One thing I’ve seen in too many schools is a willy-nilly approach to selecting texts for English language arts instruction. I’ve long suspected that it is a wide-spread problem, and now a new survey confirms my fear. In a Fordham Institute report by Timothy Shanahan and Ann Duffett, over 1,000 teachers were asked whether texts or strategies came first. Strategies, hands down. (For more from this report, see my last post.)
Here are the options on the survey: do you “Teach particular books, short stories, essays, and poems that you think students should read and then organize instruction around them, teaching a variety of reading skills and strategies as tools for students to understand the texts”? Or, do you “Focus instruction on reading skills and strategies first, e.g., main idea, summarizing, author’s purpose, and then organize teaching around them, so that students will apply these skills and strategies to any book, short story, essay, or poem they read”?
Only 22% of fourth- and fifth-grade teachers start with the texts; 73% focus on the strategies. The remaining 5% focus on something else or both. Things improve a bit in later grades; 56% of middle-grades and 46% of ninth- and tenth-grade teachers focus on strategies.
This sounds like a shoes-then-socks approach to me. Strategies like “main idea, summarizing, author’s purpose” and others can be used with thousands of different texts. But essential knowledge, vocabulary, and concepts can only be taught with certain carefully selected and sequenced texts. Strategies are not learning objectives in and of themselves; they are tools for gaining access to the knowledge, vocabulary, and concepts in the texts.
This idea seems to have gotten lost. I can’t count how many times I’ve had teachers tell me it does not matter whether a student reads The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or The Hunger Games—all that matters is that they read. I’ve never agreed. One of these books is has earned canon status through literary brilliance. One of these books pulls students into some of the most difficult, painful, and important (yes, to this day) issues in our nation. The other dabbles with some important concepts, but is not extraordinary or even enlightening. School time is precious. Teachers’ knowledge is valuable. Children have serious questions. How can any book that is less than extraordinary be justified?
(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)
Or, to ask the question more productively, what can happen when knowledge, vocabulary, and concepts come first; texts are selected that draw students into wrestling with the content; and strategies are rightly seen as mere tools? Diana Senechal answers:
Teachers and students thrive in relation to substantial, beautiful, meaningful subject matter. Last night, we had a Philosophy Roundtable (for parents, students, faculty/staff, and guests) about the nature of wisdom; we discussed passages from the Book of Job and Plato’s Apology and concluded with Richard Wilbur’s poem “Still, Citizen Sparrow.” As we were grappling with the nature of wisdom, students brought up physics, calculus, art, music, and literature; the evening was like a kaleidoscope of the school’s curriculum. I have long been an advocate of a strong curriculum, but last night I saw the splendor of what my students were learning across the subjects—and saw it all converge in a philosophical question.
So, schools should be at liberty to teach subjects in their full glory. This means not being bogged down with skills and strategies. The skills and strategies will come with the subjects themselves. But what is a subject? Even the most specific topic is an infinity. You can approach it methodically or intuitively; you can look at its structure, its form, its meaning; you can explore its implications, flipside, pitfalls—and if you are to teach or study it well, you will probably do all of this. My main worry about the Common Core is that it can (and in many cases will) inhibit such flexibility. Students may well learn how to write argumentative essays that meet certain criteria—but who cares, unless there’s something worth arguing? To have something worth arguing, you need an insight—and to gain insight, you need to study the matter in an intense, disciplined, but also adventurous and idiosyncratic way.
All true. But strategies don’t have to interfere with teaching and learning; they don’t have to dominate Common Core implementation. They can be put in their rightful place as tools for exploring subject matter. Indeed, the standards themselves call for the content-rich curriculum to take center stage. Teachers that follow Senechal’s lead will exceed the standards—in their own “intense, disciplined, but also adventurous and idiosyncratic” ways.