As an American literature teacher, I'm used to thinking of classic American literature as a treasure trove of extremely thoughtful meditations about almost everything, so I'm very interested in what the American canon has to say about education in general, and about reading in particular. I've written about To Kill a Mockingbird's caustic portrayal of school and its loving celebration of a Frank Smith-like culture of reading, and about the great scene in which Huck Finn's father castigates his son for learning to read. American autobiographies are full of wonderful descriptions of coming into literacy (in Smith's words, of joining the literacy club)--sometimes by reading books on your own (Ben Franklin), by reading aloud as a family (Henry James), by using the library (Richard Wright).
These American autobiographies are especially
good on reading as a form of self-definition and self-discovery. Most
of the richest and most poignant examples of this that I can think of
happen to be from autobiographies of Black Americans--from Frederick Douglass to Richard Wright to Barack Obama. I love Frederick Douglass's story of deliberately making friends with
poor white boys and bribing them with bread so that they would teach him
to read--but Malcolm X's story is the one I'm going to focus on today. I'll
talk about Malcolm's efforts in more detail, but I want to note first
that for all of these extraordinarily gifted and amazingly determined
men, the journey to literacy was, in Douglass's words, "a long, tedious
effort for years." We should not kid ourselves; even as we try to help
make the process as easy and painless as possible, we need to remember
that learning to read and write well is not always easy, especially for
those suffering from their place in an oppressive social system.
The Malcolm X method of vocabulary instruction
we want our kids to learn vocabulary, maybe we should think about people
who have actually done it. We've probably all read the part of The Autobiography of Malcolm X in
which Malcolm describes teaching himself to read, but I hadn't reread
it for years, and it's worth looking at again. In prison, Malcolm (I
call him by his first name with all respect) had started corresponding
with Elijah Muhammad, and he became frustrated with his inability to
express himself clearly. He also found that when he tried to read, he
didn't know many of the words. He ordered a dictionary from the prison
library and looked at it. Not knowing what to do--since there were so
many words he needed to learn, he just started writing, and he copied
the down the first page of the dictionary: definitions, punctuation and
It took him all day to copy out that first page. Then he re-read what he had
written down. He was fascinated. He liked the word "aardvark." So he
copied down the next page. And he filled tablet after tablet of paper,
and in the end he COPIED OUT THE ENTIRE DICTIONARY!
Malcolm X, copying out the dictionary was a great way to learn words,
and as he learned more words, he was able to understand the books he
tried to read, and as he could understand the books better, he came so
to love reading that he read non-stop, and you couldn't have gotten him
"out of books with a wedge." And the famous clincher: reading was
liberating. Although he was in prison, he had "never
been so truly free." For Malcolm, every page of his books was what Richard Wright called it: a "ticket to freedom."
When the work becomes their own
Copying out the entire dictionary worked very well for Malcolm X. Should we have our students do it? Maybe. But I think, looking at this story, the main lesson I take away is that of motivation. Malcolm was obviously gifted--but he had always been gifted. He had a lot of time--but so did every other prisoner. The determination to improve his vocabulary came only when he was (a) highly motivated and (b) face to face with his own poor ability (1). He was very interested in writing to Elijah Muhammad, and he realized that he could not, in his letters, say what he wanted to say. When motivated to read and write, and aware that he needed to improve, he figured out a method that worked for him.
Is it possible to create, for our students, conditions similar to those that led Malcolm X to copy out the dictionary? (Our students are certainly not imprisoned, but they are under the supervision of the state for several hours a day, for many years.) How can we ask them to do writing that they actually care about doing? The student newspaper is an excellent way--for the kids who work on it. What can we do in our classes? Creative writing? Sure--for some. Have them write letters? Have them write opinion pieces? We do that stuff... How can we have them do more writing that they actually really want to do? The second condition--that they be confronted with their own poor ability--we arguably already try to do, in our grades and comments.
So one thing we could try is giving the students more freedom in what they write and harsher grades on their writing. Another thing we could try is giving significantly less feedback on their writing and how to improve it. This would feel extremely unnatural to us, and would probably be really difficult, and our students might hate us for it--but it might work. (Is that crazy? Maybe. It's been a long week...) I remember my father's telling me he only learned to write when he was a freshman in college and had a choice: learn to write better, or fail out. My wife, too, only really learned to write when she was a freshman in college and had to work really hard on revising her own papers. The burden needs to be on the students, not on us. How do we put it there?
I don't know how to do it, but I have seen the results. Tonight I watched the Shakespeare play at my school. It was wonderful. The students did amazing work, and they took full responsibility for it. In fact, they took so much responsibility that in the talk-back after the play, the teacher who directed the play was not even mentioned--not even once. Now that is a triumph of teaching! The play couldn't have happened without her, but for the students the work became their own.
These two factors are exactly parallel with the ones that spurred Ben Franklin to extraordinary efforts at self-improvement. Franklin was having a debate in letters with a friend of his on various hot topics of the day--like whether it was worth educating women (Ben said yes)--and his father happened to see a few of the letters. His father told Ben that while Ben often had stronger arguments, the friend was a better writer. This criticism so wounded Ben's vanity that he went to extraordinary lengths to try to improve his writing: first he took articles from his favorite magazine, the Spectator, made notes on their content, and then tried to reconstruct the article from his outline; second, he took Spectator articles and tried to turn them into rhyming verse; third, he took the rhyming verse versions of the articles and put them back into plain prose. This is not even to go into the lengths he went to obtain books (after he "borrowed" one in the evening he would stay up all night to read it by candlelight so as to be able to return the book before it would be missed in the morning, and he became a vegetarian and subsisted on a "bisket" or "a handful of raisins" in order to save money to buy books). Ben Franklin, like Malcolm X, had a powerful practical reason to want to be good at writing (to best his friend Collins) and was confronted with his own poor ability (when his father said Collins wrote better than he did).