What if you are a new first grade teacher and realize that the classroom methods you are using to teach your students to read just aren’t working? And then you discover that these teaching approaches have been proven ineffective for many children, but are used anyway.
A new documentary follows a teacher in just that situation, as well as other educators in Oakland, California, who have come together to advocate that school systems there and across the country must offer only scientifically proven reading curricula. .
At the center of that activism, and at the heart of the film, is the work of Kareem Weaver, who has been a teacher, principal and now leads a petition drive through the NAACP to pressure school administrators to end the use of discredited reading. educational programs.
The 80-minute documentary is called “The Right to Read,” and it forms part of the festival’s screenings, including a screening at the recent SXSW EDU Festival.
You may have heard of this problem before. it’s an ongoing issue that recently came to national attention through journalist Emily Hanford’s popular public radio podcast called “Selling the Story.” That podcast examines several educators and a publisher who have made a small fortune selling an approach to reading instruction based on a concept called “Whole Language” that has been proven ineffective for many children.
The Right to Read doesn’t just tread the same ground as the podcast, though it does cite Hanford’s work heavily, and he is interviewed in the film. Instead, this new documentary steps back to take a broader look at efforts to frame literacy as a social justice issue, the last frontline for civil rights.
Because as Weaver and the film make clear, these failed efforts to teach reading disproportionately affect children of color. According to California Department of Education statistics cited in the petition, only 19 percent of African American students in Oakland are reading on grade level, 24 percent of Latino students are reading on grade level, while 73 percent of white students there are reading on grade level. level
Ed Surge recently sat down with the film’s director, Jenny Mackenzie. And speaking with him led us to seek out the film’s protagonist, Weaver, and hear more of his suggestions for bringing effectiveness and equity to reading instruction.
Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts, or use the player on this page.
EdSurge. What made you want to tell this story?
Jenny Mackenzie. Reading is personal to me. I was diagnosed with dyslexia when I was 14 and it was a real challenge. I was shut out, and there was definitely shame associated with reading. But I came from a family that had a lot of resources and had support, and they tested me and really invested resources to allow me to thrive. So when a financier approached me about making this film, it just fell into place and it was something I got into straight away.
Does it seem like the focus of the movie changed even though you were gone?
At first we thought this was going to be a movie about early childhood literacy and why kids aren’t ready for kindergarten. So we were looking at kindergarten readiness, and we looked at educational technologies and science-based, evidence-based technologies that could really build children’s phonics awareness and success so that they can progress quickly in kindergarten.
But thank goodness for Emily Hanford’s amazing journalism. We listened to his first podcast about four and a half years ago called Hard Words. It was his first case that really looked at failure in early reading instruction. So we looked at that, and then we looked at the families that we were following that put every possible shape [resource] for their children, and they still entered classrooms where they were not using evidence-based reading instruction. And so the kids were still in a situation where they were set up with real challenges [in learning to read].
So in your report you were coming across the same discredited reading instruction that Hanford was exploring in his investigative podcasts.
Absolutely. And then a year and a half after filming, we met Kareem Weaver, and he’s an activist working in his own community with the Oakland NAACP.
I’m curious about the title of the movie, The Right to Read. What do you mean by that?
Well, the right to read comes from Karim’s words. He believes that literacy and reading are our greatest civil rights. So it’s something that we all need to not only know is our right, but demand that it be exercised. And right now we kind of think that we have the right to literacy, the right to read, but of course we don’t. In other words, we have data, we have research, but we have not taken that research and data and implemented it in practice.
To get there, change must be demanded. So you can’t be polite about it. And I think the beauty of someone like Kareem is that he’s unapologetic and he really speaks truth to power. And he brings the data, he brings the research, he looks at the numbers and says, look, these are curricula that you’re using that have only been tested on a very small demographic of our population. If you really want to use reading curricula that work for all children in our country, do more extensive research that is more valid, that is more reliable.
So I hope the call to action in the film is for parents, teachers and the public to ask their leaders, ask their principals, ask their school superintendents, what kind of reading instruction are you using? Is it evidence-based? Is it working for all our kids? Because if it’s only used by a very small part of our country and the demographics are quite narrow, it’s a huge challenge.
As a white filmmaker, have you done anything to try to incorporate the themes you’re covering in this story to inform how you present them in this story?
I’m so glad you asked. We didn’t start out making a movie about black and brown families. I think the story found us, and the story needs to be told, and we’ve told enough stories about white kids and white families and why they matter. And so I think for me, as soon as we found Kareem’s story, it was so clear that he was going to be the focus of this story.
So what we did was we really created a deep collaborative process. Karim is the producer of the film, this is his story. I am a white woman. I wanted to make sure we got it right and that he understood the experience. And the same with the families we followed. We really tried to work closely with them. And it was a different experience for me as a filmmaker because we shared the cuts with them. We shared scenes.
I also wanted to hear from Weaver directly, so I reached out to him. And the first surprising thing I learned was that he was initially resistant to even being in the film.
Kareem Weaver. They had to grow on me at first. I was a horrible object. I would not talk to them. My wife did not want to deal with them at all. My mother said no. But, you know, I guess they kind of wore us down. They stuck to it, and they got enough footage to make some sense of it all.
EdSurge. What was the hesitation?
Weaver. For me, I’m just busy. I do the work. I don’t need to talk about it. In fact, talking about it is not my friend. If I meet the inspector, I don’t need a camera crew on my hip, you know? And I’m not doing it for clicks and giggles, you know what I’m saying? I do it because we’re trying to do something for the kids. And so I just didn’t get the point.
My wife is an introvert. He really didn’t want to deal with it too much and said don’t bother me at all. My mother’s reservation was that she was concerned that they would have a negative bias toward black people. There are many movies. They put us as objects and then make us look bad. And so he says: “Not my age anymore, I don’t have time for that.” He refused to be a part of it at all, just as a matter of principle. And then when the movie came out and he said, “Oh, you should have included me in that.”
So I’m glad to see that he kind of came around to it. And I don’t think it makes us look bad. I think it shows the reality of people’s lives and how we try to get our children the help they need to learn to read. And it’s a color blind thing.
As a film producer, what kind of contribution did you make?
You know, part of it is about how the story is told. There’s the professorial version, and then there’s the regular folk version. And sometimes we get caught up in professorial stuff. And I think we did a little bit of that in the beginning. You know, we’re talking about the science of reading. Sometimes people’s eyes glaze over, it’s all a blur. So [I said] Actually, why don’t we just talk about the real deal and what do families think about this? [issue] and how they feel. So it’s that kind of stuff.
What do you expect from this movie?
Thank you for asking that question. Number one, it’s a call to arms, a call to action. I hope people connect enough to the thread to turn off the TV for a second, turn off football, basketball, March Madness, any other CNN-related distraction. And let’s see about our children. I hope there can be a collective refocus on our children.
By collective I mean both sides of the aisle. I mean all the different regions of the country. I mean all ethnic groups. All genders. These are our children, our collective, our children.
I hope we look at it and be honest with ourselves and say, “We can do better.” So that means that as a result of this film, I hope that school boards will put literacy in the superintendent’s assessment program. I hope that the curriculum that does not meet the research consensus will start to work. And [leaders] are either changed or withdrawn from schools. That we have stuff that is proven to work. …
I hope universities step up their game and realize that their methods classes are important and that teachers shouldn’t come [to teaching] as blank sheets. They must come with a certain level of experience and knowledge that can serve the children on day one