Meaning Through Community
“Community is the entity in which individuals derive meaning.”
(Qtd. in Gregory 12)
Language is a constructed tool for exchanging information between humans and is based on a series of assumed symbols and mutual understandings. English speakers cannot obtain a full understanding of a foreign language because semantics are not shared between the two languages. When applied to literature, the same is true– without an assumed mutual understanding of symbols, conventions, historical context, etc., texts become bereft of their meaning.
A community of humans that share common understanding of literary meaning is necessary to fully discover the essence of deep communication within a text. In addition, the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives that a varied community can bring to a text is invaluable to producing new interpretations and drawing different meaning from a text. In isolation, language and literature possess neither purpose nor meaning. In a literary community, however, literature thrives and comes alive.
“Some of the most important and pivotal moments in my life have come about while discussing books. There are things that I have learned in such discussions that I think about and make use of every day.”
Language and literature exists because it changes us. Stories can move us and shape us into the people that we are. Engaging in literary discourse is to engage in discussion of life, liberty, and love. Language unites us, allows us to build together as humanity, and brings about change. Moments in our lives are marked often by the books we read, the words we hear, and the things we say. The English classroom is where we build those skills and ideas that allow us to participate in the world around us and to become active and involved in changing our lives and our communities.
“My motivation has sprouted from past reading experiences. […] All readers have their own branches, and they are varied.”
Students don’t automatically adopt lifelong literacy. Individuals with sustained, lifelong reading practices understand that literature is based on interconnected relationships. Starting with one book, a good reader will find many other books in the genre, from that author, on a related topic, or recommended by other readers. A cold reading, without familiarity or prior interest can discourage a reader– but, when a student is given a gateway through prior connections to a text, it can bridge the gap and engage the student.
It is necessary to highlight the process that good readers engage with to find new books they will love. The concept of “Reading Trees,” in which a single book can grow into branches of many books, enables students to use prior interest and familiarity to discover new books or genres that keep them reading further, broader, and deeper than before. This is key in producing lifelong literacy habits.
What happens when teachers fail to do everything necessary to provide the best instruction?
The stereotypes surrounding the teaching profession are honestly terrifying. There is pressure for teachers to perform well comes from a multitude of parties: Students, parents, principles, the school board, standardized tests, the state legislature, future employers, and even democracy. Teachers in our country are notoriously underpaid and overworked. They must balance individuality, behavioral misconduct, fair assessment, meaningful curriculum development, student health, lesson relevancy, higher-order thinking, engagement, concerns from parents, classroom administration, lack of funds, lack of time, and much more. Teaching is one of the most difficult professions, yet one of the most influential and important.
I know resiliency is key for teachers. In the face of constant failure, I must give my best and relentlessly pursue excellence. I must remember that I am doing the impossible, and that it is the most influential and important work.
How can we determine when a student is “ready for the world?”
Standardized assessment is difficult to grapple with. These tests don’t account for student individuality. Dr. Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences Theory and other research indicates there are multiple ways to measure intelligence, yet standardized test only measure a few areas, so they do not yield comprehensive or holistic data. The test atmosphere itself can also produce inaccurate results by creating a synthetic, inauthentic expression of knowledge. Then, there is a question of whether the skills assessed (and therefore taught) are truly representative of the skills students will need for the job market, since different fields vary wildly in the skills required.
It is necessary, however, to set a minimum threshold for student achievement, and to ensure all students reach the minimum. While the goal is always to produce lifelong learners, we still need a fair system to judge student preparedness to be workers and citizens in our country. So, where is that bar? Who sets it?
How can we prevent bias when determining thematic and philosophical focal points for the classroom?
While knowledge and skills objectives are determined for ELAR teachers in the TEKS, thematic and philosophical standards are not set by the state and are left to the individual teacher. Thus, determining essential thematic intentions for a unit or lesson will be prone to the bias of the teacher or team developing the curriculum based on political, religious, and other social perspectives.
The classroom must be a safe place for all students, so a lesson’s philosophical objectives should be reflective of universal, non-partisan ideas. It then becomes a teacher’s responsibility to fairly represent multiple viewpoints, to teach with an open mind, and to reveal biases within their teaching whenever possible. It is also a teacher’s responsibility to defer judgement and thematic control to parents and families in their district. A teacher’s job is to teach and serve according to state standards, and to respect the values of students and their families, not according to their own opinions and beliefs.
Gallagher, Kelly. Deeper Reading: Comprehending Challenging Texts. Stenhouse Publishers, 2004.
Gregory, G. & Chapman, C. (2007). Differentiated instructional strategies: One size doesn’t fit all. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Wilhelm, Jeffrey D. Strategic Reading. Portsmouth, NH; Heineman 2001.