With a nationwide decrease in enrollment in schools and concerns about learning loss mounting, teachers, parents and education are demanding answers and solutions. And not surprisingly, the journalism by Emily Hanford and others is bringing the issue to the forefront.
Is this a second iteration of the reading wars, with its resumption of us versus them, progressives versus reformers, and the false dichotomy of phonics-centric-instructors versus love-of-literacy teachers? I don’t see it that way.
In a year when schools are opening and closing, and resources for teaching online are in scarce supply, we have to look to the future. When the dust settles on COVID and we’re back in our classrooms, what will we do to help the children in our schools learn better?
Not Every Child Gets Explicit Reading and Writing Instruction
While pursuing my teaching license, tackling implicit bias seemed a natural first stop for educators who wanted to do a better job. The majority of the teaching force is white, while the student population is increasingly not. Repositioning the importance of the literary canon and the “disruption” seemed a natural conclusion for someone like me, whose experiences with literature weren’t always diverse. Underlying this refocus, however, was the assumption that every child received the education I did: explicit reading and writing instruction throughout the grades. My assumption was wrong.
Emily Hanford’s report revealed children were being taught to use pictures to guess the decoding of words, though I had been trained to sound out words 20 years ago. While I had been taught explicitly to build arguments in writing, my teacher preparation program encouraged us to favor more “authentic” writing assignments, such as the reader-response. Further, though we would likely ‘have to’ assign traditional writing, we were encouraged to allow students alternative ways to demonstrate mastery of writing like PowerPoint presentations and artistic displays such as one-pagers.
Though I grew up on the northside of Minneapolis, a place commonly looked down upon for all of the stereotypical markers of the inner city, I was fortunate. My teachers taught me the essential skills and knowledge that made university a realistic dream for me. Whatever my challenges in getting to college, this didn’t include worrying about my scores on entrance exams or fretting over whether I would have to take remedial courses. My foundations were secure.
But when I began teaching and working with student populations that mirrored my own upbringing, I realized that my being taught to read and write proficiently was more so due to good luck rather than being a given of any public education. My students’ difficulties were tangible evidence that immediately interesting and relevant books that reflected the diversity of their experiences, though important, would not be enough.
Weighing what was at stake, I changed my mind. I went from believing that implicit bias and overt racism were the primary issues holding back students to concluding that something was amiss in training teachers. Over 20 years ago, Congress convened the National Reading Panel to evaluate the evidence for the best way to teach children to read, but half of our nation’s elementary education programs still fail to align their programs to these findings.
Scarborough’s reading rope is a visualization of the many strands of skilled reading. While decoding becomes more automatic with explicit and systematic instruction, language comprehension is increasingly strategic and still requires explicit teaching. And although this is the case, many educators are trained to do the opposite—and while professional literacy communities like #DisruptTexts and Project LIT push young adult literature as the cure for reading ills and curricula of ‘dead white men,’ I worry that this choice minimizes the underlying issues of why students may struggle.
This advice is of good intention, but it results in a fundamental misunderstanding of how skilled reading actually works. A curriculum centered in high-interest low-level literature may give the illusion of successful reading, but we sell our students short when we don’t provide the skills and knowledge necessary to tackle more complex texts (and no, this isn’t just dead white dudes). Words on a page will not magically blend together, nor dense complex syntax parse itself just because the reader shares an identity marker with the author: The science is settled.
White Guilt Won’t Improve Your Instruction and Practice
We’ve gotten to a point where we accept the low hanging fruit of graduation rates and books with brown-colored children in them. Anti-racist book clubs have become the cosmetic fix for the decades of stagnant or even regressive academic outcomes.
“Doing the work” is becoming less about improving teaching, and more about reflecting on what a white woman who profits off talking about racism against Black people says. Newsflash: Reflecting on your own white guilt will directly improve your instruction as much as giving tax breaks to the rich will improve the lives of the poor
I’m still trying to find the space for me to grow as an educator, but I know that I want my future students to experience success—not because the assigned work is at a low level, but because my instruction allows them to perform above what they could do alone. As much as we call for a ‘disruption’ of a white-American-centric curriculum, we must also disrupt outdated and harmful notions of inequitable instruction.
Methods we learned may have to be unlearned, and assumptions we hold may have to be corrected. And even though we’re being hit with a barrage of SEL-anti-racist-STEAM for Equity initiatives, we can’t lose the plot. We wouldn’t be teachers if we didn’t believe in the power of education to change life trajectories, so we owe it to our students and ourselves to consider if our current practice is ineffective in reversing what ZIP codes supposedly dictate about a child’s future.