I like the idea of looking to other schools for effective models in order to achieve improvement for ourselves. What I find concerning, is making assumptions about what would be effective changes based on a visit or two to said schools.
What has me concerned? Our school district is facing poor writing scores on state testing at the middle school level (although I think it is important to note, that only one of our elementary schools has excellent scores, either). After viewing two schools with great writing scores, there is a lot of discussion about creating a modified block schedule in which social studies and science would be given half the time (they alternate days) while reading, writing, and math would be taught daily. It didn't scare me at first, but I have begun to formulate questions. However, before I go into those concerns, let's realize where I am coming from.
Addressing Reading and Writing Now
My solution to our writing problem has been to bring a lot of writing support and discussion into my social studies classes. In fact, I have spent the last two weeks of my social studies coursework focusing on how to effectively write what they know, admitting that it has been obvious to me that kids lose points because they don't know how to effectively write. I'll admit that in science, I haven't put the same in-class time in, but I was also aware that we were coming up on a joint English/Science project in which students would get to work on their science writing in both classes. And, we did a lot of writing support at the beginning of the year.
Now, I'd like to point out to the first time reader that I am a constant frequenter of literacy conferences in addition to being the vice president for our local council of IRA, so I am somewhat unique in that I feel literacy lessons are essential to my coursework and also have a lot of training on how to be an effective writing teacher. I am much more comfortable with making my class a writing class than your typical content teacher.
Anyone who reads regularly, may have read my blog entry on CAST's (Colorado Association of Science Teachers) presidential rambling for January. In that piece, Amy Nicholl, lamented the cutting out of Social Studies and Science that occurs at the elementary level and discusses how this phenomena may result in less background knowledge to engage with as a reader and writer. Never having felt like I would face that same issue, I lamented that the middle school content teacher does not use their content as a means for engaging in reading and writing.
Now, however, I am facing my own academic disciplines being cut down in order to spend more time on reading and writing. At first, I thought it was okay. If that's what we needed to do, I was fine with it. Now, after a couple days of stewing, I remember Mrs. Nicholl and question this idea. Here are my questions:
- Is changing the schedule without changing the way we teach writing effective?
- Is cutting out student access to content knowledge going to be detrimental to a development of background knowledge?
- Are future content teachers going to face a back-log of unlearned material (like my students not knowing the order N, E, S, W on a compass or that there are 7 continents and the names of those)?
- Will reading and writing teachers use more content materials in their classes to help avoid this deficit?
I also feel a little let down, because we've been given this ultimatum to support writing across the board this year. In my own class, I have made a lot of changes to be a better writing teacher. And now, before we have even started state testing, a new idea is coming down the pipeline. Where's the action research here? This has the look of desperation, not of a thoughtful response to a problem. On the other side, this is simply a discussion, so I trust (for now) that these questions will get answered and we will develop this into a quality program, should we choose to implement.