Weighing In on Balanced Literacy

weighing in

As the New York Times reported the other week, our new Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina recently gave a big endorsement to balanced literacy, which had been cast aside in many city schools after the previous administration embraced packaged reading programs, such as Pearson ReadyGen, Scholastic Codex and Core Knowledge, that were supposedly Common Core aligned. Many of these programs’ claims have since been called into question, but it’s Carmen Farina’s words that seem to have ushered us into a new stage in the reading wars. And from where I sit it’s gotten kind of ugly.

An op-ed piece in yesterday’s New York Times, for instance, called balanced literacy “an especially irresponsible approach,” while a commentary appearing in the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s blog “Flypaper” called it a “hoax” and likened it to “the judo-like Hydrapractice of using terms that appeal to an audience as fig leaves for practices that same audience would find repugnant.” And over at “Used Books in Class,” my friend, colleague and fellow blogger Colette Bennett takes a look at another “Flypaper” writer who’s “recast the phrase ‘balanced literacy’ in mythological terms, as a hydra,” coming to get us. That’s a lot of virulent language for a pedagogical term.

What’s interesting to me, though, is that the New York Times article on Farina’s endorsement begins with an example of balanced literacy in action in a classroom, which is described as follows:

“[The teacher] took her perch in front of a class of restless fourth graders and began reciting the beginning of a book about sharks. But a few sentences in, [she] shifted course. She pushed her students to assume the role of teacher, and she became a mediator, helping guide conversations as the children worked with one another to define words like ‘buoyant’ and identify the book’s structure.”

And here’s an excerpt from “What Does a Good Common Core Lesson Look Like?” a story that appeared on NPR’s education blog, which also includes a classroom anecdote. The NPR piece looks at a ninth grade class that’s beginning to read Karen Russell’s short story “St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves,” which I wrote about earlier. This time, however, we’re told that we’re seeing close reading in action, not balanced literacy:

“First the teacher reads an excerpt of the story aloud . . . Then, students turn to individual close reading. They are told to reread sections and draw boxes around unfamiliar words [and] . . . after they have gotten to know the story well, students pair up to tease out the meaning of words like  lycanthropic, couth and kempt.”

Just AlikeI hope I’m not the only one out there who thinks that, in all the really important ways, these two anecdotes are just alike. In the words of the ninth grade teacher quoted by NPR, both teachers are trying to “create content where there is a productive struggle… where all students are being asked to work toward the same target as everyone else” rather than “mak[ing] sure they see everything that’s cool about the text.”

Of course I have some questions about whether that struggle should all be spent on vocabulary words instead of a text’s deeper meaning. And I would never begin the class as the ninth grade teacher does by discussing the standards with the students since I think the standards are for us, not for them. But the point I want to make here is that balanced literacy is an instructional structure, just as close reading is (or has become). And while I personally love balanced literacy because giving students a combination of whole class, small group and independent experiences just makes sense to me, what’s really important is not what structure a teacher uses, but how he or she uses it to help students read meaningfully and deeply. And that reminds me of a quote I shared a while ago from the authors of the great book Making Thinking Visible:

“Rather than concerning ourselves with levels among different types of thinking, we would do better to focus our attention on the levels of quality within a single type of thinking. For instance, one can describe at a very high and detailed level or at a superficial level. Likewise . . . analysis can be deep and penetrating or deal with only a few readily apparent features.”

I think the same is true about teaching approaches and structures: We’d do better to focus on the quality and depth that’s brought to a structure—i.e., what kind of thinking are we asking of students within whatever structure we use—rather than get caught up fighting over which one is better, knowing that a teacher who really listens to students, reflects on her practice and is a critical thinker and learner herself can make almost anything work.

And now that that’s off my chest, I want to share something else: I’m working on a new book on reading that I plan to finish by the end of the year. That doesn’t mean I’m bowing out of blogging, if for no other reason than writing a blog post is so much easier than writing a book. And I love the immediacy of it and the connection with other teachers and readers. But while I may be posting less frequently, I’ll still be trying to wrap my mind in words that speak to the things we all care about.

 

Some Thoughts on March Madness (and I Don’t Mean Basketball)

Embed from Getty Images

The New York State Common Core English Language Arts Assessments will be upon us in a few weeks, and this year they arrive against a backdrop of controversy over the use of standardized tests. More parents than ever have joined the opt-out movement, refusing to allow their children to submit to tests whose validity they question. Diane Ravitch has called for congressional hearings on the misuse and abuse of high-stakes standardized tests. And many states, including New York, have decided to slow down implementation of the Common Core and its tests, because as a Huffington Post education blog post states, “in far too many states, implementation has been completely botched.”

Whatever the ultimate fate of the Common Core assessments are, this year’s tests are going on as scheduled, and teachers are struggling over how to best prepare the students in their care, which has not been easy. Many schools around the country, for instance, adopted packaged reading programs that claimed to be aligned to the Standards and the tests as a way of hedging their bets, with New York City going so far as to commission a few key publishers to develop programs0 to the City’s specifications. Yet having now seen some practice tests, many teachers feel that these programs haven’t adequately prepared students for these tests. And they’re not alone in thinking this.

Sleuth CoverAccording to a recent Education Week blog post—whose title “Boasts about Textbooks Aligned to the Common Core a ‘Sham’ says it all—these programs should be viewed with caution as few, if any, live up to their claims. Many, as the blog post points out, have recycled material from older, non-Common-Core-aligned programs, such as Pearson’s ReadyGen, which uses the magazine Sleuth from its old Reading Street program for close reading practice on texts that don’t really seem close reading worthy. Others, such as Scholastic Codex, are so overly scaffolded—with teachers repeatedly directed to “assist students in understanding”—that it’s hard to see how students are being prepared for higher order independent thinking.

Meanwhile the practice tests provided by Curriculum Associates’s Ready test prep program, which most city schools are using, are insanely hard. Sixth graders, for example, most of whom have had no exposure to chemistry, must read a speech given by Madame Curie about the discovery of radium. The passage contains much content-specific science vocabulary, and while some of the words are defined for students as you’ll see below (underlining mine), the definitions seem as incomprehensible as the words in the passage themselves.

Madame Curie Speech

Meanwhile seventh graders are subjected to an excerpt from Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, poems by Keats and Yeats, and a speech by Ronald Reagan commemorating the 40th anniversary of D-Day, which seventh graders won’t learn about until eighth grade (provided, of course, that amid all this test prep, there’s still room for social studies).

With these texts, traditional test prep strategies don’t really seem to help. Process of elimination, for instance, will only take you so far on tests where more than one multiple choice answer seems completely plausible. And telling students to “make sure you understand the question before choosing an answer” seems almost laughable when the questions and answer choices are like the following:

Hybrid word question

But what’s really disturbing is that the Ready instructional test prep workbook doesn’t seem to help either. It’s organized in sections that correlate to individual Standards and skills—summarizing informational texts, analyzing text structure, determining point of view, etc.—but the workbook’s texts, questions and tips seem absurdly simplified when compared to the company’s practice tests. Here, for instance, is how the test prep workbook for seventh grade talks about point of view:

Analyzing Point of View

And here is a point of view question from a seventh grade practice test on a text called “Country Cousin/City Cousin” that consists of two sections with different narrators who, though dialogue, not only express their perspective but their cousin’s as well:

Narrator POV Question

The workbook suggests that a point of view is synonymous with a character’s perspective, which can be conveyed through dialogue, thoughts and actions; yet this test question requires students to think of point of view only as a narrative stance, which isn’t covered in the workbook. And even if they did get that, every answer except A seems plausible, since they more or less say the same thing. But only D is correct.

Maurice Sendak Cropped

From Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak

So, once again, what’s a teacher to do? Aware of the problems inherent in both the packaged programs and test prep materials, the teachers from a middle school I work with and I decided to take a different tack. At each grade level, we invited a small group of students who’d just finished a few passages from a practice test to talk with us about how it went. The point was not to discover who had the right answer or not, but to hear specifically what the students found challenging and how they, as readers and test takers, tried to deal with those challenges.

What the students said was enormously enlightening, as it gave us a window on how students were thinking, not just what they thought. (The confusion over what was meant by point of view, for instance, emerged during one of these talks.) And after listening carefully to what the students said and considering the instructional implications, we were able to come up with a few tips and strategies that specifically addressed what students found challenging and how some had overcome that.

test-prep-strategies-©

We also noticed that the students were fascinated in how their classmates thought through their answers, so we also designed a new test prep practice. Rather than having the students practice simplified skills in the workbook or go over the answers to a practice test to find out which answer was right, we broke the students into groups, assigned each group a multiple-choice passage from a practice test they’d taken, and gave them a piece of chart paper. Their task was to first talk about the passage itself—what was easy, what was hard and why—then compare their answers, looking for questions for which they’d made different choices. Next each student explained to the group how and why they their answer they had—in effect, making a claim for an answer and supporting it with evidence from the text. And after listening to each other, they debated the answer and voted on one, recording their thinking on the chart paper. Then, and only then, did we consult the answer key.

Not only did the students find this more engaging than the worksheets and reviews, they also benefited from hearing how their classmates figured things out, which they could then try to do, too. Of course, it will be a while before we know how successful this approach was or not. But I have to believe that sharing the various ways different students solved the challenges these passages and questions posed was better than just reviewing the right answers. And in the meantime, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the powers that be will listen to parents and teachers as attentively as we listened to these students and bring an end to all this testing madness.

Stop the Madness