June 21, 2016

Matters of Consequence

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If you were to say to the grown-ups: “I saw a beautiful house made of rosy brick, with a geranium in the windows and doves on the roof,” they would not be able to get any idea of that house at all. You would have to say to them: “I saw a house that cost $20,000.” Then they would exclaim: “Oh what a pretty house that is!” –The Little Prince

A man crashes his airplane in the Sahara. He wakes to find a little prince from another planet with him in the desert. The little prince anxiously explains that he has a rose bush that he loves and has left behind on his home planet. The prince is afraid that his sheep will eat his beloved rose bush in his absence and he grows increasingly distraught at the prospect of the bush’s demise. The pilot, involved in his efforts to repair his plane and concerned for his own survival, is annoyed by the prince. In ever more distress, the little prince asks the pilot a barrage of questions about the thorns on his rose and what purpose they serve, and the pilot, increasingly distracted, responds without thinking. Shocked by the response, the little prince asks the pilot if he really believes what he is saying. The pilot responds in frustration:
“Oh, no!” I cried. “No, no, no! I don’t believe anything. I answered you with the first thing that came into my head. Don’t you see—I am very busy with matters of consequence!”
Teachers wrestle with distributing instructional time among competing “matters of consequence.” Even under scrutiny and pressure to adhere to linear and categorical models of instruction, there remains a commitment among teachers to teach children to think. Think about words, ideas, stories, even about challenging concepts, such as justice or peace or the ways they plan to change the world.
The complication, of course, is that district, state, even federal instructional directives largely focus on discrete content rather than ways of thinking and knowing. “Others” have decided that particular instructional standards are the matters of consequence in classrooms. And the district, state, and federal others are interested in numbers: percentiles, rates, and scores.
Much like the quote from The Little Prince that opens this essay, teachers say to the others, “I have a student who loves to read. He has favorite authors and he carries books with him everywhere. He reads when no one asks him to. When I see him, he begs to read me his favorite passages. He laughs and cries at the places the author intended, and he is happiest when he is reading. Will you come meet him?”

But the others cannot get an idea of the boy at all. They do not understand. The teachers have to say to them, “There is a boy in my class who scored in the 98% percentile in reading on the standardized test.” Then the others would exclaim: “Oh, what a smart boy! We want to meet him! You are a wonderful teacher!”

While smart teachers fight to commit to instruction that is rich and deep, we cannot escape the details of measures and the public pressures of others. We are overwrought by rubrics. We are in a quandary over questions others have decided are essential. But we find points of instructional meaning, even when the directives we receive make little sense, rather than deciding not to believe in anything. We want to continue to read beautiful books, ask questions that don’t have one answer, and show children ways to think about tremendous and beautiful ideas. But we feel pressure teach as if we are preparing for some timed, physical fitness test on live television, and we sometimes find it hard to think of anything else. This might please the others, but it doesn’t do much for the the boys and girls, or teachers.

If we say to the most beleaguered teachers, “Read this book. It might change your life or the lives of your students,” then they are overwhelmed. But if we say to these teachers who have almost forgotten that they love children’s literature and open-ended conversation, “Teaching with this picture book will help your students meet standard ERA172BT376.47…m.” Then they respond with relief, “Ahhhhhhhhhh!” They do not believe that higher-order thinking is unimportant. But they are tired, and searching for a way to satisfy the others while also honoring themselves and the students for whom they work.
The little prince begins to sob as he imagines the violence the sheep might commit against his rose bush, and the pilot realizes his insensitivity and describes his thoughts:
The night had fallen. I had let my tools drop from my hands.
Of what moment now was my hammer, my bolt, or thirst, or death? On one star, one planet, my planet, the Earth, there was a little prince to be comforted. I took him in my arms, and rocked him.
Sometimes, when it seems the educational leaders and policy makers have gone amok, we are inclined to let the instructional standards drop from our hands and ask, “Of what moment now are standards or rubrics or standardized tests? We want students to develop literate identities and articulate their own important understandings. We have to teach them to feel, to think, to love, to question, to connect, and to create proficiently.” This is the truth.
But we see the other truth, too. We often understand the efforts of the others, working to help us teach intentionally, analyze the instructional standards, and look critically at how our teaching translates into learning. Most educators actually believe in standards. Who is not in favor of focusing instruction, aligning what we teach with what we test, or lifting expectations of students? Who doesn’t want ALL children to become proficient at reading and writing? And this, too, is truth.

So we have to figure out how to marry both worthwhile endeavors: teaching the instructional standards and teaching everything else. We have to make a hard case for read aloud, for dialogic discussions, for social justice, for teaching children to think, for talking before writing, and for showing children in lots of different ways that they are matters of consequence. We need to articulate both a rationale and practical ideas for teaching children the instructional standards while also doggedly defending creativity, independent thought, higher-order thinking, and every one’s right to change the world.

Note: This blog was originally published at www.janmillerburkins.com. and also appeared at http://engage.reading.org/READING/Blogsnbspnbsp/BlogViewer/?BlogKey=f4f9af7d-92db-477a-af8f-a60782d6f991


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