Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Teaching Is an Art

I recent­ly received a mes­sage from my friend, Amir:

Mau­r­na, I want­ed to get your feed­back on this arti­cle. I taught Eng­lish for 8+ years and my final M.Ed. project was on read­ing, so this is a pas­sion of mine. When I used to pre­pare NYC pub­lic school teach­ers for their licens­ing exams, they would like­ly do bet­ter on the read­ing pas­sages if they had more back­ground knowl­edge, even though that knowl­edge was not need­ed. I won­der if we are being unre­al­is­tic in our teach­ing of read­ing?”

The arti­cle, “Why We’re Teach­ing Read­ing Com­pre­hen­sion in a Way That Doesn’t Work” was writ­ten by Natal­ie Wexler and pub­lished by Forbes mag­a­zine a few months ago. The title and Amir’s won­der­ing about whether we teach­ers are out of touch or imprac­ti­cal struck a nerve and launched weeks of fur­ther read­ing, reflect­ing, writ­ing, rewrit­ing, and rest­less nights. I felt my ini­tial response was too defen­sive and I was deter­mined to find a lev­el-head­ed way to share my take on the arti­cle. I gained empa­thy for my stu­dents who strug­gle dai­ly with writ­ing — it has always come eas­i­ly for me but not this time. I felt like the kid who gets so frus­trat­ed with their writ­ing that they scrunch their paper into a wadded-up ball then chuck it into the garbage can only to retrieve it, smooth it out to read it over, and try to fix it one more time. I reached out to my lit­er­a­cy-guru teacher friends and asked for their hon­est feed­back on my writ­ing. And final­ly, I decid­ed to try start­ing over in an effort to find my voice and say what real­ly needs to be said.

The arti­cle by Wexler, like much of her writ­ing over the years, sounds the alarm for all the things woe­ful­ly wrong with today’s edu­ca­tion sys­tem. Her laun­dry list of com­plaints includes dan­ger­ous­ly inad­e­quate teacher edu­ca­tion pro­grams, teach­ers and pro­fes­sors who ignore the need to under­stand and teach phon­ics, teach­ers who present les­son after les­son on com­pre­hen­sion strate­gies instead of build­ing back­ground knowl­edge, teach­ers who focus on inde­pen­dent read­ing lev­els instead of push­ing text that is much more sophis­ti­cat­ed and advanced, teach­ers wast­ing time on things not endorsed by the Nation­al Read­ing Pan­el, and, final­ly, teach­ers who chal­lenge or flat out refuse to con­sid­er sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly-backed research on how read­ing pro­fi­cien­cy is acquired and should be taught. It is quite the list.

At first, I thought the best approach was to pick apart Wexler’s writ­ing, first by sum­ma­riz­ing it and then offer­ing my stance on whether I agreed or dis­agreed with her asser­tions. In order to accom­plish that, I exam­ined just about every link or ref­er­ence in her arti­cle (more than two dozen). This is where I encoun­tered the most dif­fi­cul­ty in my ear­li­er attempts to com­pose an answer for my friend Amir.

There was just so much that didn’t sit right with me. Wexler, along with her col­league Emi­ly Han­ford, and many oth­er “edu­ca­tion writ­ers” refer to The Nation­al Read­ing Panel’s report from 2001 to strength­en their case for empha­siz­ing the “sci­ence” of teach­ing read­ing. Yet an arti­cle writ­ten by Joann Yatvin, a mem­ber of the NRP, decries the report for being huge­ly mis­in­ter­pret­ed and mis­used. Yatvin might hold the “minor­i­ty view” of the NRP, but her exposé of the panel’s report as “nar­row, biased, and elit­ist” can­not and should not be ignored.

When con­sid­er­ing Ms. Wexler’s arti­cle title about why we’re teach­ing read­ing in a way that doesn’t work, I con­sid­ered shar­ing a snap­shot of what she or any­one vis­it­ing my class­room might find hap­pen­ing in Room 212 when it comes to lit­er­a­cy learn­ing:

  • Kids writ­ing let­ters to authors of books they’ve fall­en in love with.
  • Kids doing research and writ­ing about a wide range of self-select­ed top­ics such as home­less­ness, African Amer­i­can mol­e­c­u­lar biol­o­gist Ernest Everett Just, and ancient civ­i­liza­tions (to name just a few).
  • Kids with voice and choice beg­ging for more time to read inde­pen­dent­ly.
  • Kids ask­ing to stay in from recess, so they can do more writ­ing.
  • Kids per­form­ing lit­tle plays for younger stu­dents.
  • Kids doing art.
  • Kids engaged in joy­ful learn­ing.
  • Kids learn­ing how to be cre­ative prob­lem solvers, open-mind­ed risk tak­ers, and kind, com­pas­sion­ate peo­ple.

I would love to ask Ms. Wexler to explain what it is exact­ly that isn’t work­ing in our vibrant learn­ing com­mu­ni­ty?!

teaching writing

What about Amir’s ques­tion: are we being unre­al­is­tic in our teach­ing of read­ing? My answer would have to be, “Yes.” In my opin­ion, edu­ca­tion writ­ers like Wexler and Han­ford, leg­is­la­tors all across the coun­try, and even school admin­is­tra­tors are being unre­al­is­tic when they sug­gest that the best or only answer to improved read­ing pro­fi­cien­cy (aka bet­ter read­ing test scores) is a script­ed, pack­aged, read­ing cur­ricu­lum that is hell-bent on push­ing core knowl­edge or huge dos­es of phon­ics. Wexler believes that the bright spot on the hori­zon is the uptick in “ele­men­tary lit­er­a­cy cur­ric­u­la designed to build stu­dents’ knowl­edge.” What a sad state­ment on so many lev­els. Insist­ing teach­ers fol­low a man­u­al for a pro­gram that touts “sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly-backed research” is not the answer. A one-size-fits-all approach to teach­ing read­ing com­pre­hen­sion is not the answer.

I must acknowl­edge that I, too, am being unre­al­is­tic. I have a deep pas­sion for teach­ing and for lit­er­a­cy. It’s hard for me to admit, but I know not all teach­ers share that pas­sion. Not all teach­ers have had the same good for­tune I’ve had to learn from won­der­ful men­tors. Not all teach­ers are encour­aged to take risks and feel con­fi­dent in what they can accom­plish with their stu­dents. For many dif­fer­ent rea­sons, it is sad but true, there are adults in teach­ing roles (luck­i­ly in my expe­ri­ence, I’ve met only a few) who see them­selves as babysit­ters, are not inter­est­ed in life-long learn­ing, and occa­sion­al­ly act like they don’t even like kids. I wish I had an answer about how to guar­an­tee all teach­ers were high­ly qual­i­fied, filled with pas­sion, and loved kids. But I would bet my bot­tom dol­lar that the vast major­i­ty of teach­ers strive to achieve these qual­i­ties, despite being blamed so often for all that’s wrong with edu­ca­tion.

library

Wexler, along with oth­er edu­ca­tion com­men­ta­tors and researchers seem to know all about “the sci­ence” of read­ing. They vol­un­teer as tutors. They test stu­dents to deter­mine whether they are pro­fi­cient read­ers using their own cri­te­ria or high stakes tests that are rid­dled with bias. They are quick to point out all the things that are wrong with today’s teach­ers and class­rooms and then they offer their easy-to-fix-it solu­tions (“buy a bet­ter read­ing cur­ricu­lum, teach more con­tent so stu­dents gain more back­ground knowl­edge”).

The glar­ing prob­lem from my van­tage point, how­ev­er, is what they don’t do.

  • They don’t seem to get it that spend­ing 165 days a year with a group of 25 – 30 won­der­ful­ly diverse and bril­liant kids might gar­ner them more street cred.
  • They don’t seem to get it that improv­ing vocab­u­lary and back­ground knowl­edge starts with improv­ing the severe eco­nom­ic and racial divides in our soci­ety that cre­ate class­rooms filled with “haves” and “have-nots.”
  • They don’t seem to get it that the kids who lack ade­quate vocab­u­lary and back­ground knowl­edge are often kids who have not had the ben­e­fit of attend­ing pre-school.
  • They don’t seem to get it that while the “sci­ence” of teach­ing read­ing is impor­tant, the “art” of teach­ing read­ing is and should be of even greater stature.
  • And final­ly, they real­ly don’t seem to get it that we teach kids before we teach read­ing, writ­ing, math, sci­ence, or any oth­er sub­ject.

teaching science

No, Ms. Wexler, our teach­ers and schools are not fail­ing because we are ignor­ing the research and are not impart­ing enough knowl­edge. How­ev­er, we teach­ers, the major­i­ty of us who invest extra time, our own mon­ey, our heart and soul, who spend day after day, year after year, with dozens, even hun­dreds of kids (who for many of us become a sec­ond fam­i­ly), we teach­ers have a pletho­ra of knowl­edge that only teach­ers have. It’s knowl­edge that can’t be learned until you begin your first day on the job. We do what­ev­er it takes to know, real­ly know, our stu­dents. We also know that kids don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. And that kind of knowl­edge won’t be found in any lit­er­a­cy cur­ric­u­la. That kind of knowl­edge is what I believe makes teach­ing read­ing a work of art.

A final note to my friend, Amir. You men­tioned help­ing teach­ers pre­pare for the teach­ing exams and not­ed that they did bet­ter if they had more back­ground knowl­edge. I can­not dis­pute the fact that more back­ground knowl­edge comes in handy when tak­ing a test and it most def­i­nite­ly makes a dif­fer­ence when it comes to com­pre­hen­sion.

There is a seri­ous need for stu­dents, espe­cial­ly Eng­lish lan­guage learn­ers, to gain as much back­ground knowl­edge and vocab­u­lary as pos­si­ble.

All kids must have a sol­id foun­da­tion that includes phon­ics and phone­mic aware­ness so that sol­id decod­ing will lead to flu­en­cy which opens the door to greater com­pre­hen­sion and vocab­u­lary. The goal is to not only teach kids how to read, but to instill the desire to want to read. The sci­ence is there but the art is achieved by inspir­ing kids to devel­op a love of read­ing.

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