Sunday, July 5, 2015

Matt's Literacy History

Matt Balaban

Literacy History

     My memory of the beginnings of my literacy is very faded. I have seen a piece of my work from kindergarten recently where I explained that I wanted to visit the ocean to see animals. I misspelled most of the words, but the effort was sincere and that’s why I’m proud of it. I remember writing a story in first grade called “The Big Shark” that was wildly successful in my class and impressed my teacher and my parents. It made me feel really accomplished. I remember in second grade being taught how to write in cursive. I remember practicing letters and the teacher explaining how the page should be tilted at a certain angle, but I didn’t quite understand why. It wasn’t long before I switched back to printing; probably sometime in middle school. In third grade we had a program where reading a certain number of books merited some sort of prize from pizza hut. It either had something to do with Star Wars: Episode One collectable items, pizza at reduced cost, or both. Probably it was both. I remember asking my teacher if I could read Barenstein Bear books because they were my favorite, but I remember her saying that we “don’t read Barenstein Bear books in third grade” and it made me feel embarrassed, especially because I had just moved into that class from another district. In third grade I also was introduced the presentation, which was something new for me at my new school, and I found the expectation that I’d stand up in front of the whole class to present something somewhat confusing. I did an oral book report on Grizzly Adams, and I remember the yellow cover of the book, exactly where I found it in the library, and my brown paper bag costume that I dressed up in. I was incredibly nervous. I remember doing another book report that year that I struggled quite a bit with because maybe I couldn’t understand it fully, but for sure I was nervous to present, and insecure with my memorization of the details to cover, so I tried to make notes taped on the back of the book as I presented, but I think the class took that as cheating. I remember many individual presentations that I delivered in my school days, probably because they made me so nervous and afraid of messing up and being judged.

     I remember being more confident in sixth grade with my oral book report on Holes, and my teacher was so sweet, caring, and understanding. I felt more confident in that class. I remember drilling vocabulary and reading Greek mythology in seventh grade; that vocabulary I remember mostly because of rehearsal methods we were doing in class. By methods I just basically mean traditional rehearsal and fill-in -the-blank exercises. I remember similar vocabulary endeavors in eighth grade, but mostly the poem by Robert Frost that I needed to memorize, which was the first time I was asked to explicitly memorize in a rote way. I also remember all of the comma rules we went over and loved it for its comprehensiveness. In ninth grade, I was in honors English for the first time, which I found intimidating. I was also intimidated by my other classmates who seemed to find the class easy and got the understanding they were supposed to from the Merchant of Venice. Honors English in tenth had world literature, which I enjoyed, but still found myself in this uncomfortable space in class where I had more questions than the class seemed to be interested in addressing. I say the class because even though it was the teacher who would answer them, and even if we had the time for it, many other classmates of mine seemed to find my questions annoying and time-consuming. I remember becoming incredibly frustrated by this, being made to feel like my questions were unimportant. I remember the class being particularly frustrated with my question about why it had been the apple that was the gift at the mythological wedding instead of something else. “Who cares?” the class sighed in exasperation. I remember being really frustrated also with understanding Omar Khayaam’s poetry, even through I really wanted to. Once I was riding in the car with my Mom with my fat literature textbook in hand and got so fed up with how the messages were so unclear. She asked me simply to read a stanza, and I remember her offering a few straightforward ideas about what it could mean, and instantly my face stopped looking so twisted when I realized that it didn’t have to be so hard - that meaningful interpretations didn’t need to be as locked away as I felt they were. In 11th grade I remember more vocabulary drills, which the rest of the class seemed to simply stomach rather than appreciate, but I didn’t mind. I also remember a teacher I became good friends with - this was probably in part because she smiled and her eyes got excited whenever I asked questions. None of my fellow students seemed to ask anything. I remember in twelfth grade having a devil’s-advocate-type question that asked everyone to consider how the antagonist felt in Grendel and why it might feel that it needed to act in an evil way. I felt really proud about by ability to bring about a new perspective that wouldn’t normally be considered.

      When I reflect on my literacy-related learning experiences, no particular person stands out in my mind as being incredibly influential in my literacy skill development; there are mainly just fragmented memories of significant moments. It was the case throughout most of school that I understood myself as less capable in English, as well as less interested. I baffled myself about becoming an English teacher right out of college in Bangladesh, and I take pride in how unexpected that was. It was when I started teaching English that I found a connection to it and an appreciation for it. It seems that being in school as a student didn’t really cultivate my literacy and competency as much as being involved as an educator. That’s one of the things that made me turn to education in a longer-term way as a teacher.

     From having recalled my past experiences, I’m imaging that certain tendencies in my teaching emerged from my experience as a student. I don’t like giving group work because I myself don’t like it much, probably because of how I felt different with my unconventional questions and slow reading. I hesitate to find creative ways to teach vocabulary, because I found rehearsal and discussion to be effective and efficient for me as a learner. I’m also hesitant to give too many individual presentations and oral book reports because of how nervous they made me feel. So, aside from these deep-dark-secret-traditionally-minded biases, a more decidedly positive outcome of my educational background is the sincere motivation to address literacy-related endeavors rather than straight content. I love discussing reading strategies, looking at word roots and connections, investigating how the sentence and paragraph structure is designed in a writing, theorizing about why authors chose certain words or literary devices, and asking out-of-the-box questions that contribute to gleaning the most understanding from text. For the most part, I also value all the questions that students bring up in class as well, because I certainly remember how it felt to have them as a student. Sometimes I wonder if it’s a good thing that I’m inclined to teach in a way that fits how I was as a student, but at least I can acknowledge that it has provided me with a profile of certain pedagogical motivations that are quite genuine.


  1. Matt, I am so glad you managed to find your way around some discouraging events in your literacy life. I hope the teacher who discouraged you from reading what you wanted to read as received some professional development or has come to realize the potential damage that could be done with a comment like that. I makes me wonder about the mistakes I have made. Anyway, I really enjoyed reading this. It is obvious that you have a natural curiosity and it seemed your 11th grade teacher appreciated this. I found it interesting that you valued the drill-style learning of vocabulary. I have noticed that some of my students like this as well. I wonder if it because they feel as though they have some sort of control of their learning or that it is comfortable because there is no ambiguity. I am interested in what you think about some of the techniques we'll see when we explore vocabulary.

    Finally, your last sentence really struck me. I found it incredibly insightful. We tend to teach like we were taught and how we are comfortable learning. It is difficult to step out of this comfort zone and experiment. I think this is true for new and veteran teachers. A stance that I have learned to take and which seems to work for me is to assume that if a student is not able to understand something I am trying to teach, then I am the one who needs to change. I am not meet his needs or reaching him in some way and I have to work to find that way that does reach him. I have learned not to blame the student for my failure to reach him. This may seem obvious but if you watch and listen to teachers closely many will say that the student isn't studying, or doesn't care, or isn't motivated. Essentially saying the failure is the student's alone. I'm telling you this because I think if you take that stance it might answer your questions about whether your inclinations to teach the way you learn is a good thing.

    This was really fascinating for me to read. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Thanks for your comments! I think a lot about where responsibility falls for learning in the classroom. There seems to be a spectrum, the teacher on one side and the student on the other. Like you said, if the student isn't learning, who is to blame? I'm guessing that different schools take different stances about this. The age of the students makes a different too I'm guessing. It also seems that the general understanding about how to most appropriately acknowledge responsibility is as you mentioned above, with the real responsibility lying with the teacher. In my mind, somehow this correlates with the student-centered learning trend...although I'm not sure how to articulate that. Perhaps because the mentality is that students as people are products of the conditions and environment that they are placed in, and I like that constructivist view.

    However, I see some negative implications of all this in that if we understand learning to be in the hands of the teacher, then teachers can be unfairly judged and paid based on student performance like we see happening in schools in the US (or at least that's what I've heard). At the moment, I feel more comfortable understanding a student's learning as his or her own. I like to think that it's the student's choice about whether or not to follow expectations, study, ask questions, etc., and therefore the outcomes are directly tied to them. However, philosophically, free will makes me squirm a bit, and I think a lot of our taste for individual choice and volition is culturally constructed as Americans. Additionally, understanding student learning in this way might subconsciously be me trying to protect myself, because I have a critical eye already, and if students are struggling, I don't want to beat myself up even more than I already would be trying to figure something out. In any case, I equally like the idea of student successes being owned by the student as well, rather than somehow taking credit myself for it. Moreover, "meeting me halfway" has seemed to work well for me as a general philosophy, where my output and the students' output balance out and we all maximize our efforts. I'm so, so very un-inclined to put in extra effort for students that overtly undermine the classroom or simply don't do their work or whatever. I don't know though, perhaps this is problematic?

    The question about responsibility for learning has been in my head a lot this year. I imagine I'll continue to develop my thinking about it through experience. Any more thoughts you or others in the class about this topic?

    1. Matt, you bring up some interesting points that I didn't consider and I agree that part of my job is to instill a sense of responsibility in my students. However, I have come across many teachers who tend not to see the student as a whole person. I suppose this is what I mean by my stances of "what am I missing?" A common example is the student (let's take a sixth grader) who never studies for any unit assessment or who refuses to complete a large writing project. If the student is doing this consistently, then, in my mind at least, there has to be something else going on. I believe it is my job to be empathetic and sympathetic and seek ways to reach that kid. I have seen far too often teachers saying, "well he just doesn't care." To me, that attitude allows the teacher to wash his/her hands of the student. I am not saying that I have found ways to reach every one of these kids. More often than not I don't because of larger issues. However, I like to believe that at they realized I tried to understand what's going on and work with them. Now, those are extreme cases. On the other hand, what I meant by my stance is when a number of students aren't getting what I'm trying to teach. I frequently hear my colleagues say that the kids just don't get it or they're not trying or they don't listen. In my eyes this is shifting the blame students when they fail to grasp a concept rather than being reflective and thinking about what was wrong with the instruction.

      Finally, too be clear. I do not think you are anything like these teachers I've mentioned. I think you are far too thoughtful and introspective for that. In fact, I do not blame those teachers I mentioned earlier either. Often I think it is a defense mechanism to protect egos or from feeling guilty or like a failure - especially if they do not have the tools or professional development to improve their instruction.

      Thanks for responding! This was a great exchange. Also, thanks for not mentioning all the typos in my previous response. I respond to so many that I don't take the time to proofread :)

  3. From Kevin....I really enjoyed your blog post and appreciated your personal stories. I was impressed at how well you remembered those situations and how you felt at the time. You seemed to be a pretty good reader, even if you were a little slow, so I was wondering how did you feel about your writing skills? Did you find presenting material easier in the written form as compared to speaking in front of class? I also wanted to encourage you to never stop asking questions; even if some people roll their eyes others are too afraid to ask questions and I’m sure they appreciate you asking them so they don’t have to. You also mentioned you took pride in your unexpected decision to teach English in Dhaka, have you experienced other times in your life when you have felt pride in surprising those around you? I love the thoughtfulness, insight and genuineness you brought to this blog post and you bring to class every day, keep it up.