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Reading & Literacy

Baltimore Sticks With Unconventional Reading Program

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — January 17, 2006 3 min read
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Baltimore school officials are standing by their decision to use popular magazines and other nontraditional texts as part of a strategy to engage middle school students, despite criticism from some teachers and community members that the new language arts curriculum lacks rigor and downplays formal grammar lessons.

Even so, Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland has ordered an audit of the curriculum, Studio Course, that she and her colleagues believe will help turn around students’ reading and writing performance.

She defended the curriculum before the 87,000-student district’s school board last month, saying it helps build fluency and comprehension through “activities in reading and writing that have relevance to the outside world.”

With 65 percent of the system’s middle school students scoring below proficient in reading on last year’s state assessment, Ms. Copeland said, the program was selected because “we were not serving the students in our traditional middle schools well enough with our traditional curriculum.”

An audit of the district’s curriculum by the Annenberg Foundation last year found that many students in Baltimore, particularly in the middle grades, “encounter a steady diet of routinized basic-skills instruction that is rarely challenging or motivating.”

Goodbye, CosmoGirl

The literacy program that hit classrooms this past fall came under fire after local newspaper articles suggested that schools were providing students with inappropriate materials, and that important lessons, such as grammar, were being dumbed down. An article in The Sun of Baltimore last month, for example, included complaints that teachers had not received adequate training in the program. The district offered a weeklong training session to more than half the 350 middle school language arts teachers last summer and has continued training others.

Studio Course, a 90-minute daily program that focuses on extensive reading and writing, was designed by Sally Mentor Hay, a former chief academic officer of the Denver public schools, where it is also used. The Baltimore district paid some $500,000 to buy the program for its 23middle schools. It has also spent nearly $1 million to stock classrooms with the fiction and nonfiction reading materials needed for the program.

Much of the criticism in Baltimore has focused on the choice of magazines in some schools. Students, critics said, were reading magazines such as CosmoGirl, a teen-oriented version of Cosmopolitan with articles on dating and other topics that might be deemed unsuitable content. The schools had also used magazines such as National Geographic, Time, and Newsweek, according to Chief Academic Officer Linda M. Chinnia. The district had left selection up to the schools, but has since pulled CosmoGirl and recommended other magazines.

Moreover, at the same school board meeting last month, one parent complained, according to the minutes of the meeting, that her children’s school had just two magazines to share among dozens of students, and that the periodicals were years out of date.

“We can’t afford any mistakes concerning curriculum for our children,” Kenya Lee told the board.

A review panel appointed by the district, which is expected to issue a report at the end of this month, is looking into such problems, Ms. Chinnia said.

Stuff and What It Does

Critics have also questioned whether the curriculum provides proper lessons in grammar and writing conventions. One lesson, for example, refers to nouns as “stuff” and verbs as “what stuff does.” In a letter responding to the objections, Ms. Copeland said, “For years, our middle schools have worked hard at teaching isolated grammar skills, to little yield.” The new curriculum embeds grammar lessons into writing activities.

Experts in the field have suggested that using periodicals and popular fiction, even comic books, in addition to traditional texts, can help motivate adolescents to read more and build their skills.

“Magazines offer students one type of reading experience: They ... offer students a range of timely topics, are colorful, and use photographs, charts, graphs, bold-faced titles, color text, and textboxes as both extensions of and scaffolds to understanding,” Kylene Beers, a senior reading researcher in the Comer School Development Program at Yale University, wrote in an e-mail. “They combine narrative text with expository text,” she said, “and teaching students to read across text structure is critical.”

Ms. Beers, the author of several books on adolescent literacy, added that not all articles in all magazines will be appropriate, and that educators should review selected magazines to make sure they fit their instructional goals.

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