Tom Bean


Tom Bean: All righty. I’m Tom Bean and I’m affiliated with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. 

I think literacy now is complex enough that uh we need to think about it in terms of a variety of uh different kinds of texts that students encounter and different signs systems that they encounter. So that would include Internet applications, video, uh conventional textbooks, uh that would include novels, poems, music people write, lyrics, on and on. So I think it’s much more of a dynamic system uh then what we use to envision as literacy. 

I think a skilled adolescent reader in my mind is somebody who can balance a number of different uh text-related tasks so that they can shift in and out of uh studying a conventional textbook. They can draw information from the Internet, they can comfortably read a novel and comment intelligently on it.  Uh, that’s—amidst all of that there are students who essentially know how to get the grade but may not be comprehending at a very high level. And sometimes I worry that we don’t challenge students enough uh as far as their interpretations and critical thinking about what they are reading.

I think everybody’s responsible for uh helping students become skilled readers at the secondary level. So that would include not only English teachers but certainly social studies, science, math, and the non-core areas, physical education, art, music, and on and on.

The assumption is, that if kids learn to read particularly in the K-3 period of time life will be good. And the reality is that it’s a much more of a developmental process even up into college.  So that uh we know that students need a lot of guidance, and support, and scaffolding, and ultimately freeing them up to using their own strategies uh through high school.  And I’ve worked with high school 9th graders that are reading at about 4th grade level and sometimes less then that. Uh, and second language issues enter into some of those difficulties that students have.

I think once they’re at the secondary level we need to have a—a variety of different programs available so that a content teacher becomes versed in how to scaffold instruction in—in history, or science, or math as well as having some afternoon extended programs that help kids in a tutorial fashion. So some of the programs I’ve worked with we’ve set up afternoon tutorials um through grant money typically uh where students four days a week are tutored a couple of hours a day. And these are students that are—again, are reading.  They’re struggling readers their reading at about 3rd/4th grade level.  And uh they need the extra support, they need to read things like uh, uh fairly, friendly novel.  A novel like “Hatchet,” which is actually designed for middle school age students but uh that may hook them into some pleasure reading and into being able to visualize what they read, which is a big insight for a student who’s simply plotted along and falling asleep on the—on the page.

I don’t re—mean really complicated kinds of activities. I mean things as simple as if we know a chapter in a biology text is going to be particularly challenging that we approach it from a standpoint of having some study guide questions that maybe I as a teacher make rather then relying on canned material that the book produces or the manual produces. So the kids see that I care about how they comprehend this and I’m slicing the task in a manageable way for them. So that I’m—I’m serving as—as kind of a facilitator and guide rather then uh just relying on commercial materials to do that.  Uh, so that’s uh in one sense I mean that, in another sense I mean teaching them some independent strategies like a graphic organizer or uh how to take notes from a text and so on so they can do that independently. Uh, so and it also means—I suppose amidst all of that, that we use other modes of learning. So we use the arts, we use music, we use drama and I’m heavily involved with projects that include music, and art, and drama as vehicles uh for teaching. I have a biology teacher right now in my Thursday night class who’s fantastic but she has an art background and she thinks about teaching from this multiple perspective including art, and drama, and music.

Well, I think that if it’s an unskilled reader then clearly they can’t be expected to move along at the same pace and you don’t want them drowning in text because that’s simply adds the cumulative affect of school is something I don’t want to do. The community I live in, a kid can drop out. I work with high schools where the drop out rate is very high. Uh, they can drop out and park cars for about $60,000 a year so, you know, why go to school?  So we fight that battle. So I think they need to see that they can be successful with text. And that may mean reducing text to something manageable rather then a single text in science, or math, or history. They’re working with smaller elements of text that allow them to read and comprehend at least some part of that and then to collaborate with other students to—to help guide that process. Um…

I think it gives them a foundation for other learning, that they’re going to engage in other classes and uh I think we’re producing a society otherwise that skates over everything very quickly. And I think we need to be producing people who can critically look at text and look at so—uh, issues in society and uh realize how people are positioned in various ways by media, um by novels that they read, and so on.  Uh, I think we need to produce a much more insightful society then what we’re doing.  When we expect that if you just plow through all the chapters in a—in a text or a course that life will be fine. And kids get very good at that. I mean I’m around some adolescents who are quite good at getting the grade, but if you start asking them some high level questions, they’re not use to thinking at a high level. And uh I think business would like to have people in their environments that are pretty swift about handling a multitude of tasks and thinking at pretty high levels.

I think you need to create a climate where that happens and that might be through initially some simple study guide kinds of questions but then it might be through uh setting up discussion groups where the expectation is that if we’re reading—uh, I use novels a lot in my classes—but if we’re reading something that has a character who’s going through some strife and difficulty, then we can then relate that to our own experiences or experiences of other people that we know. You have to make connections. I mean for a lot of high school students, some that I’ve worked with, they don’t see high school as anything other then an impediment to getting ahead in society. When they get to a community college or college environment, it’s just a side trip for them. It’s not uh—not something that connects with their lives.

Well, I think a lot of teachers do that a bit. I mean, they have analogies that they’re tuning enough to pop culture that they have analogies to film, and video, and music, and so on and a lot of great high school teachers do that. They pay attention to what their kids are interested in and learn about that and not treat it as something that “Well, that’s not an adult thing. That’s not what I do.” And I think that’s really important. I think it’s also important to get in touch with some of the really fine literature that’s out there now that can illuminate concepts in science, in math, in history. And so in my classes that’s what I try to do. I—every semester I infuse a new novel that we haven’t worked with before that’s very Vanguard, that’s—represents the best in young adult literature. And uh, students are—are surprised to see that that’s out there. They still think young adult literature is something that happened back in the 60’s with “The Outsiders.”  You know, they’re stuck in time.

I think it has multiple roles. One is to (Interruption) Sure. Well, OK. From my perspective young adult literature has a number of different possible roles in a classroom, in a contact class. For example, it could uh in the sciences help illuminate concepts about ecology and environmentalism and so on. A book like um, “Changes and Latitudes” uh—it is a novel that deals with the green sea turtle and its problems uh being wiped out in various parts of the world.  So that can help a student make contact with a topic that would otherwise seem like a factual sort of issue and—and giving some human dimensions about that topic.  That’s one aspect. The aspect that I’m most interested in is how students see themselves.  How is their identity being developed?  And particularly with students from under represented groups. African American students, Hispanic students—um, I grew up in Hawaii so Hawaiian students, um Asian students, and so on.  How do you see yourself being positioned by society and what happens to a character as they go through various problems?  So I tend to use uh novels like Gary Sota’s “Buried Onions.”  We just finished this uh a couple of semesters ago and we did a project that comes out in reading research quarterly uh in February that encompasses a intergenerational dialog where my students read Gary Sota’s book in an evening graduate content class.  And they communicated with a group of high school students, primarily struggling readers. Uh, and they used art and journaling to talk about uh their responses to Eddie the main character who’s 19 year old Latino fellow in uh Fresno uh who’s dropped out of school, dropped out of the community college, and uh paints numbers on curbs to make a living and is being forced by his family to avenge a murder that happened to his cousins.  So he’s wrestled a lot of different issues. And in many of these novels we can look at them from bank stages of ethnic development. How do you see yourself? Are you able to move in and out comfortably through different dimensions of society or do you get stuck in one dimension?  And uh, those are things that I like to infuse my classes with.

I think they’re—well, literacy’s a social practice.  They’re absolutely melted together. So if uh, for example, one doesn’t see oneself as uh a reader uh particularly because you don’t see yourself represented in any of the materials in the classroom—and this comes out of a lot of the work we did in autobiographies where we’re looking at people’s literacy histories—and they’ll tell us very bluntly that, you know, I didn’t see any Hawaiian literature, any Hawaiian studies in any of my work as a student. Or I didn’t see Japanese Americans represented in any of my work. Or if they did, they remember it. It’s very vivid. So they remember teachers in social studies, particularly in English that introduce literature that connected with their lives.  We’re working with students in a high school that’s primarily a Hispanic population; they connect with this book—with “Buried Onions,” very, very heavily. They write about it, they move in and out of gang script, they draw, um they—and for many of them it’s the first time they read a novel that really does touch their lives. So I think that’s important and knowing how to select that kind of literature is very crucial and it’s not easy because it’s not well represented in our bookstores.  If—if you go to Barnes and Noble you can order these books but you won’t see them on the shelves. What you’ll see are the series and um, you know, the very pop kinds of things. 

Sure. Well, we—we refer to some of that in our content book and other content text do that as well. That’s one starting point. I urge people to just read the uh reviews that come out in the Journal of Adolescent and Adult literacy in the—in the NCTE journals, get at least one novel that you can get in touch with and just annually uh keep it very small. Just try to get in touch with one young adult novel each year. I use to read tons of these when I had some sabbatical time. The reality is now I read a couple a year, probably. But that’s enough. Over time you can accumulate quite a library and you get in touch with other people. and on the Internet there are Web pages and so on. So there’s a variety of ways of doing that. But I don’t think you can treat it as sort of “Here’s a list of books.” I think you have to, as a teacher, own the novel.

It’s not easy.  I mean, my—one of my favorite novels—and this is a controversial novel, is actually by David Class who also wrote—he wrote “Danger Zone,” which is one we’re using next semester which is quite good. But he wrote a novel called “California Blue.”  And there’s some instances in that novel that might fall into something a community may or may not want to—I mean, there’s kind of a uh sort of a romance between a teacher and a student at one point. Well, that’s an issue that might get phased out.  But there are parts of that novel that deal very nicely with ecological issues.  For example, this uh main character, John, who’s a runner, is out in the wood in—in northern California. He’s from a small logging community and he finds a butterfly. So “California Blue” is a particular butterfly that he locates and gets uh labeled and named and so on. But it’s sitting smack dab in the middle of the logging area that his family makes their living from.  And so he’s putting this interesting bind where he’s opposing the—the town’s people by protesting further logging where this butterfly is.  So I think you very much get into some of the issues about contemporary science. You know, is—is it a solution or is it a problem. And what sort of citizenship issues impinge on that. So with a lot of these novels we’re using them to deal with citizenship issues. For example, “Necessary Roughness” is about a Korean American student who moves from a comfortable Korean American community that’s pretty well established in L.A. to a small town in Minnesota. And when he relocates to Minnesota, he’s clearly treated as an ethnic minority and an outsider and goes through a lot of racial strife and problems uh figuring out who is in relationship to that community.  And uh we can get into a lot of issues about how we go about treating each other. How do we see diversity?  Where are we in—in that?  So it’s those sorts of things in social studies, and science, that I think these novels are helpful with. But I agree it’s—it’s a challenge and it’s something one has to take on carefully. And—the biology teacher I work with right now that’s in my Thursday evening class started to use “California Blue” and realized it wouldn’t necessarily fit within some of the community morays that she’s wrestling with and so she’ll use sections of it. So there’s a variety of ways of doing this.  There’s a number of good short stories out too. Uh, Donald Gallow I think is a person who’s done some—a good job of collecting uh teenage oriented short stories.  So it’s not just that you need to think about novels.

I think most of the people that write those literacy histories—and I still do that in my classes, um remember very clearly the transition from elementary to secondary kinds of material. So reading becomes work without much guidance, very ‘sink or swim’ experiences in math and—and other fields.  Um, so that’s one impediment that they see to developing a love of reading. Um, Mike McKenna’s work and others show a pretty dramatic decline attitude towards recreational and voluntary reading. And that’s probably tied to the fact that reading even in narrative material becomes work. You’re reading Shakespeare; you’re reading the classics. And that’s not augmented with any other books. We’ve been using uh not “Necessary Roughness,” but Marie Lee’s “Finding My Voice,” which has um some sections that relate very nicely to “Romeo and Juliet.”  And uh we use that as kind—a bridge for 9th graders that are struggling with more advanced text. And that forms a foundation. So I think there’s ways to use contemporary adult literature that uh can be fairly exciting.

I can’t think of the title of the book right now, but there’s a—a chronicle of a—an experienced teacher’s uh work in New York in an urban school um and what she says—I’ve always related to this—she says I can’t even begin to teach without knowing my students pretty well. And so she has them engaged in an autobiography that deals with their interests and things they do outside of school. Um, I can think of kids I’ve known at the high school level that uh had an interest in fishing and hunting let’s say. And they don’t see that represented at all in anything they’re reading in school, yet they’re reading the Bass Fishing magazine and so those interests need to be brought out and connected to the curriculum in some fashion, I think at least. And that’s a bias I have.  And um an opposite of that I suppose would be, “Well they’re already doing that so why would we want to, you know, represent that in school?” But I think they need to see that their lives are meaningful in the curriculum. They need to have a voice and some sense of agency and—and that happens partly through materials, partly through what they’re working with. So that would be one issue in autobiographies that I’d see people raising. Another one I already mentioned that uh perhaps they uh don’t see themselves uh culturally and ethically represented in the material that they’re working with. And so that it’s very uh in their mind mainstream and—and excluding uh, uh them.  And that comes mainly from thinking about the Hawaiian students I’ve worked with over the years where they did have a teacher that got them excited about Hawaiian culture and they just ran with that. Uh, and they remember it vividly. They remember who the person was, the day, you know, the whole thing is very vivid.

When they do the autobiographies in class, uh that’s one of the first assignments we work with within the first two weeks of the content literacy course, uh that’s probably one of the few times when they’ve had a chance to reflect over the—the lifespan and see how they may of uh fallen by the way side in terms of enjoying reading at one period of time. And then perhaps—typically they’ve taken a children’s literature class.  Cindy George—that’s one of my colleagues—a wonderful children’s literature person, and they may have taken Cindy’s class and they remember that and that propelled them back into reading for pleasure. And then I model a lot of reading for pleasure issues. I mean I do read every night before I go to sleep for, you know, 10—maybe 10, 15 minutes at the most. But I somehow manage to get through a novel, Grisham or whatever, you know, during that period of time. And—and they sometimes block out recreational reading. It’s something I don’t do because I don’t have time.  Well, there’s always time to—to uh, you know, escape into that world for a bit.

I think it’s usually important—uh, I think teachers that do that really well and fuse their classes with lots of different kinds of materials that represent lots of different interests. Um, they build classroom libraries that are very exciting, whether it’s in a content field or the elementary level. And um I try to do the same thing. I bring in tons of books in my classes. And so if I’m talking about Marie Lee’s work, I’m not only talking about “Necessary Roughness,” her most recent novel, but I’m talking about the other novel she’s written as a young author that’s at this point written three novels. Or if I’m talking about Gary Sota’s work or David Class’ work, I bring in all of these books. And we’re always hauling books around in our office on these carts. Uh, my office sits next to the children’s literature library. So I walk over there—and then Cindy is a great resource. So I think just being a model of a reader and uh sharing what you read and being able to talk about them, which is why you need to own those books. It can’t be the case that you find a title and use it with students and haven’t read it yourself and developed some infinity for it.  That works for me, I guess.

Sure. OK.  Moving from uh fairly simple, sliced manageable text to more difficult text I think requires a lot of collaboration and discussion. I mean that’s one of the things that sometimes is absent in the content classroom. If we’re plowing through content and assigning and assessing, we then don’t take time to go into depth. So I think um—it’s a variety of strategies, reciprocal questioning, um literature circles, discussion circles, and so on uh that can help that. But I think students need opportunities to talk intelligently about what they’re reading. And if they don’t have that, then it’s simply pursuing a grade and uh we’re producing people that can’t speak intelligently about what they’ve read and can’t grapple with high-level ideas. And certainly by the time they go to a university they’re expected to be able to do that. That’s one of the things that even in a freshman class, a professor’s going to expect that a student can move toward higher, theoretical thinking. And it’s very tough to do that if all you’ve done is regurgitate content, or facts for many years. So I think discussion and talk is crucial.    

I think a simplified text provides a couple of different dimensions that are helpful for students.  One is it’s a bridged, more difficult content so it provides a foundation, it builds schema for more difficult content. It may help sort out some misconceptions a student has about a topic. So that’s helpful in that sense. But probably more importantly it gives a sense about how you read more difficult text. How do you discern uh whether this is a higher-order question or lower-level question? Where do you find information in a text?  What are rhetorical structures like?  Are there differences across science, and history, and so on?  And—and there are. All the evidence and research shows that if you have a sense of text like a writer looks at text, you have a real edge, a real leg up on somebody that’s just looking at a bundle of—of ideas and words. So I think it’s a useful bridge um…

I don’t think uh trying to sit there as an individual teacher and adjust the readability is a great idea by producing more and more short words and short sentences. I would prefer that they slice the task in such a way that maybe a student’s looking at only a couple of paragraphs and trying to engage in some sort of summary using a strategy like JIST or other summarization strategies um that gives some sense whether or not they’re even grasping this amount of text rather then trying to dramatically modify the text.  In the sciences there are multiple texts at various levels so you can use lower-level text. One of the problems of doing that is the technical vocabulary changes. It’s been watered down so much. So I’m not real fond of watering down text. I’m much more fond of trying to help a reader cope with difficult material uh in a variety of ways. Whether it means doing some kind of marginal gloss or pre-teaching vocabulary uh in the sense that they own those words in—in their own speaking and writing. Uh, I think those are—are crucial kinds of approaches.  Not trying to dramatically change the text and lower its readability.

Well, I think it’s a huge danger because now you’re producing a student that is—it’s what Degallongin talks about. “The rich get rich, the poor get poorer. How are you going to get good if you don’t read?”  Uh, it’s like anything else.  It would be like teaching somebody to snow ski by simulation and then expecting that they can go down a—a ski slope. Um, they have to be engaged in—in text. What I use to do with the second language students I worked with California, primarily Southeast Asian students uh engage in a lot of board game kinds of activities. So they had to use vocabulary in a way that was relatively non-threatening and so they could commit malapropisms and so on and then we could correct those as we went along.  I think it’s—it’s not at all awful to uh disengage students from text and from reading opportunities. And frankly, I think most second language learners want to move ahead in the target language. A lot of us went through second language instruction that was taught through a grammatic approach and we typically don’t speak those languages, although we could read them.  But I think you need to be using oral language as a bridge to developing some ownership of the words and so on.

Uh, that’s a whole array of issues. Um, certainly one part of it has to do with um how people get positioned in social structures and uh one of the great insights, I think in research in the last 10 years uh through David O’Brien’s work and numerous other people, Don Alverman, and so on, has to do with—when we think we’re using cooperative learning groups, if we’re ignoring the social status characteristics that occur in those groups, um that has a big impact on how one participates and how one learns. And so the best example is probably one from a science class where a group of students—this if from David O’Brien’s work and uh—and others—a group of students are collaborating on a discussion of cell structure, mitosis, meiosis, I don’t remember which. The topic was but one of the student reveals that she’s not in an honors English class. The rest of the group are in an honors English class and suddenly her ability to speak and have a voice in this group has been shut down. And so what they’re doing in a lot of those studies and some of my own studies, is tracking how people interact in these small groups. And we have to pay attention to that. So one of the great contributions of a social constructivist view of reading is not just that knowledge is a constructed sort of activity, but it’s dialogic and it involves other people and it involves how we’re positioned in those learning situations. So I encourage my students to think a lot about how people are set up in small groups. Who has status, who doesn’t?  Who has a voice, who doesn’t?  Um, so I think that’s—that’s probably the—the most prominent contribution I can think of and I’m—the other one would be that when we make assumptions about groups of people we’re falling into a social deterministic point of view. So if sometimes in our discussions of a novel like Gary Sota’s “Buried Onions,” um I’ll find students saying things like, “Well, people in those bad neighborhoods operate that way. Well, that’s a very deterministic view and there’s enough evidence to indicate that programs like AVID and other learning programs that scaffold student’s progress from high school to college, show huge, fantastic results for students that people might make wrong assumptions about. In fact, I’ve had AVID graduates in my class that are becoming teachers, working on a master’s degree, and that’s very exciting to me. So the—the whole dimension of social resistance and—and um assimilating without accommodating, bridging across different cultural settings is very important to me and—and uh I think social constructivism has helped us understand those dimensions better. Kathy Al’s work in Hawaii is very powerful on the Waianae Coast showing that the—the possibilities that students can realize and there’s some support there. And—and assumptions that are different then the assumptions that are patanesy (spelling?).

Sure. Uh, I’ll try to think of some specific examples of positioning. If I’m an honors high school student, um I’m probably carrying around a—a nap sack of books that weighs, you know in the vicinity of 75 pounds or something. It’s huge. I mean, the text are like this. And if I have friends, let’s say who are on the football team—I’m going to really stereotype here—and they’re in lower-level classes. They’re carrying around books that look very different then the ones I’m carrying. Well we’ve right away just through these physical artifacts positioned people in terms of status. Now at times the football player might have higher status um because of that role. But we—we do this constantly and we really limit ourselves, uh particularly at the high school level where we do divide up into these little entities, these little groups. We’ve limited our—our possibilities that way. And as soon as—I watch adolescents—they leave high school and self select what they want to do—and I’m thinking specifically of a student I know who’s now in a community college program and it’s just thriving with reading text, doing well, embracing it. He didn’t do that at all back in high school. Just kind of got through the experience. Um, I think clearly it’s a matter of positioning. We—we—just—just by the artifacts of the textbook and who has what books and who has access to what information. Yeah, we do that. We do it a lot.

Uh, yeah that’s certainly something that I—sort of my crusade, I guess and it comes out of my own um experiences. I grew up as a student in Hawaii, in Honolulu and then on the big island and ultimately as a teacher in—in that community, um so I think about how people identify other people and how they treat each other. And so from my perspective I’d like to see students and teachers having a lot of experiences with multicultural issues and multicultural literature. I’ve mentioned a number of times it—it’s flourishing now. We look at the characters in moth—most contemporary multicultural novels across Bank’s Stages of Ethnic Identity Development uh, the most advanced stage being globally aware and comfortable across lots of international communities. The fact is the characters get stuck usually about he middle of his six stages.  They get stuck in—sometimes um being completely separatists. So uh I hope over my life span I get to see some of that change.  So we see that—that as a society we’re producing an environment that people flourish in.  And we’re not there yet. We’re a long way from that and it’s because of—of racial divides and how people make decisions about each other. Uh, so those are the things that I guess are my own personal crusades. The other one probably would be infusing classrooms with art, music, and drama, content classes where that may not normally be part of the—the scene. And I use a lot of music in my class. We just finished writing a—a blue’s song about cockroaches. We’ve written about a lot of different things, primarily science topics um, based on an article from Ohio State University’s extension service about the German cockroach.  So we—we do things like that. So I try to model those kinds of activities and my students typically run with a lot of those ideas and come back in their final projects with fantastic examples of uh innovative practices as—as well as examples of trying to engage uh material that’s—represents diverse groups. So those are my two big crusades, I suppose.

There’s—uh, well the best reference right now if—if a teacher at the content level is thinking of doing um some innovative practices, would be Mary Ellen Boat and Marian McLoughlan’s book um—now I’m going to blank on the title. But it’s uh “Creative and Innovative Practices in Content Literacies.” And that’s not exactly the title but it just came out. It’s an edited volume and it’s a wonderful resource. Uh, reading online.  That uh online journal has some good sources for doing uh innovative kinds of things. I use blue’s because that’s what I played all my life since I was a little kid.  Um, oddly enough growing up in Hawaii I learned some Hawaiian music but I primarily played blues and my voice fits that. Many years in the water as a surfer, sinus conditions, so it works well. But uh I use that musical framework. Other people use rap and hip-hop and—and a variety of other approaches.  Um, so you don’t need to be a musician, but the idea is that you would create a couple of verses that represent naïve knowledge about a topic.  Let’s say the German cockroach. So it’s just a pest and we try and raticate it with Raid or whatever. And then you read more about how it proliferates, how it can be exterminated or controlled and so on and you build in more scientific knowledge with each small group in the class writing a verse.  And then we perform that. We put it together as a song and we sometimes tape it and so on. So I have a whole collection of these songs I’ve been doing over the years with students. And in our book that’s coming out in—in February, um we have a CD on there with examples of that, our content text.  So it actually has some—some good uh ways that somebody could go about using music and uh—so I guess that’s my other crusade. It’s those two things really, the literature and the music. And I’ve been doing that now for a number of years.