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Transforming Literacy: Changing Lives Through Reading and Writing

reviewed by Erin E. Doran - March 22, 2013

coverTitle: Transforming Literacy: Changing Lives Through Reading and Writing
Author(s): Robert P. Waxler & Maureen P. Hall
Publisher: Emerald Group Publishing Limited,
ISBN: 0857246275, Pages: 224, Year: 2011
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In an era of 24/7 social media and smartphones, when was the last time you disconnected from the world and engaged in deep reading?  By deep reading, I do not refer to leaving your smartphone in another room and muting the television.  Instead, I refer to a key part of Waxler and Hall’s book, which is “about slowing down, [and] about creating your own pace and environment for thinking.  It is about gaining focus while working within a context; and it is about moving forward and shaping a future” (p. 29). As they explain throughout the book, deep reading is about finding yourself and finding others in an affective and transformative way.

Chapter One introduces the authors’ previous literacy projects.  The first was an alternative sentencing program for men who would otherwise have been repeat offenders stuck in a revolving door to prison.  The Changing Lives Through Literature (CLTL) program helped break the cycle of crime in participants’ lives. The program was “motivated by a sustained belief that readers can be moved by stories as they map their own life stories on the stories they read” (p. 5). The program’s success with offenders who were moved by works such as The Old Man and the Sea and Of Mice and Men motivated the authors to find another setting to apply their model.  They eventually came to a low-SES, at-risk school, the West Side School.  This time, preservice teachers joined Waxler and Hall to obtain practical field experience by working directly with West Side students and participating in the program’s reading and writing exercises.  The preservice teachers were instructed and encouraged to participate in shared learning with the students.

Chapter Two describes the classroom as a space for deep reading.  First, the authors lay out a description of what deep meaning is and its importance.  Literature serves as a mirror to allow the reader to make sense of their inner world and the outside world through reading and reflection.  The authors explore how the classroom can be a space for facilitating this type of reflection, what the teacher’s role is, and how self-reflection is used as a starting point for the exchange of ideas.  This final point is explored more fully in Chapter Three with an elaboration of some of the exercises the authors used to generate reflection and discussion on specific readings.  Waxler and Hall provide much detail on how they guided students through a meditation on Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and a short story by Joyce Carol Oates.  Chapter Four is an in-depth look at reading as a contemplative exercise and the cognitive processes we undergo when reading.

Chapters Five and Six present the authors’ views on issues related to language and literacy practices.  Chapter Five considers whether other types of expression, particularly visual arts, can evoke the same reaction as literature.  Though the authors hold high regard for visual media, they express concern that our society is oversaturated with the visual, much to the detriment of our imaginative capacities that are traditionally broadened through literature.  In the same vein, the authors critique the effect of technology on literacy in Chapter Six.  Drawing from research on technology use in literacy acquisition, Waxler and Hall make the case that technology cannot replace the three dimensional, whether it is the human connection in learning to read or the vibrancy of one’s imagination.  Chapter Seven concludes with the closure of the West Side School and the continuation of the CLTL program.  Waxler and Hall moved the program to another school, and armed with more preservice teachers, continued to promote deep reading.

As a self-proclaimed bibliophile, I agreed with Waxler and Hall’s promotion of literature as a vehicle for self-reflection and transformation.  The authors ask provocative questions on the effects of standardized testing on reading instruction in our schools.  In an age where the expectations of teachers grow more intense and time becomes a precious commodity, it is troubling that teaching to a one-dimensional test has replaced exercises such as deep reading that have the potential to have deeper impact than any standardized tests.

This book is uplifting in the same tradition of other educators like Mike Rose and Rafe Esquith.  Waxler and Hall remind us that not only is every student capable of consuming challenging literature, but that reading, and especially deep reading, connects them to the world in a way that cannot be replicated by other means.   To support this, the bulk of the supporting literature concentrates on the cognitive and metacognitive processes of deep reading, language and literacy acquisition, and other related processes.  The authors make accessible neuroscience research that is probably challenging reading for a layperson.

The subtitle of this book is somewhat misleading as the authors focused much more on reading than writing.  Some mention is made of writing exercises that students carried out after completing their readings, but it is clear that the focus of the CLTL program and its theoretical underpinnings is on reading.  While this does not take away from the book’s message or its usefulness on reading instruction, one would have to look elsewhere for research on transformational writing or a more in-depth look at integrating writing with deep reading.

The authors speak on the importance of literature without explicitly defining what constitutes “literature.”  References to David Copperfield and Frankenstein hint at a traditional western literary field.  Later, more contemporary works by Oates and Morrison are mentioned.  There appears to be an underlying assumption that deep reading can only be done with readings that meet a certain level of renown or quality—the kind of readings that would be included in a college literature course, for example.  To this point I disagree.  If deep reading is about making personal connections to text, it seems important to not make value judgments on the type of connection made to Dickens versus those a student might feel toward a young adult novel or even a graphic novel.

There was one set of voices noticeably absent from this book: the students’.  Some student responses were included in the sections on in-class exercises, but it could have lent the project more immediacy and credibility had we been given insight into the students’ journeys and how they developed throughout the program.  Overall, Waxler and Hall provide a detailed look at a project that bucks current trends toward standardized testing and reminds readers of the democratic practices of education, many of which probably brought them to education in the first place, and many of which are gradually being phased out of our schools to allow for more standardized curricula.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 22, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17062, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 1:35:41 AM

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About the Author
  • Erin Doran
    University of Texas at San Antonio
    E-mail Author
    ERIN E. DORAN is currently a doctoral student in Educational Leadership at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Her research interests center around Latino students in developmental education.
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