I have been an English/Language Arts teacher for nearly 20 years, and most of what is going on today in education flies in the face of everything I believe about literacy education. Here are the beliefs that are currently taking control of literacy in public education:
The only things that matter in education are things that are easy to measure.
The reasons we read and write are primarily economic: to get into college so we can get a better job and compete in the new global economy.
Reading and writing are primarily about jumping through someone else's hoops.
Dissecting and analyzing the works of great writers is better than simply enjoying them, and better than actually emulating great writers and trying to be one yourself.
Conformity and standardization are more important than individualism and creativity.
For the sake of consistency, anything you do in your classroom should be common with the classrooms around you.
Only the product (summative assessment) counts; not the process (formative).
If it isn't "scientifically" research based, it isn't valid.
Reading consists of applying ready-made strategies to answer someone else's ready-made multiple choice questions about a text you didn't choose and would probably never read on your own.
Writing consists of putting ideas on paper as instructed about an topic you care nothing about to meet the demands of a ready-made rubric so someone you've never met can give you quantifiable score.
Teaching is the dispensing of ready-made materials to the metronome of a pacing guide, in the hopes of raising scores on writing prompts and/or multiple choice tests.
Teachers' personal passions, tastes, favorite stories, ideas, creativity, and insight should be left out of the classroom in favor or research-based programs and strategies.
Teachers should just be quiet and do as they are told. They don't need to think about what they are doing.
In contrast to those ideas, all of which are currently in vogue, here are a few alternative ideas. They are not just my ideas-- I have been given these ideas and had them shaped by individuals too numerous to count, but they form my manifesto:
The only things that really matter in literacy education are things that are difficult or impossible to measure, things like:
Meaning: the creation of purpose and urgency about what really matters in a student's life;
Engagement: the development of students' own tastes in reading and voices in writing;
Experiences: the experimental, tactile, interpersonal, memorable, often unstructured events that happen in class that are remembered long after "test" knowledge has left the brain;
Insight: the freedom for students and teachers to have exciting, new, and useful things to say about old topics, and the ability to see new topics in the world around them that others have never really thought to notice.
We read and write not just to succeed on the job and compete, but to explore the very idea of success, and to question our society's idea of it. We read to be affected by what we read-- inspired to agree with some authors, angered enough to disagree with others-- but always shaping our visions of ourselves, of other people, and of the world around us in light of each new book we read. We read and write because literacy can make us more thoughtful as friends, as sons and daughters, as parents, as citizens, and as human beings.
Reading and writing are not primarily about jumping through someone else's hoops, but about discovering our own purposes for reading and writing, knowing how to set our own standards for what we want to get out of the things you read, and what to demand of yourself when you write.
Great writers wrote to be enjoyed and appreciated, not to have their works vivisected, still kicking and screaming, under pads of sticky notes and highlighter ink. Great writers would rather see young writers searching for their own greatness than analyzing someone else's.
Individuality and creativity should nearly always take precedence over conformity and standardization. The very literature we ask our students to dissect (everything from A Wrinkle in Time and The Giver to Fahrenheit 451 and To Kill a Mockingbird) is about the value and virtue of the individual improving society by standing up for himself or herself and the less fortunate. (By all indications, creativity is the wave of the future in business, too, not standardization.)
As for the word "common," (as in common assessments, common curriculum, and common classrooms)-- common can mean not only "shared," but "trite," "mediocre," and "vulgar" as well.
Reading and writing, like life, are about the process as well as the product. A good product is a good thing to keep in mind, but in seeking standardized skills sets, we are looking for the wrong product. We need real products, but the product is not all we need: often it is the process that we learn from, that becomes part of who we are, that we take forward with us into our lives.
Just because something has the word "research" attached to it, doesn't mean the research was of good quality or had anything particularly insightful to say. Any educational program that purports to show improvement through students getting better at that program should be highly suspect. We can tell standardized testing is a good thing because standardized test scores are up? The insight and intuition of the individual may often trump research, and often works better on the fly.
Reading is not just the act of applying strategies to a text you don't care about and then answering questions. Reading is about choosing your own reading materials based on your passions and interests. Reading is, in fact, about having passions and interests. Reading is about making sense of what you read, having your own reactions to it, and making your own connections to life, to your life, to other things you have read or watched. It is about letting what you read move you in some way-- to feel, to think, to act. Even when it is practical reading for some job or chore, you read to take real action, not to just answer questions.
To paraphrase John Dewey, writing is about having something to say, not about "having to say something." It is about the need to say something because you care deeply about the world or about something that is in it. Writing is about wanting to be heard by real people, not just read and rated by an overworked, anonymous scorer. Writing is about wanting to amuse, inform, entertain, or persuade other people about something that matters to you. It is about finding new things to write about that may surprise others and yourself. It is about discovering who you are and what you believe. It is about seeing how your writing can affect other people and the world around you-- in ways that can never be quantified.
Teaching is not checking off items on a list of assessments by the correct dates. Teaching should be an adventure. Each year should be a chance to get to know your students, their needs and enthusiasms and frustrations, to try to find a way to reach them. It's okay to have a goal in mind, but the goal should be about the students, not about the data. I think to myself, "What do I want them to be able to do?" Teaching is about having traditions-- stories you know will work and that you teach year after year-- but it is also being willing to turn your year into a blank slate and start from scratch if that is what your students need. It is about dreaming up the right assignments and exercises for your students. It is about finding just the right essays for your students to read, and teaching your students to find just the right topics to assign themselves. It is about teaching students to find just the right essays and books to read for their own reasons. Teaching should never be completely the same old thing.
The best teachers teach out of who they are-- out of their individual passions, tastes, and insights, and with their own creativity intact. You cannot give away creativity, insight, and passion for your subject if you are not allowed to have them for yourself and bring them into your class. The best teachers teach out of who they are and in doing so help students find out who they are, what they care about, and what they have to say.
When we have a society full of teachers afraid to speak up, who view obedience as their chief duty, we may someday have a generation of citizens who are afraid to speak up. If reading, writing, and speaking are some of our nation's greatest freedoms, how is it then that we expect the very teachers who are the torch bearers of those freedoms to not be free to write and speak about the things they see destroying their profession, disengaging students, and turning literacy into a packaged product by testing companies and publishers?
Reading and writing need to be restored to their true power, not confined to #2 graphite bubbles and the cramped boxes of rubrics.
Our children need to know that reading and writing are what make us who we are as humans and as individuals, that the pen is mightier than the sword, and that literacy is about having the power to change your life, or to change the world.