Beyond the Standards

I was in a 1st grade classroom conducting an instructional walk. The students were quietly working on their informative writing projects. They had researched a topic of choice, using strategies to read nonfiction texts. Now they were using their notes they had taken and were applying them to a writing project.

I sat next to a couple of students. One student looked up, saw me and asked, “You know how to write books, right?” I nodded. “I am not sure where to put the end. What do you do?” Honored that he asked me for help, I asked if he would read his writing to me. I listened actively, celebrated his work, then went into a description of my own writing process, admitting that conclusions could be very difficult for any writer. He looked at me, unsure how to respond.

The teacher stopped over by us, checking in on our conversation. After a moment, she stepped in. “I think what he’s trying to ask is where he should put ‘The End’ in his book.” Literally. I laughed, then suggested putting those two words on the back of his last page.

I enjoy talking the writing process, mine and anyone else’s. Each is unique. There are some very general pathways from drafting to done (typically revision is a major part), but the specific journey for each writer is their own. Whatever it takes to get it on paper and get it published.

Reflecting on our chat, I appreciated that our conversation revolved around the writing itself and not on a rubric or a specific standard. Writing, like many crafts, is a messy experience from start to finish. Spelling out what “good” writing looks and sounds like can make the process a bore, seem more like work in its starkest sense.

I’m fine with standards as a part of the educational experience. They give us some guideposts as to where our students should be at in relation to their age and development level. Used thoughtfully, standards can help define a ladder of complexity in what students should know and be able to do.

Yet history is not kind to the standards movement. In an excellent article for Phi Delta Kappan, Gamson, Eckart, and Anderson reveal the reality behind why standards have been introduced into U.S. public education.

In virtually every period of American educational history, but especially in times of national crisis, critics have argued that American students were floundering academically due to intellectually feeble and flabby academic objectives. Time and again, Americans have retreated to the bunker of clear standards as protectors against educational fuzziness.

These “times of national crisis” include Sputnik and the National Reading Panel’s infamous report “A Nation at Risk” (the latter a document I recently discovered and then threw out while cleaning my office). The context for these concerns is competitiveness. In this type of environment, learning is no longer the focus. It is about achievement. Curiosity and mistake-making are seen as frivolous time wasters when standards need to be met.

I understand society’s desire to simplify school outcomes to try and understand the quality of education. Doing so, though, has consequences, one of the most dire being the removal of process as an essential part of the learning experience. When there is no opportunity for people to take risks and pose important questions, such as asking the principal where to put “the end”, there is little incentive to put ourselves in positions where we are vulnerable and open to new ideas. We cannot boil down these necessary experiences to a set of standards. That should tell you something.

Civic Responsibility

This post is a newsletter I am sending home to our elementary school families. Let me know what you think in the comments! -Matt

It is hard to believe that November is already here! It’s been a busy two months of building our learning community at school, connecting with kids, staff and families, and discussing our goals. For this school year, we are focused as a faculty on reading instruction, specifically thinking about the text. This includes thinking critically about what we read and analyzing the writer’s craft.

It can be challenging for schools to maintain a singular focus on a building-wide goal. Public education receives many requests to implement initiatives within the school day. It’s an honor to been viewed as a central tenet of a healthy community and society. Yet we cannot adopt everything deemed important. If all ideas are essential, how do we determine what is taught and learned?

One topic that has come up a lot recently is civic responsibility. Schools are being called to action to reverse the trend of Americans not participating in civic duties, for example a decline in people voting. In an article for Phi Delta Kappan, educator Michael Rebell goes as far as to state that preparing students for capable citizenship is the school’s primary responsibility.

Schools must create environments that respect and harness both pluralism and individualism while adopting instructional practices that promote civic agency, critical inquiry, and participatory experiences.

(You can access Rebell’s article at this URL: http://www.kappanonline.org/rebell-preparation-capable-citizenship-schools-primary-responsibility/)

When I first started reading this article, I felt a little defensive. How can we take on this responsibility?, I thought. No doubt we teach social studies. That said, literacy and mathematics are what we are tested on every spring. What gets measured gets done first. In addition, we do worry about discussing topics with students that are deemed controversial by some. How can we take civic understanding to a deeper level of understanding in an agreeable manner? Factor in the constraints of time and you get the picture.

As I read on in the article, my thinking started to shift. For example, are the “3 R’s” – reading, writing, ‘rithmetic – mutually exclusive from social studies? They can appear like separate entities with the hyper focus on literacy and math standards. Yet Rebell points out that for students to become more civic-minded, they need to have developed in the very areas we are focused on as a faculty: critical thinking, effective speaking and listening skills, and understanding how a writer uses text structures to convey meaning.

Many American students who have basic literacy skills have yet to master the critical-reasoning and deliberation skills needed to appraise one-side or false information, assess policy alternatives, and enter into fruitful conversation with people who have opposing views.

The author almost suggests that for someone to truly be literate, they have to be able to take a critical stance toward text, as well as consider multiple perspectives at the same time. This would seem especially pertinent in a connected world where anyone can publish their thinking without the guidance of an editor to question one’s position or sources. Here again, Rebell addresses this issue by connecting media literacy and the role of the school.

Accelerating use of new digital media presents an additional challenge. Schools need to create and adopt curricula and instructional practices that enable all students to develop media-literacy skills to identify sources of information, distinguish accurate from fake facts, and engage in deliberative online discussions.

The community can also play a role in teaching students to be more civic-minded. This is part of our strategic plan: community engagement. Classrooms have already developed instructional plans that address this area. For example, students interviewed Mineral Point city officials about the governing process. The learning that occurs through these experiences is being measured through more authentic means, such as essays and video creation.

The Rebell article was a good reminder for me about the purpose of public education: to develop responsible and contributing members of society. Literacy and mathematics are in service to the larger goals and ideas for our students and for our community. They work hand-in-hand. Are we responsible for every individual’s actions once they leave the PK-12 world? Of course not. But we are responsible for developing a curriculum that gives every student the best opportunity to successfully navigate a changing world.