California Engish Journal
I was invited by
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Chairman, on behalf of the U.S. Senate Health,
Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, to serve as a witness
at the Committee's June 13th, 2002 hearing on the implementation of
the Reading First Program, included in the Elementary and Secondary
Education Act. Members of the Committee wanted me to testify about
my personal experience as a teacher and to discuss effective reading
models and strategies which I have used in the classroom to improve
student's reading achievement. I faithfully used my own experience
(as a classroom teacher for almost two decades) and the experience
of others with whom I work on a weekly basis (as consultant). The request
was made on June 6th, 2002, and my paper had to be in by June 11th.
This insured, to some degree, that I had to write from what I actually
know and do. I found the paper easy to write for
Senator Kennedy, Senator Gregg, Members of the HELP Committee, Other Distinguished Panelists, and Members of the Audience:
It's both a pleasure and honor to be here today-a pleasure because I am deeply committed to the idea that all children can learn to read, and an honor because I am fully aware that other highly qualified teachers might be testifying rather than myself. Thank you for inviting me.
My name is Ruth Nathan and I teach third grade at Rancho Romero Elementary in Alamo, California. Alamo is a small, middle to upper-middleclass town in Northern California. I've also taught migrant children in Florida, children of farmers in Iowa, professors' children in Wisconsin, and in Michigan I've taught in neighborhoods that have mixtures of children from around the world. You might find it interesting to know that I also teach Introduction to Language and Literacy for UC Berkeley's Reading Certificate Program, offered through their extension; and that I've earned a doctorate in the teaching of reading from Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan.
Given your charge, the implementation of the Reading First Program included in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the best thing I can do is to outline several of the research-based teaching practices that I use in my own classroom, as you've asked, as well as practices I model for colleagues and graduate students. I'll do this in the light of what we know about the reading process as it occurs in real time. By "real time," I mean what goes on as we actually read. After briefly discussing reading models that account for what we think happens while we're reading, per your request (Part I), I'll outline several best teaching practices (Part II), and conclude with what, in my opinion, a reading program the federal government might sponsor needs in order to be effective.
The reading process that I've described is interactive. For example, the words you read interact with each other at the phrase and sentence level so you know what they mean, and at the paragraph and text level, too, so you understand the bigger picture. At the word and phrase level, for example, if you read "off the record," you know the word "record," proceeded by "off the" means "not for public consumption," as opposed to "record," something that spins around and let's you hear songs.
The reading process is compensatory as well as interactive. This means that readers must compensate when one area of the system is weak. For example, when you're reading an article from another agency or a summary of legislation and come across a word you don't know the meaning of, you may examine the context and see if you can figure it out, or you could think hard about what you know on the topic and guess what the word means. My third graders do this, too, not only to figure out a word's meaning, but my weaker readers who have trouble decoding a word use the context quite often to guess what a word says. Of course, there's a cost for compensation at the word recognition level: it takes attention away from comprehension. With attention allocated to figuring out how to say a word, there's often a loss to understanding. That is, if this compensatory practice is a too-frequent strategy, my less-skilled readers have trouble comprehending. This, in turn, can, and does, affect their desire to read, which will ultimately affect their vocabulary growth, concept development, self-esteem in our digital society, and motivation to learn through reading. Some call this the Matthew Effect, which translates to "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer." It's my job to see to it that my kids all get "rich" by insuring that their word recognition is automatic-fast and accurate. It is also my job to make sure all my students feel that can turn to books anytime they want: to learn, for personal enjoyment, or to read to a brother, sister, cousin, or younger friend.
Part II: Several
Best Teaching Practices
A few years ago a report emerged, the Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read, which was an evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Many teachers, myself included, use the report as one, important resource for selecting classroom practices we use to teach reading. It's amazing how many programs come to us, and how many inserves are delivered, that have little, if any, research base. Often the data offered is just correlational (this program is good because kids who use it score very high in their reading achievement), as opposed to causal (this program is very good because we've tested it, and we find that compared to other programs, or no program, kids do significantly better in reading achievement using our program).
I'm testifying here today because I've been successful in teaching children to read and helping even my less-skilled readers want to read. Below, I'd like to 1) define the areas of reading those of us who teach reading to classrooms full of kids attempt to cover, 2) why each area is important, and 3), name the characteristics of strategies that work, sharing a few along the way.
Before beginning, however, I want to say that all teaching must occur in classrooms and schools that are safe and where children are well-fed; that are rich in love and respect for children; that have school and classroom libraries filled with recent books for all types of readers at many grade levels, and that cover many knowledge domains. This last point is important. Knowledge is power, and much of this power comes from being read to, being talked to a whole lot, having many experiences so that comprehension in easier, and eventually becoming well-read oneself. In addition, it's important to remember that good, on-going assessment helps us define what our students need to learn, and that information from assessments needs to be used as we-teachers-plan instruction.
Need to Cover, Why, and Characteristics of Effective Practice with
Phonemic awareness (pa) is the ability to notice and think about and work with the individual sounds in spoken words. Children might know that a cat is a warm, furry animal that they might pick up, but early on they need to come to the understanding that the word "cat" has three sounds, /c/ /a/ /t/. Knowing this will be essential to their reading development. We know that most children don't become phonemically aware on their own, that they need to be taught, and that there's a huge body of research on practices that work. These practices are explicit and move up a phonemic awareness continuum.
In the classroom, phonemic awareness work is noisy and often explicitly taught! A quiet, pre-k or kindergarten classroom where kids are supposedly doing pa work isn't a classroom that's involved in pa work. In successful classrooms, you'll see explicit instruction: kids are matching pictures that begin with, or end with, the same sounds; or they're moving chips into little sound boxes-a box at a time-as the teacher says, for example, the three sounds in cat, "/c/ /a/ /t/." Children will be saying these sounds, too, and moving a chips- or sometimes even moving letters-into little boxes from left to right as sounds in words are said. Another common practice, in addition to explicit instruction (not instead of), is to encourage children to write notes to people they know, even little stories. This type of activity is pa in the context of authentic work, what some call implicit learning. Writing helps young children think about the sounds in words they say. English Language Learners benefit from phonemic awareness work, too, because pa is based on concepts, not on any certain set of specific sounds.
Even my third graders need to be phonemically aware, not just young children, and this point is very important. For example, if my third graders are learning how to spell "receive" they've got to know how many sounds there are in that word. This will help them understand my explanation of why the word "receive" has seven letters, but only five sounds. Even older children need to be phonemically aware to use a dictionary to pronounce unknown words. Dictionaries show students word sounds in code first, and only after they see how many sounds there are, can they use the code at the bottom of the page to pronounce the word!
While phonemic awareness does not insure success in reading, or spelling, it is at the core of both processes. Pa is not an endpoint, but as you've seen, knowing that words are made of sounds helps students understand phonics instruction, can help them learn to spell, and can even help them learn to use the dictionary. Students who don't get explicit and systematic phonemic awareness instruction are at risk for learning to read, especially children who must learn to read in school.
Guessing what a word might say using picture cues is not reading. Guessing at words we don't recognize by using context takes attention, thus reduces available attention to understand. While context use is a strategy for recognizing words as wholes or by a first letter, whole word reading doesn't work for long: there are thousands upon thousands of words in our language. Phonics, like phonemic awareness, is not an endpoint. Knowing sound/symbol relationships frees kids from needing to use context to guess what words say and allows most of their effort to go toward comprehension. Research has shown us that systematic instruction in phonics is better than any sort of random or nonsystematic instruction or no instruction at all.
In the classroom,
phonics instruction should be context based. Kids need to use what
they've learn about sound/symbol correspondences right away, in books
and in short rhymes or texts, that use the sounds just learned.
The above quotation in no ways suggests, that kindergarten and first graders only need to be exposed to little books with the sound/symbol correspondences they've learned; it only means that a good portion of the reading material available to them needs to be based on what's been taught. We know full well that a few children learn to read on their own-that they gallop ahead of any given teacher's program, but this is really quite rare. Also, children delight in pattern books they can memorize (e.g, Brown Bear, Brown Bear what do you see?), which are full of words they couldn't recognize if they hadn't memorized the text; and in hearing great children's literature, so that they'll want to learn on their own and be able to talk about books with their friends.
Phonics instruction in the classroom is sometimes all class, but often small group, and individually designed, as needed. You'd know phonics instruction was going on if you saw a teacher explicitly using those sound boxes I mentioned in the phonemic awareness section of this short review, but in the sound boxes you'd always see the letters used to spell each sound. Children will probably be reading little books that give them practice in using the sound/symbol correspondences they've learned, often called decodables. Sound/Spelling cards will probably be visible (cards with letter sounds accompanied by a picture and typical sound/spellings); word walls with word families would be up (cat, bat, sat, pat; boil, soil, toil), sight word walls would also be seen, walls with words not spelled phonetically-words children just need to know, like "should" and "of." English Language Learners would have the benefit of teachers who speak their language and/or who know strategies that will work for them. Teachers of ELL students need to know which sounds from a home language transfer to English, which sounds, don't, and where there's no transfer at all.
Research shows that repeated monitored oral reading practice can improve students' fluency. Fluency, as phonemic awareness and phonics, needs to be taught explicitly. One way to do this is to begin my providing kids with a fluid model of what a given text sounds like, and these stories or articles need to be at the student's independent reading level (about 95% accuracy). In my classroom, I provide a taped version of stories and I add slashes between phrases. My students who are not fluent/ practice reading/ to the phrase marker/ fluidly.// Later/ they read/ the same text/ without the markers.// In addition to many fluency programs that are available, teachers often use readers' theater to do what's been suggested above. I certainly do. I model what the script sounds like, and students practice over and over again until they can perform their readers' theater play. ELL learners benefit, especially, from fluency work that uses drama because they get involved with the problems and solutions of characters in stories and feel more light-hearted and more willing to learn the target language.
In addition, students
need plenty of time to practice reading in order to build fluency.
In the classroom,
we want to see vocabulary taught directly and indirectly. Kids have
to learn about three to five thousand words a year, too many to learn
in direct lessons. In direct instruction, teachers usually introduce
the words they think need teaching (highly useful words in a story
or article that the context doesn't support). This is followed by discussing
the word, reading it in the context its used, and often using a graphic
organizer that illustrates the word's category, its characteristics,
examples of ways to use the word, and what the word is like or not
like. You'll also see many strategies that help students understand
a word's root and all the words related to it. Roots are very generative;
take "mem," for example, which means "mindful of." In
about two minutes you could probably name at least forty words related
to this root (e.g, memorize, remember, memo, etc.). You'll also notice
that many ELLs are very adept when it comes to using roots, more so
than most English speakers, so teachers need to take advantage of this.
Teachers also spend a good deal of time getting students in the habit
of examining context to understand a words meaning.
If you walked into a classroom, you'd be able to pick out a teacher who uses comprehension strategies that are research-based rather quickly. First, during reading time you might see small, guided reading groups, where students use literature or anthologies, or sometimes poems, to teach or practice a new strategy. If ELL learners are in the room, or even if you're in area where there is diversity of any kind, you might notice many books written by authors who come from other countries other than our own and used in guided reading sessions. Additionally, you might see charts with strategy instruction tool belts; you might see collections of graphic organizers; you'd probably see evidence of reading-across-the-curriculum, because there's not enough time in the day to get in all the comprehension strategy instruction that needs teaching. You'd also hear a lot of talk using comprehension strategies all throughout the day, especially as the kids try to understand what they read on the Internet, as well as during their literature study circle time. During read alouds, you'd notice that I, and most teachers, stop sometimes as we read and to talk about how we're comprehending the story if there's a confusing part, or how we're feeling about characters, or what we're learning that's new in a nonfiction book.
Someplace in the room, you might see a Question-the-Author charts , too, if the teacher has to use textbooks, which most of us do. Question-the-Author charts are lists of queries the children and I ask as we try to figure out what the textbook is saying. I used to write all the queries myself (e.g, Why do you think the author put this graph right here?), before the kids read; but now, while I still write queries prior to teaching, I find we all benefit from writing queries together as we stumble over difficult textbook writing.
1. Is there money
set aside for teacher preparation and/or inservice that teaches research-based
strategies? It's been my experience as I work with classroom teachers
through my university work, at my school, and in schools for whom I
consult (four this year, in the Napa Valley), that many are under-prepared
to teach reading. It doesn't seem to matter how these teachers have
been prepared-there are holes they need filed that are basic, not subtle.
By basic, I mean understanding the difference between phonemic awareness
and phonics. By basic, I mean knowing the linguistics of English and
how English is alike and different from the languages their students
speak. By basic, I mean how to choose vocabulary words to teach, given
an article or textbook, and explicit strategies that work. By basic,
I mean knowing children's literature such that they can hook specific
kids with specific books. By basic, I mean how to use a teacher's manual
to teach comprehension strategies, and how to use children's literature
to teach strategies. This work is very, very hard! I would demand that
any grant, if it includes a teacher preparation segment, address these
issues, and that teachers understand how much they have to do in explicit
ways. (See #3, below.)
Thank you for the
opportunity to serve you and the children of this country.
In classrooms across the nation where students write about events that they will never forget, events that forever change us, we English teachers meet the highest of standards-we help our students to become part of the adult community. They cannot hide from the tough issues in society, any more than we. We cannot just teach the classics, hoping that their themes connect to students' lives in modern times. Our curriculums should be flexible enough to take the unexpected path offered by contemporary events so that our students can become engaged in some of the issues that concern our communities and our nation, even if it means dealing with subjects that are not covered by our traditional English curricula.
It is not easy for students to read current events and that may be, in part, because they have little experience with the roles of interpreter, evaluator, and critic. I suggest that our mission as English teachers is to present such opportunities as often as possible. Some students might be alarmed to be put in the driver's seat, but when I decided to help my juniors sort out their feelings regarding September 11, students took well to the task and their commentaries were eventually published in the Los Angeles Times. Anthony Rajasingham reflects:
After being assigned to the time-consuming task of finding newspaper clippings relating to the "American state of mind after 9/11, I felt that I had been given yet another mountain of meaningless "busy" work. Yet it was during this assignment that I realized these much-maligned Muslims (especially in Afghanistan) were not all that different than our own citizens of the Western hemisphere. Having seen pictures of rejoicing militants, I had personally begun to classify this seemingly belligerent people under a single loathsome banner. After reading these newspapers, I came to realize that I had been victim of the same force that individuals had used to convince militants to hate America. Ignorance. Ignorance is a powerful tool, and unfortunately I feel that it is a tool that has been exploited by all the parties involved in the September 11 attacks-even America, the victim of the attacks. (Rajasingham, 25 March 2002, Los Angeles Times, A4)
Anthony continues his editorial with examples of Timothy McVeigh, Paul Revere and his Sons of Liberty, Nazi Germany, the cold war, hate crimes, and American "advertising genius" and "minister of propaganda," Charlotte Beers (A4). During the summer Anthony left a card in my school mailbox that read, in part:
The writing assignments you gave me were interesting and provided insight into myself, and as such helped me to grow as a person. The paper clippings collection project that led to our personal reflection on 9/11 essay was especially meaningful as it helped me to express my views on a post-September 11 world and eventually get my writing published on a much wider scale than anything I had written before.
This, in essence, is an overview of a project my 11th graders did in the aftermath of September 11. My goal for students was to allow junior students to write for an audience that extended beyond their teacher and classmates, to broaden their reading of current affairs, and to provide them a chance to hone their skills in analysis and argumentation. About two weeks later, after the hysteria had abated, I asked students to read the Los Angeles Times, local papers, and news magazines to answer the question, "What have Americans learned as a result of 9/11?" After they read several articles over the following two months, each chose a topic of interest to them. Selections included women's rights, education, and other issues of interest to the students. The important thing was for each student to find for themselves a topic of deep concern.
In late December they brought their newspaper and magazine clippings to class and talked about them with their peers. While students were thus engaged, I took the opportunity to check with individual students to make sure that they had zeroed in on an issue and that they had read an adequate number of current articles that would lend support to an analytical essay for January.
A primary goal in all my writing assignments is for students to develop a genuine voice, and I hoped that having them write a timed essay in class would put the energy and fervor into their writing that is often diluted when they have hours to kill in front of their home computers. Often we teachers discover that students who lack confidence begin to search the internet for ideas, and that is something I definitely wanted to avoid. In fact, all research for the 9/11 project had to be actual hard copy-no photocopying a friend's research.
The day before their in-class writing session, students were directed to select and bring to class the best 4-6 articles they had collected. They were to have highlighted them so they could quote from them as needed. They were also encouraged to write and then bring to class their own prompt, keeping in mind their assignment was to write an editorial for a newspaper audience. They were charged to have a point of view that would inspire strong feelings in both them and their readership. Those who failed to bring a prompt, specific to their topic, wrote to our initial question: "What have Americans learned as a result of 9/11?"
This assignment generated strong and passionate writing. They discussed their news articles with their families. Students felt confident and part of the adult community into which they are emerging. Some of their essays were indeed thoughtful and passionate enough to appeal to an adult audience beyond the classroom. Selected students were asked to type their drafts, making only minor corrections, as I didn't want them to slip into the academic voice that they invariably feel needs buttressing by their thesaurus.
When the final copies came in, I called Patricia Barnes, editor of the Los Angeles Times, Inland Valley Section, to see if they had a place for student writing. Since she was out of town, I spoke to the assistant editor, C. J. Fogel and explained that Upland High School juniors had written essays about their feelings and concerns after September 11. Mr. Fogel said they normally didn't publish student work, but was gracious enough to ask me to send copies to the Inland Valley staff for their perusal. One week later they began a weekly publication of the students' essays.
Stuart Edmiston was the first student published under the title "Casualties continue to mount with war fever."
Appeasing rabid patriots while catering to the hushed demands of "defense" contractors, the U. S. government and corporate media have proliferated a war fever throughout the industrialized world. Retaliation for the attacks of September 11 have, according to recent estimate, claimed the lives of about 3,000 Afghan civilians, leaving some to wonder if there really is a difference between hijacking passenger planes and dropping 25,000-pound bombs on civilian neighborhoods. Others dare to consider that an air war against a nation where two-thirds of the families in the capital depend on food handouts may contribute to establishing the social and emotional climate in which terrorism is bred. (18 February 2002, A4)
The next week featured Jim Diep's editorial: "Sept. 11, 2001: the re-birthday of all Americans. On that day we were created anew; never again will there be quiet evenings next to the fire, drinking coffee, but instead anxious days of fear of the unknown and nights of absorbing the latest developments of 'America's War on Terrorism'" (25 February 2002, A4). These first two articles provoked adult readers to write letters to the editor, completely reinforcing the validity of my earlier insistence that students writing a strong argument in a voice showing passion for their topic are taken seriously. Their voices captured the interest of many adults. Rhodes Thompson of Claremont wrote:
[The students] have written profoundly thoughtful essays that call forth, first, my confession for not having done enough to help make ours a more peaceful world; and, second, my celebration of their courage and developing wisdom for doing a better job than our generation has done in helping our nation, and all nations, to secure the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness" with which the creator has endowed all humankind. (4 March 2002, A4)
Thomas E. Ambrogi of Claremont also wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times:
As a retired theology professor with a history of social justice commitments, I was deeply moved by [the students' articles]. This is just a quiet word of applause for them and for their teacher. . . . I applaud the authors for their thoughtful, courageous and highly articulate expression of tough American values for genuine peacemaking when such counter-cultural speaking out is jingoistically considered downright unpatriotic. I'd love to be in touch with more of their writing in the future. And I applaud Judith Wenrick for her courage in teaching her students not only to write the English language well . . . but to dare to help them develop their own critical opinions on issues so important to us all. (4 March 2002, A4)
In the aftermath of September 11, many students were critical of the things they saw and read in the media and developed strong opinions. In considering new airport security issues, Layla Belton states: "One race has been singled out. This is the prejudice that has grown from the seeds of fear. . . . I hope we can be strong enough as a community, as a nation, not to let fear make us blind" (18 March 2002, A4). Concerned also about prejudice, Stephen Le took the opportunity to criticize American society's glass ceiling:
Being a male it is difficult to understand the plight of women in Afghanistan, and I will admit that I might be a less than perfect critic of it, but I find a sort of hypocrisy in the accusation directed at the Taliban. Indeed, women throughout the world today face oppression under varying types of government, even our own, which brings doubt to the argument of sexual equality here and everywhere. Once politicians dare to venture from their politically correct shells, can we as a whole come to realize a problem that must be rectified in not only the most "savage' of localities, but also in such civil places as the United States and Western Europe?" (11 March 2002, A4)
Stephen was both amused and embarrassed that his editorial prompted some heated letters to the editor. Elementary students from a Muslim school wrote to express their concern for his knowledge of Muslim culture, and in the process they quoted passages from the Koran.
Sean Montgomery's editorial waxes philosophical:
We, as humans, long to escape the iron grip of time; but all in vain. More than anything, the events surrounding the terrorist attacks of 9/11 have demonstrated the power of that inescapable transience. . . .Death fascinates our imaginations. In virtually every action, adventure, horror, and thriller film that has ever been produced, death plays some part. . . .Yet, when death's fingers come too close for comfort, we quail and fret and deny our attention. Just as the entertainment industry immediately censored its output, we humans seek to ignore, to hide any evidence of death's coming. Foolishly, we pretend to ourselves that death was an accident, an unforeseeable and chaotic event for which the human race need not give any heed for longer than it takes to honor those who no longer live. We conceal ourselves within our fabricated cocoons of blissful ignorance, thinking we are safe from transience. But there is no ignoring the fact that 3,000 peopled died on September 11. There is no ignoring the fact that countless other people wished they were dead, so close did death come to them. There is no ignoring the fact that multitudes of human lives will yet be claimed by death's indiscriminate fingers in our crusade to satisfy transient human emotions such as hate and fear. (4 March 2002, A4)
Jennifer Vondran also considers why America is the object of hate: "However, we, as uninformed people who live in a bubble of luxury and safety, are not aware of what our government has done to those millions of people. We take for granted that we are the richest country in the world, but never stop to learn why or how we got that way" (15 April 2002, A4). Less critical of American policies, Ashley Vincent is thankful to be an American: "unlike the people of Afghanistan, I have never had to fight for my freedom; it was my birthright. Since the war on terrorism began I have become increasingly aware of world events and ever grateful for the liberties I enjoy as an American" (1 April 2002, A4).
These days we English teachers are constantly exhorted to demonstrate the relevance of our curricula and to meet state-mandated standards. In the elaborate lesson described in the previous pages, students were encouraged to read widely, write creatively, and discuss broadly. We met Language Arts Writing Standards in organization, research, writing process, and application (1.1; 1.7; 2.3). Additionally, History-Social Science Standards were addressed when students read current events, made connections to history, analyzed social problems, and critically read articles to distinguish valid argument from bias.
September 11 issues force all of us to face our own vulnerability and mortality, and, no doubt, more directly and emotionally then discussing a character in a play or novel. Reading and discussing current events in our community or nation deems us one of the players and the tension is in deciding what our values are and what our future action should be. Sometimes we English teachers can find the perfect news article to go with the text under discussion. This year many schools in California will be studying The Grapes of Wrath since the state is celebrating the hundredth anniversary of Steinbeck's birth. Teachers can marry current articles on homelessness in suburbia, on boycotts of fruits and vegetables, and on calls for improvement of working conditions for Napa grape pickers with our studies of The Grapes of Wrath, but we can also give ourselves permission to use current events and the news articles, in themselves, as our major texts.
Let us not distance our students from relating to modern problems and real-life experiences because we feel compelled to teach to the tests or cover pre-ordained curricula. Jim Sanders, a Los Angeles Times reader wrote: "It is very encouraging to read high school students who can think as critically and write as well as these two [Edmiston and Diep], particularly in this time of threat to basic American values. . ." (4 March 2002, A4). Students who choose from a wide range of reading material and writing topics will demonstrate independence, responsibility and critical thinking which, of course, is our ultimate goal.
Despite the fury of the debates over teaching English in California these past almost twenty years, we share, if we would only realize it, a tradition of idealism, inclusion and reform that stretches back nearly forty years. And some of the best evidence of our shared values can be found in California English itself from the first publication in 1965 to the issue in your hand today.
The past few weeks I have been reading around in a treasure trove of past issues of California English. I came across the old issues on the donation table in the Chabot College Language Arts teacher's room during the waning nights of 1999 and I've been reading essays and poems and articles in early issues that are totally contemporary and relevant to today.
The Spring 1965 issue, for example features a statement on " The Discipline of English." Reading the procedures paragraph, I was struck by the opening lines, which could have been written yesterday. The paragraph begins as follows:
" The forms
of English-language, composition, and literature-with the processes
In the Spring, 1966 issue, Kenneth Johnson, a Black scholar and consultant to Los Angeles County Schools -argued that Black English is not just a dialect but, in some ways, a separate language system. He writes:
the transition from one language system to another can be accomplished
And in the April, 1973 issue, Charles Cooper paid tribute to James Moffett and advanced Moffett's argument with words that make more sense today than simple notions related to testing and accountability:
fiction is a way of learning to read fiction-the student gets on
the inside and
In view of California
English teachers long record of "cutting edge" reform
all the while insisting on
The writing in California English reminded me of Alfred Kazin's statement that, unlike Science, the problems we face in reading and writing literature never change. Literature, Kazin wrote, is a record of how humans come to terms with our own mortality and the meaning of time itself.
The teachers writing
in California English from 1965 through 1973 made me think of
all of us today.
As I write I am looking
at a sketch from the October, 1972 issue written by Florence Lewis,
a teacher at
"When I was
a child I loved that picture and believed Ruby Keeler to be the most
graceful tap dancer
Lewis' attempts to explain the film to her son:
"I explained what 'Broadway Melody' was attempting to do during the 1930's was drown out the Depression."
As her son eats pizza, the boy tells his mother about MacBeth and a humorous incident that happened in his English class over the classes attempt to name McDuff's son.
At the end of the
sketch, nothing is revealed or settled. The mother has not been able
to explain the
Our students are not our children except metaphorically but something in Florence Lewis' sketch speaks to our condition as teachers and especially to those veterans, who, like myself, are now in our early fifties, now in middle age.
We should remember
that we came to teaching not as a job but as a calling and that we
bring to our
We would no more expect a baseball manager to hire a pitcher who only throws curve ball than we, ourselves, would likely hire a carpenter who comes to work with only a screwdriver! What fisherman heads for the stream with only one lure or fly in his tacklebox? What doctor feels prepared for surgery with only a scalpel and sponge on her tray? Whether an athlete or fisherman, a carpenter or doctor, none is considered adequately prepared until she acquires and utilizes an assortment of strategies, tools, or instruments. We teachers, as professional educators, cannot hope or even be expected to teach successfully unless we equip ourselves with a range of strategies to entice and instruct our burgeoning classrooms of challenging boys and girls. Creativity and variety are what teachers need to achieve the goal of leaving no child behind.
Why? Consider what observers of society know to be true: humans learn in different ways. After years of research Dr. Howard Gardner wrote about it his book, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences (1993). This Professor in Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education indicates that each child is intelligent and therefore can be taught. Our task as teachers is to accept this fact and prepare to teach in the modality through when each student learns and expresses him or herself, whether the youngster is word smart, number smart, picture smart, body smart or people smart. For updates on this research see, Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century (1999).
By reading about, seeing, and hearing what accomplished educators know and are able to do, teachers will become better equipped to teach the young men and women assigned to their classrooms. These successful educators meet standards not only because they know how to assess the learning levels and styles of their students, but also because these teachers deftly reach into their pedagogical toolkits and select just the right book, just the right approach, and develop just the right sequence of lessons to meet the needs of the students assigned to them each and every school year. Many of these teachers become proficient by remaining active in CATE, our professional organization. CATE takes seriously the expectation to keep our members informed about current research in teaching and learning and about practical classroom strategies. Not surprisingly, successful teachers are generous, too, willing to share their insight with those new to the profession and with those open to expanding or adding to their knowledge and repertoires. In fact, CATE conferences and workshops are designed to create such an interactive environment. California English always has articles about proven classroom practices. Catenet offers almost spontaneous responses to inquiries and conducts open discussions among educators around the state and across the nation.
CATE honors such teachers at our annual conventions by presenting Classroom Excellence Awards. Each council has the privilege of nominating an educator from its region. I received this award at the 1998 Convention held in Monterey and I know how gratifying it is to be recognized by one's peers. Each time I see the plaque, I recall that memorable day - listening to letters revealing how much my administrators, colleagues and students value my work in the classroom. So, do something affirming for a colleague and nominate him or her for next year's award. In the same vein, CATE acknowledges that we educators cannot be successful in the classroom without the contribution of community members and neighborhood organizations. It is to these supporters that the nine councils give their Award of Merit. Contact your local council president with names of educators of excellence in your school and community folk of merit. Council presidents are listed on the website (cateweb.org).
Yes, we professional
educators must be as skillful and versatile as athletes and fishermen
and as prepared as carpenters and surgeons. We must intentionally develop
the insight to assess the diverse situations we face in our classrooms;
we must skillfully use teaching tools and scientifically proven methods;
equally important, we must creatively adapt them all to lure, catch,
and reel in the young people with the eclectic learning styles we know
they have. We must cast a wide net, skillfully woven of strategies
for the visual, auditory, and kinetic learners. We will become versatile
and inventive, attracting our students with challenging literature
that interests them, and we will begin to offer opportunities in writing
that allow students to express themselves articulately about the literature
and about life. Scientifically researched strategies such as those
developed for reaching multiple intelligences will help insure that
no child is left behind.
the essentials, freedom in the non essentials, and charity in all
St. Augustine's words offer sage advice for California educators. Many teachers are chafing at district mandates that reflect particular interpretations of the standards. "Freedom in the non essentials" and "charity" seem to be in short supply. I want to state up front that I am an unapologetic supporter of standards-based curriculum. Public schools must go public with what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. Without "unity in the essentials" too many students receive a haphazard education. At the same time, experienced teachers should be the decision-makers when it comes to curriculum. Their expertise should be the force that translates standards into practice.
All of this becomes particularly critical in a time of budget cuts. The obvious teacher solution is to cut all testing and just let us teach. What is essential and what is non essential? The No Child Left Behind Act makes this an impossibility. Jackie Goldberg the new chairperson of the Education Committee has proposed cutting all testing that is not germane to this program which would mean California Standards tests in grades 2-8 and the CAHSEE with an additional component in science. As we go to press much is left to be determined. The outlook is bleak.
Somehow, teachers must find a way to continue to provide students with quality instruction. Our own integrity and professional quality of life as well as student learning is at stake.
California English has gathered stories from teachers whose practices encourage wide reading, creative writing, and broad discussion while helping students meet California¹s standards. One story takes the form of a speech delivered by Ruth Nathan, a third grade teacher, to Senator Ted Kennedy and members of the HELP committee in Washington, D.C. Secondary teachers Bill Younglove and Adrienne Mack-Kirchner wrote literacy stories in response to Ruth¹s speech.
Another of our literacy stories is taken from Sheridan Blau's new book, The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers (Heinemann 2003). Blau demonstrates how carefully crafted classroom practices primarily working together thoughtfully help students make sense of seemingly opaque passages. He posits that the only texts worth teaching are those that students have trouble understanding.
Marek Breiger's analysis of past issues of California English from 1965-1973 offers a historical perspective on the teaching of English in the Golden State. You will be amazed to see how much has changed as well as how much remains the same. It should be reassuring to see that the profession has ever been in flux
If schools can be
guided by St. Augustine, "Unity in the essentials, freedom in
the non essentials, and charity in all things," curricular change
need not require bloodshed.