As we sift through the damage that remains after experiencing No Child Left Behind, authentic reading and writing must come back into focus. We have much unlearning to do as we move forward and regain our purpose. The current state of education has some unraveling to do in regards to standards. Although the Common Core is giving some consistency to the standards movement and is identifying some “essentials”, we still must remain critical of what we teach our students and not allow these standards to become checklists for corporate standardized testing. The process of deep reading, deep writing, and deep discussion must be at the forefront of the Common Core standard adoption. These three areas are not independent of one another. Quality multiple choice measures assess knowledge and thinking in a certain way but if all we do is focus on this measure alone as to the quality of our craft then we are ignoring what students must have beyond this measure.
Somehow in Kansas (we are far from alone), through standardized testing, literacy had been rendered into sixteen assessable standards through which students must show “proficiency.” Much energy was spent isolating those standards, pouring through the data to look for student weaknesses in regards to the test and creating “interventions” to pass. These interventions pulled kids out of entire days of school. Entire class periods were spent in test prep…how to manipulate the test…trying like hell to convince students that this test was important to them even though in our hearts, we knew that it was not. Kids were denied graphic design classes, robotics classes, debate and band, and put into remediation classes called “Literacy ” that were nothing more than test prep courses. There was very little authentic literacy in these classes and students actually read and wrote less in these classes than they did in their regular English class. I am saddened to say that the current president’s initiative of “Race to the Top” does not hold much more promise than its predecessor. Teaching to pass a multiple choice test holds little promise to help address the literacy problem in America. In fact, this approach exacerbates the problem that we have at hand. I would argue that even as state scores on this assessment continue to climb slowly, we are not producing the types of literate students that our kids must be in order to compete in the national or global economy. To add even further…writing has been put on the serious back burner and is an after thought to reading standards. In our nation’s attempt to measure literacy we actually deny students multiple opportunities to engage in true literacy.
Sadly, I was a part of this movement. I spent years looking at the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) percentage game and sorted students into passing and “unsatisfactory” columns. I spent hours creating bar graphs for teachers in easy to read formats and designing department meetings to plan how to reach our “bubble kids” (those that were right on the brink of passing or failing). and disregarding the students we knew hand no chance of passing. I sorted columns and broke them down by teacher on how many students they would need to pass in order to make AYP. The goals I set with teachers were based on this. I helped create intervention plans with teachers to address areas of the assessment where students appeared to have gaps. There were two things that I learned from this experience:
- I learned how to create learning plans and profiles for students based on data who needed intervention and got quite good at it.
- I learned that if focused on the wrong goals, the wrong interventions and the wrong data, these learning plans and profiles can do serious damage to our student’s lives.
To even further our tunnel visioned view of killing literacy, we placed all reading and writing standards in one content…the Language Arts…and allowed other contents beside them to be disregarded in regards to reading and writing. (when I would argue that many of those content teachers would embrace it.)
We focused so intently on reading standards that writing became an afterthought to the reading multiple choice test. As we are gaining clarity once again, writing must be in the forefront married with reading in multiple areas of our educational system.
WHAT CAN BE:
I cannot undo the past and the wrongs that I have done to students in the name of “AYP” but I can move forward and begin right those wrongs by advocating once again for authentic literacy in our curriculum. Writing is not just the essay over Of Mice and Men or the research paper over the death penalty. Writing is not just about product . Writing is understanding. Writing is process. Writing is confusion. Writing is thinking. Writing and reading are inseparable and one should not exist without the other. Writing is the one skill that is going to set apart the “haves” and “have-nots” when our students leave our doors to begin their lives after high school.
It is too important to ignore any longer and it is too critical (just as reading) to put on the shoulders of one content area. Just think about what could happen in a school if every teacher embraced writing as the defacto tool for teaching the curriculum. In every class every day students were required to write about their understanding and their thinking. Every day, students were exposed to quality writing and required to emulate that quality. What if writing were not just for the grade but for the sake of understanding? What if every teacher embraced reading and writing in their classrooms? What if every teacher used writing to understand reading.
Kelly Gallagher, in his book Teaching Adolescent Writers, believes students MUST understand the important reasons for writing before they will even begin to engage in writing for authentic purposes. Having students process these reasons in detail before engaging in daily writing could save time, power struggle, and increase the amount of engagement in writing. Think of the ramifications if students truly owned these truths and engaged in the classroom because they believed in it. His eight reasons are:
- Writing is Hard but “Hard Writing” is rewarding
- Writing helps you sort things out.
- Writing helps you to persuade others
- Writing helps to fight oppression.
- Writing makes you a better reader. (Reading makes you a better writer)
- Writing makes you smarter.
- Writing helps you get into and through college
- Writing prepares you for the world of work.
If we do not spend time helping students unlearn their disdain for writing,then what makes us think they will embrace it? Gallagher teaches his students these important reasons and continues to push them throughout a year. He gives personal examples and social examples of where these truths are apparent. He also gives heavy amounts of small writing before engaging in large products of writing allowing students to “warm up” to it. I would highly recommend reading his book Teaching Adolescent Writers. It offers a very clear and applicable way to increase and improve the types of writing that students do.
Schools can adopt a different approach. Leadership can trust in the process of authenticity. What I can recommend at this point in time are these five steps to addressing the literacy problem in our schools. They are by no means a silver bullet and within each step there is complexity. I argue that it is the right complexity.
- Identify the most essential standards that kids need to know and I would argue to disregard or embed the rest. Think about the deepest ways to teach these standards. Deep means going beyond identification and definition. Deep means doing rich analysis and studying how to use standards to deepen knowledge. Teaching essential standards well rather than teaching all standards poorly is a good pay off for our students. These standards should be taught through writing. Lots and lots of opportunities for writing. Before students are expected to meet these standards, they are given lots of formal and informal opportunities to practice in and out of class in authentic ways. Attempting to hit the big essay standard without the appropriate scaffolding as to why meeting that standard is important holds little water with students.
- Find rich text to teach content. Examples of this could be to use historical narratives to couple with dry Social Studies textbooks or finding current informational editorial writing and connecting it to historical events. Rich text offers a variety of ways to connect with it versus thin text that requires very little thinking. Studying Julius Caesar coupled with the overthrow and death of Gaddafi. Studying American Colonialism paired with A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. (Your students will not look at historical perspective the same!!!) These texts should be processed with heavy doses of writing for the deepening and retention of understanding. This writing should address multiple points of view, positions, and include large amounts of feedback from peers and teacher.
- Create high quality discussion based questions to deploy before, during, and after instruction. Before, during and after reading, students should also be doing heavy doses of writing. These heavy doses of writing need to be varied and each day students add new pages to their journal. Students create several first draft writings connected to their reading and now have several pages of thought before entering the end of unit essay. These questions drive inquiry and give them the starting point. These questions scaffold students to answer larger essay type collegiate essays.
- Make explicit the processes that good readers and writer’s go through each and every lesson. Stop hiding making meaning in front of students. Make meaning with your students rather than feeding them meaning. Within the journal mentioned above, students keep pages reserved for the mini lessons of grammar or reading skills. These pages contain the deconstruction of standards and what they mean. The direct instruction of the classroom is placed here with the notes that teachers give students. As much classroom time as possible should be spent making meaning of these grammar/reading skills, standards and notes in authentic ways rather than just teaching the skills themselves. Writing should be one of the default ways for students to demonstrate thinking.
- Assess students in meaningful and authentic ways which always includes the oral and written discourse of understanding. I understand that multiple choice gateways are obstacles our students must overcome but they are only the first and they are only one. If a student cannot show understanding through quality reading, writing, and discussion. Colleges, employers, and American citizenship needs these three skills in students to successfully advance in our global economy. I would argue that if students can do these three things well they can perform well on multiple choice measures. Writing should be the key form of assessment.
These five steps are paramount and the bedrock to a literate America. If we do not move away from isolated standard and skill instruction out of the context of authentic experiences ,then I fear that America’s illiterate population will continue to grow to where it will be beyond crisis…it will be our downfall.
As I conclude this, I reminded that I am a student. I consume information daily and process it. I write to sort things through and realize the more I digest the more I don’t know. My opinions today may change because of what I encounter tomorrow. It is a beautiful whirlwind of thought and I am able to live in this world because of literacy. This is my dream for our students. This is my utopia of educational disposition.