We’ve used the phrase, “It’s what’s best for kids,” in education for as long as I’ve been in the field. It’s been the measure for all that we, as educators, do at work both in and out of the classroom. What should I focus on for today’s lesson? What’s best for kids? How should I phrase this? What’s best for kids? Should I move on or spend more time on this subject? What’s best for kids? Should I give them the answer or let them struggle with the question a bit longer? What’s best for kids? Should we use traditional grading or Standard’s based grading? Should standards drive the instruction at all, for that matter, or should we differentiate goals based on the strengths of each kid? If we assign a grade, will it stifle the student’s creativity? If we don’t assign a grade, what will that teach the student about responsibility and reward/consequence? Should we use this curriculum or that curriculum? Should we provide breakfast in the classroom? Allow students to snack? Allow or deny the presence of cell phones? Backwards plan? Pull small groups or teach whole-class? Teach whole-language or phonics? There are so many questions we ask as people who truly care about the outcomes of our labors with these children. And it all falls back to the phrase. “I do what’s best for kids.”
Our district is in the process of adopting new English curriculum for middle schools. At the forefront of my mind (of everyone’s minds) when taking on the responsibility of a selection that will have results that are widespread and years-long, that phrase HAS to be the primary consideration. After piloting one of the three curricula selected as options by the district and loving the results I saw in the kids in my classroom, I promoted it heavily at the district level. I had already tried one of the three other curricula and, while it was okay, I found it to be less of a curriculum and more of an instruction on how to teach- so, cool, but not what we were looking for. I had no interest in the other curriculum because it had teachers teaching whole units on bugs and ecosystems, which is fine if you’re a science teacher, but as an English teacher… well, there’s already so much to teach without taking on another content.
So, I chose the one I chose, and as previously mentioned, the kids flourished. I was ecstatic when the district powers-that-be agreed with me, and decided to adopt it. They also adopted the one that was okay, giving individual buildings in the district the opportunity to choose which one would be picked up locally. No worries there. We knew which we would choose in my building. Hands down.
Then came the day the decision was made to choose which units within the curriculum would be taught at each grade level. I was devastated when the selections hit my email inbox. Half of the year at each grade level would be spent teaching history with a focus on argument and informational writing all but one quarter of the year. At 6th grade, teachers would teach Ancient Civilizations, 7th would get to teach Asia, and 8th would get to learn about Westward Expansion. With classes only an hour long, and students who despise reading and writing already due to the large numbers who are so far behind in these skills, and knowing that these students have a history class all its own (we are not humanities), I had to fall back on that question: Is this what’s best for kids?
That is the question I had to ask when I requested to meet with one of those who selected the units for use in the classroom. I pointed at the list of drab and asked him, “How is this best for kids?” I was told that this is the question they explored most deeply as they chose. The test, he explained (speaking about the yearly state-wide and Nationally mandated standardized test) emphasized argument and informational writing. These units hit those requirements strong. Therefore, they are what would be best for kids. “Our kids need to do more than literary analysis and writing about books,” I was told. And I agreed. However, it became very clear as he spoke that the question in their minds was not really, “What is best for kids?” It was actually, “What is best for helping kids pass the test?”
And the two are NOT synonymous.
Over the past twenty years, the tide has turned in the world of education- toward product and “results”- toward students as numbers and data points. And the content of English has probably taken the largest hit aside from the Arts and Trade classes (wood shop, auto shop, metal working, home economics, etc.). As English teachers, we have seen our content stripped away from us and our kids in the attempt to support the learning in other contents. Namely, we have swapped reading literature for reading science and social studies articles, changed out poetry and plays for lab reports. I’m not saying that students shouldn’t be reading these things. I am saying that the majority of the responsibility for reading these things should fall on the teachers of those contents. My content has value for kids apart from those other things. And that value goes far beyond that which has been placed on it by some test (which has large sections of narrative and literary analysis, by the way).
Students as cogs in the factory of education may need to focus solely on informative texts and argument. Students as people have greater needs than those. Students as people need to learn how to empathize, sympathize, discover who they are and what they believe, decide what is good and right vs. what is destructive. They need to learn to talk with each other and explore those big meaning-of-life ideas that will turn them into the people who can take on their lives to come and do so with the confidence that only comes from thinking deeply about the world as it is and as it could be. Where do kids find an entry-point into these kinds of thought? Through fiction. Through narrative. Through literary non-fiction and poetry. These are the genres we’ve abandoned so that English teachers can double up on teaching the Spanish American War. These are schools of thought we have denied students by teaching to the test. And this is NOT what’s best for kids.
I don’t know how much longer I can stay in Education if it continues down this destructive path. My heart breaks for what these past few generations have lost. They are becoming more and more illiterate, and the powers-that-be are not allowing them the chance to meet books where they are and learn to love reading. They are stifling the creativity of the young mind that does not “think like a mathematician” or “think like a scientist.” And they are doing so in the name of competition for higher test scores, for bragging rights that our country is smarter. But guess what? The scores haven’t grown any. The results stay the same. They keep spinning their wheels and robbing kids of reading. They forget that the most important and effective method of making someone a stronger reader, is to simply have that someone read, and read a lot. I can tell you, 99% of the students I have ever taught in my 18 years are more likely to read if I hand them a novel than if I hand them an article on Westward Expansion.
I love teaching. I love kids. I love the content I’ve chosen to teach because through it I get to see kids flourish in thought. I get to see them discover themselves as people. That is the most exciting part of my job. I don’t ever want to lose sight of children as children. Of children as dreamers. Of children as readers, writers, and learners of that which makes humanity unique. Our school decided to adopt the curriculum that was “okay.” It’s not a true curriculum, but it allows kids to read texts that will matter to them, texts that are relevant to today and the issues they face all the time. It allows them to write in ways that they will be able to explore themselves and others. It provides opportunities for children to read and write narratives, poetry, literary non-fiction, as well as argument and informative texts. But it will also let them learn to love words and sentences and paragraphs, perhaps find a favorite story or character, and learn from the lives of those they read about how to be better people. This is what I believe is best for kids.