Teaching Content is Teaching Reading

by Robert Pondiscio
January 9th, 2009

A little over a year ago, I saw Dan Willingham give a talk at the Education Trust conference in Washington, DC titled “Teaching Content is Teaching Reading.” He demonstrated convincingly why background knowledge is essential to reading comprehension–and why broad, content-rich education is the best way to ensure kids can understand what they read.  Having been force-fed the idea that all kids needed is the ability to decode, vocabulary and “reading strategies” in order to comprehend, I thought – I still do — the phrase “teaching content is teaching reading” ought to be on the lips of every elementary educator in America.  

Dan has made an intriguing video on the main ideas of his presentation and posted it on YouTube. It’s terrific. 

Great work, Dr. Willingham.  If you know an elementary school teacher, forward the link to Dan’s video.

Turnaround Without Turmoil

by Robert Pondiscio
January 9th, 2009

Are conflict and confrontation necessary ingredients in a school turnaround?  Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher files a provocative column about a Maryland school that is succeeding without the kind of bare knuckle brawls that are drawing national media attention to Michelle Rhee and the nearby Washington, DC school system.

Fisher goes to Broad Acres Elementary School in Silver Spring where scores were so low eight years ago that a state takeover loomed. Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry Weast and Principal Jody Leleck negotiated with the teachers union to add extra hours to the work week for extra pay. “Teachers would offer no more excuses about poor kids from dysfunctional families; expectations would soar. About a third of the faculty left; Leleck hired 27 veteran teachers that first summer” he reports. 

Rhee’s faceoff with the Washington Teachers’ Union creates a dynamic different from the cooperation between Weast and Montgomery County Education Association President Bonnie Cullison. She said she hears Rhee telling teachers, ” ‘You’re not doing the job,’ as opposed to ‘Let’s work together.’ You cannot make it happen in a district where you set up conflict”…Weast won’t criticize his D.C. counterpart, but he will say that narrowing the achievement gap is about expecting all children to work hard and love learning. “You can do it anyplace if you treat people like you want to be treated,” he says.

Today, 81 percent meet reading proficiency standards this year, up from 47 percent in 2003. “Broad Acres did this without Rhee’s reform tactics,” Fisher points out. ”No young recruits from Teach for America, no cash for students who come to class, no linkage of teacher pay to test scores.”  And what’s happening inside the classrooms?

Too often, schools desperate to boost test scores become grim factories in which children are force-fed rote skills. But at Broad Acres, teachers coach each other to keep kids engaged in rich material for its own sake. In Andrea Sutton’s fifth-grade class, 16 kids sit on the floor, jumping up to explain to one another the roots of the American colonists’ grievances with the British. The teacher’s voice never rises above a stage whisper as she plies the class with questions that would fit nicely in a high school course.  With all the pressure from No Child Left Behind, it’s so easy to cut out history and science,” Bayewitz says. “But these kids are going to need those complex skills in high school and college. And these kids are going to college.”

Claus von Zastrow at Public School Insights observes that Fisher’s piece reminds us “that school improvement does not necessarily require a death-match between high-profile ‘reformers’ and the education ‘establishment.’” Fisher is promising a follow-up column Sunday on ”a D.C. school that matches Broad Acre’s population, put presumably not its methods.  Stay tuned.

KIPP Founders: National Standards Will Raise Achievement

by Robert Pondiscio
January 9th, 2009

Kipp founders Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin have an op-ed in the Washington Post today “how to channel Obama’s ‘yes, we can’ spirit into substantive education reform.”  Some of the pair’s five suggestions are pure bully pulpit stuff – inspiring Americans “to set a goal for our educational system akin to putting a man on the moon,” for example, and helping build enthusiasm and respect for teachers.  But the KIPPsters also issue a ringing call for national standards and assessments:

Perhaps the single greatest lever for raising expectations and achievement for all children in America would be the creation of national learning standards and assessments. With KIPP schools operating in 19 states, we have seen how the maze of state standards and tests keeps great teachers from sharing ideas, inhibits innovation, and prevents meaningful comparison of student, teacher and school performance. Rather than there being 50 different standards, Obama could unify the country around a common vision for the kind of teaching and learning we need to prepare our children for the future.

The pair also want Obama and Ed Secretary-designate Arne Duncan to back assessing teachers “on their demonstrated impact on student learning, not whether they hold a traditional teacher certifications,” and giving all public “the ability to hire, fire and reward principals and teachers based on their students’ progress and achievement.”

Classic Fairytales “Too Dark” For Today’s Toddlers?

by Robert Pondiscio
January 9th, 2009

A British website surveyed 3,000 parents to find out what mom and dad are reading to their children before bed.  It turns out one-fourth of “mums” have put aside dark, scary and non-PC traditional tales like Snow White and Rapunzel in favor of The Very Hungry Caterpillar and The Gruffalo.  According to TheBabyWebsite.com:

  • Snow White seems to have fallen by the wayside because the Wicked Witch was deemed too frightening – but a handful won’t read it because they feel the dwarf reference is not PC.
  • Rapunzel is considered ‘too dark’ and Cinderella has been dumped because she is forced to do the housework and sit on cinders.
  • A third of parents won’t read ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ because she walks alone through woods and finds her grandmother has been eaten by a wolf.
  • A fifth of parents don’t like to tell their children about ‘The Gingerbread Man’ as he gets eaten by a fox.

However two out of three parents in the survey believe “traditional fairy tales have stronger morality messages than many of today’s popular bedtime stories.”  They’re just too scary to read before bed. 

The top ten bedtime stories of 2008 were The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Mr Men by Roger Hargreaves, The Gruffalo, Winnie the Pooh, Aliens Love Underpants by Claire Freedman and Ben Cort, Thomas and Friends from The Railway Series, The Wind in the Willows, What a Noisy Pinky Ponk! by Andrew Davenport, Charlie and Lola by Lauren Child and Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

The site also offers a list of top ten most neglected fairytales.  It includes Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood and Jack and the Beanstalk.