jueves, 24 de septiembre de 2015

The need to tell life stories: A brief account of the reading responses of secondary school students to Migrar (Migrate) by José Manuel Mateo and Javier Martínez Pedro

For this entry we have invited Alejandro Aguilar Mayorga to share an experience of reading with his secondary school students. His contribution is timely and important for two reasons: first because it is increasingly urgent to understand the issue of migration in order to try to find solutions (as is clearly evidenced by the situation in Europe over the past few months);  the second reason is that Aguilar Mayorga’s text follows from the previous entry in this blog because it describes a reading experience that shows the potential for using a text with words and images, together with a creative strategy, in the Spanish classroom. Not only does it cover the programme requirements but it also motivated the students to use their reading and writing skills in a way that resulted in a creative and significant experience for them and allowed them to reflect in a humane way on this historial and global phenomenon that is migration and which affects us all.
Migrar, the book by José Manuel Mateo y Javier Martínez Pedro, was published in 2011 by Ediciones Tecolote and received the New Horizons award in the Bologna Book Festival in 2012. It has been published in English with the title Migrant: The Journey of a Mexican Worker in 2014 by Harry N. Abrams.
Alejandro Aguilar Mayorga studied Hispanic and Portuguese at the UNAM (National University of Mexico). In the last few years, he has specialized in the field of reading promotion, school libraries and children’s and young adult literature. The activities he carries out for the promotion of reading with adolescents can be found in his blog "Librertades" (librertades.wordpress.com).
*Note: All the student's words and photographs have been included with their and their parents' permission.
 (My thanks to Nicole Stump for the English translation of this entry).
“We arrived in the famous “Beast”** and found ourselves with people from everywhere Mexicans, Peruvians, Chileans Guatemalans, Bolivians, men, children, teenagers, women, all with the same intention, looking for new opportunities and to move forward.”                – Mauricio

“We all started running, when suddenly we could hear lots of gunshots, screaming and crying. I could only shout to my family: “Stay together!” Little by little there were less people, leaving us at the end with the bunch of people that had been left. We all knew what would happen after, first they killed my son, the youngest, they also got to my wife and killed her, I managed to carry my son and I tried to hide among all the people and we managed to get out.” – Paola
Paola and Mauricio are two 2nd year secondary school students at the Jesuit Latin Secondary School School, in Cuautitlán Izcalli, Mexico State.  They have both shared a tale with their group on the theme of the migration of Mexicans and Latin Americans to the United States. One is suprised by the reflexivity, the drama but, even more so, the narrative in the form of a chronicle, that emerges from their texts as a product of the observation and analysis of the visual narrative that is offered by Migrar.

In class, the students remain expectant when I enter and give each a set of photocopies with the mixed up images of Migrar. They had all expected a chronicle, since it was one of the topics to review that bimester. However, when they receive the images, the first thing I do is ask them what type of text they think could be produced from these visual elements. As their first ideas emerge, they answer that these “drawings”, because of their “design”, are similar to the Aztec or maybe Mayan images. Then, someone at the back, indicates that it’s a kind of codex and explains to us what that is, pointing out that it´s an ancient kind of text through which various events were narrated.

At that moment, I confirm the information about the codices and lead the students to focus their attention on the fact that this is a narrative, reminding them that this type of discourse is composed of sequences which, as we had identified while sharing some chronicles, possess a chronological order. Thus I ask the students to try to order the series of images they have received. The exercise of assembling the codex demands, on one hand, the observation of the readers and, on the other, a preliminary analysis of the images, because in order to find the correct order, they have to define a beginning, a first clue that will be modified in the subsequent images; a clue which, for most of them, was defined as the sun on the upper part of one of the squares.

Soon, having assembled the codex, the students ask me to check their work. They ask me if they’re right and I ask them about their choices: “What lead you to order it in that way?” The students explain and, almost naturally, begin to narrate facts, describe things, situate character and talk about the different scenarios that allowed them to work out the chronological evolution and several possible stories.  I ask them to share their work and we paste the sheets on the board or the walls and compare them; we compare the different readings of the images, the different narratives that have emerged. Most match.  Some go back to the board and change their previous order, asking their classmates why some image goes before or after another.

Just before finishing the day’s session, I ask the students to give a name to the story told by the codex, in order to justify their answer. Some of the following titles are offered: “Migrating”, “Emigration”, “The Migration”, “Migrants”, “The Road to the American Dream”. Once again the students explain their choice, which corresponds with the process of assembling the codex. I ask them, finally, to write down the story they’ve imagined, following the models of the chronicle we have covered in class, to share it the next day, in which I have promised to show them the original order and read them the story that goes with the images with which they’ve worked.

The next day, the students, excited by the idea of reading their stories, approach me at the classroom entrance, something which, I must confess, doesn´t surprise me much, since this is a group of teenagers that love to tell stories and love, above all, to be listened to.
I listen, we all listen to the stories, and just like in the fragments I´ve shared in the opening lines of this introduction, the characters and the places begin to appear, as well as the journeys, the lives, the problems, the obstacles, the cruelties, the nostalgia, the work, the dream, the sadness, the joy, the hardships, the extremes, the loss, the towns, the traditions, the food, the needs, the friendships, all, all that is human, all that they are, that we are. For me, that is exactly what reading and writing are all about: processes through which the students have observed and analyzed a series of images that finds an echo within their references (experiences, results of other readings from different media; movies, TV news, newspapers, magazines or other books), without which it would have been impossible to build a story or even infer that the story is about migration; processes through which emerge the need to indicate, to describe and to narrate that which the visual text of Migrar has caused them to imagine.


Esteban, one of the more restless students in the class, surprises me with his willingness to come to the front of the class and point out each of the details he found when he continued analyzing the text at home. His presentation is formidable; made up of organized ideas that are grounded in his own experiences and readings about the subject. He makes a great effort to find the relationships between the sequences, symbols and cues that lead us to discover the story. He discusses and shares his text with us.
Afterwards, I decide to share the original text with them and they observe that their stories do have common elements: scenarios, characters, chronological sequences, and, in the end, the very story of the thousands and thousands of lives that walk endless miles to reach a better life; the lives of those that arrive and those who remain, of those who overcome the obstacles and those who are defeated. I should also have mentioned that, when sharing the narrative that goes along with the visual text, I’ve asked the students to try and find the characters and narrated situations, marking them on the codex with a coloured pencil. In this way, each student shows the outcome to the group, making reference to the history told in the book. In this sense, the students have managed to find the key moments in the text as well as in the codex and, finally, established connections between them.

During the last session of the reading of Migrar, I ask the students to formulate a series of questions directed at the author and/or illustrator of the book, in a way that one by one, they put themselves in the role of one of the creators. This way, we manage to open a question-and-answer session in which the students share their concerns and are able, finally, to have a dialogue and discuss their readings.
Without a doubt, sharing the book by José Manuel Mateo and Javier Martínez Pedro with my students on one hand facilitated the development of their interpretative skills based on the construction, deconstruction and reconstruction, observation and analysis of the images and, on the other hand, made the reading of such a peculiar book go beyond the text, because, as we´ve been saying, it allowed the setting up of dialogues, of explorations and, above all, encouraged the need to narrate and share more than simple stories, our own experiences through, in the first instance, oral channels and later, though writing.

**The “Beast” is the nickname of the train on which hundreds of thousands of Latin American migrants travel to the US border. They make this dangerous journey on the roof the train over 5000 kilometres.


viernes, 4 de septiembre de 2015

Back to school and back to the same old issues with reading?

With the start of September and the start of the school year, we return to our blog which aims to disseminate some of the initial results of the project, “Reading Changes”, and to present themes that are relevant to research on reading and young people, not only in Mexico but in other parts of the world.

In this entry, inspired by the “back to school” moment, we will touch on the theme of reading in school. In the State of Morelos where we carried out the project in 2014 and the original investigation in 1992, around 500,000 children are of school age and 150,000 of them are in secondary (ages 12-15) or preparatory (ages 15-18) school. [Note: for those readers who are not familiar with Mexico, the country is made up of 31 states plus one Federal District]. As we know, these middle years of schooling are key in the formation of readers given that it is a time when adolescents tend to ask questions and look for answers outside the home and when they have more opportunities to discover and choose their reading for themselves. These are also the years during which the deep pleasure of reading can be discovered and rooted or lost, usually for ever.

The secondary school therefore has the possibility and responsibility to provide a space for the enjoyment of reading to develop but this will depend on three fundamental aspects: the programmes that are required by the educational authorities (with their respective readings, pedagogic strategies and evaluations), the access to a wide variety of texts and the teacher’s attitude.

In Mexico, among the curricular standards for the subject of “Spanish”(which includes language and literature), it is stated that during the secondary school stage, the student will develop an “enjoyment of reading” as well as a “positive self-concept as a reader” and that “the intention is to help student approach reading through the knowledge and enjoyment of different types of texts, genres, literary styles and, at the same time, to obtain sufficient tools to form competent readers who obtain an accurate interpretation and a sense of what they read” (Programme of Study, Basic Secondary Education, Spanish, SEP 2011). To help reach this objective, government initiatives such as the National Programme of Reading, launched in 2002 (now, the National Plan for Reading and Writing) and the Classroom Libraries Programme, provided book collections for school and classroom libraries for all the schools in the country. Despite political change and problems with its use (which will be discussed in another entry), schools have a greater and more varied collection in 2014 compared to 1992, which include different genres, picturebooks, graphic novels and also contemporary YA novels, by both Mexican and foreign authors.

From what we could observe in 2014, however, there has been less change in the selection of texts for the class, the pedagogy and the teachers’ attitudes. This can be seen in the same unenthusiastic attitudes to reading in the Spanish classroom in 2014 and 20 years ago. In general, the young people interviewed in 1992 did not “dislike” their Spanish class and made an initial effort to read the prescribed texts, although the majority did not finish them unless they were “short, easy to understand and entertaining”. The participants in 2014 expressed something similar and this attitude is sustained by the fact that, among the texts which they did remember reading with enjoyment were the “myths and legends” from their first year of Secondary School. In this sense, the graphic novel Justicia Divina by Haghenbeck and the picturebook, The Girl in Red by Frisch and Innocenti (which we have discussed in previous blog entries) turned out to be ideal for continuing this theme in terms of, for example, the way traditional myths and legends survive and the existence of different versions or endings.

In 1992, the adolescents complained loudly about the obligatory readings in school because they found them “long”, “boring” and “confusing”, such as Marianela by Benito Pérez Galdós (a 19thc Spanish author). In 2014, they complained mainly about their current text, the Poema de Mío Cid (an epic poem from around the 12thc): “it doesn’t grab my attention”; “it’s not interesting”; “it’s totally boring”. One student gave more details: “it’s like you don’t understand anything… because the poem comes in a different language which is the vulgar… the words puzzle me and also, the author who made the book, like he does not specify the development clearly and he confuses me, then, between the characters and the events.” These young people will probably never again try to read this text and they will lose the pleasure that this magnificent epic poem can offer. (It is no coincidence that this text figures in a blog from which the illustration for this entry was borrowed: “Diez libros obligatorios que te hicieron odiar la lectura” [Ten obligatory books that made you hate reading] http://blogs.publico.es/strambotic/2015/03/libros-conazo/).

In both 1992 and 2014 the students criticised the pedagogy related to the prescribed texts: taking dictation, copying from the blackboard, reading fragments in silence or aloud and answering comprehension questions. One difference was that, in 2014, one group of students was asked by the teacher to create illustrations for El Poema de Mío Cid. While this may seem a more creative approach, the students also complained because they said they could not illustrate a scene if they did not understand what was happening in it. As one of them rightly noted: “You have to read the page well to be able to specify it in the drawing.”

In an interview with one of the school authorities they recognized the fact that to carry out these more creative strategies, there should be a reflection and discussion to start with, about what the students understood; otherwise, this type of approach would not be successful: “We must take into account what the student has discovered, followed, visualized, brought to the text and imagined.”

It is certainly important to take into account the requirements of the curriculum which force teachers to cover the programme within a certain time and show results. There are also pragmatic students: “I don’t much like to read the book for Spanish, I’m just interested in the final mark.” However, the students themselves can suggest ideas for improving the situation. Near the end of the project in 2014, we asked the participants what they would do to make the Spanish class more interesting. Taking the question seriously, among the responses, they said it would be better if they all helped to choose a text and to discuss it and that the teachers should “explain better” what the text had to do with their lives as young people in the 21st century.

The great writer Philip Pullman (author of His Dark Materials trilogy, among many other books) attributes his success as an author to one of his secondary school teachers. She so enjoyed reading the “classics” –legends, The Odyssey, Paradise Lost- to her students that she passed on her deep pleasure in these texts. Of course there are also committed teachers in Mexico who know how to inspire their students to read the “classics” and who know how to make the best use of excellent contemporary texts and creative strategies (and we shall see an example of this in the next blog entry).

With this type of approaches, the vicious cycle of boredom and the obligation can be broken and then, perhaps, “back to school” will not mean “back to the same old issues”.