Making A Change For Good

August 01, 1991 10 min read
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The Dewey Center opened its doors in 1988. Using two state restructuring grants, the school hired five whole language teachers, including Curry. The original school’s teachers had the option of staying on and were invited to attend a series of inservice sessions to ease them through the transition to whole language.

“Some teachers were real gung-ho and excited about it,’' Curry says. “Other teachers needed to think about it a little longer.’' Now, almost the entire staff has become whole language. “People need time to change,’' she adds. “You can’t force it down their throats.’'

The community’s response to the school has been tremendous. Because it’s an alternative public school, the Dewey Center welcomes any student in Detroit. The school’s enrollment has already doubled, to about 400 students, since it opened three years ago. Most of the students are black; some students are high achievers, while others could be labeled “at risk.’'

“Every child is a whole language learner,’' Curry says. “Whole language happens to be wonderful for at-risk kids. I’ve seen whole language work for every child who comes into the door. It doesn’t matter what race, ethnic background, or what language they speak at home.’'

Because the Dewey Center was conceived as a whole language school from the outset, the school’s 6th, 7th, and 8th grade teachers have not been faced with the same time constraints they would be up against in a traditional middle school. In keeping with the whole language philosophy, the teachers worked out a class schedule designed to gives students the time and flexibility they need to pursue interdisciplinary studies and in-depth projects.

For example, Curry keeps her 7th grade students most of the day. Because she teaches virtually the entire curriculum, she can integrate all subjects, especially reading and writing. The arrangement also frees her from using the traditional textbook.

“In Detroit, the district gives teachers textbooks, and we’re supposed to teach the mandated curriculum from them,’' she says. “What a horrible way of looking at the world--through the eyes of whoever wrote the textbook.’'

Instead of teaching out of textbooks, Curry has her students embark on a twomonth research project, linked to the mandated curriculum. Together, Curry and her students brainstorm to select an appropriate topic. Then, working with their teacher, the students formulate questions about their topics and discuss research methods. They keep their information in a log book, which Curry reviews periodically.

Once students complete their research, they must show their classmates what they’ve learned. “Some make books, audio tapes, posters, or time lines,’' Curry says. “All students must make an oral presentation.’' Last year, one boy who researched Southeast Asia made a cardboard Buddhist temple. Another boy wrote a play about slavery and had it performed by the 5th graders.

In the upper grades, where students already know how to read, research projects are essential to the whole language approach, Curry says. The evaluation of these projects requires careful thought. A student can’t turn in a sketch of a temple in the guise of a research project. Curry watches the process closely; she checks her students’ log books weekly and observes their ability to synthesize information. After the oral presentation, Curry and each class member write the student an evaluation letter. The student in turn writes a letter evaluating his or her own effort.

Gone from the evaluation system is the standard bell curve. “I can only evaluate my students on where they were when I met them and where they are now,’' Curry says. “I don’t compare them to one another.’'

Although the Dewey Center is steeped in whole language, its students must still participate in standardized testing. And, based on the test scores, the whole language approach works. Curry says that each of her students improved last year, some more than others. One girl actually jumped six grade levels in reading in a single year.

The scores may be convincing, but Curry doesn’t place too much importance on them: “I don’t need to look at the scores to see how [my students] are doing. I look at their own writing every day.’'

During the last eight years, teachers in the Upper Arlington (Ohio) City School District have gradually been introduced to the whole language philosophy. The district initiated the switch at the behest of the school board, which saw whole language as a way to improve the schools.

James Allen, a high school English teacher and K-12 curriculum coordinator, is overseeing the extension of whole language from the district’s five elementary schools to its two middle schools and one high school. To explain the rationale for the move, he uses the analogy of a basketball game: “We want all kids to play the same game, but with different intensities and different sophistication depending on where they are developmentally. Instead of teaching them only how to dribble one year and then how to pass the next year, they play the whole game each year.’'

Of course, decreeing that the district would become whole language didn’t automatically make it so. Such a drastic move required fundamental changes in the day-today business of schooling.

Much about Upper Arlington’s traditionalmodel high school and middle schools was inconsistent with the whole language philosophy. The lock step 50-minute periods didn’t permit the interdisciplinary, thematic approach to teaching and learning that is the trademark of whole language. Neither did the traditional method of testing and grading students to measure their progress, nor the heavy reliance on textbooks, nor classes with 35 students where teachers did all the talking.

In fact, the very idea of mandating a program is inconsistent with the whole language philosophy. The first hurdle, district administrators acknowledge, was to get the teachers on board. From the start, superintendent Homer Mincy, Allen, and their administrative colleagues made an effort to involve teachers in the changeover. Teachers weren’t forced to alter their teaching styles overnight; instead, they were invited to learn more about whole language methods by attending training sessions, guest lectures, and inservice workshops. They also had the option of gradually integrating whole language into their classes.

One of the first and most sweeping changes to be made was in the area of student assessment. To measure its students’ writing abilities, the district now uses an approach called “holistic assessment.’' As part of a districtwide evaluation process, students in grades 4, 7, 9, and 10 write an essay on a particular topic. Teachers then evaluate the essays based on the notion that the whole of a piece of writing is more important than any single part. Says Allen: “The way you assess shows what you value.’'

Some teachers were so impressed by the approach that they began using it to measure their students’ progress in specific subject areas. “When I score [writing] holistically,’' says high school English teacher Betsy Miller, “I do not simply assess the grammar and the punctuation. I look at the organization, the depth of thought, the creativity of the angle, the liveliness of the diction.’'

Secondary level teachers in Upper Arlington still have to work with a curriculum that is often prescribed by the district; biology students, for example, are required to learn about photosynthesis. But students can now choose how they want to demonstrate what they have learned; they don’t all take the same multiple-choice exam.

“Kids in this school rarely see letter grades anymore,’' Allen says. “We’ve calibrated our standards throughout the school, and more and more content areas are adopting holistic assessment: math, art, history, foreign language. It lets the kids show what they can do and establishes standards for scoring, so you assess their performance--like a diver or a skater.’'

The district has also worked hard to solve another problem: too much to do for too many students in too little time. Teachers’ schedules have been made more flexible, and class sizes have been reduced. In exchange for smaller classes, English teachers now spend an extra class period staffing a schoolwide writing workshop, open to all students. Allen is lobbying for similar changes in other departments.

Course scheduling has also become more flexible; some interdisciplinary classes now span two periods. The middle schools also offer what is called an “informal’’ program, in which the entire curriculum is fully integrated and students don’t change classes as often. This fall, the high school plans to introduce a similar interdisciplinary program, in which students will attend class in three-hour time blocks structured around themes instead of content areas.

Upper Arlington High School’s 11th grade American studies class exemplifies this new approach. “The class is an attempt to integrate two subjects,’' says history teacher Elaine Lehman, who team teaches the class with English teacher Miller. “We use history to support students’ understanding of the literature and literature to support their understanding of the history.’'

Books for the class are carefully selected to cover all the necessary material, so students can’t choose their own. However, Lehman and Miller do allow their students to choose how they wish to demonstrate their knowledge of the material. “Instead of saying to the students, ‘You have to learn what I’m telling you,’ we say, ‘Take this, understand it, and show us what you’ve learned,’' Lehman says.

The results are impressive. Recently, the class studied Richard Wright’s Native Son. Students were asked to show their understanding of the novel by creating a project, which had to include a written component as well as a class presentation. Some students chose to simply present their papers. “We’ve seen dances, paintings, computer programs, slide shows, video, poetry, and fiction,’' Miller says. “We’ve never said these are the possibilities; we’ve left it up to the students.’'

Last spring, for example, two students created a performance art piece, choreographed to symbolize themes from the novel, which they videotaped and showed to the class. One scene showed the two girls dressed from head to toe in white and wearing sunglasses to obscure their vision. Sitting in front of a stark, white wall, they moved black chess pieces wildly across a chess board. They explained to their classmates that this represented how the black characters in Native Son were pawns to the white society, and that whites were blind to the black characters’ plights.

Both teachers say they are often surprised by the sophisticated insights their students express. “When a teacher says, ‘Here are the minimum requirements,’ you’re not going to get much more than that back,’' Lehman says. “But when you say, ‘Here it is; show us what you can do with it,’ students do more than we expect.’'

While the assignments seem highly subjective, students know what’s expected of them. “I have a holistic guide that I make up for every assignment,’' Miller explains. “The students know in advance what an A means. The A paper calls for a higher level of thought, for sophisticated analysis, and for control of the writing. A student might have a high level of thought, but sloppy diction; that won’t get the higher grade.’'

Whole language teachers don’t rely on standardized tests as useful measures of student achievement. Nonetheless, officials at Upper Arlington note that in 1982-83, the year before Upper Arlington began introducing whole language, high school students scored an average of 467 on the verbal portion and 515 on the math portion of the Scholastic Achievement Test. In 1988-89, the average verbal score was 501, while the average math score was 547.

While scores like these may help students get into college, the effects don’t end there. Says Allen: “Whole language teaches strategies and processes that [students] can build upon throughout their lives.’'

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as Making A Change For Good

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