Is Improving Reading Instruction a Matter of Civil Rights?

Is Improving Reading Instruction a Matter of Civil Rights?

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What if you’re a new first grade teacher, and you realize the classroom methods you’re using to teach your students to read just aren’t working. And then you discover that these teaching approaches have been proven ineffective for many kids, but are still used anyway.

A new documentary film follows a teacher in just that situation, as well as other educators in Oakland, California, who have banded together to advocate that school systems there and across the country be required to offer only reading curricula that have been scientifically proven to work.

At the center of that activism, and the heart of the film, is the work of Kareem Weaver, who has been a teacher, a principal and now is leading a petition effort through the NAACP to press school administrators to end the use of discredited reading curricula.

The 80-minute documentary is called “The Right to Read,” and it is making the festival circuit of screenings, including a showing at the recent SXSW EDU Festival.

You may have heard about this issue before — it’s an ongoing problem that recently jumped into the national spotlight through a popular public radio podcast called “Sold a Story,” by the journalist Emily Hanford. That podcast investigates a few educators and a publisher who have made a small fortune selling an approach to reading instruction based on a concept called Whole Language, which has been proven ineffective for many children.

“The Right to Read” doesn’t just go over the podcast’s same ground — though it cites Hanford’s work heavily, and she is interviewed in the film. Instead, this new documentary steps back to take a broader look at efforts to cast literacy as a social-justice issue — as the latest civil rights frontline.

Because as Weaver and the film make clear, these failing efforts to teach reading disproportionately impact children of color. According to statistics from the California Department of Education cited in the petition, only 19 percent of African American students in Oakland are reading at level, 24 percent of Latino students are reading at grade level — while 73 percent of white students there are reading at grade level.

EdSurge recently sat down with the film’s director, Jenny Mackenzie. And talking to her led us to seek out the main character in the film, Weaver, as well, to hear more of his proposals to bring greater effectiveness and equity to reading instruction.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts, or use the player on this page.

EdSurge: What led you to tell this story?

Jenny Mackenzie: Reading is personal for me. I was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was 14 years old, and it was a real challenge. I was closeted and there was definitely shame connected to reading. But I came from a family that had a lot of resources and had support — and they got me tested and really put resources in place to allow me to thrive. So when I was approached by a funder to make this film, it just fit, and it was something that I was all in right away.

It sounds like the focus of the film changed though as you went?

Initially we thought this was gonna be a film about early childhood literacy and why kids aren’t ready for kindergarten. So we were looking at kindergarten readiness, and we looked at educational technology and science-based, evidence-based technology that could really set kids up with phonemic awareness and success to thrive in kindergarten quickly.

But thank goodness for the amazing journalism of Emily Hanford. We listened to her first podcast about four-and-a-half years ago called “Hard Words.” That was sort of her first one really looking at the failure of early reading instruction. So we looked at that, and then we watched the families that we were following that were putting every possible form of [resource] in place for their kids, and they still got into classrooms where they weren’t using evidence-based reading instruction. And so the kids were still in a situation where they were set up with some real challenges [in learning to read].

So in your reporting you were encountering the same discredited reading instruction that Hanford was exploring in her investigative podcasts?

Absolutely. And then a year and a half into filming, we met Kareem Weaver and he is an activist working in his own community with the Oakland NAACP.

I’m interested in the film’s title, ‘The Right to Read.’ What do you mean by that?

Well, the right to read comes from Kareem’s words. He believes that literacy and reading is our greatest civil right. So it is something that we all have to not just know that is our right but demand that it be implemented. And right now we sort of think that we have the right to literacy — the right to read — but it certainly isn’t happening. I mean, we have the data, we have the research, but we haven’t taken that research and data and implemented it into practice.

To get there, you have to demand change. So you can’t be polite about it. And I think that is the beauty of someone like Kareem is he is unapologetic, and he really speaks truth to power. And he brings in the data, he brings in the research, he looks at the numbers and he says, look, this is curricula that you have been using that has only been tested on a very small demographic in our population. If you really want to use reading curricula that is effective for all children in our country, do broader research that has more validity — that has more reliability.

So I hope the call to action in the film is for parents, for teachers and for the public to ask their leaders, to ask principals, to ask their school superintendents, what kind of reading instruction are you using? Is it evidence-based? Is it working for all of our kids? Because if it’s only used for a very small portion in our country and the demographics are fairly narrow, that is a huge challenge.

As a white filmmaker, did you do anything to try to bring in the subjects you’re covering into the process to navigate how you were representing them in this story?

I’m so glad you asked. We didn’t start out wanting to make a film about Black and brown families. I think the story found us, and the story needs to be told, and we’ve shared enough stories about white kids and white families and why they matter. And so I think for me, as soon as we found Kareem’s story, it was so clear that he was going to be central to this narrative.

So what we did is we really created a process of deep collaboration. Kareem is a producer on the film — this is his story. I am a white woman. I wanted to make sure we got it right and that he understood the experience. And the same thing with the families that we followed. We really tried to work closely with them. And it was a different experience for me as a filmmaker because we shared cuts with them. We shared scenes.


I wanted to hear directly from Weaver, too, so I reached out to him. And the first surprising thing I learned was that he was resistant to even being in the film at first.

Kareem Weaver: They had to grow on me at first. I was a terrible subject. I wouldn’t talk to them. My wife didn’t want to deal with them at all. My mom said no. But, you know, I guess they kind of wore us down. They stuck with it, and they got enough footage to make some sense of it all.

EdSurge: What was the hesitation?

Weaver: For me, I’m just busy. I’m doing the work. I don’t need to talk about it. As a matter of fact, talking about it is not my friend. If I’m gonna meet with the superintendent, I don’t need a film crew on my hip, you know? And I’m not doing this for clicks and giggles, you know what I’m saying? I’m doing this because we’re trying to get something done for kids. And so I just didn’t see the point.

My wife is an introvert. She didn’t really want much to do with it and said don’t have me in it at all. My mom’s reservation was, she was concerned they were gonna have a negative betrayal of Black folks. A lot of movies do. They put us up as subject matter and then they make us look bad. And so she’s like, ‘Not again at my age, I don’t have time for this.’ She refused to be a part of it at all, just as a matter of principle. And then when the movie came out and she’s like, ‘Oh, you should have had me in it.”

So I’m glad to see that she kind of came around on that. And I don’t think it makes us look bad. I think it shows the reality of people’s lives and how we’re trying to get our kids the help they need to learn to read. And that’s a color-blind thing.

What kind of input did you give as a producer of the film?

You know, part of it is about how the story is told. There’s the professorial version and then there’s the regular folks version. And sometimes we get caught up in the professorial stuff. And I think we kind of did that a little bit at first. You know, we talk about the science of reading. Sometimes people’s eyes glaze over — it’s all a blur. So [I said] actually, why don’t we just talk about the real deal, and what families are thinking about this [issue] and how they feel. So it’s that type of stuff.

What do you hope comes out of this film?

Thank you for asking that question. Number one, it’s a call to arms, a call to action. I’m hoping that people connect to the subject matter enough to turn off the TV for a second, to turn off the football, the basketball, the March Madness, the whatever other distractions with CNN. And let’s see about our kids. I’m hoping that there can be a collective refocus on our children.

When I say collective, I mean both sides of the aisle. I mean all different regions of the country. I mean all ethnic groups. All genders. These are our children, our collective, our children.

I’m hoping that we take a look at that and are honest with ourselves and say, ‘We can do better.’ So that means that as a result of this film, I’m hoping that school boards put literacy in the superintendent’s evaluation plan. I’m hoping curriculum that is not aligned to the research consensus gets booted. And [leaders] either change or they get kicked out of the schools. That we have stuff that’s proven to work. …

I’m hoping that universities step up their game and realize that their methods classes matter, and that teachers shouldn’t come in [to teaching] as blank slates. They should come in with a certain level of experience and knowledge that they can serve kids on day one



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