Can students’ time in reading class be spent as profitably with a bowl of popcorn and a movie as with a novel and notebook?
In central New Jersey, a former school board member and parent are raising questions about the Hamilton Township School District’s policy of allowing teachers to use movies for instructional purposes and teaching students reading skills through short excerpts instead of whole books or stories.
While the awards-season critique of the role of movies in the classroom is certainly intriguing, this dispute is, at its heart, part of a long-running debate about the increased emphasis on “close reading” that’s come along with the Common Core State Standards in English/language arts and how teachers should approach it.
Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman reports from the Trentonian that officials in the Hamilton school district, near Trenton, say that these practices are nothing new: “Teachers have been working with close reading and analyzing portions of text for several years now,” Sylvia Zircher, the instruction director at the school district, told the newspaper.
She said that teachers might screen movies or portions of movies in order to stimulate discussion, but that the movies wouldn’t be part of the teacher’s approach to teaching reading skills.
The district’s superintendent, Thomas J. Ficarra, told the paper that “we still read whole novels, but we do this (close reading of excerpts) as a part of the new thrust behind the national standards as well as New Jersey standards to get children to read critically.”
New Jersey adopted a revised version of the Common Core State Standards last year, replacing the original standards, which the state had adopted in 2010. While the phrase “close reading” doesn’t appear in the common core, the introduction to the standards states that “students who meet the Standards readily undertake the close, attentive reading that is at the heart of understanding and enjoying complex works of literature.” The first anchor standard for literacy asks students to “read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.” In many cases, teachers have taught “close reading” by having students deeply probe shorter texts for meaning without first turning to outside sources. The idea is that this approach leads to a greater understanding of the text.
But George Fisher, a former district school board member, argued in an email to the Trentonian that teachers should not use films to supplant, rather than to supplement, novels, and that asking students to read excerpts instead of whole texts is depriving them of important context.
Fisher said this approach could lead to ignorance among students. From his email to the paper:
“Text is most certainly not simply a part of a text or a work. It is the book, the work, itself,” he added. “A student assignment may well be to analyze a part of the book and compare it to/contrast it to, fit it into the whole of the book. It is not to analyze that ‘part’ in isolation. How can one do the required analysis of a part without knowing the whole?!”
Fisher writes that, while middle school standards for literacy ask students to be able to analyze live or filmed dramatizations of literary works, they wouldn’t permit teachers to entirely replace reading a novel with watching its movie incarnation.
The Trentonian piece doesn’t describe individual instances of teachers screening, say, the 1996 film Emma after students had read just a few pages of the original Jane Austen novel. It’s difficult to tell from this piece just how much of students’ time is spent on excerpts instead of whole works or whether teachers really are relying too heavily on movies.
But the common core’s expectation that students be able to “close read” texts has drawn critics and concerns from early on. In 2012, district leaders were concerned teachers weren’t well-prepared to teach students how to close-read, while others questioned whether the approach took into account students’ varied levels of background knowledge. Of course, the approach also has strong proponents, who argue that close reading builds critical thinking skills.