Monday, September 24, 2007

Reading and Power Relationships

Reading is about power relationships. The power to decide what we read, what counts as reading, and whose readings matter is ultimately at the bottom of text selection. Questions such as “Who chooses the texts?” and “Whose experiences are reflected in the texts?” foreground the underlying power struggles that teachers, students, family, and community members can face as they choose texts for classroom and independent reading.

The English Leadership Quarterly article “Outside Teachers: Children’s Literature and Cultural Tension” (E-M) explains that calls for censorship frequently communicate the tensions between differing cultural and philosophical perspective. Rather than avoiding such differences in perspective in text selection, the article explores how such conflicts can become opportunities for communities “to help students become literate, socially responsible, culturally aware, and contributing citizens” (p. 8) .

Near the end of the article, the author summarizes questions teachers can use as they consider whether a text is appropriate for a particular classroom or student:

Therefore, while reading these books, teachers should pay attention to power relationships as represented in the print and picture text. Some questions Lissa Paul (1998) has identified that could facilitate this process include the following:
  • Whose story is this?
  • Who is the reader?
  • Who is named? Who is not?
  • Who is on top?
  • Who gets punished? Who is praised?
  • Who speaks? Who is silenced?
  • Who acts? Who is acted upon?
  • Who owns property? Who is dependent?
  • Who looks? Who is observed?
  • Who fights for honor? Who suffers? (Paul, p. 16)
      If teachers find the sociopolitical implications that they uncover through this method to be too heavy or overwhelming to deal with at this point in their career, they may want to put the book aside and find an alternative (p. 10).
As I read the list, I realized that its questions served another purpose for me this week. Not only does the list lays out questions that reveal the power relationships within a classroom text, it also illuminates the power struggles implicitly communicated by the 2007 NAEP scores on reading that were released today.

The NAEP scores, after all, are also about power and reading. While the report claims “statistically significant” increases of scores by two points, they cannot deny the overall stagnation of student achievement in reading. Improvement has been creeping along at the same basic level for years, and “improvement” is in the eye of the beholder.

Each of the text selection questions above has a corollary that reveals the power relationships behind the NAEP scores:

  • Whose story does the report tell?
  • Who is the reader of those scores?
  • Who is named, and who is not?
  • Who gets punished, and who is praised?
  • Who speaks in the scores, and who is silenced by them?
  • Who acts, and who is acted upon?

Take, for instance, the three “Reading Top Stories” featured on the 2007 NAEP Reading Scores Page:

  • Average reading scores were higher in 2007 than in 1992 at both grades 4 and 8.

  • Average reading scores were higher in 2007 than in 2005 in 18 jurisdictions at grade 4 and 6 jurisdictions at grade 8.
  • Average scores for White, Black, and Hispanic students at grades 4 and 8 were higher in 2007 than in 1992.

Whose story do these three bullet points tell? Not the students whose strongest literacy skills tap areas other than recognizing facts and understanding vocabulary words. Not the students whose strongest literacy skills focus on reading multimodal texts that go beyond words on printed pages. Not the 4th- and 8th-grades students whose primary literacy skills are more evident in languages other than English.

Who is named? Not the students in the 25 jurisdictions at grade 4 and the students in the 47 jurisdictions at grade 8 whose average reading scores were not higher in 2007 than in 2005. Not the students in grades 1–3, 5–7, or 9–12.

Who speaks? Not the Native American 4th graders, whose performance has dropped 11 points over the last 7 years. Not even the Asian students whose 2007 average reading score, like the Hispanic students, showed a 2 point increase over the 1992 score.

Today's Reading Report Card demonstrates the same kind of cultural tension that the English Leadership Quarterly article refers to. It’s clear that all students are not represented and alarmingly evident that the word reading is defined in narrow ways that do not reflect the expanded, highly complex definitions of literacy that teachers explore in best practices.

Given these shortages, let me end with a challenge, paraphrased loosely from the final quoted passage above:

As we examine the NAEP scores and their coverage in the media this week,  if  when we find the sociopolitical implications these questions uncover too heavy or overwhelming, perhaps we should simply put the scores aside and find an alternative—Instead of focusing on the scores, let's focus on pedagogically-sound, student-centered literacy instruction—whether those students are reading banned books or not.

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