A Letter to Grown-Ups on the 12th Day of School 2020
Do you know what your kid is reading in school?
I know you have a child in your life who loves you, and who you love. So I implore you to think deeply about what you’re about to read. As I sit here reflecting on the 12th day of school, I am enraged. I am writing this to you as a course of action and quest for awareness, so that the special child in your life, and ALL children, everywhere, have access to an equitable education.
Let me start by asking you a few questions:
Have you ever speed-read an email, text message, article, or book, and timed yourself to see how fast you read? Or better yet, read the same text five more times to see if you could beat your initial time?
Have you ever been restricted to reading a book or article, or listening to a podcast, selecting from a list only at your “just right” reading “level?”
Have you ever been asked to write nonstop for 30 minutes (“just keep writing!”) about… a personal narrative that you make up in your head and visualize in that moment?
I’m guessing the answer is no to all of these questions.
Fellow grown-ups, before this school year, I fully admit that I smiled and waved and sent my child to school on a big yellow bus full of promise. We celebrated the first day of school, the 100th day of school, and diligently completed projects and homework. As a literacy nerd, I knew the curricula were not high quality instructional materials, as noted by EdReports (if this sounds like gibberish, I encourage you to take a field trip to www.edreports.org and see for yourself). Although I acknowledged these facts, the inequities weren’t literally slapping me in the face … until now. Our virtual reality makes me wince as I see and hear the disjointed, nonsensical tasks that my child is asked to complete, making her sadly, ‘hate’ school. As the dysfunctional education system virtually pours into my home each day, I can no longer pretend that there is promise.
As grown-ups, we are called to action. I feel compelled to write to you, so you can join me in my quest for justice. It is our moral duty and ethical obligation to supply access to high quality instructional materials to our children. All children.
I bet you’re wondering what I mean when I say ‘dysfunctional education system.’ Let me give you an example: a day in the life of a third grader, my third grader, who does not have access to high quality instructional materials.
A snapshot of the day looks like this:
The day begins with a journal entry (likely about ice cream, who she admires, or a favorite part of September) reads a story from a basal reader (basal readers are not books) and answers a few basic skill-driven comprehension questions (sequence the events, identify the main character’s traits), writes a creative writing story about a topic assigned to her (an animal’s first day of school, family traditions - “don’t forget to use LOTS of details and transition words!”), partakes in a phonics lesson that may or may not be accurate (thanks to “research-based” Open Court and the widespread misguided novelty of Teachers Pay Teachers), reads a phonics story to practice fluency and the skills she’s learned (Pat sat on Nat’s rat who is fat), and answers comprehension questions about it… all before she even gets to math or social studies (where on Tuesday she ‘became an expert’ on the world’s oceans in less than 20 minutes by watching Pebble Go and BrainPop and taking notes - ie copying, then sharing with classmates).
And, I am not alone with my isolated, incoherent, skills-driven, lack-of-actual-books example above.
Read this Twitter post from a frustrated dad in TN.
A mom friend from PA texted me to share that her son has fluency homework where he has to read a story to teach an isolated phonics skill (much like Presley’s ‘Pat sat on Nat’s rat who is fat’ phonics story) and then answer comprehension questions about it.
A friend from college called me, confused because her child is reading a ‘just right’ book chosen for him at his reading level. “What does that even MEAN?” she asked.
These are just a few examples of the many inequities that resonate throughout the educational system, rattling it to its core. And yet, we send our most precious little ones back, day after day, to be drained of their curiosity and love for learning. A skills-driven curriculum - as terrible as it is for my daughter - has an increasingly devastating impact on other children, who may not have access to complex texts at home. These inequities showcase educational redlining, briefly outlined by Sonja Santelises here.
Sonja isn’t the only one spotlighting the inequities in the materials we use in schools. Natalie Wexler discusses the idea of isolated, skill-driven instruction for comprehension (NOT decoding… I’ll save that for another letter!), in many articles, including this one. Her book, The Knowledge Gap (a must-read for educators and parents alike) helps us to understand the inequities of the education system, and how and why knowledge can be the driver to change the trajectory. She uses the baseball study to develop a basic understanding of the concept of comprehensive, knowledge-driven instruction vs. isolated, skills-driven instruction. Unfortunately, Presley’s schooling is just one example of incoherent, skills-driven instruction.
By stark contrast, a student with high quality instructional materials would be reading, writing, speaking, and listening about a topic through a series of engaging, grade-level texts that delve deeply into that topic and build knowledge (texts include literary and informational books, articles, videos, art, and more).
For example, in Wit & Wisdom ELA, developed by Great Minds, grade 4 students explore the essential question: What does it mean to have a great heart, literally and figuratively? Students read grade level texts to build an understanding of what this means… check out what this looks like in Baltimore, MD.
In Sumner County, TN, third grade students explore the sea, asking the essential question: Why do people explore the sea? Like their peers in Baltimore, the students partake in reading, writing, speaking, and listening tasks about one topic using grade level texts as the driver for knowledge-building.
So… Why do school districts choose to use materials that are unsupportive of a cohesive student experience from class to class, grade to grade, year to year? And, even worse, ignore the long-standing research on the importance of knowledge-building, such as this, that highlights the importance of bootstrapping language and knowledge?
My child’s school district, touted the 25th largest in the nation on its homepage, lacks high quality instructional materials. Why? I don’t have the answer. But, I do know that it’s likely that your district doesn’t use high quality materials, either.