Sunday, August 28, 2005

Crayola curriculum redux

The reading wars between whole languagists and phonics advocates are given considerable attention. But there may be another big reason for poor reading results, especially among the disadvantaged: coloring and more coloring from now until Doomsday is crowding out reading and other instruction. This is the conclusion reached by Mike Schmoker after observing this phenomenon in classroom after classroom:

The ‘Crayola Curriculum’
By Mike Schmoker
Education Week

We may have the reading crisis all wrong. It may have far less to do with the "reading wars" than we presumed. I am convinced that the following explanation is, without doubt, the least recognized but most salient explanation for why there is a reading gap between rich and poor, for why so many kids reach upper-elementary and middle school with less than even minimal ability to read and make sense of text. The explanation is both simple and shocking. But the evidence for it is compelling. Best of all, this explanation holds out enormous hope for dramatic, near-term improvements at every level of education.

A couple of years ago, I found myself touring a school that had received an international award for excellence in staff development. Roaming from class to class—on what was clearly a "showcase day"—I went from being puzzled to astonished by what I saw.

Two things were terribly wrong: One, a majority of students were sitting in small, unsupervised groups, barely, if at all, engaged in what were supposedly learning activities. Many of the children were chatting. Second, but more important, was that the activities themselves seemed to bear no relation whatsoever to reading, the presumed subject being taught at the time. After seeing this pattern in several classes, I finally asked my host what kinds of gains had been made in this award-winning but high-poverty school. I was regretfully informed that there had been no gains, what with the hardships these children faced at home and in their neighborhoods.


After a few such tours, I became more convinced that something was truly awry, something more profound than the debates that perennially rage about such matters as phonics vs. whole language. After touring about 50 classrooms in several schools in several states—always with others from that same school or district—I became doubly convinced. I am now up to about 300 classrooms, and the pattern still holds.

What is actually going on during these early-grade reading periods? A number of things, but the activity that overwhelmed all legitimate literacy activities may surprise you. Students were not reading, they weren't writing about what they had read, they weren't learning the alphabet or its corresponding sounds; they weren't learning words or sentences or how to read short texts.

They were coloring. Coloring on a scale unimaginable to us before these classroom tours. The crayons were ever-present. Sometimes, students were cutting or building things out of paper (which they had colored) or just talking quietly while sitting at "activity centers" that were presumably for the purpose of promoting reading and writing skills. These centers, too, were ubiquitous, and a great source of pride to many teachers and administrators. They were great for classroom management—and patently, tragically counterproductive.
None of this is really surprising since non-instruction and hands-on activities are major components of the dominant progressive/constructivist ed ideology.


Anonymous said...

Not surprising. A couple of years ago I observed a class at a "high poverty" HIGH SCHOOL in which students wandered around, talked, surfed the web, while the teacher nattered on to a few students. This was followed by an "Honors Class" in "sociology" in which students spent the period cutting up magazines to make collages.

Polski3 said...

This doesn't seem to happen in my school district (in southern California). One activity I have for my History 7 students is to read something, then create a 6+6....six panels illustrating what they read, with a caption for each panel. The quality of the artwork has decreased dramatically in recent years with the advent of the district office mandated OPEN COURT Reading program. They just read and answer comprehension questions, JUST LIKE ON THEIR STANDARDIZED TESTS.

As a parent, I am appalled by Open Court, because the teacher has no imput or flexibility in using it. My son's both read (and were tested) at least two grade levels ahead.....and are often bored stiff by the content of Open Court Activities. The teacher cannot give my third grader grade 5 open court material that is appropriate for his reading ability and might challenge him and help make him a better reader. But, she does let him read his Accelerated Reader book after he completes the Open Court stuff in five of the 20 minutes it is supposed to take to complete it.

Sounds like those schools you visited have FAR to go for their kids......Structure and monitoring are those classrooms have TEACHERS or Facilitators?

Anonymous said...

"As a parent, I am appalled by Open Court, because the teacher has no imput or flexibility in using it. My son's both read (and were tested) at least two grade levels ahead.....and are often bored stiff by the content of Open Court Activities."

Oh, please. The diabolical Open Court is designed to be a basal reading program, not a college-level literature course. At least the majority of the students will be able to read--which is more than can be said for the Whole Language stupidity. Even out here in the wilds of the Midwest, when our young'uns are readin' beyond grade level, we hop into the buggy and go to these places called...libraries. Down the road in the big city, besides the general store and the tack shop, they have stores and flea-markets that sell armloads of books for a couple of $.

lindsey said...

Polski3 is right. Being able to draw well is more important than being able to read.

NYC Educator said...

Being able to draw well is more important than being able to read.

Uh oh. Wish you hadn't written that. If Chancellor Klein reads it, he'll probably send me to art school.

Author said...

Maybe part of the explosion in ADD diagonoses is kids who won't sit still for this silliness.

Anonymous said...

I'm a second grade teacher and I teach the Open Court program and it's not true that it doesn't allow for any teacher input. Teachers have to show creativity in teaching the program in order to be successful with students.

There's an excellent site full of supplemental resources created by teachers. It's not the official SRA site, it's at I believe it's totally free. It gives you an idea what can be done with the program.

Mathew said...

Thanks, anonymous. That's a great site!