Monday, July 7, 2014
Alexander Nazaryan: Using Balanced Literacy is Irresponsible
THE FALLACY OF BALANCED LITERACY
THERE was the student who wanted to read Tolstoy, but abandoned “War and Peace” after a bewildering day with the Russian aristocracy. There were the students who had just come from Albania, to whom a Harry Potter novel was as inscrutable as Aramaic. There were the students who needed special attention, which I could barely offer. And then there were the ones who read quietly and would have welcomed a discussion about “The Chocolate War.” I couldn’t offer that, either.
So went “independent reading” in my seventh-grade classroom in Flatbush, Brooklyn, during the 2005-06 school year, a mostly futile exercise mandated by administrators. On bad days, independent reading devolved into chaos. That was partly a result of my first-year incompetence, but even on good days, it proved a confounding amalgam of free period and frustrating abyss.
This morass was never my students’ fault. A majority of them were poor, or immigrants, or both. The metropolis of marvelous libraries and bookstores was to them another country. To expect them to wade into a grade-appropriate text like “To Kill a Mockingbird” was unrealistic, even insulting.
Writing instruction didn’t go much better. My seventh graders were urged to write memoirs, under the same guise of individualism that engendered independent reading. But while recollections of beach trips or departed felines are surely worthwhile, they don’t quite have the pedagogical value of a deep dive into sentence structure or a plain old vocab quiz.
Now the approach that so frustrated me and my students is once again about to become the norm in New York City, as the new schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, has announced plans to reinstate a “balanced literacy” approach in English classrooms. The concept’s most vociferous champion is probably Lucy Calkins, a Columbia University scholar. In her 1985 book, “The Art of Teaching Writing,” she complained that most English teachers “don’t know what it is to read favorite passages aloud to a friend or to swap ideas about an author.” She sought a reimagination of the English teacher’s role: “Teaching writing must become more like coaching a sport and less like presenting information,” a joyful exploration unhindered by despotic traffic cops.
Ms. Calkins’s approach was tried by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, but abandoned when studies showed that students learned better with more instruction. My own limited experience leads me to the same conclusion. But Ms. Fariña seems to be charting a course away from the data-driven Bloomberg years, perhaps as part of her stated plan to return “joy” to the city’s classrooms.
I take umbrage at the notion that muscular teaching is joyless. There was little joy in the seventh-grade classroom I ran under “balanced literacy,” and less purpose. My students craved instruction far more than freedom. Expecting children to independently discover the rules of written language is like expecting them to independently discover the rules of differential calculus.
Balanced literacy is an especially irresponsible approach, given that New York State has adopted the federal Common Core standards, which skew toward a narrowly proscribed list of texts, many of them nonfiction. Ms. Calkins is a detractor of Common Core; Ms. Fariña isn’t, thus far, but her support of balanced literacy sends a mixed signal.
I am somewhat prejudiced on this issue, for my acclimation to the English language had nothing balanced about it. Yanked out of the Soviet Union at 10, I landed in suburban Connecticut in the English-as-a-second-language classroom of Mrs. Cohen. She taught me the language in the most conventionally rigorous manner, acutely aware that I couldn’t do much until I knew the difference between a subject and a verb. Mrs. Cohen was unbalanced in the best possible way.
Two decades later, I became a teacher because it seemed a social good to transmit the valuable stuff I’d learned from Mrs. Cohen and other teachers to young people who were as clueless as I had been. After leaving the middle school in Flatbush, I went to a selective high school in Bushwick, where I taught Sophocles while rhapsodizing about semicolons and gleefully announcing vocab quizzes. My students were seeing the beams that support the language; they went on to write poems, papers, newspaper articles and personal essays that earned a number of them admission to the nation’s best colleges. If any of it was soul-crushing, I missed the cues.
The fatal flaw of balanced literacy is that it is least able to help students who most need it. It plays well in brownstone Brooklyn, where children have enrichment coming out of their noses, and may be more “ready” for balanced literacy than children without such advantages.
My concern is for the nearly 40 percent of New York City schoolchildren who won’t graduate from high school, the majority of whom are black and brown and indigent. Their educations should never be a joyless grind. But asking them to become subjects in an experiment in progressive education is an injustice they don’t deserve.