From My Bookshelf: Dancing in the Mosque

Dancing in the Mosque: An Afghan Mother’s Letter to Her Son by Homeira Qaderi (translated by Zamn Stanizai)

“But Baba-jan, these are only books, not enemies.”

In our society, despite rallying cries of fake news, simplified and romanticized versions of history lessons, bland leveled or decodable books, and a smattering of attempts to ban books, it’s hard to imagine any society at any time that readers and writers read and wrote in fear for their lives but with utter determination. Yet, it was only a few generations ago that our country had anti-literacy laws affecting slaves, freedmen, and people of color. And today, there are still too many repressive nations and too many populations with low literacy rates. 

Homeira, coming of age surrounded by the Taliban, and her family were the most upset about the prohibition against reading. Her father wrapped their books in plastic and buried them. Every May, he would dig them up and spread them out in the sunlight to dry for a day before reburying them.

On the day that Homeira read to her family the first story she wrote, her father brought the books out and hid them in the cellar so that Homeira could read them by kerosene at night.

Despite the great danger, her father encouraged Homeira, “By reading more novels, Homeira, you will become more creative. You will know more people and you will experience many different lives.”

We mustn’t forget the power of reading, writing, media, and knowledge. And that the power embedded in relationships, not only between societies and its people but also between adults and children, has a significant impact on our access to literacies. 

Literacies Circle: Measuring Literacy

Some pediatricians are advising against assessing for learning difficulties, such as learning disabilities, dyslexia, or attention deficit disorders, during the pandemic in light of disrupted routines, virtual learning, and trauma. At the same time, there is increasing fervor for making schools more humane, especially as we return to face-to-face schools. Many of us would like to go back to “normal” soon, but we must realize that the “normal” before wasn’t working for some of us too. While many children miss being at school with their peers, there are children who had struggled within the school walls who are now much happier learning from home or in smaller pods. Learning takes on many forms and it doesn’t simply stop just because of missing months of face-to-face schooling.

The purposes of assessments—both on an individualized and state/national level—are being deeply questioned, especially when it comes to “learning loss.” An excellent topic for reflection in a literacies circle.   

What are the purposes of assessments? What are the consequences?

What is the purpose of a particular assessment, such as a test comprising of nonsensically-spelled words to measure reading? Or a state standardized test?

How do we define an error? Are repetitions and self-corrections in reading considered errors? Writing and then later editing is an error? Is the act of checking a picture or reading ahead to determine a definition an error? Is it an error when a response is not given within a specified time frame? Or the number of words read per minute?

How is a hierarchy of levels decided? What are the cutoffs between scores for benchmark or grade levels or categories like not proficient, proficient, or advanced

Very few of us, possibly no one, likes pop quizzes. How do we get psyched for tests? How do we study for a test?

How is an assessment a reflection of the assessment itself? Was it a fair test? What about biases? What is the underlying theory of reading or writing is it based on?

Who has the power to decide what items go on assessments? And how are the items scored? Teachers? Statisticians? Researchers? Or politicians? And what are their cultural and linguistic backgrounds?

And for what populations? (Ibram X. Kendi remarked that the use of standardized tests to measure aptitude and intelligence is one of the most effective racist policies ever devised to degrade Black minds, reinforcing the oldest racist idea: Black intellectual inferiority and perpetuation of achievement gaps.)  

How is an assessment or a set of assessments a reflection of timing, such as during the pandemic or in the wee hours of the morning (especially for a teenager) or right before lunch? What about the environment? In school? At home? On a computer? With a hovering parent? In an office with a stranger?

Why do some assessment scores suddenly drop? Was the score reflective of the observed ability (such as a fifth grader usually reading close to target, but scored a recent test on a first-grade level)? Was the child sick? Cold? Tired? Did the child just blow through it? Did the child wise up to the algorithm? Were the questions “stupid” and the child annoyed? Was there a technical error in scoring?

What happens after a completion of a battery of assessments? What are the resulting labels that are used to identify readers and writers? Struggling? Unmotivated? At-risk? Tier 2? Tier 3? Special education student? Disadvantaged? “Can’t read” or “Non-reader?” Level H? or Level M? Disabled? Reading disordered? Dyslexic?

Are the deficit-termed labels helpful? Or disparaging? marginalizing?

Does the intervention or remediation improve just the test score itself, or the whole gamut of reading and writing abilities?

What about the use of feedback? How do we listen to children’s explanation of their reading and writing processes? How do we support them when they get stuck?

And most of all, as we work toward restorative literacies, what are some of the ways we can we see success in children’s development of and practices in literacies without the use of formal assessments?

From My Bookshelf: The Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic

The Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn

Coming up with a structure for writing a book is the toughest part. At least for me, the last (and I insist, the final book) has been in the works for over a decade, an odyssey if you will. This project involves a set of personal narratives, not an academic work filled with research and citations. So far, I have tried four or five different structures and none of them worked well.  

But sometimes ideas for structure pop up in surprising ways. One can read books about writing and publishing, and one can simply read lot of books. But I discovered this week that reading a book (The Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic) about a book (The Odyssey) reminded me of a structure that just might work well for what I’m trying to put together: Chiastic structure. Chiastic structures (or ring composition) contain words, sentences, or even longer texts in a symmetrical pattern, such as ABC…CBA or ABCDCBA. Not only that Chiastic structures are found in classic literature and religious scriptures, but also in modern works such as Star Wars or Harry Potter. As a result of this delightful reminder, I printed off my old narratives and cut them up into strips. I reordered them in a Chiastic pattern and realized I just might be on my way with this project again.

But for those who are not endeavoring to write, the story about a mathematician father who enrolled in his professor son’s college literature class on The Odyssey and then later retraced the mythological adventures of Odysseus on a Mediterranean cruise was a delight to read. The stories are filled with parallelism, gentle humor, endearing exasperation, and love.

Literacies Circle: Screen Time

As the pandemic seems to wind down, there is discussion about returning face-to-face in schools. Some districts are already in fits and starts of hybrid schooling and others are envisioning continuing virtual school for the remainder of the school year.

The concern about the copious amount of screen time in our daily lives plays out in these discussions. While most of us try to reduce the quantity of minutes and hours we spend on phones, laptops, and computers, there is little discussion about the quality of these minutes and hours.

What are the differences between doom scrolling, web surfing, and going down the rabbit hole?

How do we divide our time between zoom sessions, virtual school, video games, and social media?

How do we see that our attention, engineered by well-oiled algorithms, is now a politically and economically precious commodity?

An intergenerational restorative literacies circle can categorize the above questions into two concepts of metacognition:

passive or active engagement.

Are we passively responding to click baits? Or actively contemplating, analyzing, and critiquing? Are we attempting to dismantle and understand viewpoints or simply allowing the viewpoint to wrap us up emotionally without question? When we use search engines to find a recipe to bake muffins, a how-to video to stop the leak in the bathroom sink, or to look up who made the interesting tracks in the snow, do we check the reliability of the information? How do we read news and statistics? Do we take them at face value or dig deeper to check the sources? When we play online games, do we consciously choose between Candy Crush or Scrabble? And why? To relieve stress or learn new words? On social media, do we comment on our first thought or reaction? Or do we pause to think about how our comments will be received by others? Or how our comments may be a reflection of ourselves? How do we decide when and which notifications to turn on or off? Do we go offline when writing a paper or reading a e-book?

The bottom line is how do we control the quality of our screen time, rather than allowing the quantity of screen time to control us?

From My Bookshelf: The Liar’s Dictionary

The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams

Mountweazel.

Oh my, what a word!

And it’s a real word too. Seriously. Look it up. Mountweazels are creative and deliberate made-up words inserted in dictionaries as a trap to reveal plagiarism or copyright infringement. The Liar’s Dictionary was a delightful foray into the world of lexicographers and the humanity in all of us. Part history, part humor, part love, part thriller, and a whole lot of parallelism and wordplay. Perfect for snow day reading.

While you’re at it, pick up these two non-fiction books too. These books will enrich your understanding of language, literacies, and linguistics. 

The Story of Ain’t: America, It’s Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published by David Skinner

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester