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By the Script

Ohanian Comment: Here's the lowdown on reading by the script in New York City. And we're not talking Open Court here. The script travels in the name of balanced literacy. I learned about the rigid rules while talking to teachers attending a conference at Queens College. Two of them started crying as they talked about what the script does to their teaching. Listening to their stories about "the rug rules" broke my heart. There's a certain time of the day when children must be sitting on the rug. Woe to the teacher who is a couple of minutes late getting them there.

Lesson, mini-lesson - scripted every step of the way.

Some of us are old enough to remember Elementary Science Study (the original, not the souped-up revision).

I was a remedial reading teacher when I stumbled across one little teacher's manual, which didn't tell you when to do anything; hell, it didn't even tell you what to do. That thin little booklet changed my life and my pedagogy. For starters, it meant remedial reading disappeared in our school. Abandoning grade levels and bells ending the period, I transformed my classroom into a place for student investigation. I provided a very broad array, and each kid chose what topic he wanted to investigate. So a sound experiments kid was working beside bones and across from color chemistry, ice cubes, bridges, and so on. The result was kids learned a lot about one thing--while rubbing up against information on lots of other topics. This gave them ideas of what to choose next. Initially, choice was the hardest part: Kids aren't used to getting to make choices in school. These days, neither are teachers.

I didn't dress up what we were doing with fancy terminology about scientific method or similar crap but used David Hawkins' term messing around in science. Can you imagine writing this in your plan book these days? Of course I'm not explaining how we integrated reading and writing. I'll just say the classroom lacked a rug, and the kids never had a problem focusing.

Parents were so intrigued by what they were hearing from kids, they asked me to bring stuff to PTA meetings so they could mess around too. And there they were, seeing who could build the clay boat to carry the heaviest load--or the strongest bridge.

When state ed inspectors came out to see what was going on in the classroom that produced such a jump in reading scores, they just looked bewildered.
But in those days, locals ran their own schools--even when the state was paying. And in those days, local control meant teachers as decision-makers, able to decide if and when they used a rug. A rug is such a paltry thing, but it can become a symbol of a whole lot when teachers aren't given respect or allowed to develop and flourish as decision-makers.

David Hawkins' classic The Informed Vision: Essays on Learning and Human Nature is back in print. It's pricey--and worth every penny. I commend to everyone his essay "The Bird in the Window." Buy a CD and I will send you a copy of this transforming essay.

By Sewell Chan

In many New York City public schools, children sit cross-legged on rugs. Desks must be arranged into clusters of students with varying abilities, not in rows. A "word wall" serves as a vocabulary reference. Lessons last five minutes.

"It's not up to you what to teach every day," says Christian A. Ledesma, 25, who has taught for three years at Public School 9 in the Bronx, in second and fourth grades. He joined Teach for America in 2002, a year before the introduction of the curriculum, and earned his master's degree in elementary education through evening classes at Pace University. There, he learned about backward design, which emphasizes teaching with the end result - knowledge of state reading or math standards - in mind.

But in his classroom, he was not designing anything; instead, he was following the balanced literacy script. In a 90-minute period, actual imparting of knowledge was restricted to a lesson as short as five minutes. Then pupils broke into small groups for independent guided work, and reconvened to share their efforts. School administrators made unannounced visits to ensure that teachers were using their rugs and abiding by the "flow of the day" schedule posted in each classroom.

To avoid being caught if they did not follow the schedules, some teachers began "actually training their kids to switch subjects on command," Mr. Ledesma says. "They can be doing a reading lesson, and if somebody walks through the door, all of a sudden they're doing the writing lesson."

Even so, he has not lost his idealism. "You still have to bring your personality to do the teaching, even if it's written right in front of you - lesson, mini-lesson - every step of the way."

Arthur T. Costigan, assistant professor of education at Queens College, has interviewed about 300 middle-school teachers since 2001. He links high turnover among new teachers to overly rigid curriculums. "Research shows that it takes about two years for someone to develop the basic confidence to begin feeling comfortable teaching," says Dr. Costigan, an author of "Learning to Teach in an Age of Accountability." "When new teachers are coming in and forced to teach these scripted lessons, there's no reason for them to develop."

The problem may be acute in alternative certification programs like Teach for America and the New York City Teaching Fellows, which fill vacancies in the city's poorer neighborhoods, where the curriculum is required. "The irony is they're supposed to be these urban pioneers - innovative, creative people," Dr. Costigan says. "Then they land in the schools and are forced to teach these highly scripted lessons, which they find frustrating."

Many new teachers say they like the curriculum but find it applied too strictly. "They took a progressive model and implemented it in a conservative fashion," says Nicholas J. Graham, a 32-year-old fifth-grade teacher at Intermediate School 528 in Manhattan. "I do see myself as someone who goes into this job every day to provide a unique, uplifting, alive experience for my students. That requires creative freedom." Mr. Graham has two master's degrees in education, from Harvard and from Pace (for state certification). He says his school has used three different reading and writing programs in the five years he has been teaching there, and he does not feel he was adequately trained for any of them.

Lucy Calkins, the prime architect of the curriculum, says a rug can be a useful tool to help students focus when the teacher is presenting information, but is by no means a requirement. She does say that direct instruction should be limited because she believes students learn to read and write best by reading and writing.

"Nobody's pushing rugs, and nobody says you have to have 5, 10 or 15 minutes of mini-lessons," says Dr. Calkins, a professor of English education at Teachers College at Columbia. "Sometimes the teachers are right - that the principals who are assessing and supervising them are themselves just learning and too rigid."

The city's deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, Carmen Fariņa, says the number of teacher complaints about overly scripted lessons has decreased as principals have been trained in the new curriculum. She says that the "flow of the day" is intended to make instruction more consistent but acknowledges that some schools have not been flexible enough. "There might have been some teachers, or even administrators, who looked at rules without really understanding them," she says. "When you don't know something, you tend to overregulate it."

Some young teachers seem to be figuring that out on their own.

"If the word wall is an extension of what is being done in the classroom, then it makes sense," says Jonathan Schleifer, 28, a graduate of Teachers College who works at I.S. 303 in the Bronx. "If not, then it's just wasting teachers' time. In many classrooms, the word walls have the same words at the end of the year that were there at the beginning."

— Sewell Chan
New York Times Education Life




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