An Interview with Carol Jago: Writing, Researching, and Growing

Jan 17, 2013 by

carol jagoOne of the biggest obstacles to revising school reading lists is finding books that enough teachers have read in common to make wise decisions.

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Carol, I understand that you and Will Fitzhugh have recently collaborated on a plan to get students writing. Tell us about it.

Will Fitzhugh and I both believe that students need to read more, and specifically more substantial books, as well as write more, longer, research-based papers. Changes in pedagogy will have little impact on student achievement unless students themselves begin to do more reading and writing.

It isn’t as though students don’t have the time. The 2010 Kaiser Family Media Study reported that young people ages 8-18 spend 7 and a half hours a day consuming entertainment media. What that refers to is watching television, playing video games, and social networking. It doesn’t include the extra hour, on average, that they spend texting. These are the same kids who have convinced many teachers that they are much too busy with jobs, sports, and music practice to do homework.

Imagine the impact if students took 6 of those 56 hours a week they are currently spending consuming entertainment media to read history and another 6 hours to read literature. Students’ knowledge of the world would soar. Their vocabularies would grow. They would have so much more to write about.

2) Many scholars, researchers, teachers and parents are concerned that students are not doing enough reading- of fiction AND non-fiction. What is your stance?

The argument about whether students should be reading fiction or nonfiction would disappear if students were reading twice or three times as much as they currently do. Apart from students in AP History, very few high school students read whole works for any class other than English. Why should summer reading programs always focus on fiction? What if Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or Timothy Tyson’s Blood Done Signed My Name were a high school’s summer reading requirements? I am firmly in favor of students doing more reading of literary nonfiction in English classes not at the expense of reading literature but in addition to the literature they are reading. Students in history class should have to read whole works outside of class the way students do for English class.

3) Carol, many teachers are concerned that some students with special needs, and exceptionalities are being inappropriately placed in general education. Are these students with learning disabilities, emotional problems and attentional difficulties expected to read the same amount as students with above average cognitive capacities?

Good teachers know that they need to differentiate assignments, readings, and expectations for students with special needs. And this includes the special needs of highly gifted students.

4) How would you get teachers and parents to “buy into“ this program ?

The just-released Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report found that parents want their children to read more. I don’t think parents are the problem. The challenge is to persuade kids to put down their game controllers for a book.

5) Some students are voracious readers- they have read everything that Stephen King, Daniel Silva, James Patterson has written. But they haven’t read any Samuel Elliot Morrison or Gibbons or Churchill. How do we direct students (and teachers) toward reading quality books of historical import?

Voracious readers will read anything an adult they respect and trust recommends. It is a teacher’s responsibility to talk about books of history and classic literature with enthusiasm and verve. It is also our responsibility to design curriculum that includes important books and offer instruction that helps scaffold the reading for less-than-voracious readers. Much can be accomplished by pairing books and by using excerpts to tempt students to read the whole work.

6) Many schools are concerned with making AYP (Annual Yearly Progress), thus neglect writing, research and scholarship. Do you have any thoughts on how to turn this around?

I am hoping very much that the new Common Core performance assessment tasks which (in spring of 2015) will require students to read a grouping of related informational texts and to write about those texts will inspire a very different kind of “test prep.” Instead of drilling students on isolated skills, schools should begin to see that the best preparation for these assessments will be deep reading of and extensive writing about challenging, complex texts.

7) What should the local libraries be doing?

No one could be a bigger fan of public libraries than me. At the moment they are in danger of becoming extinct. More and more local branches are having to curtail their hours and stop growing their collections as a result of draconian budget cuts. Apart from protesting such cuts, there isn’t a lot teachers can do about this. What they can do, however, is build their own classroom libraries so that students can have easy access to books. It is also possible that e-readers may help with this access. I think it is a severe threat to democracy when public libraries close their doors.

8) What higher order thinking skills are enhanced by writing about any historical event or person in depth?

Will Fitzhugh can argue this point much more cogently than me, but writing about history helps students understand current events. It helps them learn to think more clearly and logically. It will make them more thoughtful citizens.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

One of the biggest obstacles to revising school reading lists is finding books that enough teachers have read in common to make wise decisions. Teachers who read and love reading history and literature will instinctively put the books they love in student’s hands. America’s children deserve no less.

10) Do you have a web site where people can get more information?

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