Back to Balanced Literacy in NYC?

To those familiar with the history of New York City schools, this should come as no surprise: NYC schools chancellor Carmen Fariña is pushing for a return to Balanced Literacy, which she has long supported and which she sees as compatible with the Common Core.

Some dispute her claim; a New York Times article by Javier Hernández  quotes Common Core architect Susan Pimentel, who says that part of the Balanced Literacy philosophy is “worrisome and runs counter to the letter and spirit of Common Core.” Later, it states that she sees the two as potentially compatible. Compatibility aside, is this return to Balanced Literacy a good idea? I say emphatically no–and will give two reasons that weren’t mentioned in the article. It was in large part my objection to Balanced Literacy (as dogma) that spurred me to write Republic of Noise.

Balanced Literacy, which traces back to initiatives of the 1970s and 1980s, rests on the premise that children learn best when allowed to teach each other and themselves. The teacher is a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage”; students have frequent opportunities to choose their own books; and most lessons involve small group work (or sometimes independent work). The program was extensively developed in NYC schools in the 1990s. Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein mandated it throughout NYC schools in 2003. It is the foundation of the Reading and Writing Project, founded by Lucy Calkins.

While certain elements of Balanced Literacy, applied prudently, could be part of good teaching anywhere, the program as a whole has dangerous weaknesses. Many critics have pointed to the lack of curricular focus and the implied disparagement of direct instruction. The NYT article quotes Robert Pondiscio, who became an eloquent and passionate critic of Balanced Literacy as a result of teaching it in the South Bronx:

“One of the best things you can do to build reading proficiency is to build a strong base of background knowledge,” said Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a research organization. “When you have 24 kids reading 24 books, you’re not accounting for that.”

Indeed. Moreover, when there’s no specific content that the students are learning together, what do they get instead? Strategies, strategies, and more strategies. Reading strategies, writing strategies, strategies for remembering your strategies. In the absence of content, such strategies become vapid. Forget about holding a candle; they can’t even hold hot air to subject matter. Also, some of these “strategies” involve sidestepping the text–for instance, a teacher might encourage students to figure out unfamiliar words (that is, to figure out what they actually are) by looking at the pictures.

Here’s my contribution to the discussion: Balanced Literacy is to be distrusted because it is an all-encompassing pedagogical package that comes with both a worldview and a fever. Moreover, its emphasis on group work discourages high-level, sustained, and original work and thought. [Read more...]

How self-expression hurt my students

Liberating students to discover the power of their voice? Sharing personal narratives? Every child an “author” writing for an audience? “Like so many of our earnest and most deeply humane ideas about educating children in general, and poor, urban children in particular, this impulse toward authenticity is profoundly idealistic, seductive, and wrong,” writes Robert Pondiscio in The Atlantic.

As a fifth-grade teacher at a South Bronx school, “I used to damage children for a living with that idealism,” he writes.

P.S. 277 didn’t teach its low-income students to use correct grammar and sentence structure, or to correct their mistakes.  That sort of literacy instruction rediscovered by New Dorp High School in Peg Tyre’s The Writing Revolution, was considered stifling.

Every day, for two hours a day, I led my young students through Reader’s and Writer’s Workshop. I was trained not to address my kids as “students” or “class” but as “authors” and “readers.” We gathered “seed ideas” in our Writer’s Notebooks. We crafted “small moment” stories, personal narratives, and memoirs. We peer edited. We “shared out.” Gathered with them on the rug, I explained to my 10-year-olds that “good writers find ideas from things that happened in their lives.” That stories have “big ideas.” That good writers “add detail,” “stretch their words,” and “spell the best they can.”

Teach grammar, sentence structure, and mechanics? I barely even taught. I “modeled” the habits of good readers and “coached” my students. What I called “teaching,” my staff developer from Teacher’s College dismissed as merely “giving directions.” My job was to demonstrate what good readers and writers do and encourage my students to imitate and adopt those behaviors.

Reading and writing instruction had become a  Cargo Cult, Pondiscio writes. Go through the motions of being a writer to be a writer.

But good writers use their knowledge of the world, their big vocabularies and their command of language conventions to write vividly and persuasively, he points out.  Children growing up in language-rich families may pick up these things by osmosis; everyone else needs to be taught in school.

“When our students resist writing, it is usually because writing has been treated as little more than a place to expose all they do not know about spelling, penmanship and grammar,” observes Lucy Calkins, probably the workshop model’s premier guru. She is almost certainly correct.

This leaves exactly two options: The first is to de-emphasize spelling and grammar. The other is to teach spelling and grammar. But at too many schools, it’s more important for a child to unburden her 10-year-old soul writing personal essays about the day she went to the hospital, dropped an ice cream cone on a sidewalk, or shopped for new sneakers. It’s more important to write a “personal response” to literature than engage with the content.

“The unlived life is not worth examining,” Pondiscio writes.  Furthermore, “teaching disadvantaged children the mechanics of writing, and emphasizing evidence over anecdote, is liberating not constraining.”

Young people who’ve mastered grammar are more likely to become writers capable of self-expression, he argues.

Also: Great writing comes out of great ideas.

 

Let's make writing pleasant

Will Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review, explains why writing instruction in the U.S. has failed: we dare not make it hard. This pillowed approach comes not from novice teachers, but from the NCTE itself.

Writing has “historically and inexorably been linked to testing,” says the NCTE. Moreover, it has been “associated with unpleasantness–with unsatisfying work and episodes of despair–and thus evoked a good deal of ambivalence.”

Fitzhugh takes us to the consequences of this strange historical analysis:

So, how does NCTE propose to free writing from its unhappy association with testing, episodes of despair, and so on? By encouraging students to do what they are doing already: texting, twitting, emailing, sending notes, sending photos, and the like-only this time it will be part of the high school “writing” curriculum. In other words, instead of NCTE encouraging educators to lift kids out of the crib, it wants them to jump in with them.

What happens when teachers encourage kids to just keep on doing what they’re already doing? They don’t learn how to write about anything. Lucy Calkins told Fitzhugh once, “I teach writing, I don’t get into content that much.” But what happens when you teach writing without “getting into content”?

For one, students don’t write about the topic at hand, even if they have one. On a NAEP test, students were asked to write a brief review of a book worth preserving. of Fitzhugh cites part of a student’s review of Hermann Hesse’s Demian :

High school is a wonderful time of self-discovery, where teens bond with several groups of friends, try different foods, fashions, classes and experiences, both good and bad. The end result in May of senior year is a mature and confident adult, ready to enter the next stage of life.

I get it! I could write about Paradise Lost:

Life is full of trial and error. Sometimes we make big mistakes, but most of the time we make little ones. We should always remember that mistakes are surmountable–even when we make someone mad or fail a test. No matter how embarrassed we are, we can laugh at ourselves, learn from our mistakes, and move on.

Very pleasant and very sad.

For another excellent piece by Will Fitzhugh, see “Critical Likability.”