by Brian Rhode
“Teaching more nonfiction will be a key issue. Many English teachers don’t think it will do any good. Even if it were a good idea, they say, those who have to make the change have not had enough training to succeed – an old story in school reform.” – Jay Matthews
My children are full of imagination, and so are my students. I am not only the father of two school aged children, but for the past eleven years I have also been an elementary school teacher. I appreciate how Jay Mathews’ article, “Fiction vs. Nonfiction Smackdown,” expresses very clearly one of the central debates ignited by the onset of the Common Core State Standards. It made me think about several questions. Should students spend more time reading non-fiction texts? Does imagination have a place in modern learning? And, of course, who should be teaching students these non-fiction texts? I contend that there is another way to look at the issue that not only helps students become more proficient with technical texts, but also retains the nurturing of imagination, in important skill in any occupation.
Amongst my peers in teaching it seems to have been already decided that it will be the responsibility of reading teachers to saddle this new shift in text types. I believe that to be the first wrong step of the new reform. Imagination is a vital skill in any realm. I believe that we shortcut ourselves immensely by assuming imagination cannot serve society outside of story writing and poetry. I remember watching a Frontline series in the spring of 2012 called Money, Power and Wall Street that reported on the financial crisis of a few years ago. In the second episode, which dealt with how our financial leaders responded to the crisis, I was struck particularly by how many times those involved related that what was happening in America several years ago had never happened before. To paraphrase one interviewee, there was no play book on how to handle a financial meltdown of this scale. So, they had to make up the direction they would take for action. For better or for worse they had to use their imaginations collectively to think of solutions that had not yet been created. I think our country would have certainly been in dire straits had our financial officials been so reticent on relying only on pre-existing knowledge to guide them. Other viewers of this episode may disagree with me, but I saw a very real use of imagination.
I also believe that there is a way to protect the creative and imagination rich space of English classes. We need to break away from the assumption that only English teachers who will give students the skills they need for successful content literacy. Other content areas need to grow their use of literacy in order to fulfill the eventual 50-70 percent rather than assuming reading classes will cut back on their use of fiction texts in order to fulfill the new prescribed rations. This sort of shift in reading focus needs collaboration across all content areas.
Another misstep of the current reform is not taking this opportunity to shift the paradigm of who explicitly teaches literacy. Again, it seems that explicit reading and writing instruction only occurs in English classes, but why? All teachers, regardless of content, should see themselves as instructors of reading and writing, too. They are teachers of content who have particular literacy skills that they need to teach in order support interoperating/understanding that content. I believe that shedding some of the responsibility of literacy instruction from English teachers is not a means to diminishing student use of texts; rather it is an amazing opportunity to make our understanding of literacy deeper and richer.
Let me illustrate my argument from above further with an example from the content area of math. As a former first grade teacher I can say that part of teaching students to read involves teaching them where to begin looking at a text written in English in order to get meaning from it. We teach students to start at the top and go from left to write. Yes, early literacy instruction includes those types of skills taught explicitly, it is not assumed student will pick up that learning naturally, even though there are some who do. However, there is an assumption that all students learn how to read a math problem without always explicitly teaching students from an early age that math literacy follows other rules. We tend to let the rules of language carry over into the rules of math literacy. Students still read math problems from top to bottom and left to right. That is fine when solving 8 + 3 = 11, but not when students are asked to solve 8 + 3 x 4 = 20. Solving this type of problem requires students to read from right to left, not left to right. As a fifth grade teacher I can attest that we do try to impart rules of math literacy, but by the upper elementary grades the language rules of literacy are so engrained that they work against students’ math literacy.
So, yes, we need to look at the way we teach literacy in content areas. I also believe that it should remain the job of content teachers to instruct students explicitly in the types of literacy skills that are needed in math, science and social studies. Reading and writing are not just for English class anymore. This will require a new look at the way early literacy in content areas should be taught, and that will require some training. However, it also means that we need to stop assuming that literacy instruction only occurs in one part of a student’s day. This type of endeavor is not scripted in some playbook, we are going to have to work together as an entire team of content specialists, and it certainly take some imagination.
Brian Rhode teaches 5th grade ELA and social studies and Poestenkill Elementary School in Averill Park CSD and went the Capital District Writing Project’s Invitational Summer Institute during the summer of 2009.