If Myra's post yesterday was on Facebook, I would have liked it and shared it. If Myra said what she wrote while we were having lunch face-to-face, it would have led to a long and wonderful conversation. But since we're both knee-deep in end-of-semester grading, this blog post will have to take the place of that conversation for now.
Two weeks ago, while teaching my content literacy course for pre-service middle and high school teachers (of all content areas) I had a "what is happening here" moment about my own teaching. It was the end of the semester, and what we were scheduled to do was analyze different samples of the writing tasks for the PARCC assessments at different grade levels, to explore the ways in which the Grades 6-12 Content Literacy Standards are assessed, and the ways in which teachers of all content areas need to be aware of the writing demands. I continue to be discouraged by the fact that the content literacy standards at the secondary level are folded into ELA standards and assessments; too many high school English teachers are being told it is simply "their" test. But that is a story for another blog post.
Before my class even began, I was discouraged that the task analysis was going to take up so much time. My students need to know what is expected of them when they enter the profession. But they also need to know what is possible...and who shows them that? Me! That's part of what being a teacher educator is...preparing teachers for the classrooms they face, but preparing them to also be agents of change in those classrooms.
So instead of analyzing the PARCC assessments, I told them the story of my own evolution regarding teaching research. My own experience doing research in 1997-1998, to write a young adult historical novel as part of my graduate work, changed my life. Research changed me - as a reader, a writer, and most importantly of all, as a teacher. I read more widely than ever before: chronicles of the American Revolution, academic texts on the lives of women and girls in 18th century America,cookbooks and account books that were part of the Van Cortlandt family papers, owned by Historic Hudson Valley. I took open-hearth cooking lessons and explored colonial portraiture. I shared the results of my research on my protagonist, Ann Van Cortlandt Van Rensselaer, with Colonial Williamsburg, which happens to own some of her clothes. Sure, I was a rookie. But I learned more about myself as a learner, and I read nonfiction works more deeply than I ever had before, because I was so passionately engaged in what I was doing. It mattered to me. For my purposes, it mattered because I wanted to have the 18th century Hudson Valley up and running in my imagination. To get it there, I had to read primary and secondary texts of all genres widely and deeply, and make the connections across recipes, portraits, architecture, and account books. All of this, to write a story.
Shortly after doing this research, I moved along with my students from the 8th grade to the 9th grade. I was teaching 9th grade honors English for the first time, and had inherited an "author project" from the previous teacher. In my graduate work, I read an article by Tom Romano on multi-genre research. Multi-genre research papers? It sounded a bit like my own research experience. In January of that school year, I talked to my students about how my research changed me. Many of them had heard about it in middle school. I then gave them Tom Romano's article on multi-genre research. They read it, marked it up, and together, we brainstormed the rough outline of a semester-long research project that they would conduct. The one requirement? Everyone had to present publicly on their research. Each student co-constructed a contract with me for the work that s/he would be doing over the semester; the contract got revised each month. The contract articulated the different texts they would be reading as well as the different "products" that they would create to show what they were learning, and the percentage that each product should count towards the final grade. Each student chose a different permutation. Some had the presentation count more because performance was a part of the work.
My goal was to give students the opportunity to explore something that they were passionate about, to explore it from a variety of experiences, explored for the "purposes" of assessment. Yes, I was grading what they were creating. But it was in the act of creating that the real learning took place. I guess that's my worry. Assessment has become a dirty word because it has become synonymous with standardized tests. But student work has always been "my data," and in the process of completing meaningful work, students learn. Assessment can be deeply creative and deeply rigorous. And interesting and engaging, personally satisfying, and meaningful, too.
When we give students the opportunity to explore what interests them -- to read nonfiction (and other genres!) for pleasure and then harness that pleasure in the academic context, we allow them to explore more deeply their own identity as readers, writers, thinkers, and human beings. That first year of what went on to be called simply "The Project," one student studied the writings of Roald Dahl. An actor and musician at heart, he choose to present to students, parents, and families one evening about Dahl's work while impersonating Dahl, complete with an original piano composition that mirrored Dahl's writing style. Today, this young man teaches drama at the elementary level. Another student researched Toni Morrison's work, exploring the intersection of writing, culture, and identity through fiction. A doctoral student in Food Studies, she now writes about food and culture via a range of genres and modalities. Still another researched the work of Madeleine L'Engle; photography became an integral part of that project. Today, she is a photojournalist, bringing stories from around the world to our computer screens. Seeds of who they are now were there, back in 9th grade. They tried ideas on for size. They explored perspectives other than their own. They spent four months digging deeply into something that mattered to them.
I do not suggest causation here. But rather, correlation. How do we provide young people the opportunities to discover who they are, if who they are is not an important and integral part of their public school education? When reading fiction, nonfiction, or poetry becomes something that you do because you "have to" and not because you're curious, we're in trouble. When reading for school becomes synonymous with test prep, we're in trouble. When reading nonfiction only happens because teachers are told to or choose to mimic those tasks on the PARCC assessment, and not because it's of interest to students or because it holds important and interesting content to ponder in a content area, we're in trouble. Is it any wonder that Common Sense Media reports that young people are reading less? What has reading become synonymous with in school? An act of discovery? Or an act of coersion?
Multi-genre research became an important part of my teaching life; I created shorter, more intense versions of this project with high school seniors and with the 8th graders I eventually taught in New Hampshire. All students benefit from conducting independent research, under the guidance of a mentor. All students can do it; their work will take different shapes and forms, dependent on their choices, interests, and abilities. Making that range of work visible is not always easy or simple. It's exhausting, in fact! But all students deserve the chance to see their interests respected and explored in schools. They deserve the chance to discover the interests they don't know they have. Each deserves the opportunity to witness how research can change his/her life.