Elizabeth Birr Moje

ELIZABETH BIRR MOJE

I’m Elizabeth Birr Moje. That’s correct. University of Michigan.

Well, a skilled adolescent reader is someone who certainly can decode text fluently, but obviously it’s much more then simply decoding text. And—and it’s really even much more then comprehending text. Um, a skilled adolescent reader is someone who knows how to use text for a particular purposes, who knows how to make a text fit her or his own needs, um, to make the text fit the purpose of the reading situation. Um, a skilled adolescent reader is also someone who understands that language is used very differently in different context and that language has power. And so a skilled adolescent reader knows when to use language in particular ways, when to read certain meanings into text, and when to challenge text and ask questions of it. So a skilled adolescent reader also is someone who doesn’t accept text as authority but sees value in text. Now, of course, you could ask the question “What is text” and—and you may want to ask that next? (Interruption) Should I—should I proceed to that? Well, that’s—that’s such an interesting question. Uh, my colleague Susan Wade and I uh just actually wrote a piece on the role of text and classroom learning and we explored different perspectives on text. Of course, there’s the perspective that text has meaning in and of itself and um the—the job of the reader is to get that meaning. There are perspectives that have been identified as interactional uh where the reader brings certain perspectives to a text but the text does have a meaning and together and in a particular context they make sense of the text um or readers make sense of the text. Then there are perspectives that say—that are transactional in nature or typical reader response perspective that suggests that readers actually change the text or that readers really hold the meaning and the text is uh almost like a tool for making that meaning from all of one’s life experiences. People talk about um the text morpheme changing so that no—you know, any one text can be a different text to different individuals. Then there’s a different um way of answering that question. Uh, let me add one other uh piece. I’m sorry. There’s also this sense of text as um a sociocultural artifact uh, simply a representation of different kinds of arrangements in society. Way—different ways that people think and make sense of the world and it—there’s—it’s less about um the cognitive process that’s involved about a reader bringing meaning or the text holding meaning. That argument um certainly is important to socioculturalists, but that’s not the real question. The real question that they have is “How do people make sense of text mediated by a particular social and cultural context. Then the other thing that we um investigated as we did this chapter on the role of text in classroom learning was the idea that text can be much more then print. And um you—you’re probably familiar with David Bloom and the Ann Eagan Robertson’s work on textualizing, the notion that we can textualize any experience. So we can, you know, look at the sky and textualize that. Now I—it’s really important to me to um make clear that my position is that that doesn’t mean that everything is a text and everything is reading and writing, but rather that in the process of giving language to an experience whether it’s oral language or written language. We create texts. That’s how I read this notion of textualizing. Um, and that of course means that many different things can be considered text. Uh, in my course to uh secondary pre-service teachers we talk at length about what counts as text and I talk about written text as being anything that uh use a symbol system, a systematic, permanent system of representing, understanding. So that could be oral language, that could be um a choreographed dance, it could be musical notation. But it wouldn’t be simply dancing; it wouldn’t be simply playing music. Then, of course, we get into all sorts of arguments about well what happens if it’s audio taped and it becomes permanent and it’s following a symbol system. And I’m not sure I’ve completely resolved to that but uh the notion of text as something permanent and systematically encoded is I think a—a really useful way then of thinking about how we can offer many different texts to kids.

That’s interesting. Very interesting question. Um teachers, of course, have the responsibility of first of all selecting and um thinking through text. One of the things that we talk a lot about in secondary and adolescent literacy is the notion of considerate and inconsiderate text. And some teachers have that role of not necessarily being the arbiter of what counts as good text, but of thinking about how their students in a particular developmental space might make sense of a text. Um, what’s going to post challenges to kids. Um, teachers also have the role of creating text and that’s one of the things that we found in our research—uh research done with Deborah Dylan and David O’Brien that teachers and students actually together create some of the most authoritative texts in the classroom. Um, the work I did in a high school chemistry classroom with a teacher I call Ms. Landy, uh suggested that the—the text that really counted in that classroom was this creation of notes that kids took over readings using um SQRRR, an acronym, Survey Question Read, Recite, and Review, which she taught to them at the beginning of the year. And um then her lecture notes, if you will—they weren’t really lectures but conversations that she had with the students. She taught them to use a split page note taking format so that their SQRRR text notes—reading um text book notes were on one side of the page and the um class notes were on the other side of the page. And she would actually point out places where she was talking about something that they should have read in the text. Now that created a really powerful text for those students. That became the—the final text. They didn’t go back and study their textbooks for tests unless, of course, they didn’t understand something from their notes. They studied their notes. And so this notion of creating text I think is a really powerful one. Then um in content areas, usually other then science and mathematics, content areas like history and English, uh obviously there’s another kind of text, that of narrative text, that becomes really important. Um, history and social studies um primary source documents are really critical. They could me really critical in mathematics and science as well but we don’t see them used as much in those areas. But the role of the teacher there then at least should be—I don’t know if it always is, but it should be to help students synthesize the ideas in a primary source document with the ideas in a textbook and the ideas in class discussion or class lecture or in video, if we’re thinking about other forms of representation. Or the ideas brought forward by a guest speaker or um gleaned through oral interviews with people in the community, um oral histories. So this notion of synthesizing um across multiple text I think is a really important one that teachers need to be able to help students do. Uh, Susan Goldman’s written about project-based pedagogy, which actually is being used in science classrooms. In fact, that’s the work I’m now involved in. And project-based pedagogy presents a really unique demand on kids. The notion of negotiating across these multiple textual resources, the Internet which is a very different kind of text, um textbooks, encyclopedias, other kinds of reference materials, class discussions, and in science, enquiry-based projects themselves. So experiments where kids are getting their own data. Trying to make all of that make sense is really challenging to kids. So teachers have a much harder job to do when they’re engaging kids in all sorts of different kinds of resources. The other piece that Goldman writes about that makes that a challenge is the idea that kids in projects are usually working in groups. So not only are they negotiating across multiple textual resources, but they’re negotiating ideas with other kids. And that’s an incredible challenge. It’s two different kinds of negotiation and in some sense you can think of negotiating the ideas of other kids as negotiating oral texts, community texts in some sense. So that’s the—the role that I see for teachers. Of course, then the role for students is this same idea of synthesizing. Trying to figure out how to use different strategies um if they’re taught explicitly strategies or simply strategies that they’ve learned in their own homes, um that they use in their out of school literacies, um out classroom literacies and trying to bring those to bear on academic text-based learning. So that’s—that’s definitely um an important challenge. And then a related challenge is this idea of where do these other texts fit in? How do they matter? Do they count in making sense of the text in this classroom? And I think that’s a particularly demanding role um in engaging with text for young people. I think it’s also something that they do much better then they realize. Um, that they—they are much more sophisticated at making those intersections among the various texts and various literacies in their lives. And we need to find better ways to understand that.

I’m glad you asked that because, of course, that’s a—a central interest in my work and um I’m sort of embarrassed that I didn’t bring that in. Um, there are—there are obviously a lot of um complications um or additional demands posed both for the teacher and the students when um the text and literacies of one’s life don’t neatly mesh with the text and literacies of the classroom. And, in fact, um it’s interesting I argue with some of my colleagues. They want to separate cognition and culture. And we talk all the time about the fact that cognition is always cultural and that it’s just a matter of difference, that they’re different ways of knowing, different ways of reading and writing—Jim Gee calls those discourses--um, that derive from different cultural models. And, of course, texts and literacies are embedded in those different ways. Um, so the challenge then, of course, is for teachers who—who’s lives are different from their students to figure out those ways of knowing. Uh, some of the work that I’ve done actually in Salt Lake City um in recent years has really helped me grow both as a researcher and a teacher in that regard because I spent time with kids out of school and I learned to understand their ways of using text. And some of those ways are culturally bound, some of those are about being 12 or 15, so they’re um age-bound uh, and some of them are bound up in particular spaces. Um, in Salt Lake City, in—in an urban center, in a particular kind of urban center, not a huge city but not a small city by any means. Um, there—they have particular um demands. For instance, I was always amazed at how often my kids could—the kids I worked with—could get from one point in the city to another point in the city that I wouldn’t have been able to do without my car. I mean I would have probably been able to figure it out but they knew what bus routes to take and um, you know, just all sorts of things that were so sophisticated and—and yet in school they were identified as being at risk, um as slow, as lazy, as unsophisticated. So I learned to see them in very different ways. Uh, I would go to restaurants with them as part of my interviewing process and they would teach me how to order. Um, they would make recommendations to me. And I saw 12-year-olds who in the classroom were slumped in their desks not engaged in the particular texts of the classroom and the particular literacies being offered. In these other settings, very proud and um, um, you know, just full of life and enthusiasm and teaching me. And that made just a—such an important difference and um led me in—in my book to write about the value of teachers trying to spend time in the lives of their kids. And, of course, for secondary school teachers you can have 180 students so it’s very difficult to spend time in each of their lives and—so I write about trying to attend events outside of school. Um, I—I went to a—a performance of an uh black Baptist church group and watched a student who never seemed to be able to pay attention during school and who was often labeled in particular ways that I’m sure you can imagine—another acronym, Attention Deficit Disorder—um, I watched him engage in an African drumming uh routine in which he was paying complete attention at all times. Uh, he—he never, you know, missed—missed drummed. Uh, he—he was right there in—in the moment of that experience, which of course could be textualized. So uh it—it taught me a lot about, you know, how one evening of entertainment—I enjoyed myself at this event—how that could make a difference in how I might engage with students. Uh, and I should just add that a bi-product of that was that he knew we were there. Uh, the—the classroom teacher and I went together and he was a very different person from then on in—in our classroom. And we don’t know whether that was because we saw him differently or because he saw us differently. He saw us as people who cared about his life outside of school. So a long-winded answer then is that we need to—we need to be better informed. We need to understand what those texts are and—and then think about ways to try to bring those texts to bear or those literacies to bear on the content that we think is important for kids to learn. And this is a really important point to me that this isn’t about just giving kids more of what they already do well. That’s, you know, an obvious problem. Lisa Delpit writes about that. Uh, many other people write about that. We don’t want to just engage kids in experiences they already have had. That would be sort of silly. There would be no point in coming to school. What we want to do is figure out how to draw from those experiences and push them, extend them, challenge them, so that they build new experiences and new understandings of the world. Louis Mole writes about this—um, about his work in—in Arizona and um how engaging kids in the text of their lives allows you to then engage them in other kinds of texts so that they experience the world more broadly.

Well, the very first thing I would say is think about the text that the kids are reading and whether they can even possibly connect to it. Um, could I give an example that would help? OK. Um, I—I watched—actually the young woman I described earlier I—I had a particular person in mind when I was telling about the slump being in the chair and then being very excited um outside of school. I watched her not engaged in a text and I started to think about the fact that she was from Laos and the text was about the Holocaust of World War II. And I started to think about, you know, the—the difficulty that a 12-year-old who had left Laos because of the Holocaust that occurred there, uh the difficulty that she might have in connecting with the Holocaust of another era of another group of people that—that she probably didn’t have a lot of familiarity with. Now that doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t read about the Holocaust of World War II. It doesn’t mean that that’s not an important text, but that what we need to think about then as teachers is “How can I help her make that connection?” And—and what’s hard about that is that when she left Laos she was very, very young. So she probably really doesn’t remember that experience either. But helping her um perhaps probe her own experiences, perhaps look at her own history, the history of her country and help her think about where the connections are and how there are—if there are any sort of universals or shared experiences across cultures and across groups. You know, can she find them. Can—can we help her connect to those better? Um, and of course there’s a risk in doing that because that can be very painful. Um, it can be invasive. And this is one of the things that I grapple with in my own work. Thinking about how in—in trying to draw from the experiences of students’ lives. Do we violate the private, sort of sacred space of outside of school, especially for marginalized students? And so that would be another thing I would ask teachers to think about is how—how do we—how do we navigate those boundaries? Do I want everyone to draw from all of my personal home experiences? On the other hand, would I want none of my experiences to be brought into school? And I think that’s what makes um these questions really difficult for so many teachers. We know that, you know, the—the teacher population is pretty much white and middle class and that for many of us it’s really hard to imagine school not connecting with our experiences because, of course, it’s based in our experiences, the typical school setting. So that would be the other question that I would ask myself as a teacher. Wh—what are my experiences? How are they always a part of the school day? How can I find ways to understand, to learn about other people’s experiences and make them part of the school day? Um, let me see if I can think of other things that I would think about with uh the struggling (cough) struggling student. I—I certainly would ask the question of whether the—the child is struggling to decode the print. Not decode even at the sort of um simple uh—I shouldn’t say simple. There’s nothing simple about the decoding process, of course. But at the more—most basic levels, but also um ideas around technical language. Are there terms or ways of writing juandras that—that the kids simply haven’t had experience with. Whether they’re uh typically marginalized because of race or um class or whether they’re just new to this particular discipline. That’s another piece of secondary schooling that I think we don’t pay much attention to, the idea that different disciplines have different ways of reading and writing. Uh, that goes back to what I talked about in terms of a skilled adolescent reader uh that what we really need to think about is whether we’ve given kids access to what kind of text this is. Um, who wrote it? What is it trying to accomplish? So that might be part of the lack of engagement. Simply that kids don’t understand the purpose of this particular text. Uh, you know, it—when—when we’re working with stories, I think we tend—narrative texts, I think we tend to think that it’s sort of transparent why this was written uh and what it should mean in people’s lives and how it should connect to other content areas. But it’s not transparent at all. Uh, so that would be another piece that I would ask. This notion of can they read the words at basic levels? Can they make sense of the words because, you know, they—do they have the world knowledge to understand the technical language, whether it’s English literature or a primary source document in history or a science text? And then can—do they understand the larger purpose of the text and what they’re suppose to be doing with it?

Um, with the—the split page note-taking format, the students took notes from their text reading and they read every night. They were assigned to read and she taught this method. And then on the—it actually may have been flipped, the columns may have been flipped, but that probably doesn’t matter. Um, the in-class portion they wrote. They actually wrote so they were learning to take notes from and I hesitate to say lecture because it really wasn’t a traditional lecture, um they learned to take notes from this instructional conversation that they had in the classroom. And what she did was signal them at certain points, more at the beginning of the year then at the end of the year um so that, you know, she was really scaffolding their note-taking process. So she would say things like, “Now this really fits in section 3.2”—the textbook actually had these different section header um markings. And—and so she would point that out or she would uh say to them, “This would be a really good picture to draw in your notes next to this idea from the text. So, does that help?

To do that, if it’s all right with you, I’m going to back up a little bit to how we use to talk about this. And I shouldn’t even say use to talk about—how I use to talk about these literacies. Um, you’re probably familiar with the idea of academic and social literacies and for a long time that’s how I and my colleagues talked about the different kinds of literacies that kids might engage in uh and teachers, uh all people engage in. And after a while we became dissatisfied with that because, of course, ac—that implies that academic literacies are not also socially constructed, that there’s no social interaction involved in the use of academic literacy. So um my colleagues and I started talking about school and non-school literacies. But that had the unfortunate consequence of really dichotomizing—this happens in school, this happens out of school—and um also of—of sort of collapsing everything that wasn’t school into this category that was articulated to school. So then school had preeminence and everything else was this extra stuff. So I—oh, one other piece, it also neglected the notion that there is some power assigned to school and non-school literacies or academic and social literacies. So that’s where this notion of official and unofficial or actually the—the words that I’ve been using in my recent work, um sanctioned and unsanctioned literacies comes in. And—and it’s simply the idea that some literacies are valued in particular context and some are not valued or at least not recognized. So it’s not necessarily that they’re devalued, but they’re devalued—you know, defacto, by virtue of not being recognized, then they become unsanctioned or unofficial and they’re not then all brought into conversation with these official literacies. Um an official literacy would probably be thought of um as, you know, traditional school writing, um you could be as specific as saying it’s sort of like the um British SAS tradition, the five paragraph essay, you know, introduction, conclusion, and the body somewhere in there. Um, and in—in a math class an official literacy might be, you know, solving word problems or um some math teachers are using journals very successfully with kids. Those would be official literacies. Unofficial or unsanctioned literacies could range from note writing, you know, to friends in class, uh to graffiti text which is what I’ve studied for the last several years, um poetry writing. But this is what gets really interesting. Poetry writing, of course, is also—could also be an official literacy. But when you look at the ways that kids write poetry, the differences, um the sort of rap-like style to ones that are not typically sanctioned, uh versus the more again sort of European tradition of, you know, the right kind of poem with, you know, iambic contameter or something uh that the, you know, there’s—there are these clear demarcations. However, I want to make that a little more complex because what I’m learning as I look at kids’ unsanctioned text and I look at their sanctioned text, is that they are finding ways to code their sanctioned text with artifacts from their lives outside of school. And a really good example of that is—uh from the writer’s workshop class I studied in Salt Lake—worked in—in Salt Lake in which in the first three quarters of the year from my first level of analysis I would have said that the kids were either telling um sort of sanitized stories of their experiences or even making up stories. We had a lot of stories about going to Disneyworld. Lots and lots of stories. And uh one particular story stands out about um a day going to an amusement park which is in the state of Utah—you’ve probably heard of it—Lagoon. And uh, you know, telling, “I got up in the morning. I did this. I did that.” It was really not a very exciting story and it—it seemed to me that the student was writing to fulfill this notion of the official literacy valued in the classroom. It was quite early in the year so uh he hadn’t gotten to the idea of adding dialog or, you know, all the things we teach in a typical writer’s workshop. Um, when I went back after—it was probably midway through the next two years of studying the kids outside of school and particularly focusing on the unsanctioned literacies of kids interconnected to street gangs, I started to see how much of this particular student’s gang connected identity was coded into this text of going to Lagoon. He described in detail his dress. And his dress was all about a particular gangster style. So he found ways to maintain that identity but in very sanctioned literacy practices. Uh, he actually later in the year started writing about some of his experiences on the street and he did it in ways that incorporated all the things that we were teaching in the writer’s workshop. So he did indeed add dialog—sometimes rather graphic dialog. Um, he—he did um add detail. It was very, very detailed and um clear and vivid. And so he was taking on this official literacy but bringing these unofficial literacies into conversation with the official. So I can’t even use those dichotomous terms anymore. I have to find some new way. And actually um something that I’m talking about a lot of these days is Acrispatarius’ work on third space and the idea of constructing this new thing from these—what often seem very dichotomous. She talks about a script, the official of the classroom and counter script, what the kids bring in in their comments or um the underground talk that they have. And—and merging those so that they create this third space. She uses it discursively um to—to mean, you know, really new terms or new ways of thinking about terms. But I see that—I see that actually what that young man was doing was constructing third space. He was bringing his identity. Now we might not really uh approve of that identity, we might be concerned about this gang-connected identity, but he was bringing something very important to him into his official text. And I think that’s—it’s really interesting and amazing. And as teachers we need to think about how we can do that. If kids can do it so well, we should be able to do it too.

Right. Right. That’s something I’m struggling with um all the time. I think—I’ve actually just done some writing about this. I think that it’s very hard to engage with kids in those difficult topics without somehow appearing to sanction them or approve of them. And yet, if we don’t engage with them at all, they certainly aren’t going to stop doing these things and in fact may do them more intensively. So one of the things that I’ve thought a lot about is how to engage in a critical pedagogy that asks kids to examine how their experiences in the world can be very powerful for them, uh transformative—we talk about his in my—in my piece on uh gangster literacies—and at the same time reproductive of a social order that isn’t going to work in their favor. In other words, um asking kids to think about the consequences of, you know, going to certain places in gang dress. You know, what does that do for you? What does it do for you that’s negative? And really starting um to help them think about issues of power and how power works in their lives. That’s actually um a paraphrase of a quote from Megan Morris, the idea of getting—working with kids to explore where power works where we live our lives so that they start to see that it’s really not even an issue of whether I approve of what you’re doing or not, it’s what are the consequences of that for you? And what are the consequences of that for your community? Um, so helping kids to become much more aware of who they are as social beings, the responsibility they have to other people. Um, it’s a little bit different from the perspective that if we help kids be the best they can be as individuals, then they’ll contribute to a good society. It’s actually asking them to think about “What does it mean to have a good society and what’s my role in that and what’s my responsibility to others?”

Gosh. You know you should—if you knew me better, you’d know never to open the floor to anything I want to talk about. Um, (interruption) Oh, gosh. Um, that’s what they’re always saying to me in these sessions too. (Laugh) Um, I have—I have two points that I would make. And um I think we could use the chemistry classroom and the French classroom as um sort of examples or um illustrative of this first point. One is that um we’re always asking teachers to engage in innovative pedagogy. And that’s really hard to do, not just because they have to learn it and there are all these institutional constraints. Those are all very real and important, but also because kids can resist innovative pedagogy. And what I learned in the chemistry classroom was that the students were willing to take up the ideas that Ms. Landy offered to them in part because she cared very much about them and she demonstrated that caring but probably in larger part because the strategies fit with their conception of knowledge and of literacy in that discipline. They routinely said to me things like, uh “Science is about organization,” which Ms. Landy also said. So her conception knowledge meshed with theirs. So when she offered organizational strategies for literacy work in science they said, “Great.” I suspect that if she had asked them to read novels, they might have resisted. And the reason I suspect that is my experience in the French classroom with um a wonderful teacher. The students love the teacher. They were advanced uh fourth year French students who were honor students. So we’re not talking about struggling students. And they resisted to the point of dropping the course when she asked them to engage in project-based portfolio-driven French learning. They said things like, “After three years of French, we can’t read and write French. That just shows we need more book work.” Three years of bookwork didn’t teach them how to read and write French, but in their minds they needed more of that. They—they just totally rejected the ideas. So that’s one uh lesson that I think would be useful for teachers, particularly for beginning teachers, to think about how—maybe they need to offer things generally and slowly to students and help students reconceptualize their understanding of the discipline. And then that actually relates to the second point that I think would be valuable to me. And that is that the secondary school, middle, junior high school, is an incredibly um incoherent jumble of different experiences for students. And I think we need to do more um with the notion of interdisciplinary curriculum or cross-disciplinary, cross-curricular—curriculum. Now I’m hesitating because I just read a wonderful piece by Mark Dresman where he problematizes the idea of integration. And it says that in a post-modern world everything’s fragmented and maybe what we should do is use that fragmentation in productive ways. But by the time I got to the end of this piece I thought, you know, we’re actually not disagreeing. My idea is that as teachers we need to think about how—what they’re learning in history relates to what they’re learning in mathematics, which, of course, means we need to know what the math teacher’s doing or what the history teacher’s doing. So that would be um, you know, if I could talk to a group of teachers my—my advice to teachers is that we simply as teachers need to talk to each other more. We need to then make connections explicit and—and this goes back to the skilled adolescent reader—we need to help kids then think about how what they do in history is like what they do in mathematics but is also very different and how those similarities and differences are social constructions. That the disciplines aren’t—they don’t exist out there in reality and they’re—they’re constructed by people, which means they can be reconstructed by people in ways that perhaps makes for more integration.