Life’s Not Fair, Don’t Get Used to It

(Excerpt from the new preface to After THE END )

A while back, there was a list referred to as “Rules Kids Won’t Learn in School,” which was attributed to Bill Gates and went viral on the Internet. The list contained homespun edicts, like Rule 5: “Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a different word for burger flipping. They called it opportunity.” Or Rule 6: “If you think your teacher’s tough, wait ’til you get a boss.”

The whole point of this list of rules was to show that kids today are somehow spoiled and that their generation has a false feeling of entitlement that will be cor- rected when they face the “real world.” I did some research and found that the list was not written by Bill Gates but by a journalist named Charles Sykes and was taken from his book called Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good About Themselves but Can’t Read, Write, or Add. The subtitle of Sykes’ 1995 diatribe could be seen as the moniker of the current education reform movement, which began in earnest with the No Child Left Behind law several years later. Sykes uses the same international test score data cited by Congress to pass the No Child Left Behind law to say that our children have fallen behind the world and that our schools are more concerned with self-esteem than with learning.

Since then, these same data were used to pass Race to the Top and mandate more standardized tests than at any time in the history of civilization. Many of our schools are now test-prep academies whose survival depends on test scores. (You can read educational historian Diane Ravitch’s book Reign of Error [2013] if you want to under- stand how test scores mislead and serve the testing industry more than children.)

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  George didn’t get used to it.

 But my concern here, is Sykes’ very first rule on his list for college graduates, the rule that, ironically, went viral under education-reform funder Bill Gates’ name, the rule that seems to sum up the last fifteen years of school reform and its view of children and schools.

Rule 1: “Life’s not fair. Get used to it.”

I sometimes project this statement to teachers on a blank screen and ask them to reflect in writing what it means to them. Most take the view of Sykes and say that children must be hardened off and learn to face life with grit, resilience, and determi- nation—favorite terms used today in inner-city charter schools, where severe poverty shapes the culture. Everything in life won’t always turn out your way, so you have to be prepared for that. I wait a minute and then ask, “Is that all that this quote is saying?”

Then, slowly, using the miracle of technology, I insert photos of Rosa Parks, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Susan B. Anthony, Helen Keller, César Chavez, Gloria Steinem, Billie Jean King.

“Aren’t you glad these folks didn’t get used to the unfairness of life?” I ask.

Suddenly, the quote is not about having grit and resilience; instead, the quote is about being told to put up and shut up. The teachers experience a full-scale sea change of what that quote actually means.

These kind of aha moments are what excite me as a teacher, as a writer, and as a thinker and why I wrote After THE END: Teaching and Learning Creative Revision,  back in 1993. I wanted students to see that, given the right tools, writers can grasp new possibilities and not accept writing or even life at face value. Revision is more than a writing tool. Revision is a way of seeing new realities, both in a piece of writing and also in the world. To that end, let’s give that a whirl, right now.

Rule 5: “Flipping burgers is not beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a different word for burger flipping. They called it opportunity.”

Revised Response:
You are right. The dead-end, minimum wage job that you mention could be an opportunity, if we could unionize the workforce and raise the minimum wage to $18 per hour. Shareholders might make less money, but the employees would at least have a living wage, and perhaps we could narrow the widening income gap and lower the employee turnover rate. How can we be a healthy society and tolerate the working poor? What’s more, poor and middle-class people tend to spend their money and support the service economy while tax breaks for the rich send our money to off- shore tax-free accounts in the Cayman Islands.

Rule 4: “If you think your teacher’s tough, wait ’til you get a boss.”

Revised Response:
Toughness is not the only quality a good boss or a good teacher possesses. What about empathy, team spirit, and a willingness to fail boldly? The boss you describe would not be a very effective leader in a company today. If you don’t believe me, read Daniel Pink’s book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (2011), to find examples of bosses who are more than just tough guys. Furthermore, toughness does not motivate workers in the same way that rigor does not motivate students. There needs to be passion and engagement. Why work hard for someone just because he or she tells you to? That is the kind of leadership exemplified by Egyptian Pharaohs. What a limited and obsolete way of seeing both education and business.

These responses reflect the real revision qualities and the new paradigm thinking needed for young people growing up in a world with many problems that were created by status quo thinking embodied in Sykes’ rules. The United States Senate has recently voted that global warming is not caused by humans, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. Our children live in a world where politicians are voting against scientific evidence that will affect future generations simply because it might affect business as usual. Never has there been a more important time for teaching students to talk truth to power.

Life is not fair. Teach them never to get used to it.

The Sad Art of Closed Reading

by Barry Lane

Closed reading, not to be confused with close reading, is the essence of most reading tests and a big reason literacy curriculum is boring to students and teachers. To assess reading comprehension, well-meaning (and even more well-funded) reading experts devise various schemes for measuring a student’s ability to think exactly like themselves. These experts think they are measuring comprehension, but they are re- ally measuring a sort of tactical compliance. I learned this from my friend Kenny.

Young Kenny

        Kenny at 10 years old                                                     

Today Kenny is a lawyer, but in sixth grade Kenny took a reading test and found himself getting angry at the way some test questions were worded. He especially hated the question “What’s the best title for this story?” He decided to write a letter of inquiry to the testing company. He told them in his letter that questions like those are opinion questions and are no different from asking, “What’s the best soft drink, Coke or Pepsi?” Students have the right to pick any of the four multiple-choice answers because they are being asked their opinion. Kenny went on to say, “I am not stupid. I know the answer that you want me to choose. I just want to know why your opinion needs to be my truth. If you were honest, you would pose the question this way: What do you think we think the best title for this story is?”

The testing company replied with a six-page letter complete with graphs, charts, and data refuting Kenny’s point. Kenny was surprised and little puzzled at how seri- ously they took a challenge from a ten-year-old. It appears the testing world has a lot invested in proving there is one way to comprehend a text. And that was decades ago, when high-stakes tests were not mandated and most schools used achievement tests as a low-stakes assessment to evaluate schools and students in a general way. Kenny is now a deputy attorney general in the state of New Jersey, and his job is to protect the rights of abused children. I believe he started training for this job in sixth grade.

Closed reading is a type of subtle bullying, which only the most precocious children, like Kenny, seem to understand. To most children, it is simply following the rules and doing what you are told to find the correct answer. The work of Louise Rosenblatt and others has proven that reading is interactive, that twenty students will draw twenty different subtle meanings from the same text. Though there may be a central idea to glean from a piece of writing, how each reader does this is unique and complex—and not the simple act of extraction that test-prep culture promotes. Students must connect personally with what they are reading. That connection does not come after they have read, but rather it is ongoing. It begins the moment a student reads the first sentence.

When children are drilled from an early age into thinking all reading is just about searching for the author’s main ideas inside the four corners of the text, they stop trusting their own instincts—their curiosity shuts down. They become “closed readers” who shrug their shoulders when asked for their opinion or ask shyly, “Do you want me to look in the book?”

The Cure
The only cure for closed reading is to create choice-based reading programs in our schools, where students can find their passion as readers. Professional books like Donalynn Miller’s The Book Whisperer (2009), Penny Kittle’s Book Love (2012), Jennifer Serravallo’s The Reading Strategies Book (2015), or Nancie Atwell’s classic In the Middle (2014) are great places to start. Turning kids into avid readers awakens their instincts and tunes them into the multifaceted meaning. These readers will excel on the monolithic test without being swallowed whole by its limited worldview. In the words of Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris from their book Reading Wellness: Lessons in Independence and Proficiency (2014), children can “lean in to the text on the page” and lean out to find their own perceptions Reading is unique and complex—and not the simple act of extraction that test-prep culture promotes.

Real reading assessment cannot be standardized because it involves close observation from a knowledgeable and caring teacher who knows what reading is. Read Thomas Newkirk’s classic, The Art of Slow Reading to find the antidote to the Sad Art of Closed Reading.

(from After THE END   Second Edition)