By Mark Anderson
Mark Anderson, who became a NYC Teaching Fellow after working in retail and hospitality management, now teaches at Jonas Bronck Academy in the Bronx. His writing on educational improvement has appeared in Gotham Schools, the Times Union, VIVA Teachers, and other venues. Anderson also creates educational videos, including one that summarizes this blog post on fulfilling the intent of the Common Core.
In part 1 of this three-part series, Anderson discusses why skills-based teaching should no longer be predominant in ELA. In part 3, he discusses the dangers of infantilizing teachers.
Prometheus statue, University of Minho
Mistake #2: Placing the burden of teaching literacy entirely on ELA
As I noted in my last post, I believe the Common Core standards open a window of opportunity for systematically building students’ knowledge as teachers shift from “just-right texts” to complex texts. Another potentially transformative shift of the Common Core standards is the acknowledgment that literacy extends across all content areas. This is explicitly recognized by the standards in two ways: 1) the inclusion of literacy standards for social studies, science, and technical subjects in grades 6 – 12; and 2) the demand for an increase in informational texts.
Under key design considerations in the introduction to the literacy standards, Common Core’s authors state that the inclusion of social studies, science, and technical subjects “reflects the unique, time-honored place of ELA teachers in developing students’ literacy skills while at the same time recognizing that teachers in other areas must have a role in this development as well” (bold added).
They furthermore point out that “because the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes” (bold added).
Yet within schools, these points are all too easily ignored or misconstrued. ELA teachers are evaluated by the literacy tests that their students are required to take. One of the greatest frustrations of being an ELA teacher, in fact, is that we are tested on factors that are often beyond our control, such as our students’ domain-specific knowledge. It’s no wonder, then, that many ELA teachers resort to skills-based teaching, grimly attempting to boost test scores by bolstering superficial, isolated skills.
That domain-specific knowledge is essential to literacy is a point that has been already been made much more cogently by others—such as Daniel Willingham, E. D. Hirsch, and Robert Pondiscio—and that is apparent in research. In my personal experience, I frequently teach students who are quite familiar with the skill of “inferencing,” for example, yet display little ability to make an accurate inference.
During my first years of teaching at my former elementary school, we had noted from our students’ literacy assessment data that inferencing was a deficient skill across all tested grades. All of us set about diligently teaching the skill. After going through a cycle or two of grade-level team “inquiry” on this skill, something slowly became apparent to me: our students couldn’t make accurate inferences because they didn’t understand what they were reading. The problem wasn’t lack of inferencing skill, it was lack of knowledge. This is when I first realized that we were failing our students because we didn’t have a coherent curriculum. Forget inferencing. Before we could do inquiry on anything, we had to have a solid, structured curriculum in place to refer to so that we could align what we were teaching across our classrooms and grades, and therefore address gaps in students’ knowledge and skills.
In most elementary schools, ELA is given heavy prominence, often to the detriment of music, arts, social studies, and science, as ELA test scores weigh heavily on schools’ performance. Yet this establishes a demoralizing catch-22, in that the domain-specific knowledge necessary for reading comprehension is then unable to be acquired.
If the research foundation and intent of the Common Core—to build the broad knowledge that is essential to literacy—remains unrecognized, then a simple and devastating misunderstanding of Common Core’s emphasis on “informational” texts will occur: ELA will avoid most literature altogether and focus on disparate expository texts instead, leaving us back at square one—an utter lack of coherency or of a systematic accumulation of knowledge.
The burden for literacy cannot remain on the shoulders of ELA alone. Literature, including literary nonfiction, is essential for gaining an understanding of the world, but it must be backed by domain-specific knowledge in other content areas.
In elementary school, this means that administrators need to shift their focus from ELA to social studies, science, arts, and music, and ensure that 90-minute literacy blocks are used to build knowledge, not simply to conduct independent reading and writing. This can be done most strategically by selecting a coherent body of texts for teacher read-alouds and whole class or small group exploration. In middle and high school, this means that social studies, science, and technical content area teachers need to be on board with also being teachers of literacy, and must be trained on the selection and teaching of texts that will build content-specific knowledge.
At my middle school, my grade-level team began developing this understanding by exploring the Common Core standards together. We discovered that the expectation that students would be able to cite evidence, read and comprehend complex grade-level texts, and write arguments that exhibit logical reasoning and address counterclaims extended across ELA, social studies, and science. Not only that, we found that argumentative standards in literacy closely aligned with expectations for mathematical practice, in that students were expected to construct viable arguments and critique the reasoning of others. Here is the initial document my team created to review and compare these argumentative standards.
Such an exploration, however, is only a foot in the door. Now we must consider how we can share strategies for teaching close reading, what qualitative and quantitative methods we can use to select grade-level complex texts, and in what way we can align these strategies across departments and grades. Furthermore, this also requires a shift on the part of us ELA teachers: we must be now be willing to consider how the texts and content we teach will align and build on the content taught in other classrooms.
While such an undertaking may appear daunting at first, the opportunity to collaborate on interdisciplinary papers, projects, and tasks is invigorating both for teachers and for students. At the end of the last school year, my ELA department began working with our social studies department to consider how we could align our poetry units with their units. We discovered that all social studies units shared a common theme of warfare, so we began selecting poems on warfare that would build on this theme and extend and enrich student understanding of multiple perspectives on war. This ability to strategically build on student knowledge strengthened student engagement, as students were able dive deeper into poems such as “Night in Blue” by Brian Turner and “Dulce et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen by drawing upon their knowledge of the experience of soldiers in traumatic modern wars.
Here’s one short-term measure we could take to ensure that the burden for teaching literacy does not fall only on the shoulders of ELA teachers:
- Common Core-aligned literacy assessments should hold all the teachers for a grade level accountable.
Wait, what? You read that right. Make all the teachers on a grade level accountable for student performance on literacy tests. It might sound crazy, and I’m sure it will complicate the pristine “value-added” formulas that have been cooked up to evaluate individual teachers, but it’s the most effective means to ensure that schools actualize the teaching of knowledge as the key to literacy. So long as the burden of accountability for literacy tests falls solely to the domain of ELA, then the teaching of literacy will fall solely on the backs of ELA teachers, and the other content areas will therefore continue to be treated as secondary as testing hysteria arises during the year.
In the schools I have worked in, this hysteria is the inevitable accompaniment to high stakes testing. Teachers, despite themselves, begin referencing “the test” as a raison d’être of lessons. During this run up to testing, roughly December through May, a school’s frenetic focus is on ELA and math, with extra weekend and afterschool sessions piled on to reinforce all those isolated skills for good measure.
But now imagine if literacy were acknowledged as a grade-level team’s main objective. All hands would be on deck to ensure that content—across all domains—would be systematically taught and reinforced. In other words, we’d be doing what we should have been doing all along.
Longer term measures we could take to ensure that teaching literacy extends across content areas:
- Schedule time each week for grade-level teacher teams to meet and collaborate on curriculum and pedagogy.
- Include a focus on selecting and teaching complex texts in content-specific teacher training.