The “what” still matters

I am loving summer break. The chance to relax, read good books, hang out with friends, play video games, clean the classroom and get some much needed organization and planning done. I also spend a LOT of time on Twitter keeping up with conversations in the education realm. One issue that has been prevalent in a lot of conversations is teachers focusing on the “why” questioning the tasks we are doing and looking for the purpose. This has led to a lot of great discussions. Teachers sharing the why behind their work opens up a whole new world of reflective conversations. I have however noticed that all of this pursuit of the WHY in bringing about less focus on the WHAT it is we are doing. Bear with me while I explain.

Last week ILA (International Literacy Association) had a twitter chat that focused on the importance of explicit, systematic phonics instruction. The panel was led by a few educators who had very clear positions on the topic of phonics and their why to back their decisions was the same as mine our “what” however, is dramatically different. They advocate for whole class instruction, drill like practice and less time for independent practice and exploration of language. I advocate for balanced literacy, I advocate for time with choice text and time for for whole class instruction when needed. I advocate for real books not photocopied nonsense readers. Our whys in the end I think are the same, the teach students to read and comprehend texts. The difference lies in WHAT we are doing to get there.

One conversation I entered into during the chat was with a fellow High School teacher that advocated against a Workshop model. I am a huge advocate for a workshop model with some whole class instruction work to lay a foundation. This teachers argument was students should all have to use the same text because otherwise how can we teach a text. I defer to the brilliance that are the words of Kylene Beers here first

Books aren’t written to be taught. They are written to be loved.

-Kylene Beers

I think in the case of this person I was disagreeing with both her why because I want more than students that just sit and work on a text breaking down every piece until the joy is gone and her what. The last two years I have had more success getting students reading, talking and thinking about books than I have before. I also have students excited to come to class. It isn’t the only important piece but what are doing as educators when we forget that students should enjoy school? What are we doing when we literally say “I don’t care if they like my class, that isn’t my job” ? That isn’t a hypothetical it is a statement I have read. The WHAT we are doing is just as important as the WHY.

Another area that needs more work in this regard is work around increasing understanding around diversity education. I have had a great reflective journey on my practice that was kickstarted by following conversations such as #disrupttexts and #31DAYSIBPOC. I also was blessed with a teacher in University that was doing this type of work with soon to be teachers by challenging us to look deeper at historical thinking, representation and the narratives provided in our text books. The work of teaching our students to see the diversity around us and respect it is so important. So often we see teachers say we need a diverse library. I of course agree. The question raised lately is what exactly are we doing with this library? Just putting Ghost Boys on the shelf and not talking about it does little. Just having The Whispers as a recommended title but not book talking its importance does little. It is great to include the beautifully diverse texts that are out there but WHAT we do with them is so important.

This week there has been a great critical conversation on a piece of literature that is meant to “improve” student engagement. The author in their excitement to share posted an activity that at this point still appears to be extremely problematic as students virtually role play colonization. The WHY the author claims is to help students recognize the stories being told are leaving groups out. A great cause and why. The what, the means to achieve the why is the issue. Many educators pointed out this issue, much like students participating in slavery simulations or having debates around immigration or writing letters home from concentration camps (all actual assignments that have been on twitter in a celebratory way) this activity fails to observe the problematic issues it creates. The othering, the isolation, the failure to see the impact it can do to students who do not fit the colonizer identity. The other problem is this is a published book that many teachers who do not consider the WHAT are going to read, share and celebrate. Students need engaging work, students need to have fun at school. When those are the WHY it is a noble cause. When the WHAT we do to get there is problematic we need to stop and ask why. My social studies students are engaged with discussions around historical thinking and perspectives, what voices are being elevated and who is being erased? That can be done without making it a game.

Teaching is a combination of the WHAT and the WHY. If we are not critically thinking of both things we are not likely addressing the complete needs of our students and classroom.

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