Christine Cziko

CHRISTINE CZIKO:  My name is Christine Cziko.  Right now I’m um on leave from San Francisco Unified School District to work as the academic coordinator of the MUSE Credential and NA program. And MUSE stands for Multicultural Urban Secondary English.  So I am teaching and supervising uh pre-service teachers who will go on to become English and/or ESL teachers in urban schools, middle and high schools.

Well, I think first of all, we have to reconceptualize the notion of uh reading as a kind of on orth (?) model where you learn how to do it by 3rd grade, hopefully, and then everything after that is basically done. Um, for secondary teachers, middle and high school, um there’s been very little help in training for them on how to support students as they need more complex text and text from different disciplines. And so, I think the first task is to re-think what it means to support students becoming successful readers uh, especially of academic text and text in different disciplines.  Uh, one of the real issues is that most high school and middle school teachers don’t think of themselves as teachers of reading and understandably so uh when I first started thinking about myself as someone who had to help students through text, I was really upset about it. I mean, first of all I said, “This is high school.  It is my job, right?  If they didn’t learn to read by now, that’s not my problem.”  Um, but of course it was my problem because as an English teacher I expected the students would have come into class having read the assignments that we began in class or that we um—that I signed and more and more students were coming to class not having read or swearing that they really had read their homework, Ms. Cziko, but they didn’t know what it was about, they didn’t know anything about it. They were totally confused. Uh, and so I started to do what I think a lot of teachers do and well meaning teachers who don’t know another way to address the problem is to kind of give them the content of the reading, talk them through the stories, show a videotape, have them role play parts, uh read out loud to them so that we could get to the ideas in literature that I felt were the important things for them to be able to experience and um—and so I talk about sort of this stage in my teaching which didn’t quite—I mean, I’ve been teaching for 20 years. Um, basically a stage in which I was in this kind of co-dependent relationship with kids around reading. I’d do all kinds of things so that they didn’t really have to read the text and we could get to the ideas. And when I realized that I was doing that, it really pulled me up short because I was not helping them become independent readers of text, um am I going on too much?  (interruption) So I’ll just tell this story a little bit.  (interruption)  When I realized that I was not really helping students become independent readers um I was at a loss for a while as to what to do about that.  Um, I didn’t know how to teach reading. I’d never been taught myself.  I don’t remember how I learned how to read. I don’t know how my own two children learned how to read and so I felt that, well here was this huge job that I could no longer ignore and yet I didn’t have a clue as to how to go about doing it. And I really think it was at that point and also these ideas were not all in isolation. I was talking with colleagues about it. I had moved from a very traditional high school in the Broncs to a small high school in Manhattan, both public schools, where I was part of the founding faculty of the school.  And in the past I could say, “Well, maybe it’s because of the curriculum that the kids aren’t reading or maybe, you know, the books—the books are really old and I only have these 40 minute periods and that’s not enough time and I have very large classes so I can’t make those one-to-one contacts.”  So then I was, you know, put myself—found another teaching situation that was—was much more like the one I thought would be supportive of students reading. And we did interdisciplinary projects and kids used New York City as part of the curriculum and we picked very engaging material. But, students were still not reading the text. They were engaged in the projects. They were into the presentations, the role playing, the exploration of the city, the kind of building of things in the classroom, but most of the content of the projects were very thin as they—they had a kind of inch deep, mile wide aspect. So there was lots of form and very creative engage form and very shallow content. Um, and at that time I was working with um co-teaching with a history teacher and I really saw working with her—I mean if I though that I got resistance to reading narrative, the kind of resistance that she experienced reading the history text was stunning. And so I really began to think there’s something more here then just finding the right books or getting kids engaged. There’s something that we’re not doing to support student readers that we need to do. Um, at about that time, uh there was also an incident that stuck in my mind as a kind of turning point for me. I’d started to read a novel aloud to a group of 9th graders and asked them to continue reading the first chapter. This is an—a highly engaging novel um and it was about um—linked to the theme of the Depression, which was what we were doing an interdisciplinary unit on, and this one young man in the class came up to me after I’d finished reading aloud and said, “Ms. Cziko, can you keep reading the chapter to me?”  And I said, “Why Stefan, you can read?” So he goes, “Oh yeah, I can read, but when I read I don’t pay attention.” And I was really taken a back.  How does one read without paying attention? And it was as if this abyss had opened up and I realized that even what I thought the experience of reading was, was not necessarily shared by my students.  Um, so that I needed to find out what they actually did when they read and I needed to think about what I actually did when I read and see if we could begin to talk about those different conception skills, strategies, attitudes, beliefs about what this whole reading process was about.  So um, I was able to draw on my work with the writing project. Um, I’ve been um active in the New York City writing project for—for 20 years um and I began to think about the parallel between the notion of a writing process and a reading process. And why I didn’t think about this 15 years ago, I still can’t figure out, but all of a sudden it became clear to me that I needed somehow to help kids with the actual process of reading a text, just as in the writing process movement. Uh, teachers moved away from simply giving out an assignment and then checking it after it was done, to help kids draft, understand what revision was about, peer edit, you know, proofread.  Um, so in reading I thought, “Well, what’s the equivalent of helping kids through the process of making sense of text” and not just assigning and then discussing or actually, more accurately explaining what was in it—what they had read.  Um, it was about that time when I moved to California and became part of a—another new school in uh Babuhunters Point, Thurgood Marshall Academic High School. And this was a very interesting school set up by a court order, a court decree, because um NAACP had taken San Francisco Unified to Court uh be—on the basis that if you were in one of three zip codes in San Francisco covering the neighborhoods of the mission, which is mainly Latino, um Babuhunters Point, which is African-American primarily, and Visitation Valley, which is primarily new immi—Asian immigrants—Asian-American immigrants. Um, the schools that you were zoned to go to, your neighborhood schools did not even offer the coursework necessary to be eligible for UC admission. So this was a dayfacto uh segregation and a number of schools were created to address that need. To provide a high-quality academic education for students in those neighborhoods and Thurgood Marshall was one of those schools. So this was an incredible challenge.  Um, first of all there were no admission requirements except that you lived in one of these zip codes and that some adult in your life—in the student’s life signs a paper saying they would like you to be there. Often it wasn’t the student who wanted to be there, um and then um basically kids at a whole range of uh compenancies in a variety of subjects um came to the school and our job was to prepare them for a college education. Um, after my first year at that school, and I had all of this sort of reading, writing connections, you know, going around in my head, and I began to meet with some other teachers in California in the Bay area who were also interested in this question of literacy for adolescents. Um, after the first year of that school, the freshman on an average, I think 40 percent, had a less than uh 2.0 grade point average and so many students were failing. And the whole faculty was faced with this dilemma.  If we lowered the standards, what was the point of having this school to begin with?  And yet we couldn’t just keep failing kids. And so um based on some of the work that I had been doing with this little team of teachers, um looking at individual kids at their reading—as a kind of reading case studies, um I went back to my colleagues in what was called the Strategic Literacy Network um, and I said, “I think there’s an opportunity at Marshall to create a course for all 9th graders to give them this step up, to help them become prepared to read the variety of text that they’d have to master in high school and beyond.”  And, in fact, those were the goal—the goal of the course, which became called—which was called Academic Literacy—was to become engaged, fluent, and compenant readers of the variety of text that they would need in high school and beyond and a variety of disciplines. And so um we—a small group, four teachers, two English teachers, two History teachers, piloted this course for all 300 incoming 9th graders. Um, and we learned quite a bit during that year as did, luckily the students. And we had some very good results. Um, but I think at the heart of what we discovered and what we did was that teachers of older students need to be able to, first of all, realize that they, no matter what kind—what discipline they were teachers of, already knew a lot about reading in their discipline. They had gone through college and majored in the discipline, been successful, gotten through their teaching credential program, and so they really knew how to read the text of their discipline. And the challenge was for them to be able to make those cognitive skills and strategies um that were invisible to students, visible to students to share with the students their own reading process around the text of their discipline and then to help students um, first of all, explore what students reading process is. If—if Stefan’s process is not to pay attention when he reads, well that’s a big problem. So what—what do you do and don’t do when you read and then how can we build the kind of—I don’t know—toolbox of cognitive strategies, um a kind of uh repatra of ways to deal with a variety of text.  And um, so it’s really the notion of an apprenticeship in which the product that you’re creating is a competent reading of a text. It’s an invisible product. And so teachers have to make visible the invisible processes that they go through in order to come up with that product and students have to be apprenticed into those readings. Um, that is sort of at the heart of this kind of process approach to reading instruction and uh it becomes—when teachers start to trust the fact that they actually do know quite a bit about how they make sense of text, and that changes.  I have been in a group with science teachers and history teachers and we have all been reading the same text, right?  Sometimes the science, sometimes the history, sometimes the literature, and uh the science teachers will bring ways of reading a science text to life that I never thought about, that I had no access to. And that really helped me through a difficult text.  So here’s, you know, another adult who’s got a degree and all that, out learning about how the discipline of science—um, how the discourse in that discipline gets unpacked. How uh a science teacher makes sense of science text. Uh, and that’s what we’re trying to get middle and high school teachers to think about doing with their own students, to share that struggle.  And I feel like I’ve been talking forever so…

Um, I think one of the fears that teachers in different disciplines have, and I think it’s really a fear that is growing in this sort of high stakes testing environment in which a certain amount—a huge curriculum actually, has to be covered in a certain amount of time and then kids will be tested.  I think teachers in science, math, and history um feel that they can’t afford to stop to actually address issues of literacy when they have so much curriculum to cover.  And so one of the big challenges is to convince—convince them that becoming a confident reader and writer in the discourse of the discipline is as important as getting a specific body of content.  The content will change but if you learn to be a reader and learner of science, a reader of science text, a learner of how science and how those ideas get presented, then you will have that for a lifetime and whether the content changes tomorrow, you will still know how to access that content.  So, rather than seeing—um, paying attention to reading in your classroom as an extra job or a diversion, what we try to do is get science, and math, and history teachers to see this is actually part of their job and actually in the service of students learning that content. Now, I think we’ve been most successful—and I keep saying we because I’m part of this network, um when we’ve gotten teachers and disciplines to actually sit down with us, read a text and talk about and write about what they do when they read that text, and they begin to see how complex a task it is. How much prior knowledge they bring to bear, how much an understanding of the particular jonra (?)  of say a textbook, or a lab report, or a primary source document, how—because they are familiar with those text structures, they’re able to make their way through the text um, and it becomes a very—I don’t know—enlightening and—I hate the word empowering, but they begin to feel that they can actually teach students something about how to approach these text.  They’re also um by and large, uneasy about the fact that many of them have a band in the text totally, have left it on the shelf. And again, um the way I became co-dependent around reading with my students, they do it for good reason. They don’t see the kids engaging with the text, understanding it, getting the information out of it. And so they become these kinds of delivery instruments, right, of curriculum and students are often copying notes from the board uh and they know that there should be more thinking going on and engagement on the part of the student.  I think a final—maybe not a final but another way um to talk to subject area teachers about this is to ask them to take a look at the gate keeping text in our society. And what I mean by that are those passages in standardized reading tests, in high school exits exams—California will be having a high school exit exam—in the SAT, college entrance exams, take a look at what students are actually expected to read in those texts and you will find that by and large these are documents in the disciplines—there’s some literature, but there’s a lot of history, there’s a lot of science, and if students have never had the experience of sort of cracking those texts, of knowing what the codes are, how to make sense of a text like that, it’s like throwing them into a game that they’ve never been taught the rules.  And so above everything else, uh we’re denying access.  It’s a real equity issue here of denying access to students of the chance to struggle with those texts that are difficult, feel distant from the students, may be irrelevant to their lives, may be boring.  Um, if kids can’t learn to pursue a text through boredom, what can they possibly do with their lives?  I mean I’ve asked my 9th graders, “If you were like totally incapable of anything that was boring, can you tell me one career you might be able to pursue?”  And they really couldn’t think of any uh because students have to always fight through issues around boredom and, as do adults if they have a clear goal in mind.  So, um for some subject area teachers, the experience of reading a text themselves and all of a sudden—all of the sudden realizing how much was involved and how much they knew, that becomes a turning point. For others, it’s uneasiness about not dealing with the text and realizing that they’re kind of spoon feeding and here’s a way maybe to stop doing that.  That wins them.  And for others who have a—a real social consciousness and concerns about equity, facing the fact that if they don’t help kids with the kinds of text that those kids are going to see on the test that will determine their futures, then no one else is doing that job.  So there are a number of avenues into that and by and large, um we found teachers to be quite responsive once they began to understand the—we aren’t asking them to superimpose sort of someone else’s job, or something irrelevant on an already highly pressured teaching and learning situation.    

I think to abandon textbooks limits the ability of students to access a deeper level of comprehension in a subject area. And—so there is an issue around content. A textbook is a kind of intellectual survey of a particular subject.  And though, there are good textbooks and not so good textbooks, um essentially they are a record of the discipline and they give students a foundation for moving ahead in that subject. In addition to the content issue, there is an issue of the structure of text that are written to pass on information.  And students in their future college careers or, I think, different kinds of job training will mainly be faced with expository text. Whereas text they give information, not text that tells stories.  And so by turning all reading into narrative, into stories and even by um subject area or teachers sort of giving the story of the text really um short—you know, prevents students from getting the experience of learning how text work.  What the text signals are that can help them navigate through complex ideas. Um, we try to specifically talk to kids about the difference between narrative and expository texts. Whereas in narratives, for example, uh—and kids need to know this.  Kids need to know that reading is content, context, and task specific. What you’re reading about, in what context, and for what purpose I—make the reading experience very different in different situations.  So, to tell kids up front, “OK, when you’re reading this kind of a text, unlike a story where in the beginning it’s a little more difficult because you’re—you’re getting use to new characters, a setting, you’re getting an idea of where the story’s taking place, um and then the story gets easier because the—you know, it picks up and you know where you are.  Unlike that, when you read a text, generally it gets more difficult as you go along because the purpose is to build on a simpler idea with a more complicated idea. And so don’t get thrown, don’t think you’re a bad reader or you’re not understanding—the more you read the harder it gets, that’s the nature of this kind of text.  And so work with that.  Uh, that kind of knowledge of how text work—how expository text work I think is—is crucial for kids to understand. Uh, if they don’t have textbooks in front of them with a, sort of a guide in the form of teacher, uh I don’t think they’ll get it and they’ll—they’ll suffer from that.

I think that high school uh—it begins in middle school, but I think in high school, it’s probably the time in a student’s sort of life long learning um in which there are the greatest reading demands, even greater then those in college. And the reason I say this is because they have very little choice. They move through a day in which they are expected to be constantly shifting like jonras, contents, expectations. Uh, when you go to college there’s some core things but then ultimately you decide on a major and you spend most of your time, even though you may struggle, with a kind of self-selected field in which you have some interest of some career goal. In high school a student moves through, five, six, sometimes seven periods a day, and in each one they have to make that kind of cognitive shift about—so what counts for learning in this class?  What kind of reading do I have to do?  What—what about writing in this class? What does Miss So-and-so expect or Mr. So-and-so expect?  And so I think it is a very um, disjointed experience. And uh, in my role as helping pre-service teacher become teachers, uh early on I ask them to shadow a student just to feel like—feel what that day is like.  And invariably they are exhausted by the end of the day. Um, one of the things that an approach like a reading apprenticeship approach might do in high school is to create a central core of—I don’t know how to say this but create a core around literacy in all subject areas in which students understand that they are using similar cognitive processes but dealing with different jonras and different disciplines. And that teachers understand and build upon students more sophisticated um awareness of their own reading process so that when we did this academic literacy course in 9th grade at Thurgood Marshall and it—and it is continuing, we had four units reading self and society to kind of get kids really into “Who am I as a reader and where does it fit in my life?”  A reading media, and we did a lot with visuals, reading history, and then reading science and technology. And at the same time what we were trying to do was tell the rest of the school and we were not tremendously successful but we began to give access to the rest of the school, to all the other teachers—um, give access to them of what kinds of habits of mind and skills and understandings of how text work that we were providing in academic literacy that they could then build upon in their discipline so that every teacher in the school should know that the 9th graders they have understand what it means to be medacognitive. And we teach them that word day one.  So they understand what it means to be thoughtful about their own reading and thinking process and to be able to explain what they don’t understand. When a science teacher doesn’t have to go ahead and teach that, but can—but know the student comes in with that understanding, when a student can be asked the same kinds of questions from science teachers like “Talk about where in this text you got confused,” they began to see a connection, I think can begin to see a connection between all these different disciplines and that basically they’re goal is to become alliterate and learning person who can bring a variety of cognitive skills to the different disciplines in which they are going to, you know, be expected to be successful. Uh, and so I don’t think we have gotten there yet, but that would be to me, something that could really sort of hold the center of high school.  And there have been a lot of critiques of high school as the kind of—the shopping mall school is one expression, uh in which they get little from each shop, um there’s also expression which I really like, the Christmas tree school where there’s—all these separate things just hang on this—this school. Um, so what might be at the heart both for students and for teachers of this endeavor called high school education?  And if at the heart it could be this notion of being competent and literate readers and writers and learners of all these disciplines. Um, I think that that would be um a very powerful conception both for teachers and for uh students. And I think it would be a way to have many more useful conversations among high school teachers from different disciplines.  Um, that would be my hope.   

That’s a really good question and um I’ve been thinking a lot about how to integrate this approach into new teacher preparation. Um, there is already um a course required for all teachers in California in reading uh, no matter what subject area that they are um getting—seeking certification in. But um, I think that much better use could be made of that course. It has, at least in the way I’ve experienced it in the past, it’s been kind of elementary school model driven uh, or driven by a kind of sort of one-on-one remediation reading problems approach. If you’re talking and preparing middle and high school teachers who will interact with many students during the course of a year, um they need um a much more comprehensive way to adder—address the issue of reading.  Uh, one thing is that I—I have found and these are for people coming into the credential program to be English teachers, that they are very surprised and a little skeptical when I raise the notion that they’re going to have to address issues of reading. Um, they have in their minds, standing in front of a classroom or sitting in a circle with students, having wonderful discussions about literature.  And it doesn’t come to mind the picture of no one having really read or if they read, not having understood the story. And then what do I do? Um, and I think that’s actually understandable because those people who tend to want to go on to become English teachers were themselves successful readers of English, as is true in all the dis—the disciplines. So they don’t picture that level of struggle. One of the things that um I’ve begun to do is to ask new teachers to be aware of their own reading processes. So I take them through an activity um a few times of reading um a text like an excerpt from “Soula.”  It’s very rich.  Tony Marson and where—as they write down what they’re doing, makes sense of the text, they realize how complex their own processes, how many things their bringing to bare, and we share that with each other. Um, I’ll then give them a text from a different discipline.  Uh, I have a text that is a transnat—a translation of notes that Metice wrote about his painting and even though most people in the room understood every word on the page, conceptually we’re all at sea here.  There’s—it’s a whole other context. And then I’ll bring in uh a history or a science textbook. And so we begin to compare how we approach these texts. So we start by looking at our own reading process, just as in a writing project.  Summer institute you start it looking at your own writing processes, you share that with others and um begin to understand the complexity of the task. The other thing is to get pre-service teachers to sit and work with one student, not a student who is necessarily um in a remediation category, but a student who basically uh is willing to collaborate with the teacher on a kind of shared inquiry into what reading is about for both of them. So this notion of um a respectful approach to a young adult and—and in this society adolescents are young adults.  They—they have adult experiences in so many other aspects of their life and yet in school they’re often treated as much less then that.  So to sit down with one student, read text together, write about their process, share that, uh see what student brings, um and depending on the text, I mean, I’ll ask them to have the student pick a text too.  So a student brings in the lyrics of a rap song and they’re reading together and all of a sudden uh the pre-service teacher is the remediation student.  They—they don’t have a context, don’t have vocabulary, don’t know what this means and uh the high school student is the expert reader.  And so that—you know, you set up that dynamic of really learning from each other. Um, I think that’s where you start um, and then it takes a—I mean, new teachers are dealing with so many issues that for the first year or two there may be a lot of sort survival strategies going on.  Um, but hopefully there’s still that foundation underneath, that understanding of um—really what my job is, is to support my students in becoming independent from me.  Uh, and so therefore, what am I doing that helps them move forward in that way and what am I doing that actually makes them dependent on me.  And if I’m doing that right now because I just can’t handle the other, OK, but—but realize that that’s something you have to be able to move away from.  So, learning to teach is a long—it’s a life-long activity uh, as is learning to read.  Uh, so they have to give themselves permission to do what they need to do to get through their first year or two, but understand what it is their goal is. 

Well, being bilingual and bicultural um puts uh a lot of pressure on a young person. Um, in that he or she is—doesn’t have the language of English um under their belt so that they’ve got this kind of struggle to master the language. But they have um a cognitive sophistication and abilities in their own language um and often don’t have an outlet to show what they know in school because they’re being asked to perform uh in English.  I um—some of the reading case studies that we did were of second language learners and part of what we did was to sit down and just talk to them about um their own um visions of themselves as readers.  And a young man, uh Mario, comes to mind who actually spoke quite of bit about uh reading poetry in Spanish and had some favorite poets and had a father who was constantly uh bringing Spanish books home um about—from Nicaragua and newspaper articles uh from there. And so he actually was in quite a literate environment in his first language. And he um was talking to us about over the course of his career, he had been—his school career.  He had been in the country for about 10 years.  Um, he was moved in and out of ESL programs without a clear understanding on his part as to why he was moved in and out. And that he was now when we interviewed him, a 9th grader, currently in a bilingual um—I’m sorry, not a bilingual, an ESL class, um when he had been in a mainstream class in 8th grade and that he was keeping this knowledge from his father who he feels would have been very disappointed in him.  And Mario did not know what happened to switch him from one class to the other.  And in fact asked the interviewer um who was a teacher, “How—how can it be that one year I’m able to be with other English speakers and the next year I’m not?”  Um, and the whole notion of him not having consistent experience with the kinds of reading passages that test whether or not a student should be placed in an ESL class. So you’ve got this kind of double jeopardy in that often, I think very well meaning, uh teachers are trying to find highly engaging materials to work with ESL students on and avoid those that are boring and more difficult. At the same time, not giving them experience in those texts.  So it’s kind of the same story, um experience in those texts so they can’t actually master them and move out of the ESL programs.  Um, the kinds of strengths that Mario had from his life experience um were not valued in school because we’re kind of forced to look at kids through this narrow crack of academic competency.  So, when you think of what he is able to do as a young adult who is the—the only fluent English speaker in his household, how he is able to deal with um different kinds of communication situations be there—be they about renting an apartment, or—or a medical situation with the doctor, so here he is this incredible translator, um reader of communication advance and social situations, sophisticated about um knowledge of his own neighborhood, um where he can go, where he can’t go, making judgments all the time as to what’s safe and what’s not safe, um very sensitive to his own shortcomings as an English language speaker.  He brings a tremendous amount of cognitive knowledge that somehow we have to as teachers um figure out how to—to access that knowledge and help him put that energy effectively into academic activities. Um, I don’t know that I could personally have the kind of endurance that it takes to go through a high school day in which language is constantly being sort of produced at me and around me and the language is one in which I have a rudimentary understanding. And I’m expected to produce that language and at the same time learn a content—a new content.