How Nancy Atwell’s “Case for Literature” Really Got Me Thinking

On a day in which I could have done a slew of other things, most notably chores around my house that have been hanging around for a while, I found myself trying to catch up on my reading.  I’ve spent the better part of the last two weeks ignoring most of the interesting reading that has come my way.  I’ve been in classrooms, and if a pile of reading is my trade-off for that, it’s one I would gladly make any day.

We’ve completely reshaped our focus in our K-5 literacy program this year, and our teachers are doing a wonderful job transitioning to the program and all the new materials and methods that it requires.  The past two weeks were spent in as many of the classrooms as time would allow.  The program, a combination of Pearson’s Good Habits, Great Readers and a phonics program from Wilson called Fundations (with some modification for grades four and five), places emphasis on teaching students at their own instructional level.

We often speak about the kinds of data that we truly need in our schools and the amount of time and money that data would cost us.  We can’t possibly base our successes and failures on once-a-year indicators whose results are given back to us far too late for any decisions to be made that would affect the current year.  However, data that is gathered at multiple points, based on one-on-one interaction with students in both conversational and written format, is powerful, and I’ve just seen that.

Our teachers work with students in this program at various levels: instructional, shared, and independent.  The goal of the program is to instill the habits of great readers in these students while exposing them to various genres and styles both in reading and their own writing.  Being in these classrooms this year, and comparing them to the visits I made last year is like night and day.  The students, as young as second grade, are using the vocabulary of readers–we heard phrases from students like “text to self connection” and “my portfolio shows that I’ve been able to do that this year”–and interacting with all types of materials.

Nancy Atwell’s piece in EdWeek on Monday, entitled “The Case for Literature,” pushed me to really look at what I saw in those classrooms, and what I want to see as these students move to our middle and high schools.  We are spending a good part of their time in language arts at the elementary level showing them what great readers and writers do, their habits, their practices, and their traits and then asking them to practice those same skills in texts that are on a level that is not too complex, but not too simplistic.  By the time these students reach the middle school, as Atwell attests, these students need to immerse themselves in literature that is important to them:

They find their interests, needs, struggles, and dreams spoken for in the crafted stories that fill their library. More importantly, they get to experience the interests, needs, struggles, and dreams of young people unlike themselves. At a critical juncture, they learn about a diversity of human experiences and begin to consider both what they care about and who they might dare to become.

I see our students progressing from a high-frequency of skill building in the elementary schools, to more focused study of high-interest materials in the middle school.  Also, as Atwell points out about her students:

But most importantly, from my perspective as the teacher responsible for their literacy, my students become strong readers. They build fluency, stamina, vocabulary, confidence, critical abilities, habits, tastes, and comprehension.

and I don’t plan on losing sight of the reading skills our students have learned in elementary school as they enter into middle school, because there is that other element that we don’t talk about too much as they transition from elementary to middle school: the rampant loss of enthusiasm for school.  While not occurring in every classroom, I think it is worth noting the drastic change in energy from the elementary classroom to the middle school classroom.  In looking at continuing to ignite passion for reading, as Atwell wants us to do, we’ll need to look at a redesigning the energy within our middle school rooms.

How do we do that?  I am still working on that one.

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It Never Was an Either/Or

This week I have spent a good portion of my time working with teachers in grades PK-2 talking about creativity and innovation.  Due to the changes that New Jersey is proposing in the new draft standards, which came about through their membership in the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (among other factors as well), the elements that are stressed in the P21 manifesto have populated themselves into the new standards.  Themes such as:

  • Global awareness
  • Financial, economic, business and entrepreneurial literacy
  • Civic literacy
  • Health literacy

and skills like:

  • Creativity and Innovation
  • Critical Thinking and Problem Solving
  • Communication and Collaboration

are all now written into our standards from PK-12.

If you come from middle or high school teaching into an administration position in which you work with grades PK-5, you will understand how stressful it is to work with elementary teachers.  They are wonderful people; I should know, I am married to one.  But when you look at all they have to do in a day and the limited time they have to do it in, having them sit in an afterschool meeting to work with curriculum is daunting.  To introduce these ideas to our elementary teachers, we used our good friend Sir Ken Robinson.  We took a page from the P21 Framework that centered on creativity and innovation and had the teachers use it as a backbone for writing down ideas that struck them while watching Sir Ken’s TED talk from 2006.  From there, we had them answer two prompts in groups of 4-5:

  • Identify the structures in place in your classroom that promote creativity and innovation either in your students or yourself.
  • So what?  What Now?

The responses were phenomenal, especially in relation to the areas where Sir Ken spoke about finding creative capacities and working with them instead of educating them out of them.  However, one thing I have learned in administration in regards to any kind of meeting is that you have to be ready for the “don’t waste my time question of the day,” which is the part where you have to make it matter to them.  A teacher asked the question very bluntly:

“where is this going?  How are we to fit these ideas, which by the way we all believe in, into what we already do?”

My answer wasn’t great, I’ll admit, and it had a lot to do with explaining where the ideas behind the new standards revisions came from, but it stuck with me.

Last night, in my reader appeared an article from Patrick Riccards at Eduflack in which he debated the mode of delivery that the P21 people have chosen.  This gem was smack in the middle of it:

The debate over 21CS skills should not be one between one set of curricular goals versus the other.  This isn’t core knowledge versus soft skills.  No, our focus should be on how we teach those core subjects that are necessary.  How do we teach math and science so that we better integrate technology and critical thinking skills?  How do we teach the social sciences in a manner that focuses on project-based learning and team-based activities?  How do we ensure that a 21st century student is not being forced to unplug when they enter the classroom, and instead uses the technologies and interests that drive the rest of their life to boost their interest and achievement in core academic subjects?  And most importantly, how do we ensure all students are graduating with the content knowledge and skills needed to truly achieve in the 21st century economy

One does not go forward by jettisoning the skills with which we gathered. To me it’s not about introducing new content, but rather how we engage students in content using the “soft skills” that we need them to develop. The ability to have a lasting understanding is our goal here, and providing relevant context to what we do in the classroom is a great way to get there.  So my answer to that question is not to change the content of what you do, but to use the same skills you are trying to develop in the students in your own practice.  Be innovative, be creative, be prepared to fail often, collaborate, model the behaviors you want to see in your students.