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It is an important and exciting time for high school English language arts in Michigan as the new Content Expectations we wrote and reviewed are now being implemented across our state.
Much good work on the part of teachers, administrators, and other educational specialists is helping to raise standards and expectations. The teaching of reading, writing, speaking, listening, and visually representing is being extended, deepened, and enriched in line with best practice in language arts research. We applaud these efforts to better prepare Michigan students for higher education and the work force.
At the same time, reports we have heard from Michigan teachers about the implementation of the new language arts standards greatly concern us.
In some districts the language arts standards are being put into practice in rigid and restrictive ways, narrowing, rather than supporting, the freedom of local teachers to make decisions about curriculum and instruction. In some schools, the standards are being implemented without due respect for the complexity, diversity, and recursive nature of language arts learning. In some classrooms simplistic and uniform assessments are being put in place that undermine the authenticity and individuality of student learning.
Such practices were not the intent of the English Language Arts Content Expectations that we wrote and reviewed. Indeed, these practices may undermine the high expectations for rigorous learning set by the new standards and lower student scores on state required assessment tests.
Learning in the language arts is highly complex, dependent on student interest, engagement, and relevant and meaningful immersion in language and culture. The teacher's content knowledge, interests, creativity, and passion are critical to guiding learning in our discipline. These understandings are crucial to the new Michigan language arts standards, standards far superior to the rote and simplistic standards found in some other states.
The new Michigan standards and content expectations should not be turned into check off lists. Skills in writing, reading, speaking, listening, and visually expressing are not simply learned and then "checked off," as if that skill was over and done with. Instead, as the standards state, language arts skills are "recursive and reinforcing processes; students learn by engaging in and reflecting... at increasingly complex levels over time."
The new State of Michigan Language Arts standards do NOT mandate specific curricular content or literary works. No specific content or literary work is or will be required on state assessments of student learning in the language arts. The model curriculums that are provided by the Michigan Department of Education are sample and suggestive possibilities, but no school or teacher is required or expected to adopt these samples.
The standards, are, in fact, designed to create the flexibility teachers need to create outstanding curriculum. In the case of Standard 3 literature, for example, teachers are urged to select from "rich and varied selection of classical and contemporary, literary, cultural, and historical texts from American, British, and world traditions." Teachers are encouraged to utilize "a variety of literary genres representing many time periods and authors" and examples include "science fiction" as well as "myths and epics," "hyptertext fiction" as well as novels. (3.2). Teachers are urged to draw on "knowledge of literary history, traditions, and theory" (3.3) as well as "mass media, film, series fiction, and other texts from popular culture." (3.4) Obviously, the standards are not intended to foster simplistic, "cook book," or "one size fits all" approaches.
Indeed, good curriculum is not static; it evolves with experience, new knowledge, and changing students. For example, given the particular background and interests of her inner city students, a teacher in SW Michigan has developed an entire year language arts curriculum around The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Her curriculum addresses a series of vital issues raised by the book, including youth violence, racism, learning to read, social change, Islam, and world citizenship. It is tied to a range of relevant historical and popular cultural texts, and to a careful and extensive selection of other literary works with closely related themes. Although such a curriculum is not, at present, included as a "model," it fulfills a great number of the Michigan content expectations, and -- more importantly -- it is engaging and transforming the lives of students.
There are any number of appropriate and effective ways to organize curriculum, by theme, genre, nationality, period, ethnic group, or author. Given the diversity of students in many classrooms, it is often wise to teach multiple texts simultaneously, using literature circles, workshops, and individualized and independent instruction. It is also important to preserve a variety of pathways through four years of English studies, including focused elective classes that can play their role in helping to meet the variety of standards. The opportunity to dig deeply into a specific area or strengthen a particular skill, is necessary to developing the in-depth thinking and mastery of tools necessary for college and workplace success.
While there are many stakeholders in the education of every child, it is each individual language arts teacher working in his or her own classroom who must, in evaluating their students, have the primary decision making responsibility for implementing the new Michigan standards. As the standards document states, "Classroom teachers have extensive content knowledge, an ability to make on-going, data-driven curriculum decisions... Teacher passion and creativity is essential to learning."
Throughout the new content expectations is the abbreviation, "e.g." from the Latin "exempli gratia" meaning "as an example." These examples are not mandates; they are suggestive possibilities to spur meaningful learning in the enormous range of Michigan classrooms. The standards we wrote and reviewed do not create a license for curriculum specialists at the state or district or building level to mandate content, curriculum, or assessment to classroom teachers. Instead, as the standards state, they are designed to "support conversations" that result in "rigorous and relevant curriculum."
As the standards state: "Students learn best by being actively involved in high quality, challenging experiences; they demonstrate their learning best in authentic contexts. Not all skills are easily testable, especially on standardized tests; therefore, the curriculum must not be limited to teaching skills that are so tested." When students engage in content responsive to and extending their interests and abilities they will not only better learn language arts skills, they will develop the habits of reading and writing outside of school that are essential for skill development.
In some schools teachers are being asked to address all 91 content expectations equally in every language arts course. Instead, the standards state the exact opposite: "students and teachers are not expected to spend equal time on each strand or standard." It is highly significant that, unlike the K-8 standards, the high school standards are not written course-by-course or grade-level-by-grade-level, but instead create freedom and flexibility.
We wrote and reviewed the 91 content expectations with the clear understanding that each expectation was to be addressed at least once over the four-year high school span -- not in every year or course. Many of the expectations will be covered multiple times, and others less frequently, decisions that can and should be made by teachers.
We are hearing of districts where teachers are being told that every student in every section of the same course should be on the same page of the same book at the same time, or that every section needs to have the same curricular units or the same assessments. Teachers simply cannot maintain high standards for all of their students if they are forced to give the same activities, assignments, or tests to everyone. This kind of standardization reduces learning for all and goes against both the spirit and the letter of the standards we wrote and reviewed.
The important challenge and significant role for districts is not to create "check-off lists" or "common tests," but to support teachers engaged in the challenging work of curriculum development, meaningful instruction, and authentic assessment. Teachers need time for collaboration, funding for new texts, and access to Internet resources. They need support for professional development, including graduate work, Writing Projects, and professional organizations.
The new standards should be leading to an outburst of new curriculums and approaches, as Michigan sets an example for the nation in high quality, creative, relevant, rigorous, and engaging language arts teaching. Consider sharing your work and what you are learning from implementing the standards at the website http://mienglishstandards.wikispaces.com/.
Signers and Co-Signers of this letter:
Michigan High School Content Expectations: English Language Arts:
Dr. Allen Webb Western Michigan University
Dr. Rebecca Sipe Eastern Michigan University
Dr. Ellen Brinkley Western Michigan University
Dr. Linda Adler-Kassner Eastern Michigan University
Dr. Susan Steffel Central Michigan University President, Michigan Conference on English Education
Dr. Marilyn Wilson Michigan State University
Open Letter Co-signers:
Dr. Julia Reynolds Aquinas College President, Michigan Reading Association
Dr. Elizabeth Brockman Central Michigan University
Dr. John Dinan Central Michigan University
Dr. Jan Dressel Central Michigan University
Dr. Susan Griffith Central Michigan University
Dr. Troy Hicks Central Michigan University
Dr. Howard Parkhurst Central Michigan University
Dr. Laura Renzi-Keener Central Michigan University
Dr. Marcy Taylor Central Michigan University
Dr. Janet Bobby University of Detroit
Dr. Doug Baker Eastern Michigan University
Dr. Cathy Fleisher Eastern Michigan University
Dr. Bill Tucker Eastern Michigan University
Dr. Patricia Bloem Grand Valley State University
Dr. Mary Anna Kruch Grand Valley State University
Dr. Nancy Patterson Grand Valley State University
Dr. Robert Rozema Grand Valley State University
Dr. Jill VanAntwerp Grand Valley State University
Dr. Brian White Grand Valley State University
Robin Roots Lansing Community College
Dr. Laura Roop University of Michigan
Dr. Laura Apol Michigan State University
Dr. Fred Barton Michigan State University President, Michigan Council of the Teachers of English
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