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Posted at 8:59 AM ET, 05/15/2010

Literacy kudzu

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Will Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review, believed to be the world’s only English-language quarterly review for history academic papers by high school students.

By Will Fitzhugh
Kudzu, (Pueraria lobata), I learn from Wikipedia, was “... introduced from Japan into the United States in 1876 at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, where it was promoted as a forage crop and an ornamental plant.

From 1935 to the early 1950s, the Soil Conservation Service encouraged farmers in the southeastern United States to plant kudzu to reduce soil erosion.... The Civilian Conservation Corps planted it widely for many years.

It was subsequently discovered that the southeastern United States has near-perfect conditions for kudzu to grow out of control—hot, humid summers, frequent rainfall, and temperate winters with few hard freezes...As such, the once-promoted plant was named a pest weed by the United States Department of Agriculture in 1953.”

We now have, I suggest, an analogous risk from the widespread application of “the evidence-based techniques and processes of literacy instruction, K-12.”

At least one major foundation and one very old and influential college for teachers are now promoting what I have described as “guidelines, parameters, checklists, techniques, processes and the like, as props to substitute for students’ absent motivation to describe or express in writing something that they have learned.”

Most of these literacy experts are psychologists and educators, rather than historians or authors of literature. Samuel Johnson, an 18th-century author some may remember, once wrote that “an author will turn over half a library to produce one book.”

A recent major foundation report suggests that Dr. Johnson didn’t know what he was talking about when it comes to adolescents:

“Some educators feel that the ‘adolescent literacy crisis’ can be resolved simply by having adolescents read more books. This idea is based on the misconception that the source of the problem is ‘illiteracy.’ The truth is that adolescents—even those who have already ‘learned how to read’—need systematic support to learn how to ‘read to learn’ across a wide variety of contexts and content.” So, no need for adolescents to read books, just give them lots of literacy kudzu classes in “rubrics, guidelines, parameters, checklists, techniques, and processes...”

Other literacy kudzu specialists also suggest that reading books is not so important, instead that (to quote a recent Answer Sheet post by Psychologist Dolores Perin of Teachers College, Columbia University):

“Many students cannot learn well from a content curriculum because they have difficulty reading assigned text and fulfilling subject-area writing assignments. Secondary content teachers need to understand literacy processes and become aware of evidence-based reading and writing techniques to promote learners’ understanding of the content material being taught. Extended school-based professional development should be provided through collaborations between literacy and content-area specialists.”

E.D. Hirsch has called this “technique” philosophy of literacy instruction, “How-To-Ism” and says that it quite uselessly tries to substitute methods and skills for the knowledge that students must have in order to read well and often, and to write on academic subjects in school.

Literacy Kudzu has been with us for a long time, but it has received new fertilizer from large private foundation and now federal standards grants which will only help choke, where it can, attention to the reading of complete books and the writing of serious academic papers by the students in our schools.

Writing in, Lisa Roney recently said: “But let me also point out that the rise of Composition Studies over the past 30 or 40 years does not seem to have led to a populace that writes better.”

Educrat Professors and Educrat Psychologists who have, perhaps, missed learning much about history and literature during their own educations, and have not made any obvious attempt to study their value in their education research, of course fall back on what they feel they can do: Teach processes, skills, methods, rubrics, parameters, and techniques of literacy instruction. Their efforts, wherever they are successful, will be a disaster, in my view, for teachers and students who care about academic writing and about history and literature in the schools.

In a recent issue of Harvard Magazine an alum wrote, referring to something written years ago by a man named Robert F. Duncan:

“Dad ( a professional writer) used to tell us what he felt was the best advice he ever had on good writing. One of his professors was the legendary Charles Townsend Copeland, A.B. 1882, Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory. Copeland didn’t collect themes and grade them. Rather, he made an appointment with each student to come to his quarters in Hollis Hall to read his theme and receive comments from the Master....

“Dad started reading his offering and heard occasional groans and sighs of anguish from various locations in the (room). Finally, Copeland said in pained tones, ‘Stop, Mr. Duncan, stop.’ Dad stopped. After several seconds of deep silence, Copeland asked, ‘Mr. Duncan, what are you trying to say?’ Dad explained what he was trying to say. Said Copeland, ‘Why didn’t you write it down?’”

This is the sort of advice, completely foreign to the literacy kudzu community, which understands that in writing one first must have something to say (knowledge) and then one must work to express that knowledge so it may be understood. That may not play to the literacy kudzu community’s perception of their strengths, but it has a lot more to do with academic reading and writing than anything they are working to inflict on our teachers and students.

I hope they, including the foundations and the university consultant world, may before too long pause to re-consider their approach to literacy instruction, before we experience the damage from this pest-weed which they are presently, perhaps unwittingly, in the method-technique-process of spreading in our schools.

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By Valerie Strauss  | May 15, 2010; 8:59 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Bloggers, Learning, Reading, Writing  | Tags:  best practices and reading instruction, how to teach reading, how to teach writing, learning, literacy, reading, reading instruction, reading wars, will fitzhugh, writing  
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I fear that you are alarmingly correct,Mr. Fitzhugh,and I think the situation will only get worse unless our schools embrace the liberal arts once again and also look to master teachers of literature who have gone before.

Just last year, one of my colleagues, who has been teaching close to 40 years and who has taught nearly 10,000 students literature and reading was sitting in an English department meeting. The department head was quite young, early thirties perhaps, and was going over expectations for teachers to focus on (presumably for tests): grammer, spelling, sentence structure and the like. My literature friend raised her hand and asked the department head about objectives for storyline and content. The department HEAD looked at her and said impatiently, "Who cares about the story?! We just have to teach the students skills."

Very alarming.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | May 15, 2010 3:30 PM | Report abuse

Thank you, thank you, thank you Mr. Fitzhugh! You are, of course, absolutely right. I have children six years apart and the quality and amount of reading the older child was assigned in school far exceeded what the younger one has been expected to read. In my own public school years, I read many more and more various books (discussed in class, but assigned to be read at home) than both of my children combined. Fortunately because of family influences, my children are voracious readers, but their enthusiasm for reading has absolutely zero to do with anything they learned in school. ZERO! The propagators of this nonsense must be forced off the public payroll. They're poorly educated ideologues and their "methods" are extremely destructive.

Posted by: Jennifer88 | May 15, 2010 11:24 PM | Report abuse

It's too late in Montgomery County, unfortunately. The head of pre-k thru 12 reading and language arts has already gone full steam ahead in the skills department as of a few years ago. The 'new' report card that is still being piloted (5-6 years later) hasn't been implemented system wide for grades 3-5 is lousy with skills-based assessment grades. For each skills objective, teachers must have at least three data points. No teaching will ever happen once that report card is in place, only testing and the recording of data. Heaven forbid that the children actually read a book or be read aloud to ever again. Where are is the parental outcry?

Posted by: willoughbyspit | May 16, 2010 11:14 AM | Report abuse

The highlight of the day when I was in the sixth grade was to listen to a story read out loud by the teacher half-and-hour everyday - with interest and passion for the joy of reading. She taught by example and she was very effective.

This is type of teacher we need. We don't need the type of teacher who is just prepping kids to pass a standardized reading test. The curriculum has to be presented in the most interesting way possible by people who care.

Posted by: alance | May 16, 2010 7:09 PM | Report abuse

There are different styles of writing for different audiences. Mr. Fitzugh's comments set high standards for people who will be doing college level writing and teaching at some of the highest and most motivated levels. We should not lose sight of his goal as the ultimate aim.

But not all of us have the opportunity to teach many students as talented and as motivated as his Dad, mentioned in his story. The author's commentary reminds me of the objections voiced when the USA Today newspaper introduced shorter stories with less supporting details.

Today the World Wide Web gives us the chance of writing both ways by providing the basic information on the first page with hyperlinks to further information on internal pages.

The writing in this post by Mr. Fitzugh is excellent. What seems to be lacking is knowledge and experience of writing for a much wider audience.

Posted by: Instructor5 | May 16, 2010 8:11 PM | Report abuse

"Said Copeland, ‘Why didn’t you write it down?’”

I had a GED student ten years ago who had passed every part except writing and would freeze and cry whenever she attempted to practice for the writing portion. I finally asked her to tell me about her interests, interrupting her every one or two sentences to ask her to "write it down for me so I won't forget." When we finished talking, I asked her to read what she had written. She was thrilled when I told her that her writing was passing quality. She went on to earn her GED. By the way, she had a documented learning disability and had always been told that she would never finish high school.

Posted by: finditgd | May 18, 2010 6:21 PM | Report abuse

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