Thursday, September 28, 2006

Language arts content at JIS -- why it matters

Why does the content taught in the middle school language arts curriculum matter? After all, the program is rich in skills, and there is reading happening, even if it's not in the form of a book.

In my view -- which is that of a high-school English teacher who knows too well what lies ahead for our middle school students going into 9th grade and beyond -- reading great, age-appropriate literature matters because:
  • if done in conjunction with instruction on close reading and analysis, it helps students prepare for reading more difficult texts latter in their education;
  • it provides students with the background knowledge and vocabulary they'll need later to handle more advanced texts. In other words, reading builds knowledge that makes it possible to add more complex knowledge;
  • it gives students something meaty to chew on in their writing and thinking, and actually makes them better writers, themselves (click here to see why); and
  • it gives students membership in "the club" of shared understanding with other scholars who have also read great books.
But don't believe me. Read about it yourself from the mouths of education experts:

Here's noted educator E.D. Hirsch, Jr., in his excellent article for the American Educator's Spring 2006 issue:
"...knowledge of content and of the vocabulary acquired through learning about content are fundamental to successful reading comprehension; without broad knowledge, children’s reading comprehension will not improve and their scores on reading comprehension tests will not budge upwards either."
And here's Diane Ravitch, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education and current professor of education at New York University, speaking about "Why Content Matters," in a presentation to the Reading Reform Foundation:
"Why does content matter? Content matters because skills are not enough. Skills are necessary but they are only the beginning of learning. Without skills, one cannot acquire knowledge. Knowledge builds on knowledge."
Check out Mortimer Adler, Ph.D., noted philosophy and educational theorist, as he responds to a student's question, "Why should we read great books?":
"People who question or even scorn the study of the past and its works usually assume that the past is entirely different from the present, and that hence we can learn nothing worthwhile from the past. But it is not true that the past is entirely different from the present. We can learn much of value from its similarity and its difference."
Want something more esoteric? Then consider Harold Bloom, the ultimate advocate of reading great literature:
"If you are to really encounter a human otherness which finds an answering chorus in yourself, which can become an answering chorus to your own sense of inward isolation, there truly is no authentic place to turn except to a book."

"Information is endlessly available to us; where shall wisdom be found?"
In books....

UPDATE: Need more reasons to encourage JIS to pump-up the reading program? Have a look at this article from the New York Times, which is a powerful testament to the power of reading great literature.


At 12:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must be missing something. Is the school consciously asking parents to accept sub standard levels of exposure by our children to literature, bredth of world view, vocabulary and development of critical thinking? Sounds like a good time to dust off that old proposal for home schooling!

At 6:40 AM, Blogger Cheryl van Tilburg said...

Dear Anonymous,

Thanks so much for your comment! I don't think schools consciously end up with holes in their curricula -- it seems to happen either by oversight, or because the school is trying to cover too much material.

For example, look back at August 30's posting on the Fordham Foundation's evaluation of state standards in the US. It found many standards, which, remember, are the "drivers" of the curriculum, to be "a mile wide and an inch deep." In other words, many states aski their schools to teach a bucket-load of things -- but school's don't have time to teach any of it well.

But as you imply, at the end of the day, the reasons for the holes don't matter to parents. The more important question is what to do to fill in the gaps in our kids' education.

Obviously, working with the school to beef up the curriculum is an important step for future students -- but that probably won't help our kids now.

We can encourage individual teachers to enrich the curriculum they teach by adding books into the mix now. And we'll have to find ways on our own to get the kids reading great literature. I propose book clubs outside of school hours, and I'm working on ways to get that started. Any other ideas? I'm open to suggestions!

Thanks again for your comment.

At 1:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Schools can only do soo much of course, but it seems to me that with a little push and modeling at home we can get mileage in the classroom. If a parent reads a book and discusses it at dinner or participates in a semester long project with a book agreed with a teacher, a lot of added value can be brought in. Its a tough challenge with wide screen TVs showing the latest DVDs as competition....

At 7:09 AM, Blogger Cheryl van Tilburg said...

Dear Anonymous @ 1:57,

Like you, I'm all for parents supporting their kids as readers at home. Your ideas are all excellent, and research shows that parents who model reading help their children become better readers, themselves.

And enriching the school's curriculum with reading at home is always a great idea (although you're right that it's a hard row to hoe when your competing with such tantilizing options).

But I continue to hope that the school will set the tone with a strong reading program that includes great literature throughout all grades.

Thanks so much for your comment!


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