So, that allusion sounded a heck of a lot better in my head. Think roses and smelling as sweet and so forth. Ah, see…there it is. Now it makes sense. Carry on.
Recently, the concept of “what defines a text” has been cropping up on my radar with increasing frequency. A sampling:
- A presenter in a media literacy workshop claims that videos and images can be text.
- An assistant superintendent asserts that students must know how to “close read”, or deeply engage with the written word, in order to 1. meet the Common Core standards and 2. perform well on state assessments.
- A teacher shares that he was told in an English Language Arts Common Core workshop that video and images can be “text.”
- A local museum struggles to find relevance in the Common Core frenzy, and questions whether their exhibits (largely non-print) can align to the standards across content areas.
- Is this close reading?
Photo credit: Nic McPhee 2006, Flickr CC
So…what is a text, anyway?
Before we proceed, full disclaimer: I have not attended the “Network Team Institute” sessions at our state capitol to learn at the feet of the New York State Common Core architects. My background is firmly grounded in library science and an undergraduate in English Literature long before the Common Core rolled around. However, given my understanding of the Common Core, and citing evidence straight from the standards, I think a compelling argument can be made for the inclusion of non-print resources in the arena of text. (Now that is a Common Core compliant statement, my friends. See: citing evidence, argument)
OK, now that we’re on the same page (ha! See what I did there?), let’s start with the bare bones. My buddies Merriam and Webster have a pretty narrow initial definition of “text”, with an emphasis on words. However, the extended definition, specifically 3b–grants the leeway we’re looking for: “a source of information or authority”. Thanks to 3b, you can easily allow for non-traditional text types in the formal definition of “text”.
That’s all well and good, but instructionally-speaking, when is a non-print text considered a text? I think the answer lies in the task. At the heart of the definition is the purpose of the printed (or recorded, or painted, or played) material: a text is used for the purpose of information. SO, if a painting is used to analyze and find evidence to support/refute information about historical context, then why CAN’T it be a text? If a movie is used to identify imagery or as a comparison to the written version of a story, OF COURSE it’s a text. If a speech is read or listened to, isn’t the information still present? Couldn’t the spoken word convey MORE information than the printed transcript? Couldn’t non-print texts be more CONTEXTUAL than print in some cases?
I humbly submit a resounding yes. Incidentally, so do the standards. The whole shebang can be found here…but it’s a big document, and we’re all busy. So, I pulled out my favorites, just for you!
For the purpose of brevity, I’m only including the anchor standards for English Language Arts (ELA) below, which translate across grade levels. You can find grade-level specific descriptions by clicking on the standards, finding the strand (i.e. Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening) and the number of the anchor standard under the grade level column.
Onward, to the standards! (Please read with a battle cry in your head. Wasn’t that fun?)
ANCHOR STANDARDS FOR READING:
7. Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
11. Respond to literature by employing knowledge of literary language, textual features, and forms to read and comprehend, reflect upon, and interpret literary texts from a variety of genres and a wide spectrum of American and world cultures
(I’m making the case that genre encompasses format here, as evidenced by the inclusion of “media” and “other texts” in the grade-specific standards).
ANCHOR STANDARDS FOR SPEAKING AND LISTENING:
2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally
ANCHOR STANDARDS FOR WRITING:
8: Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
The beautiful thing about these anchor standards is that they require no leap of faith or additional justification for using non-print texts. That said, one could additionally make the argument that you can identify theme, compare and contrast, determine point-of-view, draw on specific details, analyze structure, make and defend a claim, interpret cultural influences and so on with all kinds of media (and I would agree). In this case, I would suggest looking to Anchor Standard for Reading 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take. Here’s a grade-specific example:
Grades 9-10, Reading Standard for Informational Text 9: Analyze seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (e.g., Washington’s Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”), including how they address related themes and concepts. Here, I think an analysis of the American Flag and its changes, including variants like the Gadsden and Confederate flag—would meet this standard. How about John Gast’s painting, American Progress? Or, listening to a recording of Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech? What about the images on a dollar bill? How about some of the paintings off of this list compared to a piece of historical/informational writing? FYI—not all are school appropriate: http://www.michaeloart.com/americas-top-40-paintings-of-all-time)
A final caveat: I am not suggesting that media should totally replace print, and I’m sympathetic to the fact that strict adoption of the EngageNY modules may not allow for this kind of deviation in format. That said, the point of instruction is to meet learning objectives that are guided by the standards–and I believe these objectives, in many cases, live outside of format. In our multimedia world, visual literacy, audio literacy, TRANSliteracy is essential–and there’s a place for it in the Common Core.
Postscript: I am certainly not the first person to argue for the inclusion of non-print text in Common Core ELA tasks. This excellent article from ASCD’s Educational Leadership by William Kist, “New Literacies and the Common Core” does an excellent job of suggesting concrete ways to integrate “new media” into Common Core lessons. It also has an awesome chart of “prompts for close reading of non-print text.”
Post-postscript: The idea of “close reading” media as text dovetails perfectly with the concept of media literacy. Actually, it doesn’t just dovetail…”close reading” media IS media literacy. There are a few organizations, like the National Association for Media Literacy Education and Project Look Sharp that are doing wonderful things with teaching media literacy…but that’s a whole other post.
Text [Def. 3b]. (n.d.). In Merriam Webster Online, Retrieved December 9, 2013, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/text.