Sunday, September 30, 2007

Make the Text Relevant to the Learner

I am appalled by the state of literacy in today's children. As a child, I loved books—but that was before MTV, ten-second sound bites, and video games. BOOKS were my entertainment as a child...they were my companions. I am reading the Pennsylvania Literacy Framework for a class this semester and it states that we, as educators, must tap into prior knowledge and make the text relevant to the learner's experience. This sounds like common sense, but many times this is not done.

Even though, I loved to read, I remember, as a middle-school student, being 'forced' to read Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. For the life of me, I could not understand why I had to read this book of poetry. It did not make sense to me—they were just words written by a dead man. The teacher failed to make it relevant to a 20th-century inner-city child. Every time the teacher bought the book out for lessons, my mind shut down and the barriers went up. In fact, every time I heard his name in my adult life, I felt an inward shudder.

Years later, as I was watching the amazing documentary New York by Ken Burns, I learned about Walt Whitman (1819-1892) and his life in a burgeoning city, I finally saw the relevance of the poetry of Walt Whitman. It took a filmmaker to make the words of Walt Whitman make sense. Many times when I see a picture of the Brooklyn Bridge, these words come to mine from Crossing the Brooklyn Ferry:

Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt;

Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd;

Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d;

Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood, yet was hurried;

Just as you look on the numberless masts of ships, and the thick-stem’d pipes of steamboats, I look’d.

I finally get it. Ken Burns, you are a great teacher. :-)

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