Content is at the Heart of Teaching

Finding the main idea is a frequently taught strategy in classrooms across this nation, as are other skills such as inferencing, summarizing, and so on. It’s sad that so often these strategies are taught in general isolation from any kind of deep and enriching content. What’s the point in finding the main idea unless the main idea is worth contemplating?

Now, I work with students who are learning English as their second language and with students with exceptional learning needs. It’s fairly well established that students facing these challenges with language and learning benefit from explicit strategies. I am therefore not opposed to teaching strategy use by any means.

But as a newer teacher, I’ve struggled with getting my students to progress. I’ve taught these strategies and re-taught them, in a classroom devoid of rich and engaging books at their reading levels. So I’ve printed out and made copies of anything I can find at their level. Guess what type of content this stuff is? Short passages on isolated concepts, such as is found on state assessments. The students I had in my last two years of teaching, furthermore, were reading at a pre-kindergarten to 2nd grade level. They were doubly frustrated not only by their difficulty with fluency, but also by lame material.

Without rich, deep content, strategies are irrelevant. Pedagogy, even, is largely irrelevant. This is why I’m excited by the Common Core Standards which have been adopted by almost every state. Finally, the focus in literacy is back on content, in the form of non-fiction and complex texts.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve begun reading the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass with my students. This stuff is deep. His language is powerful, the history comes alive, and best of all, the kids are into it. They are engaged by it, and not turned off by the profusion of antiquated and confusing words. This has made me thirsty to engage them in more of this sort of deep content, the primary documents that ground our history and our knowledge.

The Common Core is on the right path. We need to steep our children in rich, foundational texts and let them struggle and become immersed in the language even as we guide them through it to the deep meaning embedded therein. We’ve been relying too much on watered down drivel processed by publishing companies. What’s the point in knowing that Frederick Douglass was a great writer and orator without reading his own words? What’s the point in discussing Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy if we don’t read or listen to his own words? Too much of our historical understanding is based on second-hand descriptions and accounts.

This might seem like a “no duh” sort of thing when I put it to you like this, but let me set the scene of what it’s like in schools for you. We are taught that we must focus on kids’ deficiencies, by analyzing their results on exams. Oh, we say, these children can’t make inferences. Let’s teach them how to infer. Let’s put up charts on inferences. And so on. And we are furthermore taught that children must only read at their assessed reading levels, and that we must “differentiate” all our material so they can access it. So Barney gets a 2nd grade level text, while Lakshmi gets the higher level passage. And this is what we get beat over the head with, in all our professional development sessions and in all the consultants that come into our school to tell us how to teach.

What gets lost in all of that superficial and money intensive blather, of course, is that none of that means anything without rich content. So we’re teaching inferencing with test prep books, and we’re differentiating texts with worksheets. And that’s all fine with the textbook publishing industry, and that’s all fine with the educational consultants. But it’s not fine for the kids.

So I’m refocusing myself back on the idea of core knowledge, which E.D. Hirsch, Jr. has been calling for for decades and most people have been ignoring. The Common Core is here, and with folks like David Coleman speaking bluntly and passionately about the necessity for engaging children directly in rich and deep texts, teachers are finally getting the chance to throw off the shackles of bullshit and focus on what matters. I’m going to write another post soon about Coleman’s message, and also about some other great tidbits of wisdom I was excited to glean from a recent conference on What Works in Urban Education. To be continued . . .


Author: manderson

I live in NYC.

4 thoughts on “Content is at the Heart of Teaching”

  1. That’s incredible that your 5th graders are reading ‘Narrative…’ Kudos.

    I’m not exactly excited about the Common Core Standards, but I’m a secondary school teacher. They’re an improvement on the CA standards that we’ve been using; I don’t know how those compared with the NY standards before CCS were being used.

    1. That’s for commenting and for the support! I believe Cali was one of the few states that had comparable or even more rigorous standards than the CCSS. Our NY standards were just a compilation of a whole bunch of unfocused stuff, typifying the “mile-wide and inch deep” curriculum of public schools. What I deeply appreciate about the CCS is that it focuses right down to the core essentials that we should be most concerned with in literacy and math. I also like that it places learning on a continuum anchored across the grades, which as a special education teacher, enables me to better target IEP goals dependent on an individual student’s current functioning.

  2. Nice post– the focus on strategies and methods at the expense of content is a huge problem. To me, giving teachers more freedom to design their own curricula (partly by reducing class sizes, cutting administrative workload) and develop their expertise in their content areas is the best way to solve this problem. Real professional development should mean becoming an expert not just in how to deliver lessons or design units, but in the field of literature/history/science/math/art/etc. How to convince the higher ups that this would be a good idea, when it would require a serious shift in both resources and thinking, is a challenging question.

    1. Yes, I heartily agree that PD should focus on depth of content knowledge and in curriculum development by and for teachers. One thing I find encouraging about developments like Khan Academy and LearnZillion is that I can watch videos from someone who may be more of a content expert than I explain a concept or procedure, and this enables me to better teach it and explain it to my students!

      I’m hoping that more teachers begin to seize the opportunity provided by the web to collaborate professionally and develop a coherent curriculum. There are platforms such as BetterLesson, Curriki, and MasteryConnect that are doing this well already. I’ve also put forward some ideas on how this could be done on

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