The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Non-fiction Is Broader than the State Standards

Today’s post examines the world of non-fiction writing and finds it broader and deeper than the creators of the CCSS.  I’d like to know what readers think.

One of the things that the Common Core Standards propose for student reading is an increase in non-fiction texts throughout the grades. Although I approve of the focus on non-fiction, which has long been ignored in many school curricula, I think it is a mistake to specify certain percentages at different grade levels and focus on a narrow range of appropriate texts for middle and high school students. At those levels everything recommended by the Standards is either a historical document, a piece written by a famous person, or information about a past scientific discovery or a natural event. At the elementary level all the books recommended are also informational but are more varied in their topics and writing styles. Still, they do not include much about the real life experiences young children may have, such as bullying or living in poverty. In my opinion the range of nonfiction at all levels should be much broader than recommended.

In the real world a reader can find a large range of non-fiction documents, some of it giving us valuable information not otherwise available; some intended to persuade us, and some just meant to be entertaining. But since all these types are common reading for educated adults, I see no reason why they should not be offered to young people too. Most important, in my view are newspaper and magazines informational articles and opinion pieces. This type of non-fiction writing opens student’s minds to the places, people and events beyond their experience, and to opinions very different from their own. It also offers content not available in school textbooks: sports news, political cartoons, comics, word puzzles, and descriptions of what life is like in other parts of the world.

Another very important form of non-fiction is instructional material that ranges from food recipes to driving directions and how-to manuals that accompany new pieces of machinery. All of these demand careful reading, and the last one mentioned is often poorly written. Since none of us is free to dismiss any of them as irrelevant, why shouldn’t students learn how to read them early on?

Still another type of significant non-fiction is warnings that vary from street signs to the supplemental messages that come with prescription drugs. Although warnings vary from easy to understand to ambiguous, we all need to become familiar with the range within this genre. It is not too early for young children to be informed about such signs in public places and warning on containers around the house.

I think it is also appropriate to include business letters in the non-fiction category. By middle school it is time for students to think about receiving them and, maybe, writing them. Sometimes these letters are a form of advertising, but other times they tell of opportunities  students may be ready to explore. In that case teenagers may  wish to respond to such letters or to initiate their own. They need a classroom  introduction to the correct formats to use and the necessary information to provide in a business letter so that they can write appropriately when the time comes.

Finally, let me include advertisements in the non-fiction category even though many of them are at least partly fictitious. From the time that children begin to read they are confronted daily by messages advertising alluring products. Although they may not be ready to doubt such assertions as “You will love this toy,”they should learn early that all advertisements exaggerate in some way. That’s what they must do to capture your attention. Besides, it is always fun for kids to write advertisements for the school store or an up-coming school event.

Readers familiar with my work know that I have been a strong critic of the Common Core Standards ever since their inception. But since they are not going away any time soon, I think it is necessary for school administrators and teachers to tighten and stretch their mandates whenever necessary. The needs and capabilities of our students should always come before the edicts of the decision makers who think and live outside the world of young people’s learning and living.







1 Comment »

Solving the Problem of Over-Crowded Classrooms

As I promised, today’s post is about dealing with the problems of class size that pervade many elementary schools, especially small ones. The story I tell is about the two schools where I was principal. Both had problems with uneven class sizes, but we solved them and some other important problems by making one big change.

Most of the time an elementary or middle school built to house 300 or more students can deal with having different numbers of students at each grade level. When a large number of students are enrolled in a particular grade, the school just divides them into manageable groups and places them in two or three separate classrooms. However, in a school designed for 200 or fewer students, dealing with a grade level group that is unexpectedly large is a major problem. In a small school there is only one classroom and one teacher for each grade, and there is no extra room or enough money to add more. What is ordinarily done in such a situation is to cram too many students into one classroom with a single teacher. And as long as the number of students in that particular group stays the same or grows larger, overcrowding will continue for them throughout the grades.

In both the small elementary schools where I was principal, there were uneven size classes when I came. In really large classrooms neither the students nor their teachers were getting a fair shake; but we just lived with it. The best I could do was to assign a full time aide to such classrooms. However, after a few years at my first school, my staff and I figured out a solution that promised us not only more reasonable class sizes, but also better situations for all students and teachers. We created mixed-grade classrooms at every grade but kindergarten, which was only a half-day program back then.

With such a structure we were not only able to control class sizes but also to place students where they could function best and to give each teacher a partner with whom to plan and work out problems. To assist teachers I made sure that those who taught the same grades had the same planning periods five days a week.

You may think that such a situation meant that a teacher had to teach two grades separately every day, but that was not the case. Teachers created flexible ability groups for reading and math and taught other subjects to their classes as a whole. Contrary to what you might expect, we found that there was a lot of student compatibility within a two-grade range. Most students, if asked, could not tell you which grade a fellow student was officially in.

But there were also other benefits. If there were kids in the same grade that did not get along with each other, we could place them in separate classrooms. We could also avoid holding back students who had not progressed well the previous year by grouping them appropriately in their new classroom and providing extra help. Sometimes it was better to have a child with the same teacher as last year, and at other times better to give that child a new teacher. We had a choice.

At my second school, which was even smaller than the first, I introduced the same idea to teachers early on and they bought into it. They even took on the role of explaining the new plan to parents. We adopted it, and it worked very well for the 12 years I was there. One year, by a stroke of good luck we got enough funding to hire an extra teacher and to create two K-1 classes. The benefits for kindergarteners were amazing. Usually, we had a number of young children who came to school without much in the way of social skills or an understanding of how to behave in a school environment. But when they were mixed with first graders who knew the ropes, they quickly learned what they were expected to do when in school.

First graders also benefitted from the structuring. In the afternoons when the kindergarteners had gone home for the day, classess were small enough for each student to get a lot of teacher attention in reading, writing, and math. They all made good progress.

My experience with mixed grade classrooms ended with my retirement in 2000. Although I am well aware that schooling has changed significantly since then, putting a major emphasis on testing and year by year student progress, I am still a firm believer that the basic premise of teaching is to accept each student where he is and move him or her as far as they can go. My hope, and that of many teachers I know, is that the “experts” and policymakers will soon learn that important lesson.

Leave a comment »

Class Size Matters

I wrote today’s post a couple of years ago for Valerie Strauss’ column in the Washington Post. What I did not include in that essay was how we solved the problem of uneven classroom sizes in the schools where I was principal. At all grades we changed our structure from single-grade classrooms to mixed-grade classrooms. Not only did that change work out very well for keeping class sizes reasonable, it also provided other importat benefits for students and teachers. In my next post I will write about what we did and how it worked to improve school life for everyone.

At a time when tight state budgets are pushing schools to increase classroom sizes at all levels, some of the most powerful voices in educational policymaking are telling us that size doesn’t matter. Unless, maybe, large classes improve student learning. According to statements by former Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Bill Gates, for example, great teachers do just fine with oversize classes. So why not give as many students as possible a seat in their classrooms?

Most of the research done in the last 30 years argues against that notion, showing that small classes, especially in the primary grades, boost student achievement and that the benefits last through later grades.

It’s clear, however, that large class advocates don’t care much for research. Their opinions are based on false analogies to their experience in fields other than education, unreliable data, and personal anecdotes.

To make matters worse school districts themselves are putting out misleading data. In their reports, often widely publicized, it looks like ordinary classrooms have only 19, or even 15 students, when in fact there are 30 or more live kids in many of them. The disparity between reports and reality arises from using averages that include special education teachers, counselors, and literacy coaches who work with small numbers of students or even one student at a time. But that fact is rarely made clear to the public.

Personal anecdotes also add to the misunderstanding of the effects of class size on students.  Many of us judge today’s education through comparisons to our own experience.  It’s not unusual for a successful middle-ager to say,“There were 40 kids in my 8th grade class, and we all turned out fine.”

But is that true? There were also 40 kids in my 8th grade class in the beginning. But in the middle of the year two 17-year-old boys left to join the U.S. Navy. (Both had been held back two or three times during the elementary grades.) About five more of my classmates hung in there till the end of that school year, but never showed up in high school with the rest of us.

Class size mattered then, and it matters now. For teachers, just managing the physical maneuvers within a large class is challenging. How do you make sure that all kindergarteners’ shoes are tied and their coats buttoned up before they go outside to a wintry playground? How do you read and comment on the written work of all students every week?  How do you apportion the 25 workstations in a high school chemistry lab among 35 students?

Only after the physical problems are taken care of can teachers begin to deal with the challenges of facilitating school learning. In the real world, children and adolescents encounter new information and skills all the time, but they have the freedom to reject, postpone, or learn things at their own pace. Schools allow no such choices: Here it is; learn it now; prove you know it tomorrow. And it is the teacher’s responsibility to make all that happen for every one of them.

Good teachers accept their role and carry it out by moving around the classroom while students work, stopping frequently to check, give help, or just encourage them. They also design lessons to accommodate the range of student competence within their classes, hold small group review and re-teaching sessions, meet with individuals who still don’t “get it”, communicate with parents, and reflect on how each day’s lesson went in order to make things go more smoothly tomorrow.

Doing all these things means multi-tasking during class time and putting in several hours of planning and paperwork outside the school day. With experience and smart thinking, good teachers can manage all their responsibilities with classes up to 25. But past that number things get harder and harder. And there is a breaking point, maybe at 30 or 35, certainly at 40.

If we really want all the excellent teachers that policymakers, politicians, and pundits are calling for, we have to be willing to provide the school supports that are necessary. One of those supports is reasonable class sizes that allow teachers to do their job to the best of their ability, keep their sanity, and have a life.






Leave a comment »

%d bloggers like this: