A couple of weeks ago, I had the good fortune to listen to Doug Lemov speak about his new book on the WAMC radio show “To The Best of Our Knowledge.” The book, co-authored with Colleen Driggs and Erica Woolway, is entitled Reading Reconsidered: A Practical Guide to Rigorous Instruction. Doug is an expert on teaching and education (focusing on the K-12 space). He happens to live in my town, and our daughters have crossed paths on the soccer field, so I’ve had the opportunity to chat with Doug from time to time about his work.
In the interview, Doug speaks about the latest research in reading instruction. He makes a number of points that resonated with me as a practicing lawyer and law school teacher. Any errors in summarizing Doug’s remarks are, of course, my own:
- Interacting with difficult texts: Doug explains how important it is for students to learn how to read difficult tests – particularly dense, non-fiction, and often highly specialized texts. These are, of course, exactly the kind of texts one is likely to encounter in law school and law practice.
- Developing close reading skills: Doug offers a definition of close reading, and then explains why close reading is so important for developing readers. He talks about the importance of moving beyond “gist” conversations (i.e., conversations where students recount and respond to the main idea, or gist, of a text) to conversations involving a more in-depth and nuanced consideration of language, themes, choices, etc. Again, from my perspective, these are exactly the sort of skills one needs to develop to succeed in law school and law practice.
- Working with archaic texts: Doug makes the point that archaic texts can be challenging for readers. He argues that students who do not have the opportunity to interact with archaic texts during middle school and high school may find it difficult to make the jump to this sort of material in college – where they will regularly encounter older texts such as the Declaration of Independence, The Canterbury Tales, Darwin’s Origin of Species, etc. As someone who teaches contracts, this is (ancient?) music to my ears. Try teaching cases like Hadley v. Baxendale to readers who have never encountered older British texts, for example!
- Developing autonomy as a reader: Finally, Doug talks about what it means to be an autonomous reader – i.e., a reader who can engage deeply with written material; a reader who asks his or her own questions and does not simply respond to the teacher’s prompts; a reader who examines author perspective, bias, etc. This, too, seems relevant to my experience as a teacher and practicing lawyer.
For all of these reasons, my first thought was that Doug’s book might have useful teaching tips for me. I am reading — and highlighting — the book for this purpose now! In chatting with Doug over email, however, we identified another issue associated with reading skills and reading instruction – namely, justice and access to the profession. If a student does not develop strong reading skills by the time he graduates from high school, that student may struggle in college. If a student struggles in college, she may not be in a position to apply to law school. And, if a student is not in a position to apply to law school . . . well, it’s hard to become a lawyer if you don’t have the degree. Reading and writing – along with legal reasoning – are at the core of the work of a lawyer. The idea that talented students may not be in a position to apply to law school — or may struggle in law school — due to gaps in reading instruction or experience pains me.
Here in New York, Doug’s points likely will get linked to debates about the common core. The common core is, of course, a highly controversial issue in education. Teachers, students, and parents have raised questions about the rollout of the common core (and common core testing) here in New York. There have been discussions about the quality of the tests and curricular materials; debates about whether to let your child take the tests, or whether to opt out, etc. As the mother of two children in the thick of standardized testing, I feel the pain on these issues on a personal level. And, because I have to deal with the reality of the bar exam in my teaching, I think about strengths and weaknesses of standardized testing on a professional level, as well.
I am not writing today to comment on the common core or standardized tests, though I am an enthusiastic participant in debates about these issues. Instead, I simply wanted to react to Doug’s thoughtful work as a fellow teacher. As a teacher, I cannot assume that my students have had exposure to difficult or ancient texts prior to law school, nor can I assume that my students are trained in close reading. I also cannot assume that my students are autonomous readers. For all of these reasons, I need to commit — every single day – to helping my students master the reading skills that are necessary to thrive in law school and in the practice of law. I also need to do more to ensure that students who want to be lawyers get to my classroom in the first place.
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