Wednesday, September 5, 2012

"Basic Skills" and other soul-crushing elements of urban schools


One of the things that appeals to me about the Common Core State Standards is what appears to be a focus on critical thinking and analysis.  These are the hallmarks of my curriculum and I believe they must be a constant in all classrooms from elementary school on up, regardless of subject. It is my hope that this focus will bring change to many urban schools in particular which serve students a steady diet of “basic skills” curricula, often in the name of remediation and raising test scores. 

Lisa Delpit addresses this focus on basic skills in her recent book Multiplication is for White People: Raising expectations for other people’s children:

We cannot successfully teach the necessary vocabulary, strategies, and conventions by depending on the presentation of isolated bits of information and expect children to learn the subtle shading necessary for communicative competence in this society. Focusing solely on the minutiae of learning will not create educated people. But this is exactly what is happening too often, in too many of our schools.” (Delpit 59).

 Here Delpit is talking specifically about elementary schools teaching basic skills in isolation rather than in connection with students’ lived experiences.  She offers a story about her daughter, a voracious reader, struggling with a 1st grade assignment to write four sentences.  When the author asked her if she knew what a sentence was, her daughter said, “Yes, something you write but would never say”.  This same disconnection occurs across all subject areas when teachers fail to link students’ classroom experience with their lived experience.

While there are plenty of concerns and flaws with the CCSS, it does provide educators an opportunity [even an edict] to abandon isolated basic skills instruction in favor of critical and analytical writing and reading opportunities. 

This does, of course, present a challenge for urban educators.  It is very difficult to require complex analytical reading and writing when students struggle with the basics of sentences and simple comprehension. 

In my opinion, this is where the true art of teaching comes into the equation and it is what makes evaluating and measuring the “value” of teachers so difficult.  In my classroom, I strive to embed the basic skills of comprehension, literacy, vocabulary, grammar, and conventions within our reading of complex texts.  Sometimes this means modeling or “mind mapping”, other times it means guided reading or annotation.  Whatever the pedagogical technique, I ensure that above all else it fosters the critical analytical skills that my students will need to find success after graduation, while also addressing the fundamental skills that they may have missed along the way. 

My students may not write with perfect grammar or syntax all the time (or even some of the time), but what they write demonstrates complex critical thinking and analysis. 

I remember when I was completing my district mandated induction program in the spring of my first year teaching, the instructor was leafing through some of my students’ essays and asked, “This is a pretty good argument, what grade do you teach?”

“Sixteen to twenty-one year olds”, I told her.

Her eyebrows rose in shock and then she put my binder down and moved on. In her mind I could see her judging both my instruction and my students.  What was originally a sound analytical essay with some glaring mechanical errors, was now a sort of abomination. I on the other hand, was quite proud of my students’ essays.  Personally I find it much more challenging to craft complex analytical reasoning than grammar and mechanics. 

Teachers, especially those who work with students who are significantly below grade level must not lose sight of the core concepts that students are in school to learn.  If a student moves from class to class receiving nothing but basic skills instruction from worksheets, is it any wonder that he is disengaged or skips school or acts out?  Students what to be challenged and as educators, it is our job to find ways in which to support them through those challenges.  After all, that’s why we get paid the big bucks…

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