I want to start by saying that I am not against standards in education. I am against standards being taught in a decontextualized, skill based manner that lacks authenticity. There is a big difference. I elaborate further below.
What is most important for our students. The ability for them to remember the information we have presented them? Is it the recall of facts and procedures in scientific inquiry and mathematical competency? Is it the regurgitation of years of significant events that happened in history? Is it the identification of literary elements or plot elements ? Or…is it the ability to be able to think meaningfully about how these issues and elements connect to our own world knowledge? I believe it is the information that we have connected to relevancy that students remember well and the rest is perceived as arbitrary to our students and deeply filed away with a slim chance of being found again. We need to make standards based education real for our students.
The standards based movement in education has done as much damage as it has done good for our students. In the same breath that we are attempting to create a guaranteed and viable curriculum for students, we are isolating and fragmenting standards at an astronomical rate to the point we have a curriculum that is so disconnected that it has no real meaningful context for kids. We have taken the power of historical significance and placed it in a tight Microsoft office packages with tables, timelines, power points, and graphic organizers all ready to “feed” our students information. We have taken the greatest writer’s and turned their ideas into a minutia of splintered labeled elements for which they themselves did not acknowledge while writing. To simply know historical events and acknowledge literary elements is not literacy. To be literate encompasses just as much an ability to think for yourself and like someone else as it does to recall elements and events. At what point did we start to lose sight of the true meaning of literacy?
Everything that I have read about literacy has advocated for rich literacy experience within the context of authentic learning. Authentic learning comes in the form of real work tasks, real world texts (as opposed to artificial text written by corporations and programs to fit standards) and real world environments. Authentic learning has themes that intertwine throughout study and connect to bigger ideas. These bigger ideas drive our students to see the relevancy in what they are learning. It does not have to be complicated. Simply put, ask yourself the question “What is authentic?” The ability to have meaningful conversation, the capability to process and make meaning of information that is not your own, the idea that authenticity means that you are in charge of making meaning of information in front of you? Can we weave standards into the larger ideas of authentic learning. John Dewey’s progressive ideal of education still is the most relevant component for 21st century learning today.
We have made teaching literacy too hard. We have complicated it again with 20 page lesson plans given to us by profit industries with over complicated graphic organizers and worksheets which drill and kill isolated skills that never make it to the true authentic experience of learning. The fact that we rely on worksheets created by so-called education sites rather than deep reading, writing and thinking on a daily basis have exacerbated this. In other blogs, I have made reference to the power of questions. I believe that authentic literacy can be achieved through this simple process.
- Identify the standards we must teach
- Identify the resources we are going to use to assess and teach those standards
- Create high quality discussion based questions that are standards based that can be deployed before, during and after reading.
- Create structures for processing questions including cooperative learning, socratic seminar, fishbowl, quick writes, blogs.
- Based on the questions discussed and written about, create assessments based on the very questions that you had the ability to discuss and write.
To delve even further, what are some universal truths and assumptions that we could frame before we begin a unit of study that the class will explore. We can turn these truths and assumptions into inquiry questions that will anchor every discussion we have. I recently revisited Alfred Tatum’s book Teaching Reading to Black Adolescent Males and was moved by the questions that he posed for his students to answer through all of their “authentic readings” This is a short list of the types of inquiry questions we could develop to reach our students. They could be reworded and phrased to fit any type of genre or theme in literature and informational text. As stated by Tatum, “Black males also have relationships that are described in texts. Teachers can use these texts to help their black male students add meaning to their lives even as they enhance their literacy development. Just as it would have difficult for the teacher in Wolff’s novel to help the boys in his class examine their relationships with their fathers, if he had used a decontextualized, skills focused orientation, teachers of black males would have a hard time helping examine relationships in their lives with a decontextualized, skills-focused orientation to literacy instruction. Literacy has to be defined more broadly, and more meaningfully, than that. For example, black males should be encouraged to think about the following questions.
- What does it mean to be a man?
- What does it mean to be a Black man in America?
- How does it feel to be compared to an animal?
- What does it mean do be misunderstood?
- What does it mean to be perceived as a victim?
- What does it mean to be pacified with low expectations?
- What does it mean to overcome?
- What does it mean to have to defend your rights as a human being?
- What does it mean to have to justify your presence?
- What does it mean to be endlessly judged and evaluated by European standards?
- What does it mean to be invisible?
Although Tatum focused his study on black males, I believe these types of universal questions could be formulated to fit any type of world experience, gender, culture, oppressed, or privileged group of students.
Now that I have explored a little bit on the power of inquiry within a unit of study, what about the reading and writing that our students encounter?
I understand why teaching writing requires that you be a writer. It is not all that different from a teacher of reading being a reader. You experience the same meta-cognitive skills as you are teaching. You take those habits and skills that good writers and readers possess and you make them transparent. I think about the power of a teacher experiencing the same process that the kids are experiencing and making their thinking transparent to kids. I then think about the importance of writing and reading to learn and how the world has now changed in regards to writing and reading today. The social media realm of learning is completely foreign to some of our educators yet it is the main forum for written communication for our students. I think about the processes that I go through as I am writing this blog. I am immediately a form of a publish writer pushing my ideas. I am gathering a particular type of audience with my ideas and am able to push it out to hundreds if not thousands of people. (not that all would want to read it) This has a particular amount of appeal to me as a writer and as a learner. It is real, authentic, and has a very personal purpose. As I am writing authentically. However, I remind myself of the curriculum work I have been a part of the last several years and the standards based movement I have embraced. I am not against a standards based education anymore than I am against a free for all type of atmosphere in education. There is a balance we must strike. Standards must be made meaningful for our students and simply going through a pacing guide to ensure success on multiple choice measures that may or may not have any type of relevancy for our students is not the answer. Again, there is a place for standardized testing in education but it is one place in many areas of education. Right now, it feels as if it is the one area receiving diligent attention and action. What is the balance we must strike? I am not completely against using multiple choice measures as a way to gauge student performance and understanding but it is one measure, not the only measure.
What do we have to do to make this happen in the system?
- Identify important essential standards.
- Make them relevant for students in authentic real text and information. (Through the use of questions and relevant connections)
- Create frequent authentic formative measures to gauge student understanding and thought.
- Write, read and dialogue consistently each day to get thinking out of the mind.
- Help students communicate thought in a way that is appropriate for audience and subject.
- Know what students understand and do not understand to address confusion.
- Repeat the cycle in a year-long series of connected events.
I rely heavily on Language Arts and Social studies in this blog. I would be curious to hear from others on how this looks in mathematical and scientific competency. This is our purpose friends. Teachers once again have the power in the classroom to make learning real. Are we brave enough to strike this balance? Am I thinking to simplistic?