Thursday, October 6, 2011

Found in the salad... a Literacy Metaphor

Image source
Wendy's in Topsham [pronounced top - sum],  Maine.  His order was a Spicy Chicken Caesar Salad.   But after dressing and tossing, John perceived that his salad was something with apples - definitely not Caesar.  But the salad did contain a bread bag closure clip, bright yellow, covered with creamy Caesar dressing.  

John returned the meal to the counter, held the yellow clip up under the manager's nose, and stated: "I'm not going to sue - I didn't swallow it."

The manager didn't apologize or sympathize.  He just offered up a replacement salad. 

I dug into my own Spicy Chicken Caesar with some caution.  I mined.  I sorted, pushed, poked. Good thing, because I found a well-dressed strip of plastic that looked suspiciously like the wrapping material used for the silverware in the restaurant.  Yuck.  I put it aside and proceeded to eat - slowly.  The dog got the fries.

Interpretation:  What's the metaphorical link here to literacy education?  For those who use purchased or downloaded lessons and materials:
  • Even though expensive canned and processed lessons are presented as globally edible, even though they are digital and therefore identical, even though they are highly rated and recommended, they should be eaten with caution. Embedded or slipped inexpertly into a question set, vocabulary list, or reading passage may be material that is not what you want your students to swallow.  Mine and poke and prod all materials that you did not design.
  • If you, the teacher, don't like what you find, get a full and free substitution.
  • Sort through, push and poke what you find online - free and not.
  • Be prepared to throw out the inedible. Have your own Plan B.
Extended interpretation:
I go to Wendy's rarely and usually under the pressures of time or travel.  I make the same food, my way, at home, on a regular basis.  

I have always, as a teacher, been leery of packaged lessons and downloaded materials for the middle school classroom.  These range from pre-digital and post-digital anthologies, to vocabulary and grammar texts, to leveled readers and book collections, to entire grade level ELA curricula (with assessments).  Not using packaged materials, however, means that an ELA curriculum takes on the appearance of a tossed salad.

This what happened to a typical school's ELA program over the last 7 years:
  • print anthologies receded to storage, their contents maligned and ignored (many great stories, poems, plays, images and other texts disappeared from the curriculum, differentiation resulted from expansion of choice for students, but scope of reading was greatly reduced),
  • vocabulary instruction was tiered, PD'd, and distributed to all subjects (confusion as to who teaches roots, affixes, etc., disagreement about importance of context clues, focus on tier 3 rather than tier 2),
  • all-class reading was reduced or eliminated (depending on the need of the specific class) and replaced by a combination of Reading Workshop, Independent Reading and Literature Circles (fabulous new ideas for thematic circles - global literature - were supported with purchases, when groups and 1-1 conversations worked, students learned how to use text in discussion, but reluctant readers could stall out and advanced readers often were not pushed enough; poetry and drama disappeared unless the gap this created was noticed; online media gradually embedded in lessons; growth of visual and media literacy in curricula),
  • grammar and usage instruction disappeared as a discrete unit and was embedded in individual writing growth plans and discussion, supported by online exercises, quizzes, etc. as well as paper materials (standards of correctness and quality began to be applied across all subject areas, opportunities for flipped instruction arose), 
  • writing became Writing Workshop (creative writing began to disappear from most curricula, to be replaced by analysis and persuasion, confusion about which process to follow, increased writing in all subject areas),
  • SSR was scheduled, eliminated, partially scheduled, scheduled again... (time was made in the school day for "pleasure reading" of choice may prevent some readicide, but the research on the value of SSR for ALL is unclear),
  • Title I was reevaluated and the beginnings of a test-dependent RTI program put in place (targeted instruction in reading is wonderful if the teachers are highly trained to both teach and assess; in order for testing to be valuable, it must be done twice yearly at least and by the same trained person - a real time-consumer; student time for other remediation - math - was limited; students had a clear idea of "where they scored" on the tool used, with the hope that this would translate into better standardized reading scores due to better reading choices; for many, a wide range of interesting fiction became out of bounds - what a turn off!),
  • there was a trend toward "non-written" and graphic assessments of understanding (posters and presentations predominated,  developing design, digital, decision-making and communication skills (how this affected higher order thinking and team-work skills is unclear because these are not yet assessed; students who find social learning and complex organizational tasks difficult were at a disadvantage),
  • assessment migrated to rubrics within standards-based differentiated assignments (the grading and reporting system remained the same so grade inflation resulted, clouding communication of learning),
  • the library lost staff and funds, in deference to a Literacy Specialist and testing/tutoring aides, bi-yearly reading assessments, and a Book Room (money transferred rather than increased, resulting in a huge loss for a school).
I see this, metaphorically, as the salad with the yellow plastic clip.  In reaction to the need for new and novel and talked-up, there has been a mix-up.  Labels have gotten confused, apples have appeared in place of Caesar. What is on the plate is not a bad salad, but it is in part or whole the wrong salad.  And hidden in it is some inedible plastic.  And, as a fabulous teacher recently reminded me, sometimes a teacher also gets bad ingredients.  [that is a different discussion]

A bad thing is that school leadership is often like the Wendy's manager - willing to quickly substitute but not willing to investigate why there is plastic in the salad so that this does not happen again.   Seasonal-have-to's replace tried-and-true. Retraining of staff is necessary, but often not completed.  Where there once was the reliable comfort of a consistent offering,  there now is a salad du jour, a remix of old ingredients and new, trendy ones. The quality becomes unreliable.  The result is that many teachers, students and parents are no longer satisfied customers. Not to mention colleges, community colleges and prospective employers. 

Some of the list above is a result of substitution.  Some is a result of faddism.  Some is a result of mandate.  Some is (alas) a result of teacher acquiescence or laziness. Some is a result of the pragmatic pressures, especially time.

And too little is a result of reasoned study and a deep philosophy of learning and education.

The good thing is that with tossing and dressing, poking and scrutinizing, weaknesses and mistakes can be revealed and corrected before any great harm is done to students. Schools need to do this internal evaluation of ELA pedagogy and curriculum, cross-referenced to standards and (if necessary) to assessment data, as an on-going process. How many are doing so?  It is so much easier to be a trend-follower. 

True story: At about 55, my father swallowed a plastic bread clip - he didn't know it, of course. Much later, no one knows how much later, he almost died from massive peritonitis.  He lost 3' of intestine. He never fully recovered his digestive functions and lived with stress and pain for the rest of his life.

As budget funds shrink and the trendy pressure to engage rather than challenge students mounts, do we really want to further compromise our most important educational offering - literacy?

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