I took quite a bit of time off from writing considering my last post was in May. I have changed schools and grade levels since that post. I now teach first grade and the move from third to first has been refreshing and challenging. I must say I am thoroughly enjoying teaching first grade. Now I will move on to the reason behind my writing today….curriculum. Warning…longer than normal post.
Recently, I read a book by Natalie Wexler “The Knowledge Gap..The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System – And How to Fix It.” I became interested in the book when Ms. Wexler appeared on Morning Joe on MSNBC. She stated many thoughts (many is an understatement) that I have held dear for a number of years and that is we must provide our students with a content rich curriculum. In this testing culture we have created that drives education we have removed providing content rich curricula. My humble opinion is that the teaching of social studies is the subject that has suffered tremendously. It has been replaced with more reading and math to hopefully reach a magical score. I would like go on record that science is suffering also, especially in the lower grades. I would like to take a few minutes to outline some points Wexler makes in her book concerning the route of education.
A key point Wexler makes is how education has been reduced to the teaching, reteaching, and reteaching of skills. Yes, skills are important and have their rightly place in the learning process, but teaching skills in isolation is not the answer. I witnessed this first hand while teaching third grade. I would teach the skill of identifying the main idea and supporting details repeatedly and when given a test my students would score poorly on questions relating to main idea and supporting details. I would reteach the skill with the same result. One day while reading the book The Salamander’s Room I asked a question relating to a salamander. My class sounded like crickets and it hit me like bricks….my students have no background knowledge on salamanders or amphibians. This led me to inquire about other subjects/areas. My findings were the same. My students lacked vocabulary and basic background knowledge. No wonder my students could not comprehend passages they were reading and apply the skills that were taught. According to Wexler, “The teaching of disconnected comprehension skills boosts neither, comprehension nor reading scores. It’s just empty calories.” I had been feeding my students empty calories due to a lack of background knowledge and vocabulary. This led me to completely revamp my teaching with a strong focus on vocabulary, social studies, science, and inquiry. Let me state, I did see a steady increase in my standardized test scores over the course of the next 3 years. One year I had the highest gains of any third grade class in the entire system.
Another issue Wexler tackles in her book is delivering a content rich curriculum. As Wexler points out “It is hard for teachers to single-handedly build knowledge in the absence of a content focused curriculum.” Students are like sponges and enjoy learning about new places, animals, events in the past, and the world around them in general. Students deserve a curriculum that is rich in knowledge and it must begin during the elementary years. It takes years to build knowledge and we can not wait until middle school or high school to expose students to the vital knowledge that will serve as their foundation for years to come.
I could expand further on Wexler’s book and encourage every educator to take the time to read “The Knowledge Gap”, but I would like to discuss what I have seen in my first grade classroom this year so far. As I stated earlier, I completely revamped my teaching a few years ago and continued my goal of providing a content rich curriculum to build background knowledge and expand my student’s vocabulary even in first grade. I have heard various comments over the course of this school year and the majority of the comments are positive, but the push to teach skills absent of a curriculum rich in content is still strong.
This year for me has been a growing and learning year right along with my students. I am amazed at the level of engagement from my students and their eagerness to share what they have learned. We learned the 7 continents by studying Ferdinand Magellan and the location of the continents. The meaning of indigenous through learning about Dia De Los Muertos and the Hispanic culture. Also, the myth behind the first Thanksgiving and the effect the settlers had on the Native American population. We celebrated International Day of Persons with Disabilities the first week of December. While we were studying the important contributions people with disabilities have had on society my students were quick to point out the information previously learned about Dr. Temple Grandin, which we had studied weeks earlier. They made a connection and activated background knowledge to expand their own learning and growing. Also, we completed a two week learning unit examining Jewish culture. As a class we became versed in the various countries that make up Europe specifically German and Lithuania. They learned the plight of the Jews during World War II along with the meaning of immigration and various reasons to immigrate to a new country. I specifically wanted to highlight this study because of the pictures I have included in this post. One drawing is from a student that according to a standardized test is performing far below grade level, but note his picture of a child leaving his homeland to make the journey to America without his parents. The students were asked to visualize as I read and then write and illustrate what they visualized. I have some students who at this time can not write and some who can write a complete paragraph. The point is no matter the child’s academic level every single child is learning and engaged. I have only scratched the surface of learning that has taken place in my classroom since August. I am amazed each week at how my students have grown and how they use new vocabulary words we have learned in their writing. (We have learned 75 new words so far.)
As I close, let me state we must be intentional in teaching. Our students are capable of learning in a content rich classroom regardless of academic and socioeconomic level. It is time we expand our student’s mind and introduce them to various cultures around the world. Teach them the accurate history of our country and empathy for others. Students should not be completing the same apple unit, life cycle of a pumpkin, or Christmas activities they have done since kindergarten. Please understand I am not pointing fingers. I am trying to convey the urgency of educating tomorrows adults. Lastly, we can not continue with the excuses….these kids can’t do that, this is the way we have always done it, this will not show up on the “test” and many more. Let us be deliberate, intentional, and set high standards for all learners.