One of the most common complaints about state or local curriculum standards is that they focus on covering a range of topics—too many, in most cases—while sacrificing depth of understanding. Chances are you’ve heard your colleagues bemoan that these standards are “a mile long and an inch deep.”
Elementary teachers often feel that it is impossible to meet all the literacy, math, science, and social studies benchmarks for which they are accountable. Middle and secondary content specialists lament the lack of time they have to delve into specific moments in history, concepts in economics, or specialized topics in the sciences that can serve as a catalyst for understanding essential concepts. As a result, students sprint through the content standards, with no time to rest, breathe deeply, or examine closely.
The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts and Content Literacy, on the other hand, are process-oriented. Teachers have an opportunity to choose broadly the content to examine, and can view the CCSS as a toolkit to explore topics, themes, and genres.
There are practical ways to teach for content over coverage. Primary teachers will want to integrate their teaching and create multidisciplinary curriculum units. Secondary science and social studies teachers can use the CCSS as a vehicle for exploring important topics within their required state content standards at a greater depth and model the ways in which professionals approach their disciplines, as they equip students with some of “the tools of the trade.”
Such work begins with selecting a range of materials for units of study, material beyond traditional basal readers and textbooks. If the educators in your school must use required texts, they can incorporate these resources into a larger curriculum text set. Librarians can help them find books and materials outside the same old parade of facts, and lead them to a variety of fiction and nonfiction genres when possible and appropriate. You can also assist them in locating relevant newspaper and magazine articles in digital databases, and point to museum, library, and research-based websites for examples of available primary and secondary sources. As much as possible, encourage teachers to rely upon a number of formats, so that students can read, listen to, and view texts in more than one modality.
After selecting material for content study, we need to consider approach. One misconception our students often have is that all nonfiction should be read in the same way. They are unaware that historians and scientists approach content differently. We can teach students to read as these professionals do by modeling and allowing them to try out these processes. The CCSS foster disciplinary literacy, recognizing that each field of study has its own framework for asking questions, considering evidence, and creating new content to communicate knowledge.
As educator Sam Wineburg has explained, historians rigorously question what they read. The questions they raise about historical sources are the same questions that our students should be asking. Who wrote it? Why? What do they want me to know? Historians also compare different accounts of the same events. Do my sources agree on the facts? If not, why not? How do they differ? And finally, they ask about the unique conditions of the era they are examining and consider how these conditions influenced people’s behavior. What is distinctive about the period I am studying? What is familiar? What is unfamiliar? Encourage your students to use these frameworks referred to as sourcing, corroborating, and contextualizing.
Scientists also question rigorously. They evaluate claims being made by others to see if they come from carefully planned observations, and try to determine if inferences are justified. When our students are reading nonfiction accounts of scientists engaged in inquiry, they, too, can pose questions: What is the problem the scientists are trying to solve? Are they collaborating with others? How? Is there evidence that they are willing to reconsider previous conclusions in the face of new evidence? Are the investigative methods they are using creative and imaginative? What have they learned? What else do they want to know?
These queries will move conversations about nonfiction sources well beyond factual recall and remembering. Instead, students will begin to think about how knowledge is created and how scientists and historians continue to refine their understandings. In other words, your discussion will present science and history as subjects that are vibrant and alive.
As we introduce more nonfiction, let’s keep in mind that to engage in critical thinking, we need a robust and varied collection of material to investigate. These clusters of information sources are the foundation of critical conversations.
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