Friday, March 16, 2012

Pruning the Educational Landscape

If you’ve been in education long enough, the refrain, “The pendulum swings again,” is not new to you.  With the Common Core State Standards, many teachers have expressed a concern that as we usher in this new era, we’re saying good-bye to our latest and greatest and moving on to yet something else that is new.  I share this concern and I’ve been watching this unfold very closely.  I have a lot questions, and one of my biggest is about the suggestion that all students need to read grade level complex text and the way in which to go about this is through close, careful reads.  I come from the school of strategy instruction.  I’ve taught children how to connect, infer, question, determine importance, visualize, and synthesize with success.  The suggestion that I abandon this practice in exchange for something that seems to be brand new to the educational landscape makes me say, “What gives?”

What gives is the need for me to be open minded.  If this is the new educational dictum, then before I can criticize it, I need to really understand it.  I need to carefully consider what I don’t understand about close, careful reading, and I need to understand what’s behind the suggestion that this practice could potentially help solve the problems that ail American schoolchildren when it comes to comprehension. And so, I have been on a quest to learn everything I can about close reading.  I have watched and rewatched the EngageNY videos about the Gettysburg Address and Letters from a Birmingham Jail.  I have scrutinized the Feynman text and I have read and listened as people who know way more than I do about reading explain the rationale and justification behind it and I confess, I have stumbled upon some new understandings. The first being this idea that if children are going to be successful on state assessments, the first time they see grade level text cannot be the day of the test.   Now, I don’t mean to imply that the authors of the Common Core are only about good test scores, but I think it’s fairly safe to say that they are about improving reading proficiency.  The contention is that in our classrooms, we don’t do enough to create dissonance and when students don’t have ample opportunity to puzzle through the complexities of complicated text, they don’t stretch as readers.  Instead of working in zones of proximal development, we create zones of maximum comfort and like an exercise routine that isn’t adjusted when a certain comfort level is achieved, growth stifles.  We don’t get the results we are looking for.

So this idea of stretching a reader is an ideology that I share with the Common Core so I found myself very willing to experiment with close reading. Part of the theory suggests we shouldn’t provide students too much information about the text before actually reading it because doing this takes away the need for students to attend closely and puzzle out what the text is really saying.  This idea intrigued me because I’m so conditioned to preview and provide background knowledge but I decided to suspend what I know best and give it a try. And I have to say, I’ve noticed some interesting things begin to happen.

In the past, as I prepared students to read, I would often invite them to share their experiences and talk about their connections to what they thought they were going to read about.  Students would get super excited and we’d sometimes have interesting conversations, but there were also plenty of occasions when I felt like I was running interference trying to get the students back on track because the conversation had taken a serious detour from what the text was really about.  In addition, these pre-reading conversations would often eat up a lot of time.  Once upon a time, I thought it was time well spent. But since I have backed off from activating schema, I have found myself entertaining far less extraneous conversation about text.  Because there is less idle chatter, there seems to be less “noise” interfering with students’ understanding. On many occasions I’d observe students answering questions based on what they knew rather than what the text actually said.  I’m seeing a lot less of that now and it’s the result of a simple change.

My little experiment has taught me many things, mostly about close reading, but also about change.  Skepticism is a knee jerk reaction to change.  So is dread. Cynicism. Criticism.  When I first encountered the Common Core, I was suspicious that as educators, we were “being forced into a brand new educational landscape.” As I become more familiar with the Common Core, its shifts, and ideals, what I realize is that we’re not creating a brand new landscape so much as we’re pruning the one we already have. While we can hope that the greatest outcome of the Common Core will be better readers, writers, speakers, and listeners; the more immediate outcome will be reflection.  This document will force us to “closely read” our curriculums and teaching practices.  It will force us to try new things and in pruning the landscape, we may actually begin to create a new—and better—landscape for the 21st Century.


Alison M. said...

I appreciate your insight and transparency. You show great wisdom and discernment.

Kim Yaris said...

Thank you, Alison! I tend to think of myself as "awake" more than wise, but I appreciate the complement!

skanny17 said...

I am very excited to have found your and Jan's work. I am on the same journey and agree wholeheartedly with you. I, too, have been a Calkins, Graves, Atwell, Allington, etc. etc. junkie. I just posted another comment on your Haiku standards which I hope you will see. Thank you in advance for your work and collegiality.