Is everyone else up to his eyeballs in end-of-the school year minutiae? Does anyone have time to read her email and catch up on anything other than secondary school essays, exams and grades? As we end another school year, I would like to suggest a few books that I have found stimulating, useful, and particularly helpful in revising my own attitudes towards applying writing across the curriculum (WAC) and in reflecting on the way I teach. Although these books may not deal exclusively with WAC, they do have something important to say about pedagogical issues that we should consider when teaching with communication across disciplines. One caveat before I begin my list--these are just a few suggestions, so I hope you will send me your recommendations, too.
The first book that I highly recommend for the ideas it offers is The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools by Alfie Kohn (Heinemann, 2000). Forget the fact that this book gives us as teachers the ammunition to fight the political momentum to judge the effectiveness of teachers and schools by standardized test scores. That alone made me happy, but more important than that are the philosophical ideas that support so much of what we do in WAC programs. In an interview in The Independent School (Fall 1999), Kohn describes how he asks teachers or parents:
What do you want your kids to be like long after they've left you and left school? And everywhere people say: We want our kids to be caring, compassionate, creative, curious, life long learners, responsible decision-makers, good communicators, and so on (92).
Kohn's premise is that standardized tests do just the opposite. This book is divided into the following sections: "Measuring What Matters," "The Worst Tests," "Burnt at the High Stakes," "Poor Teaching for Poor Kids," "If Not Standardized Tests, Then What?" and "Fighting the Tests." The question-and-answer format makes it extremely reader friendly. One of the points that Kohn makes in The Case Against Standardized Testing is that "genuine accountability and authentic standards are undermined by a myopic emphasis on testing" (46). His ideas for classroom engagement through writing and discussion support most of what we believe in the WAC movement. At 66 pages, this book is a quick but important document for all educators to read. For more information and depth of discussion on teaching and learning, Kohn himself recommends his book from which this one was adapted, The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and "Tougher Standards" (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).
The next book I wish to mention is Taking Measure: Perspectives on Curriculum and Change by Clem, O'Neil and Wilson (NAIS, 1998). Whether you teach in a public or independent school, this book is a valuable resource. The authors define curriculum as encompassing "all of the planned learning experiences that children have under the auspices of school" (7). Each chapter provides an interview with a leader in the specific area of focus for that chapter, including Grant Wiggins, Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Geneva Gay, Howard Gardner, and Rob Evans. Also, the authors quote classroom teachers throughout and include at least one "Try This" activity in all chapters. This book is a great guidebook for focus on teaching and learning, assessment and content, adult learning and change, and leadership and change. The authors begin with the guiding principles that they believe can most transform the way we work together in schools, then present a group of thought-provoking concerns with specific suggestions. They follow with a realistic list of obstacles to changing the curriculum: "time; faculty workload; boundaries between divisions, departments and academic disciplines; college admissions, Advanced Placement tests, and other forms of standardized and competency testing"(118). To end on a positive note, they recommend several specific ways that we can approach these obstacles from different angles: "Flank them, so to speak"(119). Although supposedly directed at educational leaders, this book gives all of us a chance to think about CAC within the framework of our own institutional curricula.
Brookfield and Preskill's Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms (Jossey-Bass, 1999) offers great support for communication across the curriculum. In fact, my interdisciplinary course team teaching partner Michael Lowry and I decided to focus on their ideas in our session at the National WAC Conference this May/June at Indiana University. We both felt that Brookfield and Preskill's ideas apply to planning discussion, written discussion, text-based discussion, and email discussion for interdisciplinary courses. The authors first describe and explain the dispositions that students and teachers need to practice discussion-based classrooms: "hospitality, participation, mindfulness, humility, mutuality, deliberation, appreciation, hope, and autonomy"(8). If students and teachers practice these dispositional ideals, then, the authors say, discussion will bring certain benefits, which they list in the second chapter. Several of these benefits directly tie into WAC; for instance, developing the capacity for clear communication of ideas and meaning, becoming connected to a topic, and developing habits of collaborative learning (23). One activity that many of our colleagues forget to spend enough time on is preparing for discussion, and the authors devote an entire chapter to preparing, to getting the discussion started, and to evaluating discussion. Before evaluation, the authors include two chapters on ways of keeping the discussion going, dealing with culturally diverse classrooms and gender differences. Finally, the authors approach the concerns of balancing the students' and teachers' voices in discussion. This book makes me want to go back and reread it just to refresh my memory of ways I may approach prewriting discussions or discussions that lead to student-created research topics, for instance.
My final selection for this year is Assessing Writing Across the Curriculum, edited by Duke and Sanchez (Carolina Academic Press, 2001). Written by elementary, middle, secondary, and university teachers across disciplines, this book offers practical applications of WAC and its assessment in the classroom. The editors have divided the book into three sections: "Rethinking our Methods," "Crafting Assignments and Assessing the Products," and "Staff Development." In the foreword, Duke and Sanchez state, "We have chosen to focus this book on assessment of writing to learn. . . We see assessment as a process for gaining useful information about student learning that can assist us in making appropriate decisions about our teaching. Equally important, however, is how we communicate with our students about the results of that assessment" (viii). Whether an experienced English language arts teacher or a teacher of another discipline, all can learn how to implement writing to learn more effectively from this book. Each chapter in this book gives the reader valuable tools for assessing student learning and sharing that information with students. The Appendix offers readers resources for teaching and assessing writing across the disciplines in the form of a short but annotated bibliography.
I have barely scratched the surface of these important resources that would be beneficial to secondary administrators and teachers of all disciplines, teachers of education courses in universities, and education majors in higher education. After reading this column, I hope you will send me your recommendations so that I may use them in a similar column next spring. Just email me at email@example.com. I look forward to receiving and reading your suggestions. Have a great summer.
Brookfield, Stephen D. and Stephen Preskill. Discussion as a Way of Teaching: Tools and Techniques for Democratic Classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999.
Clem, Steve, Karin H.O'Neill and Z. Vance Wilson. Taking Measure: Perspectives on Curriculum and Change. Washington, DC: NAIS, 1998.
Duke, Charles R. and Rebecca Sanchez, eds. Assessing Writing Across the Curriculum. Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 2001.
Kohn, Alfie. The Case Against Standardized Testing: Raising the Scores, Ruining the Schools. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 2000.
Publication Information: Childers, Pamela B. (2001). Summer Reading or Preparing for the Next School Year. Academic.Writing, http://wac.colostate.edu/aw/secondary/column3.htm
Publication Date: May 15, 2001