Summer Reading #1: To Understand

To Understand is author and teacher, Ellin Oliver Keene‘s new book; and it has been on my list to read for several months.  I began reading this book earlier in the school year and adapted Ellin’s idea for Literacy Studio (crafting, composing, individual activities and reflection time) to encompass the teaching day. Defining each of these according to student and teacher/leader responsibilities worked across the curriculum in my class last year. I am anxious to use this model again next school year.

When school demands became overwhelming, I had to put aside reading To Understand and have only recently picked it up to read again.  Keene asserts that we, as educators, need to advocate for what is essential to our curriculum and teach that in depth.  There is so much pressure today to try to “cover” topics that this is hard to imagine.  I find myself easily lured into teaching to a checklist of what someone else has deemed third grade curriculum which leaves little time for developing the fun stuff — topics that the students want to explore, discovery through student inquiry, developing thinking.  It worries me that I am contributing to a culture of fact regurgitation — my students need to develop thinking and discernment skills.  Will my students be part of a “can-do” or “can’t-do” culture?

So as I’ve picked up Ellin Keene’s book again, I’m particularly struck by her words in the chapter about creating “renaissance learners”. We have long been exposing our students to a catechism of learning: ideas and facts that must be committed to memory and then tested and retested to ensure “quality control” of our “product”.  There is no need for creative thinking here — we need to turn out students who can pass standardized tests.  Sadly, not many of the students who are learning under such contraints become “passionately interested” in topics .  To quote Keene:

But in schools, are we set up to create Renaissance kids? I worry that with schedules driven by different subject areas, curriculum created around tests, and a society that demands perfect completion of everything kids attempt, we are unwittingly contributing to the demise of the Renaissance person — creating our own medieval age.

Frightening? Indeed it is.  And Keene continues:

If we live in a society that values Renaissance thinking, but in schools that work against it, is it possible to help young children sustain and older kids rediscover the Renaissance person in themselves? Do all young children come to us with those qualities? Is it possible to devote time to the pursuit of pressing questions on a wide range of topics? Can we encourage kids to wonder, to pursue new ideas through their own discovery and research? And, if we decide that it is important to promote the notion of Renaissance learners, where do we begin, given the constraints of our professional and personal lives?

Many questions, much to think about.