Literacy By the Students, For the Students

A couple weeks back I wrote about “Marco,” a student who I had taught before relocating to the Triangle. Marco and I worked hard together to help him reach proficiency in literacy and science, and for a while it appeared our work had led to what standardized testing declared “proficiency,” within a year’s time, Marco had slipped. Any science teacher can quickly note that this could be due to a considerable field of factors, but my focus is on the one that wore on Marco before he arrived, and gave me such great concern when he moved on; education was something done to Marco, rather than something Marco owned.

Marco would answer the questions, read the words, write it all down – but Marco may have been jumping through these hoops of our relationship, or his desire to stay on the football team, or any other myriad of possibilities. Marco’s growth was toward checking the boxes, because our emphasis and definition of success hinged on standardized testing. Don’t get me wrong, we dreamed and worked with purpose! But at the end of the day, for many reasons, my teaching practices were driven by the EOG. Marco’s results on paper looked fantastic; yet just months later, it all fell apart. How then can we produce strong results that provide students with agency in their education and a pathway to a successful future?

I’m going to get a heady for a second, but bear with me – American philosopher contrasted the benefits of both traditional and what he called progressive education by describing progressive education as emphasizing “the freedom of the learner” while traditional education promotes “the intellectual and moral development of the young.” Whew, that’s a lot – but basically, the freedom that would help Marco own his education doesn’t have to come at the sacrifice of academic achievement!

This finally put into words my struggle with recognizing the good in my traditional practice while acknowledging the hunch that more can be offered through progressive education. Dewey puts forward the idea that traditional education and progressive education don’t need to be mutually exclusive – and why should they? While the big, bad field of philosophy tends to push for an “Either-Or” positioning, in practical matters, we have to be able to find compromise between theory and outside pressures/influences. The standards that pushed Marco to achieve more than he knew possible, standards upheld by traditional education’s emphasis on intellectual and moral development, needn’t be sacrificed in the name of providing Marco with educative experiences that give him as the learner freedom to explore, question, and create.

So what does this have to do with literacy? This is a literacy blog, right? Let’s explore. While I was technically teaching science, literacy is everywhere! Reading, writing, discussing, arguing, questioning, sorting – all the ways that Marco really engages with the world, be it in ELA class or science class, is literacy. In my full embrace of the practices of traditional education, I handed over subject-matter and standards of conduct, but in this imposition failed to help grow Marco’s creativity and preparation for the future; however, had I embraced only progressive education as a reaction, I would’ve risked providing impractical experiences that failed to educate, setting Marco up for further failure.

So what do we do? To break through this impasse, we’ll go back to Dewey for a second. He argued that educative experiences based in progressive philosophy consisting of personal experiences that do not sacrifice traditional education’s value of “intellectual and moral development of the young” bring together sound philosophy and meaningful practice. This is a HUGE idea! Basically, I can help Marco experience literacy, but I don’t have to throw the baby (standards – good!) out with the bathwater (standardization – in my opinion, not so good).

Having put into words the hunches that drove my vague frustrations between traditional education and progressive education, I’m going to move on in my next blogs to a reflection from the larger umbrella of educational philosophy to specific pedagogies that, had Marco been in my class this academic year, would’ve been put into practice so as to give Marco academic and personal development alongside a renewed sense of purpose and possession in his education. Stay tuned!


2 thoughts on “Literacy By the Students, For the Students

  1. leighahall October 2, 2016 / 12:01 pm

    Owning your education is incredibly important. I once did a project in an 8th grade ELA class. We discussed with the students how they wanted to improve as readers and how they thought they could accomplish their goals. Initially, they believed they had little control over their own development as readers. They thought the teacher was entirely responsible for them. If they got poor teachers, then they would be poor readers and it was just out of control.

    Fortunately we were able to shift this so they understood they had a lot of power and control and that they played a huge role in their personal development.


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