«A dissertation submitted in partial satisfaction of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Education in the Graduate Division of ...»
Mann’s class (and the other sections of Spanish Language AP) into artificial school forms. Mr. Mann’s class practiced reading several times during my observations, for both the purpose of demonstrating their reading comprehension in a variety of content areas, and for use as the content of spoken or written products. Class discussions of reading (and listening) on the days I observed were limited to comprehension, including understanding of background information, and some inference. In practicing writing for the exam, even though Mr. Mann urged them to produce a synthesis of sources in their Presentational Writing, the writing prompts they practiced with and wrote about in the exam, did not invite such synthesis, but led many students to produce “sophisticated summaries” (Mann Interview, 6/19/09). The methodology of the exam created unnatural individualized reading, speaking and writing situations that stood in contrast to the highly contextualized language use former Spanish Immersion students had experienced in their elementary years.
While the literacy practices of 5th grade Spanish Immersion students allowed them to make meaning of texts over the course of entire books or in the context of curricular subject areas, through multiple modes of expression, using multiple tools or instruments, the Spanish Language AP students read only short texts (the longest being only a few pages), switched from text to text, subject to subject, every day, or even several times in a class session, using a very limited range of tools for making meaning of them. The longest texts they used while I observed (and the only ones not taken directly from AP preparation materials) were two short stories related to the theme of school and family assigned as homework. The activity they engaged in as part of reading the two stories (El beso de la patria by Sonia Rivera-Valdés and Al colegio by Carmen Laforet) involved looking up several new vocabulary words for each and answering several basic comprehension and inference questions, including describing the setting, explaining what had happened (Who? Where? When? What? How?), explaining what happened at the end of the story, and discussing what school represented in each of the two stories (Field notes 4/16/09). While Mr. Mann might have led them in a discussion related to their background knowledge of and experience with schooling in the following class session, he did not give any indication that their thinking about how they understood the two stories through their own experiences would be relevant when he assigned them to be read. He only explained that each focused on the theme of school, and pointed out that the tone of one of the stories was “amarga” (bitter) at the end because of the feelings the narrator had about how the teacher in the story favored another student over her. This commentary could have been an opening for discussing the story in a personal way;
however, instead the students were reading these two stories in preparation for a short exam the next class session. Students used to the highly personalized, critical thinking and reading practices of the 5th grade Spanish Immersion class, might have found these reading practices superficial and uninteresting, lacking the richness involved in applying knowledge gained to their academic and social lives. However, responding to readings through personal meaning-making was not relevant to the reading practices the students engaged in on the AP exam, as there was not time for them to reflect on readings during the exam. To prepare them for the exam, Mr. Mann kept them focused on the limited range of skills and strategies that might be useful to them.
Spanish Immersion 5th graders had the opportunity to share in each other’s meaning making of books through their Club de Libros, while, in contrast, Spanish Language AP students focused all their attention during this period on the individualized understandings dictated by standardized testing. Though they engaged in class discussions of readings, texts they listened to, and writing, they focused primarily on individual questions they had, in discussions orchestrated by Mr. Mann. Though they shared their spoken responses to Interpersonal and Presentational Speaking prompts they practiced in class, the emphasis in their discussion was on evaluation of individual performance, not on the significance of the content of their spoken language or of the sources they used for them. Only once during the classes I observed did students have a chance to work in pairs with the purpose of inventing their own response to a prompt, and that was a very short period at the end of class in which they practiced conversing with their table partners using a hypothetical scenario for the sake of preparing for the kind of Interpersonal Speaking they would have to do for the exam. This activity, however, was not as highly unnatural as the activities of Interpersonal and Presentational Speaking the students would have to engage in during the exam, when they would not speak to an individual, but to a cassette recorder which they would have to hold close to their faces to assure that it captured their speech, and no one else’s, over the din of 100+ other test takers.
Writing20 in Mr. Mann’s class was equally limiting with little room for student reflection on or response to the content of the essays they crafted, and emphasizing only one academic form. Mr. Mann emphasized several times to me, and to his students, that for the Presentational Writing and Speaking sections of the exam, they would be expected to produce college-level writing/speaking in the form of a synthesis of the sources they read and listened to. The students practiced this form of writing and speaking on several occasions (4/9/09; 4/16/09; 4/30/09), and discussed as a class several students’ recordings of practice Presentational Speaking responses. On the first day I observed, the class
practiced Presentational Speaking on the following topic:
En una presentacón formal, discute los diferentes aspectos de la industria de las flores (en Colombia).
In a formal presentation, discuss the different aspects of the flower industry (in Colombia).
Though the example I provide focused on oral language production, it very closely mirrored the same process as the Presentational Writing section of the exam, requiring the same academic genre of synthesis. The students engaged in very similar preparation for each of the activities, reading and listening to short sources, taking notes, and using their notes to craft a written or spoken synthesis. On 4/9/09 (a class session I did not observe), the class had practiced taking the 200-word Presentational Writing section, focusing on the following prompt: “La lucha de los indígenas en muchas partes del mundo continúa hasta nuestros días. ¿Les debe algo la sociedad a los grupose indígenas por el traamiento que recibieron en el pasado?” (Even today, in many parts of the world, indigenous people continue to struggle. Does society owe anything to these indigenous groups because of treatment they received in the past?) This topic, taken from the AP preparation text, was accompanied by a short text, “Flores para el mundo” (“Flowers for the world”) based on an article published in the magazine Ecos, and an audio version of a second text, “Colombia adorna el mundo con flores” (“Colombia decorates the world with flowers”), published in the magazine Nexos. Mr.
Mann emphasized the need to look for a way to synthesize the sources, to at least make a comparison of what the two sources said, but during the classes I observed he did not explain how a synthesis would differ from summarizing. After reading and listening to the two sources, Mr. Mann reminded them that the prompt asked them to “discute los diferentes aspectos” (discuss the different aspects) of the flower industry, a prompt which could produce either synthesis or summary, depending upon the distribution of information across sources. The class had two minutes to plan their presentation, and another two minutes to speak it into their cassette recorders. Once they had recorded their responses, Mr. Mann asked them to share their products (with the students’ reticence I discussed earlier in this chapter). Once students shared some products to discuss, Mr.
Mann focused primarily on evaluating whether they had produced mostly summary or something approaching a synthesis. When Mr. Mann asked the class how the activity went for them, two students offered that they had produced what seemed like a lot of summarizing to them, that it seemed hard not to summarize. The “brave” student, Chris, seemed to have found a thesis that synthesized the sources around the negative effects of flower growing, including labor and human rights problems, as well as environmental concerns. The rest of the discussion focused on how they might find other organizational constructs that would produce less summarizing and more synthesis. None of the discussion focused on the meaning of the theme, the viewpoints of the sources or any other aspects of critical thinking they might be confronted with in college level courses.
The focus was on how to produce the kind of language (and thinking) required for the AP exam.
However, after all his effort to help students recognize and produce synthesis in their Presentational Writing and Speaking, Mr. Mann discovered that the effort he had put into training his students in synthesis was not necessary. During his training to read the 2009 Presentational Writing essays, he realized that a score of 5 on that essay did not actually require such a synthesis of sources, but might only require a “sophisticated summary” of them, and that the essay prompt itself invited such summarizing. The topic for the 2009 Presentational Writing was “¿Cómo afecta el cambio climático a algunos animales?” (“How does climate change affect some animals?”). Mr. Mann pointed out that each of the three sources they were required to use focused on different animals.
Mann: So the first fuente (source) was a newspaper article about los osos pardos (brown bears) en el norte de España, (northern Spain) and how the fact that climate change had made the winters more mild. They had been milder so the bears were less likely to hibernate so some of the mothers with their cubs weren’t hibernating at all.
And the second article – and they’re all the same sort of theme – so the second one was about birds in Central Europe that weren't migrating long distances, change in seasons wasn't as strong to signal to them that they needed to move. And then the audio fuente was about off the coast of Mar Cantábrico in 2008 there had been a spawn because of these blue fish called – can’t remember the name of the fish – but they had spawned, and it caused la mancha roja (the red spot).
The fact that each of these sources presented the effects on different animals and the prompt asked how climate change had affected some animals, made a difference in how the students understood the product of their writing and thinking.
Mann: Their job was to then integrate those three sources, somehow synthesize them and write their 200+ word essay in 45 minutes. What I really found – it was interesting because they didn't really give us a lot of examples of synthesis and they did – We had sample essays. These are the benchmarks. This is scale 0-5 – but we didn't really see a lot of examples of synthesis even in the benchmarks. What we were really seeing was really elegant summarization. I would say almost all of the essays basically had an introductory paragraph, the thesis was "El cambio climático afecta los osos, los peces y las aves" (Climate change affects bears, fish and birds”) and then the first paragraph was about the osos (bears), the second about the aves (birds), and the third was about the mancha roja (the red spot), and then they had a conclusion, and almost all of them were like that.
When I suggested that someone who teaches writing might ask how much the prompt invited that kind of writing, Mr. Mann energetically agreed that it had, but that what he saw as summarization, his table leader at the reading saw differently.
Mann: No! It totally-it completely steered them in that direction! But like I said, I didn't-I had conversations with my table leader and said-we would read a pretty good example and she would say, “You see all that synthesis in there?” And to me it didn't look like synthesis. They were summarizing, but using better vocabulary. It didn't really look like synthesis to me.
It was evident that Mr. Mann, himself an insider to the AP exam and its evaluation, felt frustrated with apparent shift in evaluative standards he encountered in the 2009 essay reading, and began to consider making changes in the emphasis of his course as a result.
Mann: I felt that we had spent a lot of time in our classes, trying to steer them away from exactly what everybody ended up doing, which makes me kind of-and I shared this with the other teacher. Well, to heck with that! If basically they can write a standard five-paragraph essay and summarize elegantly with few errors and have good transitions, and use good vocabulary and some subjunctive, they're probably going to get a 4 or 5, so why waste all our time agonizing -- because sometimes we agonized about “No, don't summarize like that” -- but that's kind of how it came out.
So I squirmed a little bit as I sat there and read.
This shift in the focus of evaluating writing might seem to have few consequences for Mr. Mann’s students, for former Spanish Immersion students in particular, since it would seem to favor students’ being able to earn high scores on the exam. However, it could have had a significant effect on all his students, and former Spanish Immersion students in particular. All of Mr. Mann’s students had been affected by the fact that he spent significant effort and class time working toward their producing synthesis, when he could have spent it on other kinds of writing, or on other ways of thinking about reading and writing. Former Spanish Immersion students would have appreciated having more time to simply talk about what they were reading in a more open-ended way (Focus group, 5/5/09). Less time for working on perfecting synthesis might have meant more time for other more compelling literacy activities, with a significant impact on learning and student engagement.