than he. Van paid the price, but in a very real sense we all paid the price that day because Van Johnson was a star in the making. I would have loved to have been witness to the adult he was about to become.

Why tell this story now on a blog about teaching and reading instruction? Because I wanted to illustrate an essential truth about reading that I believe all teachers must bring with them to the classroom and their work with children: reading is uniquely and specifically individual. No one else in the world will read this New York Times article the way I did. No one else in the world knew Van Johnson quite the way I did. My reading is colored by my experience. The fact that I chose to read the article at all is colored by my experience. My reading was full of meaning, some of which the author intended and some of which is clearly mine and mine alone.

Reading is first and foremost a search for meaning. As teachers we must assist children in that search, but be ever mindful that our search is not the same as their search. This means that instead of "comprehension questions" to test a student's understanding of a text, we need to ask what Beck and McKeown (1997) call "queries", which help students build there own meaning. In response to the article in the New York Times, we could ask the comprehension question, "What percentage of African Americans cannot swim on length of a pool?" or even, "What are the implications of so many African Americans being unable to swim?", but we would do much better by starting out with the query that my wife Cynthia Mershon taught me to use many years ago, "What stood out for you?"

Every reading is as unique as each student in our class. Encouraging children to build upon that unique reading is a part of the art and science of teaching reading.

For more information on queries in a reading lesson, you can look at this Read, Write, Think lesson here. Or see Beck and McKeown's book, Questioning the Author: An Approach for Enhancing Student Engagement with Text.

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