Monday, December 7, 2009

The Slippery Slope

Sixteen years and a couple of months ago, I got my first teaching job. My assignment was to teach four one-hour English classes of 25 sixth graders each. I had finished my M.Ed. the December before and had spent the spring substitute teaching. I was ready for my own class. My training, as far as teaching literacy skills, had been primarily whole language. When I took my language arts methods class in graduate school, the notion of whole language was entirely new to me. I hadn’t thought about how kids learn to read and write since I had been in elementary school 20 years before.

In my mind, the essence of whole language was that you didn’t tell the students what to do, you gave them opportunities to acquire the skills of reading and writing on their own. This was a radical concept for a product of basal readers and grammar work sheets (which I loved, by the way). But the notion of students engaged in readers and writers workshops, practicing the skills of reading and writing on books and topics of their choice was enthralling to me. The vision of a classroom that was a community of readers and writers resonated deeply, and I knew that I wanted to create such a place and spend my time there.

So I did. The first year I taught was the first year of a new basal reading program adoption. The reading specialist proudly presented me with 125 brand new textbooks that I knew I didn’t intend to use. She was visibly shaken when I told her so.

“Here are your vocabulary books,” she offered.

“I don’t need them,” I replied.

“You should probably take them anyway,” she pushed in a soft drawl that almost covered her dismay.

The next day I had a visit from the county language arts supervisor. “What is your plan for the year?” she asked. I spoke passionately and at length, describing the program I envisioned; I showed her my collection of trade books, the area I set up for journals and writing supplies, the reading log I would use, my “State of the Class” binder, my bulletin board with publication opportunities. I also mentioned the resistance I felt from the reading specialist and other experienced teachers in the building. “I think you should do it,” she said. “You can’t hurt the kids if you do what you believe is right, and you clearly believe this is right.”

I took her advice and ran my class in pure workshop form. Students read and wrote on topics and in genres entirely of their choice. I experimented with ways to keep track of their work and ways to hold them accountable for their reading and writing. Together, we published a newspaper, had a voluntary essay-writing seminar, and wrote fan letters. Individually, my students kept writers journals, and wrote poetry, fiction, letters, essays, graphic novels, and more. They were published in the newspaper; they entered and won contests, and submitted their writing to journals. I read their writing and taught mini-lessons to address their needs.

At that time we had the "Literacy Passport" exam at sixth grade which tested reading, writing, and math. 100 students took it. A third were on free and reduced lunch. A quarter spoke English as a second language. Thirty percent were white, thirty percent Black, thirty percent Latino, and ten percent Asian. Of the hundred who took it, 99 passed the writing, and 97 passed the reading. I didn't know anything about analyzing test data back then, but now, 15 years later, I understand how extraordinary those results were.

So, you would think I would continue with my program exactly as I constructed it, year after year, tweaking the paper work and the mini lessons to more accurately keep track of and assist my students’ progress, right? Wrong. Each year my writing workshop became more adulterated, literally. I moved, gradually, from a student-centered approach to an adult-directed class. My students still did a lot of writing, but I assigned much more of it. Why?

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