Dodging the Pendulum
As New York City teachers return to their classrooms for the new school year, many may find themselves dodging the proverbial pendulum that brings widespread changes for our beleaguered schools. The majority of NYC school districts are shifting to one of three curricula, as mandated by NYC education officials. This top-down edict has left many educators and administrators feeling powerless to advocate for the needs of their particular school communities. Concerns over a one-size-fits all curriculum have left educators wondering how they will be able to differentiate and support ALL learners.
Many teachers found themselves in May and June attending professional development sessions to familiarize themselves with the curriculum chosen by their district’s superintendent. In my work as a literacy consultant, I’ve supported teachers in approaching the new curriculum through a lens of inquiry, exploring the following questions:
What has typically worked for our students that is incorporated within this curriculum?
What new approach has the potential to address persistent areas of challenge?
How can we maintain/strengthen efforts to differentiate and individualize for all students?
In exploring HMH Into Reading (the most commonly chosen curriculum by
superintendents in NYC) with educators we’ve found there are parts that feel familiar, such as a reading and writing workshop with a mini lesson followed by independent practice. We’ve also noticed a welcome focus on phonics and grammar, which addresses noted areas of challenge. Regarding differentiation, there is time allotted for small group instruction. This provides the opportunity for teachers to support groups of students based on their specific needs.
What is the best approach to small group reading instruction? This question tends to elicit a wide range of responses. Some believe that guided reading is essential in teaching students to process a text. Others are opposed to grouping students by reading level and emphasize small group lessons that are focused on specific reading strategies.
And the pendulum continues on its trajectory as discussions ensue over the “correct” approach to small group reading instruction. I recently heard from a principal with whom I’ve worked closely that, to her chagrin, the Department of Education is now “moving away from guided reading.” I’ve supported educators with planning and implementation of guided reading at this school with noted student progress. Now they are concerned that they will no longer be able to employ this approach after they have honed their skills and their students have experienced success. I’ve worked with teachers at another public school to strengthen guided reading practices. They embarked on a year long inquiry into guided reading. At the end of the school year they proudly presented their data to their district documenting increased reading proficiency as a result of this work. Will these schools now be mandated to abandon guided reading after all their efforts as well as their students’ progress?
Criticism of guided reading has been pervasive in recent months with concerns for use of “guessing” and a reliance on the three-cuing system. Although these are legitimate concerns, I’ve collaborated with many schools, including the aforementioned, to refine their approach to guided reading and eliminate those specific, counterproductive practices. A more worthwhile approach may be to encourage educators to focus their time and energy on fine tuning current approaches rather than outlawing them.
I would argue that there is no one best approach. The type of instruction we implement should be based on the specific students we are working with and the approach that best suits their needs at any given time. For example, early readers can benefit from small group lessons focused on decoding. Students who are skilled decoders may benefit from practice processing a leveled text within a guided reading session. Alternatively, students who are proficient readers often benefit from a small group strategy lesson focused on comprehension or fluency. Possibly the question that should be explored is:
“Which approach should I implement, for what purpose, and under which circumstances?”
Unfortunately, the majority of educators are now tasked with familiarizing themselves with yet another new curriculum, making it all the more challenging to focus on differentiating for small group instruction. Perhaps students would be better served if educators were able to put the necessary time and resources into such efforts, without the distraction of the ever-present pendulum.