Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Mighty Storm: Multiple Texts Help Synthesize Thought

Three things I read this morning came together in what might be considered a perfect storm of insight. First, I read for one hour the book I'm currently reading, Isaac's Storm, by Erik Larson. Isaac's Storm tells the tragic story of  the deadliest natural disaster in U. S. history, the Galveston, Texas hurricane of 1900. The second thing I read was from a headline on the front page of the New York Times, Trump Scorns Own Scientists on Virus Data. The article details how the President rejected the professional scientific conclusions of his own advisers on the prospects of a Covid vaccine being widely available and on the importance of people wearing masks to slow the spread of the disease. The third item was also a headline from the front page of the Times, Unexpected Fury of Storm Pounds Coast of Florida, which tells how the latest hurricane, Sally, proved difficult for forecasters to predict and hit with unexpected force in Pensacola. Florida where people were not expecting it to be as powerful and destructive.

The hurricane in Galveston in 1900 struck unexpectedly and with great ferocity, with winds of more than 145 mph and with a storm surge of perhaps 30 feet. An estimated 6,00 to 12,00 people were killed. Property damage was estimated at 34 million, more than a billion in today's dollars. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all was that their were no warnings about the storm, and no chance for people to evacuate largely because of politics, prejudice, and hubris. Cuban scientists, who had a great deal of experience in predicting hurricanes, had indeed predicted that the hurricane was heading west toward Texas. The weather bureau in Washington, DC, however, predicted that the storm would turn north over Florida and up the east coast to New England. The Director of the Weather Bureau, Willis Moore, was so jealous of the Cubans, and so sure that the Cubans were inferior in their abilities, that he shut off the flow of data from Cuba to the U.S. At the same time, he forbid regional forecasters, such as Isaac Cline in Galveston, from declaring storms hurricanes because he did not want to frighten people unnecessarily.  The combination of blocking information from Cuba, and making it difficult for local forecasters to report hurricanes proved deadly. Kerry Manuel, professor of atmospheric science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology says, "The Galveston hurricane made people realize you can't play politics with the weather bureau. If you make it political, you will die."

The leap from Galveston to the headline in the New York Times about President Trump scorning the advice of his own scientists is not a difficult one to make, I think. When we ignore the guidance of the most knowledgeable people in weather or health related crises, people will die. The third headline, this one about the unexpected force of the Hurricane Sally, however, reminds us that science is not perfect and that we must be ever vigilant, keeping up-to-date on the latest understandings and scientists must continue their research in any fields with open minds and and the rest of us must continue to be informed consumers of the best guidance science can give us.

Why do I bring all this up on a blog dedicated to teaching and reading instruction? I think my experience here is instructive about how people experience reading and how that experience influences comprehension of text. Anything I read right now is influenced by the current pandemic, the current political situation, the impacts of climate change, and the impact of all the background knowledge and personal experiences I bring to any reading situation. As teachers, we must take all of the context of the reading situation for the students into account as we consider how to guide their comprehension of texts. Probing questions can help students build their comprehension using multiple sources of information. I have written about that in a past post here. When we think about building comprehension instead of testing comprehension, students can make leaps to greater understanding.

Another lesson to take here, I think, is the importance of providing students multiple thematically related texts to help them learn to look for patterns and to synthesize information across texts. Multiple short readings on related topics, connected through opportunities to write about the readings and make judgments about what has been read, seems to be the kind of reading activity designed to prepare students for life in a democratic society where critical thinking will be critical for our very survival.

Guiding students with probing questions, providing them with multiple interconnected texts, and giving them opportunities to write about the connections they find may lead to the deeper understandings we desire.

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