Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The perils of asking English teachers to focus on texts

What would happen if English/language arts teachers revolutionized their instruction to focus intently—and exclusively—on the texts students are reading?

That’s what chief academic officers from 14 urban school districts discussed here last week. It’s a key shift in the Common Core State Standards that now guide teaching and learning in all but four states: Students are expected to engage in “close reading” of complex literary and informational texts.

In contrast to common practice, in which teachers explain reading passages and supply background information before students read, “close reading” confines initial study to the text itself. Students make sense of it by probing its words and structure for information and evidence. Through questions and class exercises, teachers guide students back through the reading in a hunt for answers and deeper understanding.

That scenario, however, requires profound shifts not only in how teachers teach, but how districts choose texts, how they test what students know, and how they evaluate teachers.
Were these paragraphs published anywhere other than Education Week, I would have assumed there were part of a parody: a series of "revelations" along these lines:
What would happen if chefs revolutionized their cooking to focus intently--and exclusively--on the ingredients and how they combine them together?
That scenario, however, requires profound shifts not only in how chefs cook, but in how restaurants choose recipes, how restaurant critics assess restaurant food, and how they evaluate chefs.
Here's a snippet of the new, revolutionary type of lesson that could occur under these standards, a discussion of Russell Freedman’s piece The Voice That Challenged a Nation, about Marian Anderson’s historic recital at the National Mall:
The CAO “students” [those 14 chief academic officers] were asked to read the passage silently, without any context or background knowledge supplied by their “teacher,” Mr. Pook, except brief word definitions listed in the margin. They explored “text dependent” questions that he had developed to help students understand the meaning and structure of the passage. The answers to such questions lie in the passage itself and help students make inferences and follow the arguments in it.

One of those questions was: “What words did Freedman use to characterize what happened next?” A key point of the presentation was that students could not expect their teacher to answer that for them. Instead, teachers would take what Mr. Pook called a “let’s find out” approach, guiding students back to the passage for answers.
Revoluationary ideas, naturally, have their detractors. First we have the concern (elaborated in an earlier Edweek article that I blogged about here) that the existence of biases brought by prior experiences mean we should focus less, not more, on the text. In the words of Richard M. Long, the director of government relations for the International Reading Association:
“The attempt is to make it just about the text. But it is never just about the text. Our concern is that this doesn’t take into account that prior experience exists and always affects the way the student interacts with the text.”
Another concern assumes that today's teachers are primarily providers of information and that group inquiry is something new:
How would teachers respond to a “sea change” that reframes their role from provider of information to facilitator of a group inquiry? And where would they get deep, focused lessons and units for such instruction?
Finally, there are concerns about what it will take to retrain today's English and literacy teachers to focus on the actual words in the text:
Moving teachers toward this way of working will require “some significant professional development” as they learn to refrain from providing quick answers, figure out instead how to formulate new kinds of questions that take them and their students back to the text repeatedly in their search for understanding.
“The percentage of my teachers who weren’t ever taught some of the skills you’re talking about here, like the ‘pivot point’ in a paragraph,” said one official, her voice trailing off in a sigh. “The teachers themselves don’t know many of those concepts.”
I'm a linguist and a writer, and I've never encountered the term "pivot point in a paragraph."  (Then again, I'm pretty sure I've also never enountered the term "let's find out approach."). But otherwise I share these concerns. If English teachers are so incapable of leading class discussions based on close readings that "significant professional development" is necessary, we indeed have a problem.


Catherine Johnson said...

There is no pivot point in a paragraph.

Catherine Johnson said...

So people are going to need a whole lot of professional development if they're going to learn how to identify the pivot point in a paragraph.

Catherine Johnson said...

Seriously, though, at least in contemporary paragraphs, which tend to be short, a paragraph is almost the exact opposite of a pivot point.

I have no idea whether that would be true of the much longer paragraphs people used to write...

FedUpMom said...

What's a pivot point?

Catherine Johnson said...

Well, in my view (not that I ever use the term "pivot point" to describe nonfiction writing)...but if I **did** use the term, it would definitely mean the spot where you should have stopped writing the old paragraph & started writing the new one.