It’s been a rough week for my righteously indignant self. I won’t go too deeply into the disappointment of finding that the orange-haired devil wasn’t the only one who had classified documents end up on his private property. I have rationalized and pointed out the significant distinctions in the two cases, but it’s no fun being on the defensive side.
Today, I finally listened to “Sold a Story,” the podcast I’d been avoiding like a dentist visit. It lived up to my dread. I sat on my couch on a sunny but cold Monday. I listened to five consecutive episodes, as the reporter pulled back the curtain on the reading and writing philosophy I’d lived with for my entire teaching career. In my head, I talked back, I made excuses, I groped for rebuttals, looked for holes and evidence of bias. I found plenty of fuel for all, but in the end, I had to admit a bottom line: I had bought into an approach that didn’t really have science behind it.
When it was over, my brain felt jumbled. Images of kids flashed in my head. Most had been really successful. Whatever we were doing must have worked, right? But then some other faces floated into view, kids who struggled, who never grew to like reading. Had I failed them? I didn’t teach the grades where kids got their first opportunities to “crack the code,” but I certainly encountered some who hadn’t found that key yet. What had I really done to help those kids? I’d taught strategies that I thought made for a powerful reader: accessing prior knowledge, asking questions, making predictions, forming images, inferring meaning. Maybe, though, I had rejected a solution that just didn’t fit my own biases. When George Bush backed “new” approaches to teaching reading, I dismissed them as that same “back to basics” mindset that tried to beat back any changes in our culture. I was suspicious of anything that came from that sector of society or that end of the political spectrum. He was backward on so many issues; he had to be backward on reading.
Throughout the pandemic controversies and in every conversation about climate change, I’ve always said that I believe in science, evidence, data, and trusting the experts. But in the early 2000s, when people were challenging the workshop approach to reading and suggesting that there was science to show that many students needed more phonics instruction, I was doubtful. I thought they were trying to make us all into robotic teachers. I thought they were taking all the art out of teaching. I thought they were going to suck the life out of classrooms. Was I, in effect, a science denier?
Now I’m questioning my motives. Did my ideology get in the way of my thinking? Did I, as the reporter suggested of Lucy Calkins (and herself), come to the issue from a position of privilege? One that put an idealized view of kids in love with literature and book club discussion above a more practical goal of universal literacy?
I don’t know.
I have several colleagues who are listening to the same podcast. Tomorrow I will seek them out. We will talk. I will listen. I will try to figure out where I stand and how I should proceed. Today, I am at sea.