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October 1, 2006
Vol. 64
No. 2

Perspectives / Making Sense

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      A few years ago editors at the Princeton Review spoofed the new SAT writing test by grading passages from Hemingway, Shakespeare, Gertrude Stein, and the Unabomber as if they had been written in response to SAT-like prompts. Ted Kaczynski's rant on the dangers of “oversocialization” earned 6 points out of 6 for his impressive vocabulary and his use of examples to illustrate Emerson's aphorism, “Whoso would be a man would be a nonconformist.” Poor Will Shakespeare, assigned to respond to an Art Linkletter quote about the stages of life, received a 2 for his “All the world's a stage” passage. He lost points for poor organization and errors in syntax and, especially, for writing only one paragraph on the topic. The reviewers did give him a point for vivid images (Katzman et al., 2004).
      Rating writing samples purely on mechanics and format without regard to their meaningfulness is an example of what Jane L. David and Larry Cuban might call “tunnel vision.” InCutting Through the Hype (worth sharing with parents, by the way), they put in context 20 reforms—including some literacy practices—that have polarized policymakers, practitioners, and parents. David and Cuban explain that “our world of sound bites pumped up by political spin” seeks extremes. Fortunately, they note, “‘wars’ are fought largely with words...not in actual classroom practices. More often than not, teachers reject extremist positions and find the best solution to be a balance between polar opposites.”
      This month's Educational Leadershipseeks such balance as it tackles topics that have been through the wars: reading, writing, and thinking. Authors in this issue agree that the three literacy skills belong together in all classroom instruction, and several criticize the practices that result when test makers and educators emphasize one at the expense of the others. Here are some of the attitudes they dislike:
      “I teach science, not reading.” Colleagues from the Institute for Learning at the University of Pittsburgh (p. 8) argue that content knowledge and literacy development must go hand in hand. They show how science, social studies, and math teachers can indeed integrate “task, text, and talk” as part of teaching disciplinary literacy. Teaching discipline-appropriate habits of thinking results in more rigorous, meaningful instruction than does requiring each subject teacher to teach generic reading/writing strategies.
      “Put phonics first, all the time.” After observing a preK class that was dedicated to teaching the letterN to the point of mindlessness, Susan B. Neuman (p. 28) feels compelled to note: “Not once did I see an effort to engage children's minds through stimulating content.” This pattern of literacy learning has become all too typical throughout the United States, she tells us, and is especially disadvantageous to learners who come to school without much literacy background. Her prescription is not to throw out phonics but to restore the balance of skills with content-rich learning.
      “Higher-level thinking is beyond struggling readers.” Many schools fail to acknowledge that students with poor reading/writing skills have any sophisticated world knowledge, Gay Ivey and Douglas Fisher relate (p. 16). Neither easy-read primers nor too-difficult books help strugglers whose thinking skills are superior to their literacy level. The authors recommend offering accessible texts with sophisticated content and doing extensive modeling and reading aloud—approaches that neither underestimate nor overestimate students' capabilities.
      English learners are another group that often gets shortchanged, Yu Ren Dong notes (p. 22). Her example of a student who believes “you don't have to make any sense; just make a sentence” brings home the point that instructional balance between language acquisition and critical thinking is missing in some classrooms. She describes an approach that encourages students to pose their own questions in their new language.
      “Kids need to express themselves.” But self-expression can go too far, as Will Fitzhugh writes (p. 42). Many standardized writing tests allow students to make up statistics, experts, and quotes as long as “they make their point.” And too many writing teachers focus assignments almost exclusively on personal writing. TheConcord Review, a magazine that Fitzhugh founded, awards prizes to students who bypass the personal-experience story in favor of excellent essays that incorporate real facts, dates, and quotes from experts. Warning to students: Essays have to be more than five paragraphs long, and don't be self-indulgent unless you write like Proust.
      If you'd like to write about a teaching practice that makes sense to you or want to weigh in on an article in Educational Leadership, please do join us on the ASCD blog (www.ASCD.orglog). Share what you read, write, and think.

      David, J. L., & Cuban, L. (2006). Cutting through the hype: A taxpayer's guide to school reforms. Washington, DC: Education Week Press.

      Katzman, J., Lutz, A., & Olson, E. (2004). Would Shakespeare get into Swarthmore? Atlantic Monthly, 293(2), 97.

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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