Sunday, April 20, 2014

Clearing Our Heads and Finding a Focus: Putting Thoughtful Engagement with Content in the Forefront

Have we forgotten the depth vs. coverage arguments? I thought this was settled: Depth of understanding is better for students than racing across the curriculum. That is, teachers need to allow students the opportunity to build in-depth knowledge, not settle for bits and pieces of unconnected facts. And yet, once again, this issue is upon us.

Here is what is becoming ever more apparent to me. When covering standards is our focus, it becomes a race to the finish line. Content flies out the window. It becomes secondary to process. Our students become secondary, too. And that is what is being reflected in educational journals. Here’s an example. In the March 2014 issue of Language Arts, the editors wrote about first grade teachers who were teaching folktales and tall tales about Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Johnny Appleseed, Annie Oakley, and Davy Crockett. This is part of the first grade social studies curriculum, and the teachers were also connecting this curriculum to the ELA standards for reading and writing. However, they also wanted to include tales that represented the students’ cultural and ethnic backgrounds, but there wasn’t enough time to build this more relevant curriculum.

Think about this. Think deeply. There wasn’t enough time in first grade to stop and make the curriculum relevant to the students. There was, instead, a pacing calendar that provided the teachers with their marching orders—“Move on!” As I continued to read articles in Language Arts, I continued to see authors voicing this same concern again and again. When covering standards is our goal, we neglect the reason we are in school in the first place—to teach our students, to nurture their curiosity, to help them appreciate, question, and investigate the world.

Trust me, this is leading someplace. When thoughtful engagement with content is our focus, we can embed the standards in our teaching. We can have it all—content and process. One place to begin thoughtful engagement with curriculum is with nonfiction literature that itself reflects meaningful learning. So today, I want to focus on one book that does this as an example. That book is The Griffin and the Dinosaur: How Adrienne Mayor Discovered a Fascinating Link Between Myth and Science by Marc Aronson. (Yes, Marc is one of the bloggers on this website, but that’s not the point. The point is that this is the type of book we need.)

Why do we need this type of book? We need this type of book because it shows someone engaged in thinking. In this case, Adrienne Mayor was thinking about the links between myths and fossils. She was thinking that our ancestors’ stories were based on observations in the natural world. And, over the course of years, she showed that this was so. This was not simply an overnight “aha!” moment. Adrienne Mayor’s discoveries involved years of reading, speaking to scientists, traveling to archaeological sites, and sometimes making mistakes. And, importantly, this work continues. As our students read about Adrienne Mayor and discuss her work, it’s easy to embed CCSS standards into what we are doing. This is important too. But let’s think about why we are doing what we are doing. Are we sharing exciting stories about thinking? Are we inviting students to think too? In my opinion, this comes first. 

1 comment:

  1. Myra, you're soooo right. If we want to teach thinking, we need to give kids something to think about. Content becomes the substrate on which to practice thinking. That's why specific content is not as important as content that is meaningful for kids. While it's very nice to study traditional American folktales, maybe some children need something closer to home.

    We also need to give the brain time to make connections. How many of us know this from our own personal experience of discovering a problem is solved upon waking up in the morning?