Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Critical Stance

We get too caught up in the details. At a meeting earlier this week, I was reminded of this as we discussed the best subskills to impart to struggling readers. It seems to me that we get caught up in all of the little subskills that we never get to the heart of the matter: teaching children to read for understanding.

Of course, that might have been enough 100 years ago, but the world of digital media and the ease at which any self-proclaimed expert can self-publish (even me!) makes me realize that this is simply not enough. I heard it said in one of my graduate classes recently that we have to help kids take a critical stance. Here, here! If we get caught up in all of the sub skills and think that kids are not ready to move on, then we never move them on to actually reading. I think that teaching for mastery is in part to blame for this. If a child must master all the letters, all the sounds, all of the blends and chunks and onsets and rimes, my goodness, we'll never get to reading!

We do get there. Most educators have the good sense to read to their students everyday and so these kids do get exposure to high quality literature. The challenge comes in teaching the students how to take that critical stance. How critical can one truly be of Sheep in a Jeep or even fan favorites like Captain Underpants? If we want to teach students how to think critically about the media they are exposed to, we need to start somewhere that is: 1. intrinsically interesting, 2. reading level isn't a problem, 3. background knowledge isn't a problem, and 4. kids have a reason to think deeply and critically about the matter at hand!

The easy place: commercials and advertising. It cracks me up that we shy away from persuasive media in education and mention again and again how difficult it is for kids to understand. I think the challenge lies in our students' constant exposure to media (digital and print) to which there is little need for a child to take a critical stance. Here's the story written decades ago with a good message about how to be a good person. Here's a textbook that's out of date but by and by irrefutable. It's not that kids can't think critically; they have no reason to do so. We bombard them with print and digital media from reputable sources and our ventures into critical thinking rarely venture into questioning the validity of the author.

Commercials are game changers. The fine print, loud spokespeople, bright colors, "actual demonstrations" and "call now" specials are open invitations for kids to take a critical stance. Show your students a Pepsi commercial and ask them what the purpose of the commercial is. My personal have remains a crowd favorite with my students:

Ask the kids what they think about Snoop Dogg in the commercial. It doesn't take them long to conclude that he was probably paid to be a spokesperson. or ask them about McDonald's "i'm lovin' it" or Arby's "It's Good Mood Food." These students know how to take a critical stance. True, we might need to teach them how to use evidence-based reasoning to strengthen their arguments. We might need to teach them how to articulate their gut feelings in a manner that rings true with their audience. But ask them if they think Jessica Simpson actually uses Proactiv or if Air Jordans really will make them better basketball players.

Of course, taking a critical stance goes beyond just questioning celebrity intentions and the claims made in commercials. But this is a good place to start. It's a starting place where many of your students come in with equal footing, and that counts for a a lot. No need to build a lot of background knowledge when you show commercials. Nor is there need to worry that the reading level might not make it accessible to struggling readers. The length of even the longer Super Bowl commercials still make them short enough to allow for repeated viewings. If you grab a fan favorite, you can get away with digging out absolutely every single detail. Really.

Need a starting place other than the wide, wide world of commercials posted on Youtube? Goodness, I don't blame you. I did, too. Here's my favorites:

Professor Garfield's Forms of Media: Taken right from the NAMLE Playbook, I think, this interactive video features everyone's favorite fat cat as his friend Nermal falls under the spell of a commercial posing as a TV show. The video goes on to spell out the different things we must consider when viewing media. Companion lesson plans and discussion guides make this a perfect place to start with your students. Perfect for grades 1-4.

Admongo: Developed by the Federal Trade Commission (which I think is quickly becoming my favorite federal government organization ... who'd have thought it?), Admongo is a game based "ad-ucation" for your students. Immerse them in the game and then start the conversations. Great lesson plans and an "unlocked" version of the game for teachers also available for those who need a helping hand.

Let's stop getting caught up in the details. Let's get our kids engaged in media that calls on them to take a critical stance ... and don't worry if they can't generate questions during a rousing retelling of "Nan can fan Dan" or some other leveled text. they have it in them to be critical readers; we just have to give them access to the materials that bring it out.

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