National Writing Project

A Profound Challenge: Implications for Classroom Practice

By: Jeffrey D. Wilhelm, Michael W. Smith
Publication: Authors and Issues Online Conference
Date: March 2003

Summary: This brief excerpt from Reading Don't Fix No Chevys, deals with Michael Smith's and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm's findings regarding how and when young men engage in literacy practices, and how and if those practices connect to their lives in school. Their multifaceted and rich research will be of interest to teachers who want to make the classroom come alive for all their students. The twin roles of inquiry and the importance of knowing our students and their interests, stand out.


Excerpted from Chapter 6 of Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys by Michael Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. Copyright 2002 by Michael Smith and Jeffrey Wilhelm. Published by Heinemann, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc, Portsmouth, NH. All rights reserved.

Note: The following material is copyrighted. No part of it may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Facilitator Comment: Smith and Wilhelm were interested in how and when young men engaged in literacy practices and how and if those practices connected to life in school. Their multifaceted and rich research will be of interest to anyone interested in making the classroom come alive for everyone. We are including a brief excerpt from the book (with permission), pp 185-194, that deals with their findings. The twin roles of inquiry and the importance of knowing our students and their interests stand out.

Why Do We Teach?

Rethinking Our Goals
We always ask preservice teachers to try to clarify their goals for teaching, often by posing "Would you rather?" questions. Here are a few we have used:

  • Would you rather your students read the newspaper every day OR a novel once a month?
  • Would you rather your students read lots of a series like Animorphs OR a very occasional Newberry winner?
  • Would you rather your students always did their homework but rarely read for enjoyment OR that they often read for enjoyment but often did not do their homework?

Of course, none of the questions have to be either/or propositions, but we craft them in this way to provoke our students' thinking. The questions always spark a lively discussion, which we do our best to stay out of.

But if we face the questions and others like them honestly, we realize that both of us tend to come down on the side of schoolish answers. We've devoted much of our professional lives to thinking and writing about ways to make academic literacies more accessible to more kids. We have tended not to question the primacy of literature in English/Language Arts curricula. However, the research we have reported here is pushing us to do just that.

Although our data provide testimony to the power of canonical literature to provoke an in-depth exploration of important moral issues for some students, our data also provide evidence of the value of being willing and able to read an instruction manual, of being able to ascertain what's worth reading by thumbing through the pictures in a magazine, of being able to figure out a whodunit when watching a suspense movie. The list could go on. Our study has made our schoolish answers to the "Would you rather" questions problematic for us. The stories we've told here of boys who saw school literacy narrowly, who were seen by teachers as nonreaders, and who sometimes even defined themselves as nonreaders (although they pursued literacy with popular cultural texts in very constructive and engaged ways) call into question the very definition we have given to literacy.

It seems to us that we need to redefine literacy in semiotic terms. Semiotics is the study of all meaning-making signs. Such a redefinition would include the ability to communicate and make meaning with various sign systems, such as music, video, visual arts, and electronic technologies, and would build on the interconnections among various forms of literacy. Redefining literacy in semiotic terms will help us offer more choices and explore the meanings of different kinds of texts with particular powers to engage and express. It will also recognize and celebrate both who the boys are and the literacies they currently practice, which will allow them to see themselves and what they see as important in the classroom. At the same time, it may offer opportunities to build on boys' strengths and interests in popular culture and media literacies as a way to develop more traditional forms of literacy. Finally, conceiving of literacy more widely will help us prepare students for a modern world that uses a profusion of multimedia signs. As the classics scholar Jay David Bolter (1991) asserts, those who do not read and compose hypermedia are already illiterate by the historical standards of literacy. Our work has caused us to wonder how we, both personally and as a profession, have taken school definitions of what counts as literacy so much for granted when this definition excludes so much of what passes for literate activity in the world.

The Question of Caring
Our data have also pointed out a profound difficulty we face as teacher educators. George Hillocks (1995), a man who has had a powerful influence on both of us, points out that teaching is a transitive verb. Specifying a different direct object changes the nature of the activity considerably. In our work with preservice teachers, we've found that they tend to construct their role as teachers in one of two ways:

I teach English (or literature or reading).
I teach kids.

Similarly, during a recent conversation with colleagues, we found that some teachers took the position implied by making the English (or the equivalent) the direct object. "My job is to teach my subject. To give kids the information they need," one of the teachers in the group intoned. Another teacher argued, "I'm not the school counselor and I'm not trained as a counselor. I love English and I teach English. I didn't sign up for any more than that." But others took the opposite position, arguing that you can't teach a subject until you have reached your kids, that caring and connecting are necessary prerequisites for any meaningful instruction.

Our data have helped us understand that neither formulation would be enough for our participants. To be sure, they wanted teachers to recognize them as individuals and to be concerned for them, the kind of orientation suggested by the statement "I teach kids." But at the same time, they wanted to be taught something. They valued literacy and wanted to become more competent in it. They have helped us see that the best way we can care for them is to use what we learn about them to help them develop the attitudes and abilities that will both prepare them for success in the future and provide pleasure in the present. We've come to see that our goal ought to be to teach English to kids or to teach kids English.

These goals may have slightly different emphases, but both recognize that we have to know both our students and our subject. And as our work in this project has taught us, in seeking to know our students, we become students ourselves. Our boys taught us about themselves. They taught us much about what it means to be literate in different contexts. They taught us what it is like to be adolescents at this moment in time, something we can only learn about from them. They taught us what it is about activities that make them worth doing. They taught us about teaching and learning. They taught us about the importance of developing relationships. And they taught us that we must be alert to their evolving views, attitudes, and perspectives.

Like a basketball player who must adjust to the changing dynamics of a game or a traveler abroad who must not only phrase her questions in a foreign language but understand and respond to the answer, our boys taught us that we can teach best by teaching responsively. They taught us that we need to attend to our students and how they are learning. We must make adjustments and change our strategy as needed. We must teach as if we are surfing on the crest of the future's breaking wave.

What the boys taught us is troubling for us as teacher educators. We can teach our students how to make lessons and units and how to implement the plans they develop. We can encourage them to respond to evolving needs and changing situations. But we can't teach them how to "noodle" (Lopate, 1975, cited in Gere et al., 1992) around with kids during the passing periods or notice and remember the musical artists adorning their T -shirts. We can't teach them to care, even though doing so seems to be a prerequisite for fulfilling the social contract the boys described.

What Do We Teach?

Our study has raised questions for us about what we should teach. But it has also given strong support for a position we have both long taken: we need to engage students in thinking through ideas that matter to them-as Robert liked to say-in the "here and now."

We saw the motivating power of purpose and interest for boys in their out-of school literacy. [names refer to some of the boys in the study] Wolf pursued his interest in psychology as he grappled with the question of what makes people evil. Mick struggled to read magazines so he could make a car go faster. Drake read and consulted widely in his quest to refurbish a vintage motorcycle. Buster inquired into the strength of materials and various design features to choose the best mountain bike and to think about designing his own. Rev read widely, rented videos, and watched the History and Discovery channels to pursue inquiry into interests he had in archaeology and philosophy that had no connection to school. Ricardo scoured the Internet and trade magazines to find out about future movie releases and to keep track of his favorite directors.

On the surface, these might seem to be radically different pursuits, but we don't think they are, for in all of these cases, the boys were motivated to learn because they wanted to solve a real problem. Perhaps the single most significant implication our work raised for us is the importance of creating contexts that encourage problem solving. Because we think problem solving is crucially important, we want to spend some time talking about how it might be done.

The Power of Inquiry
One way to encourage the kind of problem solving the boys found so motivating is to structure units around critical questions so that students' reading and writing can be in service of genuine inquiry. That's what motivated most of the boys' literate activity outside school whether they were reading newspapers or magazines or electronic texts. (It's also what motivates our own reading and work, including all that we did to pursue this study.)

One reason reading literature is SO compelling, both to us and to the committed readers in our study, is that we use it as a form of inquiry. Through literature, we think about issues that matter to us while we are engaged with characters whom we come to know and care about.

By expanding the kinds of texts that students read and by placing the study of literature in an inquiry framework, we can address the complaint expressed so eloquently by Rev that "English is about nothing." Through inquiry—the process of gathering and developing information, analyzing it, and organizing it in an effort to “figure out" or deepen understanding about a contested issue—reading can become the means through which students converse with authors about the vital human concerns we all (adolescent boys included) share.

An inquiry frame also provides a meaningful and immediate context in which to teach strategies, concepts, and textual knowledge that we have privileged as a profession. In an inquiry context, this knowledge is immediately situated and applicable. And our data compel us to believe that inquiry will be embraced and used by the students in ways they do not typically embrace and use school literacy.

In every case where true inquiry environments were introduced in school in place of asking students to report on what the teacher already knew, they were embraced. Huey and Guy, two of the more disengaged students, spoke at great length about their interest in and enjoyment of their bridge-building project, in which they experimented with and tested different bridge designs. The inquiry-oriented history class at one of the high schools was identified as their most engaging class by the students who had taken it. These students passionately described projects such as investigating and dramatizing Supreme Court cases in the roles of justices, and participating in "What If?" scenarios to explore what the present might have been like if those decisions had been different.

Organizing literacy curricula around inquiry has received much recent interest. Hillocks (1999) makes the case that reading and writing are forms of inquiry and are best taught in contexts of inquiry. Beach and Myers (2001) argue that students engage more deeply with literacy when they use it to inquire into issues connected to their own lives. Smagorinsky (2002) bases his work on developing instruction in large measure on the belief that "people learn by making, and reflecting on, things they find useful and important" (p. vi, emphasis in the original). These researchers critique traditional forms of literacy instruction as being disconnected from students' immediate interests and the demands of their lives. They offer inquiry (though they may name it differently) as an alternative that helps students see that various social worlds and the concepts within these worlds are socially constructed through multiple literacies languages, and texts. These concepts and ways of doing things are therefore open to examination, critique, and transformation.

Designing Inquiry Units
All inquiry begins with a problem and a question. The nature of the question (or questions) can vary widely. When Jeff and his team-teaching partner Paul Friedemann pursued inquiry with seventh-grade students, many of whom were labeled as at-risk, they organized the curricula around contact zones. According to Pratt ( 1991, see also Bizzell, 1984) contact zones are geographical spaces where different perspectives come into conflict and are competing for supremacy. For example, colonial America was a space where the views and interests of Native Americans, the British, the French, and various groups of colonists competed for supremacy.

We think her idea can be extended to intellectual spaces as well. The central questions asked in such units include the following: What voices were most clearly heard and why? What voices were silenced and why? What voices ought to have been heard and why?

A wide range of readings helped students consider these questions. An environmental saga like Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World could be coupled with folktales and fiction about Maine coastal life as well as with a whole range of informational texts. The boys' arguments for the importance of including multiple perspectives and their resistance at being told what to think suggests why such a contact zone inquiry is engaging.

As Fecho (2001) points out, teaching such a unit brings with it some risks, because questions that matter are deeply felt. But we believe with him that the risks are well worth taking, particularly when we compare the risk of emotional engagement to the risks of the complete disengagement that we repeatedly witnessed during our study.

Many very different questions could work as well. What does it mean to be mature? What counts as success? What makes a good parent? How, if at all, have the roles of women changed in popular culture? When is disobeying a law justified? What causes readers to respond to stories in different ways? And on and on and on.

Once the teacher, class, or small group of students selects a question, the inquiry begins. The next step is to read widely. (See our description in Chapter 3 of the unit Jeff built around the question What are the costs and benefits of the American emphasis on sports?) Most important questions have been addressed by a variety of writers, so students can access the Internet; check out magazines, newspapers, television shows, and so on; and read relevant literature. With each new reading comes a new perspective that students have to contend with.

In fact, inquiry units force students to cope with conflicts within and between the various social worlds they inhabit. For example, Flower, Long, and Higgins (2000) discuss pursuing "intercultural inquiry" as away of developing literacy strategies in a context that is immediately meaningful. In "intercultural inquiry, students explore differences between each other's cultural beliefs and expectations regarding gender, class, race, and other issues. Their research indicates that when students inquire into "rival hypotheses" or competing claims about the world and how it should work, they were highly engaged and learned to recognize, interrogate, and more deeply understand various perceptions and constructions of the world, including their own. Wells' (1999) very similar work with dialogic inquiry reached the same conclusions.

The culminating event of inquiry units is for students to display their position by creating some kind of artifact. Research in educational psychology (cf. Lehrer, 1993) has established that learning is not internalized or owned by students until it is reorganized, transformed, and represented in a new set of signs that is the students' own. They will not achieve deep understanding until this kind of "transformation" or "transmediation" has occurred. The knowledge artifact could be a piece of writing, a hypermedia stack, a poster, a video, a musical composition—anything that clearly communicates their position on the question. Inquiry units, then, encourage students to become both critical consumers of a wide variety of texts and informed producers of them for the purpose of staking out a position in a meaningful conversation.

Inquiry and Flow
Although we have advocated units of this sort throughout our careers, our work on this project has helped us better account for their power, for inquiry units work to create the conditions of flow experience that the boys found so compelling. First, inquiry necessitates a sense of competence and control. In inquiry units, teachers can help students develop competence because students will have extended experiences pursuing the issue in question. That means what students learn as they read one text can be applied when they read the next. Moreover, when students have a stake in using texts to grapple with a question that matters, they'll be very motivated to learn the reading strategies, search techniques, or data collection tools they need.

The topic of inquiry can be negotiated with students. But even if the teacher or curriculum determines the topic of inquiry, students will still be able to make choices about how to approach their inquiry, what to make of what has been learned, what position to take on the issue (since issues always have multiple perspectives), how to present findings to others, and what kind of social action should be taken as a result of a position.

Inquiry also provides a challenge that requires an appropriate level of skill, because any rich topic about a contested issue can provide many possible questions and many levels of research. Students can choose a subtopic that interests them and pursue it by reading whatever texts are available that are appropriately challenging. In this way, everyone in a class can be working at an appropriate level of skill and still be involved in the democratic classroom project of exploring and teaching each other about their various findings around the common issue. (See Wilhelm and Friedemann, 1998; Wilhelm, Baker, Dube, 2001.)

Students are motivated to learn because the learning is contextualized in a situation that provides clear goals and feedback. The students in an inquiry classroom need to know certain things to pursue and conclude their inquiries, so they can represent and share what they have learned. Feedback is provided continuously as they see to what degree they have understood the multiple perspectives around the issue and to what degree they are ready to stake their own position.

This kind of sharing ties into the theme of the importance of the social. Inquiry is best conducted in groups for the purposes of informing and convincing others. In inquiry situations, students learn literacy strategies and practices with a variety of different texts through active participation in what Tharp and Gallimore (1988) call "joint productive activities." In these activities, a community works together in complementary ways to reach a common goal, instead of working individually and in isolation from real-world concerns. Moreover, because inquiry results in taking a public stance and creating an artifact to represent that stance, it makes students' learning visible and accountable to the classroom community in ways traditional instruction does not.

All of these factors together suggest that in inquiry units students will focus on the immediate experience. To be sure, they'll be gaining skills, strategies, and knowledge they can apply in the future. But they'll be gaining them in the healthy work of the present.

How Inquiry Challenges the Traditional
Conducting inquiries of the sort we have described here takes time. Although this works for the boys' desire for competence, sustained engagement, and in-depth explorations of ideas, it also works against much current curricula and the current reform and testing movements with their push for the coverage of information. The conditions of flow require that we reconceive how time is used and spent in schools.

Inquiry also shifts literacy curricula from the traditional "teacher/information-centered" model, the aim of which is to transmit information, and it goes well beyond a "student-centered model" of natural discovery. Instead, it provides a "learning-centered model," which aims to capitalize on the expertise that students bring with them to class, and to teach them what we know as more experienced readers and writers so they can become more expert in ways of reading, writing, and thinking that are valued in the classroom and the workplace. (See Wilhelm, Baker, and Dube, 2001, for a full discussion of these competing models of teaching and learning.)

Inquiry-based instruction also challenges the prevalence of the "literalist" model of instruction (Seitz, 1999, cited in Beach and Myers, 2001), which focuses on "conveying literal information or stated positions." Instead, inquiry-based instruction encourages adopting a "metaphoric" model that "emphasizes the uses and practices of language in constructing meaning" (p.7). The learning centered or metaphoric approach helps students learn about the power that texts have and work that texts can do. This approach emphasizes learning ways to negotiate and invent meanings around crucial issues and leads to using language to take action around these issues. In these cases, language is part of meaningful and transformative project[s] as we saw in our discussion in Chapter 2 of Jeff's unit on the impact of sports.

How These Findings Challenge Us
Our research has not only supported our advocacy of inquiry-based instruction, but it has also challenged the way we have enacted it in the past. The boys' emphasis on the importance of choice has helped us understand that we could have done more to negotiate inquiry topics with our students rather than choose them ourselves, as was our tendency. We argued in Chapter 4 that because the boys saw reading and writing as schoolish activities, they seemed not to have their own critical standards for judging their work. Rather, they waited to see their grade before they were willing to say how they did. We think now that we should have done more to develop grading criteria with students, particularly with regard to the culminating activities of the units. This seems especially important because we have learned just how much more than us many of the boys know about alternative ways of representing their ideas (e.g., through music or computers).

We realize that we have given just a brief description of what we see as an important implication, but we hope that we've been sufficiently persuasive about the power of inquiry that readers will seek out other sources that more fully describe how teachers can create inquiry-based classrooms. One place to start would be Strategic Reading: Guiding Students to Lifelong Literacy in which Jeff and his colleagues Tanya Baker and Julie Dube discuss inquiry units drawing on research that Michael and others have done. In making this recommendation we are aware that we run the risk of opening ourselves to Purves's critique that educational research is done simply to advance a professional agenda. We hope, though, that readers can see how our data have led us to make this recommendation.

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