RM Winter 2016 FLIP

From Canoes to Titanic: Contextualizing Reading Instruction for Struggling Readers

Patricia Wachholz, Armstrong State University Julie Warner, Georgia Southern University

Reading Matters Teaching Matters

make one canoe. He also explained to us that some high school students in Florida discovered more than a hundred canoes near Newnan’s Lake and some of those canoes, representing the world’s largest such archeological find, are on exhibit in the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida. I listened, amazed. This was a boy who, on paper, was a failing at-risk student. Yet, he possessed knowledge of this subject that would rival that of a university professor. He used a technical vocabulary to explain the canoe-making process, which he understood well.

Abstract — Teachers and university researchers in one high school contextualized learning experiences for struggling readers, making room in the classroom for disengaged students’ voices, their literacies and their curiosity. Questioning about what would happen if literacy learning was structured around not standardized test preparation, but instead one “disinterested” student’s interests, the authors took a first step in making their classroom a successful learning space for all students. The growing numbers of students who struggle with test-driven literacy instruction suggest that we “rethink” our work as teachers in some fundamental ways. As we consider the impact our teaching will have on students’ futures and on our own outcomes as a people, finding ways of connecting academic experiences with relevant “outside of school” literacies becomes of great importance. Meeting Joshua Joshua (all names are pseudonyms) was a high school senior who, after three tries, had yet to pass the state-mandated reading test and now faced the possibility that he would not graduate high school. He was enrolled in a project that I was involved in at the university where I served as an administrator and reading professor. The project, “Reading Buddies,” paired low-performing high school students with at-risk elementary children. We were visiting the elementary school where these high school students would read picture storybooks to non-reading first graders. In the breezeway of the school sat a magnificent dugout canoe that stretched nearly fifteen feet. The high school boys were admiring the canoe when one of them turned to me and asked, “How did they make these things anyway?”

“How do you know all of this?” I asked him, incredulous.

“I’ve done a lot of research in this area- native American culture. If you want, I could send you some web links so you can read up on it.”

His low test scores and failing grades aside, Joshua exhibited significant literacy skills that fell clearly under the radar of traditional school assessments, particularly those high-stakes assessments by which students and schools are judged. As Apple (2005) points out, the focus in contemporary U.S. schools on high stakes standardized tests reduces the fullness of life so that “only that which is measurable is important” (p. 11). It is no wonder then that it is harder for some students to connect to thin curriculum and the concomitant skill and drill teaching (or drill and kill, as students often call it) it engenders. Perhaps it is our struggling learners, for whom contextualized learning experiences would offer a richer and fuller learning experience, who are most disadvantaged by this reality. Contextualized learning is nothing new. In fact, it dates back to John Dewey who, at the turn of the 20th century, advocated a curriculum and a teaching methodology tied to the child’s experiences and interests. One of our problems in schools is that what we want students to learn is detached from real-world referents. Because learning is decontextualized, it often holds little meaning, especially for struggling students. Despite his reading test scores, Joshua loved to read about things that were interesting to him. Over the six months that I worked with Joshua’s teacher, I observed Joshua reading Sharon Draper’s The Battle of Jericho , as well as Elie Weisel’s Night . He was an everyday newspaper reader, mostly sports. But, he also became interested in several articles about an engine failure incident on a Qantas Airbus 380, a double-decker plane that, amongst other innovations, touted a luxurious interior. Beneath his quiet exterior was a boy who had plainly

“I’m not sure,” I answered. “I guess they cut down a tree and chiseled out the inside.”

Joshua rolled his eyes. “No, they didn’t,” he said quietly. “Canoes like this one are hundreds of years old. The Indians used canoes for thousands of years and made them before they had the tools to chop down trees or chisel anything.”

The boys snickered. “So,” taunted one. “How did they make them, Joshua?”

“With fire.”

Joshua proceeded to tell us, in vivid detail, how native Americans would locate the right tree, near the waterway, fell it by burning, and then use fire to hollow it and flatten the bottom, and primitive tools, like oyster shells, to smooth the wood, mud to seal it and bear grease, perhaps, for periodic seasoning. It would take six or seven men days or even weeks to

| 44 | Reading Matters | Volume 16 • Winter 2016 | scira.org


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