A Pigeon Tale and a Growth Mindset

“I asked Cher what had made her think that the Pigeon story could be a kids’ book. She paused, then said, of her work at the time, ‘There were two classrooms, the same size, the same kinds of kids in terms of age, background. Every day with their lunch, the children got a cookie that came in a cellophane wrapper. In one of the classrooms, the teacher would come around with scissors and snip the cellophane off each cookie wrapper. In the other classroom, the teacher said, ‘Absolutely do not touch those wrappers, do not help the children open them. These kids are motivated, they can open these cookies themselves.’ Sometimes there was a lot of struggle. The cookies might be pulverized by the time they were opened. But they were opened, each one of them. I knew kids could desire, fail, be angry, thrive. I knew that this was territory that made sense for them. Those Pigeon emotions made sense to them—that told me something.’ ”

—Rivka Galchen, “Fail Funnier” on children’s book author Mo Willems in The New Yorker

Perpetuating Ignorance

An article on the Huffington Post in November presented a report that science grades were awarded in elementary schools in the absence of any actual science lessons.

I find this unsurprising. Over the last three school years, I taught 5th grade in an elementary school. In case you’ve never taught in an elementary school, one typically teaches (or is expected to teach) all content areas.
You have 90 minutes mandated for reading instruction and 90 minutes mandated for math instruction. That’s four periods. Another period is reserved for your ‘prep’ period, which from the student perspective generally entails a greater amount of chaos than usual, as they must be herded down stairs to wherever that period is to be served, and then placed under the supervision of another adult who they may or may not have any sort of relationship or respect for.
Then another period for lunch.
That leaves approximately two periods for the subject areas of social studies and science, if these are areas not taught by the prep teacher. I say approximately, for a given elementary school or district may have a program it has invested money into, during which some of that time the teacher would be expected to implement said program. Approximately, because the time that it takes to shuttle kids from one classroom to another adds up by the end of the day. Approximately, because if one is teaching children who face substantial challenges, some classroom time is inevitably spent on impromptu behavioral, emotional, social, or moral lessons that arise in moments of crisis and conflict.
And this is assuming, of course, that one has prepared an interactive, differentiated, engaging social studies and science lesson for those periods, on top of all the interactive, differentiated, and engaging reading, writing, and math lessons that one has prepared for each and every day.
Right? Right. And this is assuming that an elementary school teacher has domain specific expertise in all content areas. Of course.
I think maybe you see the conundrum.
And it is in this light that the controversial emphasis in the Common Core on the teaching of nonfiction texts begins to make sense. In elementary classrooms, neat and clean distinctions between content areas aren’t always feasible. Some of that time spent on reading could be time spent on reading science or social studies texts.
The argument against this is that the teaching of literature will suffer. But what is typically taught in elementary school classrooms is not literature. It’s rather strategies and skills for finding the main idea or using context clues or making inferences — strategies and skills that are quite difficult to do in the absence of either reading comprehension or background knowledge.
How will students gain background knowledge? By learning more about the world through literature, history, and science. All of those areas go together and all will suffer when any other content area is left in the dust.
Somehow, many elementary schools have been leaving almost all of those areas in the dust, ironically in the name of raising student achievement through a focus on multiple choice question driven strategies in reading and math.
Don’t blame teachers for this state of affairs. Blame a system of education that perpetuates the romantic fallacy that skills and strategies can be taught effectively in the absence of any established facts, knowledge, or expertise.