So, I have been thinking a lot recently about our children becoming independent thinkers with the ability to relate their own experiences to what they are learning in school. When it comes to the teaching of literacy, the life experience that students bring to the table is crucial when it comes to learning how to draw conclusions and make solid inferences. Because each child's life experiences are vastly different, teaching them how to tap into their prior knowledge not only helps the individual student to acquire an in-depth understanding of a text, it enriches the literary experience of the other students as well. In a group setting, students can share their previous knowledge on a topic and actually teach one another to make solid inferences using this skill. In addition, tapping into a student's emotions and opinions is also extremely important, when teaching both fiction and nonfiction. Wow. I am boring myself. I'm not going to go on with this educational jargon--let's make it real:
Let's go back to my much beloved and very challenging sixth grade homeroom of last year. Rewind back to March. At this time, we were in a fiction unit. I was instructed to look at the test data from the previous fiction unit back in October, and see which skills my students were lacking the most, and focus on those skills. Data-driven instruction. We actually had to break down each students' progress (or lack thereof) into Performance Indicators (as dictated by NY State) or skills, which makes the teaching of something as lovely and imaginative as reading into a task that, well, just sucks the magic right out of a story.
Anyways, I looked at the precious, all-knowing Data Report (sound effect: aaa-aaahh---visual---ray of heavenly light) and noticed that, according to the numbers, my kids really did not understand how to identify the theme of a story. Well, of course they didn't. I had to jam so much material into that fiction unit in October that I was only able to teach Theme for a few days, and Theme is the most difficult literary concept to grasp. Why? Because the kids need to place themselves in the story to understand it. They need to make inferences about the characters. They need to bring the lessons THEY have learned in life in order to identify with what the characters are learning, and thus lead themselves to a theme.
So, here I was faced with a quite a challenge. (Picture Chalkduster rubbing her hands together over a pile of Data Reports). I knew the ONLY way the kids would grasp this difficult concept would be to give them a text that they could REALLY identify with, that we could sink our teeth into for an entire week.
I chose "On the Sidewalk Bleeding", a short story by Evan Hunter. In a nutshell, it's about a boy who joined a gang called The Royals and proudly wore a royal purple jacket representing his solidarity. He was stabbed in the stomach one rainy night in an alleyway by members of an opposing gang. The story begins with him lying on the sidewalk, dying and bleeding in the rain. The story ends with him using every ounce of strength he had left before he dies to wriggle out of that jacket. It's really, really sad.
I'm sure you can all see why I chose that story! Gang activity is a way of life for some of my kids. Not to say they are members of gangs, but many of their neighborhoods are permeated by them. When I gave the story to all of my kids to read independently you could hear a pin drop in room 113. A delicious stillness filled the air, and all I could hear was the occasional squeak of a desk, the soft patter of early-spring rain, and the tinkling of little Juanita's bracelets as she constantly flipped her impossibly long, wavy hair. She read intently, brows furrowed, her huge brown eyes focused, her mouth forming the shape of the words. (I can really visualize her now, and it's actually making me miss her.) Juanita reads almost on a fourth-grade level. I know this text is way above her "level". But I also know that Juanita has lived in homeless shelters and has witnessed her father beating her mother. (One day we had lunch together and she disclosed this information to me earnestly, but then reassured me she was safe. She produced a tiny, dog-eared picture of a young man with her brown eyes and said, "He's in jail now.") I know that even now, her living situation is not stable. I know by looking at her tiny, lithe frame that she definitely could use a few good meals, although she is entitled free breakfast and lunch at school. I know she has an older brother somewhere, and she's not even sure where he is.
I watched little Juanita closely and waited for her attention to the text to wane as it usually does after reading for five minutes. It did not. With much wriggling, hair-flipping, and bracelet-clinking, she finished with a flourish and let a few tears leak out. I approached her desk with a little smile. She stared up at me from her small, crossed arms. "Miss! Why you give us such sad stuff to read?? That poor boy! He never shoulda joined them Royals!" I gently shushed her and reminded her that many kids had not yet finished reading. This is not the first time she has cried over something she read. She cried a lot during the Poetry Unit. When we analyzed the lyrics of The Beatles "She's Leaving Home", Juanita had to go to the girls' room and splash cold water on her face. I then leaned down and whispered in her ear, "I give you sad stories to read on purpose so you can feel for the characters. It helps you to understand the story and make good inferences. I'm sorry that you feel sad, but that was my intention. Now I know that you understood the text."
Freddy shot us an annoyed glare. He was still on the second page, a careful, systematic, deliberate reader. Only when reading something engaging did he NOT welcome distractions. "Shut UP, Juanita, I'm trying to read!" I know he wanted to tell ME to shut up, but he knew better.
Once all of the kids finished the story, it was time to drop the bomb that we had to pick it apart, make inferences, and find the theme. We had to answer multiple choice questions. And essay questions. Groans ensued. I looked at my kids. I had their full, undivided attention. Even Fred, although standing next to his chair at this point, about to protest, held his crinkled copy of the story in front of him protectively, as if my manner of teaching was going to completely destroy it to smithereens. I just couldn't do this to them. They were hungry, starving for debate and discussion, dying to express to me, and each other, the emotions this story awakened inside of them.
Suddenly, I 86’Ed the multiple choice and essay questions I had written about the story. I slapped my typed, workshop-model lesson plan face down on my desk. Instead, I simply asked, "So, what did you all think?" I offered them a winning smile that told them their opinions and experiences were welcome. A passionate class discussion about gangs began:
"I got the BLOODS on my block!"
"Yeah, I got the Latin Kings. My ma said never to join a gang."
"My cousin is dead a ‘cause of a gang."
"My mom doesn't let me go outside after dinner. She say I could get hurt by a stray bullet."
"He got stabbed, yo! COOL. So much blood." (that was Freddy again. He has a morbid personality and he thinks it makes him likeable, but no one really takes his bad-ass attitude seriously. He's the smallest kid in the class by far.)
"Why he didn't fight harder?"
"Why he take off that jacket before he died?"
"He wanted to be himself."
"He didn't want to die as a Royal. He didn't want to leave that impression on the world. He wanted people to remember him as Andy." (That, from Sashaya. I wanted to hug her.)
I didn't have to say a word. In the discussion alone, they were approaching the theme and a deeper understanding of the text. I guess this is why education intellectuals say good teaching is really just facilitating. They made inferences about characters: "The cop at the end of the story acted like he didn't care cuz he sees this stuff all the time, He's ---numb---is that right, Miss? He don't feel it because he used to it."
The-new-goal of the lesson, which actually lasted three days, was to act out parts of the story in front of the class and fill out a graphic organizer with different levels of questions from Bloom's Taxonomy. This would eventually lead to the groups of students creating a colorful poster brandishing proudly the Theme of the story: What lesson about life does the reader learn from the story? Of course they had to use evidence from the text to back it up. But they also could use their prior knowledge on the topic of gangs. Those posters were proudly displayed on the bulletin board in the hallway for quite a while. I was so proud of them, but more importantly, they were proud of themselves for grasping a concept they had constantly fumbled on.
During the course of that week, they were in heterogeneous groups (different abilities) of four or five. I did not have to do anything but wander about the room, and eavesdrop, or ask a few leading questions to strugglers. All in all, the lesson was an enormous success. Every child was engaged and having a great time. There were no essay questions or dreaded multiple choice questions. And, on the next unit test, (multiple choice, modeled after the State Exam) their proficiency level for finding Theme rose a whopping 62%.
The reason why I chose to enlighten you all with this heart-warming story is that I wanted to give you perspective on the matter of using students' prior knowledge while teaching high-level literacy skills. I have serious concerns with how the new Common Core Standards approaches Literacy Education. They speak for themselves. Cited from Ed Week:
**Side note: I apologize for not placing a tag to the link here. For some reason, since BlogSpot decided to change their publishing layout, I have been unable to use bold, italics, and underline, and I am not presented with the option of placing a link inside my text. There is no spell-check available. If any of my blogger friends can help me with this irritating situation, I'd appreciate it. So, for those who are interested, here is the link to the article I am referring to:
This article offers a link to a PDF document of the actual Common Core Standards.
“Eighty to 90 percent of the reading standards in each grade require text-dependent analysis; accordingly, aligned curriculum materials should have a similar percentage of text-dependent questions,” say the criteria for grades 3-12.
Ok. Fair enough. A deep understanding of the text is always our goal. But here is where it makes me want to hurl my breakfast, because the murder of independent thought begins in Kindergarten, when children will be conditioned, by the time they are in 3rd grade:
“Materials should be sparing in offering activities that are not text dependent,” say the criteria for grades K-2. “Whether written or spoken, responses based on students’ background knowledge and the experiences they bring to school are not sufficient.”
Whoa. Hold on a minute. What our clueless common-core writers are TELLING us absolutely disgusted public school teachers to do is dismiss the educational value of a student's prior knowledge in drawing conclusions, making inferences, and yes, figuring out the theme of a story. I which case, I'd really LOVE to know how we are expected to teach higher-level thinking skills while reading. For example, evaluating a text is on top of the triangle of Bloom's Taxonomy. How is a child going to successfully evaluate a text when she is not encouraged to think about it in the context of HER world, her individual reality? Our students do not come to us as empty vessels. Quite the contrary, they wander into my classroom brimming with experiences and stories and opinions. They are excited to share these experiences and CONNECT their knowledge to what they read. The first and most popular "text connection" they use in their Reading Journals is the "text-to-self" connection, closely followed by "text-to-world", "text-to-media", and "text-to-text". What will happen to the teaching of text-connections? Will I be fired if my principal walks in and I am teaching the kids to make a text-to-world connection during my Non Fiction unit? Oh, NO.
We cannot, WILL NOT, take this away from them. If we did, they SIMPLY would not learn. It would be like taking their foundation of knowledge right out from underneath them and telling them, "Read this text, but only think about this text. Any prior knowledge you may have about anything in here is irrelevant. What you think does not, and will never matter." This approach is not only demoralizing to the students in the way that they are being told their life experience and previous book knowledge is completely worthless, but it is designed to transform creative, opinionated, independent-thinking citizens into complacent consumers, not questioning any ideas that are thrown into their intellectual path. That, my friends, is Government Control at its very ugliest. Once every public school (if public schools even survive the next decade) implements this abomination of our constitutional rights, we will be finished. Hitler kept his masses uneducated. He did not want his citizens to be independent thinkers. As a result, millions turned their heads out of fear and ignorance while an entire race (and any naysayers) was almost eradicated. Americans need to wake up!!!!
One may think my manner of denouncing the Common Core Standards is extreme, but I want my readers to realize just how DANGEROUS this is to our kids, and the future of our country. The implementation of Common Core Standards is only on SMALL example of the right-wing, corporate stronghold that has sickened my beloved America. Call me crazy, call me paranoid, and call me an over-the-top conspiracy theorist. But at least I've got my eyes open, and I am exercising my rights while I still have them.
"Some commentaries from the Left doubt that idealism has ever been much more than a cloak for darker purposes in educational reform, such as the production of a tranquilized work force that would learn enough--but not too much--in school." Exactly. This quote is from "Among Schoolchildren" , by Tracy Kidder, published in 1989...written over twenty years ago, it scarily holds more truth than ever, today. I highly recommend this book.
So, come September, I will take up my new position as Kindergarten Teacher (yes...it was time for a change) and I will keep you all posted on how the Common Core affects Early Childhood Education. After all, little, cute five year olds come to school armed mostly with their life experiences, and this knowledge means the world to them at that age. Who doesn't know a five year old who loves to tell stories about themselves? For example:
"Um um um yesterday, I went to the park, and my daddy was being so silly, and and and he ran in the spwinkers, and got all wet, and then and then there was HUGE bug on his head, and it looked sooo cool, and I wanna find a book with bug pictures, I wanna find that same bug, do you have any bug books?"
Taking away the importance of a child's life experiences is an educational crime.