Academic journal article Language Arts

Becoming Text Analysts: Unpacking Purpose and Perspective

Academic journal article Language Arts

Becoming Text Analysts: Unpacking Purpose and Perspective

Article excerpt

Many of us grew up trusting the informa- tion that our textbooks provided. Our teachers relied on them and often did not prepare us to read them with a critical eye in terms of whose stories they told and whose were left out. This tradition continues today, with most students seeing their textbooks as factual and objective examples of nonfiction. Merriam-Webster online defines nonfiction as "writing that is about facts or real events." Fiction, on the other hand, is defined as "written stories about people and events that are not real [but] imagined by the writer." As a result, textbooks are generally viewed as sources that can be approached without much doubt or suspicion.

Fourth-grade teacher Stevie Bruzas remembers how surprised and uncomfortable she felt when she read Lies My Teacher Told Me (Loewen, 2007) for one of her graduate classes:

I realized that the textbooks I read as a child and the textbooks I now use as a teacher have a very European or winner's point of view that I had not noticed. I never gave much thought to the question of whose perspec- tives I was getting in these or any other books. I also started to think about what I could do to make sure my students are better prepared than I was.

Stevie's feeling of discomfort returned later when a group of her students started reading The Slave Dancer (Fox, 1973) and were shocked and horri- fied by the brutal treatment of slaves portrayed in that book. They asked her why no one had ever told them how horrible slavery was. "Our social studies book doesn't make slavery sound so bad," they said. "Why is it so different in The Slave Dancer? Which book is true?"

These events and Stevie's realization that she could not answer her students' questions provided the impetus for creating a classroom inquiry focus- ing on identifying and unpacking multiple per- spectives in various kinds of text. Stevie used the students' initial questions to position them as researchers. Following the inquiry model set out by Short and Harste (1996), students were encouraged to "wonder" without having to come up with one answer or even one set of answers. Instead, their process of problem solving was meant to give them "more understandings, questions, and possibilities" (pp. 257-258).

As researchers, students took on the role of budding text analysts (Luke & Freebody, 1997) as it is described by Leland, Lewison, & Harste (2013): "Text analysts not only gain personal and social meanings from texts but also examine how the text is trying to position them" (p. 181). To achieve this goal, they answer a number of questions about whose views are being represented, whose voices are not included, and what the author wants them to believe after reading a specific text.

In this article, we describe the inquiry project that ensued as a result of the students' and the teacher's questions about the mismatch they saw between textbooks and trade books. The study took place over a three-week period during the students' guided reading and social studies instruction times. As required by Stevie's district, all lessons referenced the Common Core State Standards (CCSS; National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010); in this case, a number of lessons focused on informational text. Although the idea that children need more experiences with nonfiction than what they typically get is not new (e.g., Duke, 2000), it is a major focus in the CCSS. According to Standard 10, Range of Text Types for K-5, informational texts include biographies and autobiographies; books about history, social studies, science, and the arts; technical texts, including directions, forms, and information displayed in graphs, charts, or maps; and digital sources on a range of topics. Several of these genres were used in this study as students worked with charts and consulted social studies textbooks, books about history, and online search engines. …

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