Mike Schmoker’s book Results Now was required reading in my district a few years ago, and though I did not agree with everything in the book (at times, Schmoker seemed to be making light of how complex teaching can be), I did find many things in the book to push my thinking, and I like it when I am pushed to think in new ways. I will never forget one short description of what he tends to see in reading classrooms versus what he hoped to see. He describes a lot of worksheets (what he calls the “crayola curriculum”) instead of actual engagement in texts. Then, he describes what could happen: even a first grader can analyze a text by choosing which character in a Frog and Toad book would make a better friend. And Schmoker is right. I asked a group of students that very question one day, and I was amazed at how engaged they were, and how clearly they were able to articulate their thinking using text references. By the way, Frog is a bit bossy, it turns out. Ask any first grader – they will be able to show you where this bossiness shows up in the books.
Schmoker’s new book is called Focus, just out from ASCD. I read the sections on reading and writing, and again, I found myself thinking he makes it sound a bit too easy. That being said, I agree completely with Schmoker’s premise: we need to require students to read more, write more, and think more deeply. We need to stop looking to publishers of core reading series for the answers.
I am impressed with some of the writers, teachers, and thinkers Schmoker quotes, including Kelly Gallagher, whose book Readicide, published by Stenhouse, reminds us that students need to read – not just more, but more deeply. Kelly’s daily experiences as a high school teacher make this book not only very readable, but it is also very true.
Schmoker also mentions Rafe Esquith, whose book Teach Like Your Hair’s On Fire has encouraged teachers to throw out useless worksheets and skill driven curriculums in favor of real reading, real writing, and real thinking. When I first read Rafe’s book, I was impressed with the rigor he expects of his fifth graders, especially in the section about Shakespeare. I, too, believe that Shakespeare can and should be taught in the elementary grades, especially as an opportunity to perform. Though I do not agree with everything in Rafe’s book (he is an advocate of traditional book reports, while I have had more success with essays about books), it doesn’t matter: the point is to be passionate about what you teach, and to have very clear, high expectations. Schmoker mentions Esquith in particular because of the volume of reading he expects from his students. Students need to read more to get better at reading, and the same holds true for writing.
There are no easy answers to teaching, but these books remind us that if we ask students to read, write, and think more, they will achieve. They will also be more engaged in school. Instead of keeping them busy with worksheets, we should be engaging them with real texts – texts they read, and texts they create themselves.