Questioning Scripted Curricula

By Barbara Miner

Katherine Dorr, in her third year of teaching first graders in one of LA’s poorest schools, likens Center X to a tiny voice in a corner of her brain that constantly pushes her to ask questions.

“Often I’ll wonder, ‘Are you doing something the Teacher Education Program approved?'” she says. “Not always. But I still have its concepts in the back of my head.”

Dorr admits that the realities of being a young white woman teaching at 42nd Street Elementary School — which is 99.1 percent African American and Latino — don’t always conform to the scenarios presented in the university classroom. But not only did Center X teach her to question, she says the program’s academic and theoretical coursework gave her the tools to challenge practices she might have otherwise been afraid to take on.

Ask her, for example, about “fluency flowers.”

As part of the highly scripted Open Court reading program mandated in her school, the literacy coach told Dorr one day she was to present her students with “fluency flowers,” noting how many words a minute they could read, compared to a benchmark. “Fluency petals” were to be made every six weeks and pasted throughout the room, adding up to “fluency flowers” over the course of the year.

“The kids who pass the fluency benchmark, yeah, they’ll feel great,” Dorr notes. “But the kid who doesn’t, they’re going to feel terrible. And there’s all sorts of research showing that making kids feel bad is not going to motivate them.”

Dorr, citing the research, refused to publicly post the fluency flowers. “I will privately show a student their fluency flower, but that’s it,” she says. “I’m  not going to put them on the wall and [the literacy coach] can’t make me.”

Henok Tadesse, a first-generation Ethiopian immigrant and Center X alumus who teaches fifth grade at a nearby elementary school, laughs when Dorr tells her story. He faces similar problems at Baldwin Hills Elementary School, which is 97.5 percent African American and Latino.

Tadesse, who graduated from Center X in 2001, says he also tries to modify and counterbalance Open Court’s strict requirements. He also has problems with the emphasis on fluency — the ability to read words aloud while being timed — without adequate consideration to comprehension and learning a love of reading.

He gives the required “fluency” tests, but constantly reassures both students and parents that what’s most important is students’ ability to understand what they are reading. “I keep telling my kids that this fluency is a speed test, nothing more,” he says. “Most of my kids, their comprehension is super high but their fluency isn’t.”

Tadesse and some of the other teachers got such a reputation for questioning the scripted curriculum that “there was this rumor that the fourth-grade teachers don’t want to comply with Open Court,” he says. There was a flurry of talk, “but we just did what we wanted to do. We let it fizzle down.”

Dorr and Tadesse say that the pressure to comply with Open Court is so strong that they risk being fired if they are openly insubordinate. “We do what we are supposed to do,” as Tadesse puts it. “But we do it our way.”

Both are also part of an ongoing networking and study group of Center X alumni, where they discuss common problems and current research — and keep alive their spirit and passion for teaching.

Neither will argue that Center X is perfect, and Dorr, in particular, wishes there had been more emphasis on classroom management. But, as Tadesse says, “Center X gives me hope that there is a chance for things to progress.”