Curriculum that Builds on Students’ Strengths

Beyond Deficit Thinking

Novelist Paule Marshall recalls the depth arid. beauty of the oral language tradition that inspired her own development a writer:

The basement of the brownstone house where my family lived was the usual gathering place [for the women of my neighborhood]. Once inside the warm safety of its walls, the women threw off their drab coats and hats, seated themselves at the large center table, drank their cups of tea or cocoa, and talked. While my sister and I sat at a smaller table doing our homework, they talked endlessly, passionately, poetically, and with impressive range. No subject was beyond them…

For me, sitting over in the corner, being-seen but not heard, which was the rule for children in those days, it wasn’t only what they talked about­ the content but the way they put things – their style. [I remember] the insight, irony, wit, and humor they brought to their stories and discussions and their poet’s inventiveness and daring with language- which of course I could only sense but not define back then…

Using everyday speech, the simple commonplace words-but always with imagination and skill-they gave voice to the most complex ideas. Flannery O’Connor would have approved of the way they made ordinary language work, as she put it, “double time,” stretching, shading, deepening its meaning.

How is it that many of my students come from backgrounds rich in oral linguistic tra­ditions like this one, yet they come to me as eleventh graders not having passed the writing competency test? How is it that so many of them love language and language play, hold strong opinions and love expressing them – and yet they are reluctant to write? How is it possible that massive numbers of students across the nation enter high school performing many years below grade level in reading and writing? And why is it that these numbers are so disproportionately high among poor and minority students.

First, some assumptions, screamingly obvious but, incredibly, apparently not universal:

  • High school students are not dumb.
  • The United States has not been hit with a recent epidemic of brain damage.
  • Human intelligence is evenly distributed across race.
  • Most children enter kindergarten with a natural curiosity and attraction to learning,
  • Most parents want their children to be successful in school and beyond.
  • Most teachers work hard.

Could it be that when children come to school out of a background different from the white middle class model on which schools were originally fashioned their differences are labelled deficits? Could it be that we are· spending trillions of dollars, billions of hours, buckets of sweat trying to “fix” these “deficits” instead of identifying and building from the strengths our children bring to school?

I’m afraid if a Paule Marshall were to come to school today, speaking as she did a dialect different from the “standard” (white middle class) one, we might not recognize the wealth she brought to literacy learning. We might well put her to work on endless numbers of worksheets – twelve years of worksheets if that’s what it took – to “correct” her “language deficiencies” and “ground her in the basics.” Then when she’d memorized all the rules (including countless exceptions) and could bring them into play spontaneously as she spoke and wrote, we would allow her access to the “regular” curriculum if there was any time left. Only then would we (suddenly) encourage her to read whole books, play with metaphor, relish symbolism, and experiment with shades of meaning.

I’m afraid that over thirty years after the Brown decision we wouldn’t know how to offer someone like Paule an equal education – one that helps her connect the skills and understanding she already has with the ones she needs to grow and prosper academically. We wouldn’t be enlightened enough to im­ merse her in a variety of rich language experiences which acknowledged her voice, her experience,•and her intelligence while it nurtured bidialectalism.

In this issue of Rethinking Schools, we attempt to explore what a curriculum that built on students’ strengths might look like. We hope we’ve taken some small, tentative steps toward formulating a vision that stands as an alternative to the deficit-centered curriculum which threatens to permeate many of our nation’s schools. While we focus broadly on the language curriculum here, we find it impossible to deal with any aspect of curriculum without looking also at the structure of schools and such issues as school-community relations. Our goal is not to lay blame (on teachers, administrators, students, or parents) but to help to redefine all of-these roles so that we can move toward more enlightened solutions.

Rethinking Tracking

I believe a key step in moving toward a more enlightened curriculum would involve seriously rethinking tracking. In MPS, children are labelled “at risk” (of not graduating from high school presumably) as early as four years old! Yet experts in child development tell us that children mature at different rates; given equal opportunity in school, children who learn to read early enjoy initial advantages, but these disappear naturally in the first few years of school as late bloomers (and those whose parents didn’t teach them to read before school) rapidly catch up. This presumes, of course, that early differences are not solidified by tracking.

The fallibility of testing and, above all, the severe ‘racial disproportionality in the assignment of students to different “ability levels” must raise grave doubts about this practice. Further, as Jeannie Oakes points out in her book, Keeping Track, research strongly suggests that even at the high school level, tracking is counter-productive; it does not help those in either the high or low tracks learn better. Oakes found that children in remedial classes almost always receive, not an enriched curriculum that helps them “catch up,” but an impoverished one that slows them down. Tracking virtually ensures that our children will be educated unequally.

Beyond Minimal Skills

Another step would be to abandon the rampant national emphasis on minute skill acquisition and treat children as reasoning, thinking human beings with stories to tell and opinions to express. As previous issues of Rethinking Schools have emphasized, this might entail integrating reading and writing instruction, offering children whole books instead of sanitized basal readers, and forgoing worksheets in favor of an approach that incorporates literacy skill learning into all elementary classroom activities. In thi issue, professional storyteller Kathe Ana relates how she inspires children to compose oral narratives, and we learn how MPS teacher Mary Seider integrates the study of phonics, punctuation and grammar into the process whereby her first graders author hard­ cover books.

At the high school level, moving away from isolated skill development means carefully reexamining the competency curriculum. Thankfully, this has already begun. Teachers and curriculum specialists in MPS and elsewhere are questioning whether students can develop their writing without reading any more readily than humans learn to speak without hearing. Individual teachers and whole departments are adding more literature to writing competency courses. Others observe that drilling students in isolated skills and empty forms infantilizes these young adults while it bores students and teachers; they are engaging students in more in-depth critical analysis of issues that touch students’ lives – and demanding more thoughtful writing in return. The contrived five-paragraph essay format that has been one part of the writing competency test has been challenged, and thoughtful curriculum specialists are developing more sophisticated topics for the writing sample. There has even been talk about jettisoning the objective test of English mechanics in favor of the writing sample alone. To do so would enable teachers to give undivided attention to what is really our goal in the first place: improving students’ writing. Research shows that studying mechanics through worksheets and drills may help students per­form better on multiple choice tests, but it’s an inefficient way to help them incorporate these lessons into their writing. How wonderful it would be if we could concentrate on teaching mechanics in the context of the writing (and reading and thinking) process. 

An Inquiry Curriculum

I’d like to see us do boldly and definitively what many of us are attempting tentatively and incrementally: move toward a rich, inquiry oriented curriculum for all children. We might look to the example set this year by the Marquette University Upward Bound Program. Approximately one hundred high school students participated in an after­ school program designed by Chris Faltz in which students spent a semester exploring themes raised by West Side Story. First the students viewed the film version of this drama. Every Tuesday in successive weeks they heard a guest speaker, and every Thurs­day they met in groups of 10 to 20 to discuss the lectures and readings. One speaker who had been a high-ranking member of the Chicago Vice Lords recounted how he became involved in the gang as a teen, how his family moved to the suburbs to escape the gang’s influence, and how the gang retaliated by fire-bombing the family’s new home. A sometime consultant to the Milwaukee Police Department gang unit, he expressed the concern that police and community members too frequently address the symptoms and not the deeper causes of the gang problem.

While West Side Story was a point of departure and a point of reference to unite themes, the program asked students to begin to systematically explore what is happening in five key institutions of society: family, economy, government, religion and education. Lectures ranged from the historical patterns of Hispanic experience to controversies around school desegregation.

Karen Desotelle, who facilitated a discussion section of high school sophomores in the Upward Bound project, marvelled at the intellectual development of.her students over the course of the semester. “By the end they were easily managing such concepts as primary and secondary labor markets – both the concept and the tenninology. I heard kids who had come in with some pretty superficial ideas challenging facile explanations for societal problems.” At first, they drew primarily on personal referents for their opinions (“my mother” this or “I knew somebody that…”).”But students learned “to take their own and their peers’ life experii;mces and to view and reshape those within the new informational framework presented by the lectures,” Desotelle reports.

Thinking and discussion skills developed in tandem: “I think kids learned to communicate on a whole different level. They blossomed,” says Desotelle. ‘The kids were so interested that whenever someone got out of line, other people in the class pulled them back on task, on the topic.” At the end of the semester, students saw West Side Story performed at the Skylight Theater. Desotelle recalls, “I sat there watching the play thinking, ‘Hey yeah, this relates to our discussion on such and such,’ and wondering it the students were making the same connections.”

The desire to move students from the personal, the narrowly “relevant” to understand­ ings that transcend the students’ personal experience is one that teachers across many disciplines share. I believe such an engaging, challenging context is also the best one for teaching “basic skills” – reasoning, writing, and thinking critically.

The Inquiry Demonstration Project sponsored by the New York public school system has proven that a wide range of students can prosper under this approach. At the inquiry learning center students from New York’s prestigious Bronx High School of Science mix with the severely “at risk” (and a range of students in between). As part of their regular school curriculum, the students take up a series of issues, exploring each in depth and from many angles. They read a great variety of materials, conduct interviews with experts in the community, hear lectures, engage in debates, conduct hands-on experiments, and write profusely. Teachers come to the center as interns. Many then bring the insights, methods and lesson ideas they develop back to their regular classroom settings.

New Structures

To implement the best kind of inquiry learning curriculum, teachers and administrators will need to reorganize schools in ways that permit a multidisci- plinary approach to learning, enable educators to draw freely on the resources of parents and community, and allow students and teachers to take on controversial issues that affect students’ lives. Central Park East High School in Harlem, which is profiled in this issue of Rethinking Schools, offers one model. There, students and teachers are grouped into “houses” that eliminate the anonymity of a large school, and several related disciplines are incorporated into one class. Professional consultation among teachers and parent-teacher contact are both built into school routines. An innovative curriculum augments the school’s ties to parents and community. For example, students are required to discuss one idea that came up in their classes that week with an adult and submit a weekly “idea composition” based on that discussion. Central Park East is a high school that works – for poor and minority students. What makes it most exciting is that it works without the heavy handed discipline, test score obsession, and emphasis on minimal skills that characterize so many of the “effective schools” played up in the national press.

Linking Schools with Parents and Community

Many other experiments can add to our vision of what it would mean to build constructive, cooperative relationships between schools and parents,or community. At South Division High School a new bilingual tutoring program combines the resources of the Hispanic community, university and schools. “At risk” high school students receive tutoring from college students and tutor younger children. In this issue, Alma Flor Ada describes a program that shows what can be done if parents are given respect and support (and child care) as they receive training in how to extend lit teaching into their homes. Predominantly Spanish-speaking parents, many of them fann workers with only minimal schooling themselves, meet to hear authors of bilingual children’s books, identify and discuss books they want to share with their children, and learn strategies for discussing the books with their children (similar to discussion strategies teachers are trained in). The project has generated such enthusiasm that parents now bring the stories their children have written to share with the group.

Toward a New Vision

Ultimately, a curriculum that drew on the strengths students bring to the classroom would require that teachers develop a highly textured understanding of the cultures and communities from which our students come. One obvious implication of this is that we will need more minority teachers. (A new joint effort between MATC and local universities offers hope in this respect.) Recently, too, some teachers at both the high school and university level have guided students in conducting serious ethnographic studies of the language patterns in their homes and communities. Another possibility is to have students gather (and publish) stories, lore and oral histories from their homes and communities. In projects like this, cultural differences become academic resources while we enrich our knowledge about how to connect teaching with students’ experience.

It would be ideal if we could all be truly multicultural, if we could all have an intimate, reflective understanding of the backgrounds out of which our students come. (And while we’re at it, let’s create fully equal society free of poverty and racism.) But until we get there, rethinking the curriculum begins with a mind set Early childhood educator Vivian Paley models it when she comments elsewhere in this issue, “Long ago I observed that the closer a child is to my own background and experience the more likely I am to, recognize the clues he reveals, to grasp the meaning of his words and intentions, and to ask him some of the right questions…(The child who doesn’t learn what and when I wish may be someone whose learning style and conditions of knowledge and comfort I have not yet discovered.” If we begin with the simple assumption that our students are neither dumb nor woefully deficient, we find ourselves naturally asking questions and relentlessly pursuing answers until we discover ways to link students’ prior understanding with the skills, concepts, and ways of seeing that will help them be successful, indeed powerful, members of society.