Sunday, August 30, 2009

what's in a book?

Today my friend Dan and I had a bit of a debate about education. It all started with this New York Times article that seems to have every one's pencils in knots. The article is about the reading workshop and the idea of children choosing their own books to read and independently study. Contrary to how The Times portrays things, this is hardly a new idea. Reading workshops have been around in some form or another since the 70's. Why then is it at the forefront of the education debate now? Standardization seems to be on the tongue. How do we figure out what works in education, implement it, and yet still have room for the fundamental reality that we are dealing with individuals here? My friend Dan works at a consulting firm in Washington DC and has his ear constantly to the political ground. Whenever there is something I don't understand in the news, Dan is my go-to.

I read the article and told Dan I agree with the general sentiment. I am wary of standardization, I think all too frequently we run the risk of education becoming just simply a requirement, something to get through with the least amount of pain. I know I don't have to get into how incredibly dangerous that kind of thinking is. But, I also see the other side. It worries me that children might make it through high school never having read The Catcher in The Rye or Wuthering Heights. I believe giving children the power of their own education is a remarkable thing but I also want to discern exactly what that means. In education there must be a balance between stability and innovation.

But how then do we set the standard? The trend towards standardization seems to be based solely on long-term goals. Testing ability which translates into better SAT scores which translates into a better college application which translates into a better college which translates into a better you see where I'm going with this? That is the primary problem I have with standardization: it is not focused on education but rather on the outcomes of education.

Don't get me wrong, the outcomes are important. I want children to go to good schools, I want them to have the best life can possibly offer them, but not at the expense of understanding what education is really all about. If we teach solely from a standardized perspective we ignore the real reality that education is about individuals. It is about a teacher and the students in a classroom. It is about small moments and triumphs. It is about improvising.

Dan, however, had a very good point: how are we supposed to know what works without some level of standardization? I completely agree. Perhaps there does need to be a model but it doesn't mean that it will never fail us. More important than to stay true to a curriculum is to stay true to the benefits of that curriculum, to ask "what is my goal in this lesson here? And how best might I get there with THIS particular group of students." Of course there are goals in education, to deny that would be foolish. For instance, I want the children who enter my program to leave with their own stories. There are many steps we have to take to assure that happens and I am always keeping in mind what our end goal is. But, the journey doesn't look the same every time, far from it.

No matter what consensus we come up with education will always require that it be tweaked. To deny that is to deny the truth that classrooms are made up of individuals and not every child is going to have the same needs. I think the point of The Times article is not to raise the question of whether or not children should have the power to choose their own curriculum but to simply state that when it comes to education, every child is different and perhaps celebrating those differences leads us to the goal we are really after: a sustained love of learning.


  1. Hi Rebecca, thoughtful post! I think what may be missing from Dan's argument is the place of the teacher. She's as much an individual as each of the young people she teaches. I think it is important for teachers to figure out what speaks to them, speaks to the community (e.g. the school's curriculum), and balance that with what speaks to their students. And so there is the place where children make reading choices (and it is interesting to see that Nancie does limit what they may choose), the place for the broader curriculum (say particular sorts of skill lessons, possibly a book taught be everyone at a particular grade level), and the teacher. I think it is so important for each teacher to figure herself/himself as far as that goes. One of my colleagues does a lot with poetry, they have a weekly poetry workshop and she begins every morning by posting a poem up for them to enjoy during their morning. I, on the other hand, do poetry more erratically; my weekly special activity is a Literary Salon.

    Kids need models of passionate readers in their teachers while at the same time do not need to have their teachers' taste overwhelm theirs.

    Tricky business all of it.

  2. Hi Monica!

    Thanks so much for stopping by and for pointing out that oversight. Surely by individuals I meant to include teachers but it is essential that educators come first, absolutely. We all know the old airplane rule...put on your own life mask before you help others.

    I'm thinking about doing a post on poetry sometime in the near future, actually.

    Thanks again,