Expected Practices in Literacy and Numeracy

Scary title huh?

Just in time for Halloween!

For those of you who don’t know, I’m referring to a document that should have been distributed to each teacher in TVDSB last year. It outlines the specific direction schools are supposed to take in order to improve literacy and numeracy.

There’s a little phrase in this document sent down shivers down the spines of secondary English teachers across the board, and the phrase is this:

“It is expected that all teachers should eliminate novel studies which focus on the use of one class novel irrespective of students’ reading levels. Students should read text at their independent level during novel studies.”

What does this mean exactly?

I know a lot of teachers were looking for clarification on this, myself included. 

What do they mean by novel study?

Does this mean I can’t teach No Great Mischief to my 4Us? 

And then the questions got really complicated:

One class novel? So what? I have to teach seven different ones now? At the same time?

Independent reading level? So I can have one kid do a novel study on The Outsiders and another do a novel study on Ulysses and they can both get level 4s? 

If a kid can’t read at a grade 12 level, what is she doing in a 4U class?

Deep breath here, folks.

I have problems with the language in this document too, but I don’t have a problem with what I see as being the spirit behind the language. And I think the general idea is this: we don’t want to see a grade nine applied student become disengaged, or fail a course entirely, because a huge chunk of his mark was based on some reading comprehension questions written in 1973 and published in the back of Of Mice and Men. That being said, I think that such a situation is rare. I heard many offended teachers remark that they felt like the board was assuming that the term “novel study” meant that teachers were simply assigning reading and assigning comprehension questions. 

The whole “independent reading level” issue was very contentious as well, and frankly, I don’t even know what to say about it right now.

I think there are a couple of core issues at the heart of this though, that we really need to think about:

1) Do we teach novels? Or are novels the tools that use to teach the curriculum expectations?

  • This is really hard for English teachers, because although I think many of them would agree with the second question, we have very strong ideas about “The Classics”. 
  • It’s also an issue of time and practicality. No one wants to reinvent the wheel or start from scratch, and moving away from the “novel study” as I grew up with it, has huge ramifications for classroom management and assessment. We need support for this (I think that’s my job. Gulp!)

2) Do we use novel studies to assess reading ability?

  • If so, then having leveled texts and assigning the same mark is not fair. 
  • If not, then can we use leveled texts to achieve the same goals?
  • Are novel studies the best vehicles for improving our students abilities to think critically?
  • Aren’t we really just concerned about this in terms of our senior academic classes?

3) Finally, do we really want clearer wording from the board on this?

  • The word used here is “should.” All teachers “should” do this. But I can see situations where depending on a hierarchy of needs in the classroom, this may not be top priority. 
  • If there isn’t clearer wording, then I think teachers, department heads, and principals get to use their professional judgement in deciding what a “novel study” is, and how they will address statement in their own classes, departments, and schools. And I think they’re really in the best positions to do this.

They’re just words, my friends. Words, words words. We English teachers are awfully good with making meaning from words. Let’s do that the best way we know how, while keeping in mind the goal: Helping our students achieve success in whatever ways we can.

6 thoughts on “Expected Practices in Literacy and Numeracy

  1. It seems to me that a wide variety of novels for varying reading levels would make sense in elementary where students are not streamed. In secondary, could we not have a range of novel difficulties that fall within the stream? That would take care of the Outsiders/Ulysses paradox. To my knowledge, resources to support this expected practice are not only not coming, but that budgets for departments are being reduced- at least that is what I heard. Is there a difference between expected practice and best practice? I’m willing to bet that many would argue that there is. Just a thought.

  2. I think we agree on the idea of a range of difficulties that fall within the stream. I think it would be nice for the expected practice document to include something to that effect. And I know at certain schools (hint hint) some departments are already doing this. I would agree that there most definitely is a difference between expected practice and best practice, because I think people can do wonders both good and bad through interpretation.

    In terms of resources, I think the ideal solution would be for there to be money to invest in new novels, at the same time though, while I think this is a worthwhile endeavor for the academic classes, I’m not so sure that it would be meeting the needs of our workplace and applied students. Are novel studies the best way to achieve the curriculum expectations with all our students?

    P.S. Thanks for writing!

  3. The whole notion of differentiated instruction is excellent– in theory. The problem with it, however, is that it assumes that all students WANT to be in class and are excited about learning. In practice, this just doesn’t happen. Therefore, as you’ve pointed out, this whole situation leads to a plethora of classroom management issues.

    Last year, I was the only member of my department (to the best of my knowledge) who tried to use leveled texts… I was the guinea pig, if you will. While I explained how each of the novels had its challenges to my 3C class, I was suprised at student reactions when I distributed the texts. Students who received a novel that was shorter (not “easier” by any means) than the others automatically assumed they were in the “dumb” group and kept on referring to themselves as such (which created an entirely unexpected set of classroom management issues to deal with). Furthermore, even though the class was quite well behaved during the entire semester, when they worked in their literature circles, that all went out the window. Even within the groupings, reading levels (and work ethics?) were so different that some would be ahead and others would be so very far behind. It was a bit of a nightmare…I think that perhaps differentiated assessment might be a better way to go (even using the same text). This is often what happens when split courses (1P/2P or 3C/4C) run.

    I do agree that we may be doing a major disservice to our College/ Applied students by teaching novels. I went to a session at Fanshawe once (you may have been with me, Danika) where the facilitator expressed her frustration with OSSD grads, saying that they could read poems and understand theme and characterization in novels, but they had very low ability with respect to technical writing. She went on to say that their policy was to take 5% off a student’s mark (up to 30%) for grammatical errors. Therefore, a student who achieves 70% on a report but makes 6 major errors fails said assignment.

    Is is perhaps time to abandon creative writing (and the study of it) in College/ Applied/ Workplace/ Essential courses? Eeeek!!!

  4. Kesty, you’re a radical! A radical!
    Thanks for your comments re. lit circles and classroom management. You’ve given me a lot to think about!

  5. Just a thought, do you think it would have made a difference if the students were allowed to choose the novel rather than have them assigned?

  6. I actually considered this… however, I guarantee that the majority of students… especially males… would have chosen the thinnest novel. (And I’m not saying that this would necessarily be a bad thing… but if all but say 3-5 students choose the same novel, aren’t we back to where we started?)I know that in their minds, a larger novel equals more work. This wasn’t the case as the workload was even across all groups. I could talk until I was blue in the face: novels = bad for them, and they would have wanted the shortest novel possible. Apparently size does matter.

    I tried to group based mostly on what they’d be interested in (the novel study was later in the semester so I knew the students pretty well). I also tried to make sure that each student had a few people they were comfortable with in their circle– and this didn’t work to my advantage either. Even the students who were the most focussed and dedicated all semster would immediately talk with their friends about their social lives as soon as I moved to the next group to work with those students. While most students completed much of the work for the unit, I’d wager that the majority of it wasn’t in class.

    I did find it funny how several students in the class asked, “Why can’t we all just read the same novel?!” I know they were used to being more “spoon fed” before in their previous classes as many teachers (including me for certain courses) read large sections (if not all) of their whole class novel studies to the class and then going through it that way. Many of our students thrive on strictly regulated structure (over half of our students have IEPs) and since they had to be a bit more independent in their work (responsible for most of their own reading, etc…) they found it quite difficult.

    I’m going to be trying Literature Circles again with a particularly large (33) and chatty group of 3Us next month. I have 11 copies of each novel we’re looking at… so they can’t all choose the same novel. Perhaps I’ll try to devise some sort of quetionnaire to try and match student interests to the novels.