Teach more content, please

I’m going to admit one of my biggest secrets here on the Net—I watch American Idol. OK, now that that’s done, I’ll proceed.

My youngest loves to sing and decided, after watching Peter Pan at the Muny, to be on stage some day. Since music is not one of my talents and she is still quite young, I asked a musically inclined friend for advice. He suggested just exposing her to a wide variety of music. I thought about that advice last season while watching American Idol; it was obvious to me that both of the two finalists were comfortable with an array of musical styles and had experience with them. Several of the top ten were true “just off the street” beginners, which really showed as they made it further in the contest. They were able to sing really well the style and songs they were used to but struggled when pushed out of their comfort zones and when asked to learn more songs each week. Those who had been performing for a long time (a lifetime, really) could pull from a wide background even if they knew the style the wanted to sing professionally. The winner needed to do more than just practice scales but to be familiar with the history of music and use that to help him develop his craft.

Likewise, kids need to know about the world around them to read. Practicing decoding is not enough. Studying vocabulary, even word etymology, isn’t enough. In fact, discussing the finer points of well written fiction isn’t enough. Kids need to be exposed to a myriad of topics and to experience a wide variety of activities to comprehend what they’re reading. The YouTube clip above demonstrates this well. (hat tip Matthew K. Tabor)

I can think of three ways to increase the content of what is taught in the elementary schools.

1. By upper elementary school students should be spending more time on content rather than process. As a booklover myself, I love the fiction that elementary teachers encourage and appreciate the variety of styles they require (mysteries, historical fiction, science fiction, etc.). I understand that kids pick up a lot about the world around them by reading fiction, especially if directed to certain books and genres. However, students rarely are required to read non-fiction except academic books such as textbooks and an occasional biography. I love Jay Mathew’s idea of assigning a non-fiction book to high school students and would like to see this start in elementary school.

2. Most schools use an incredibly high percentage of their minutes for reading with math taking up the lion’s share of the rest. Science and social studies are given substantially less time. Some teachers will make the most of their time, essentially double dipping it, by assigning books that relate to the science or social studies topic being covered. Well organized teaching teams can plan together to include other specials also; for example, elementary Spanish teachers can coordinate science or social studies topics when possible. Still, a more balanced schedule would give appropriate time for all areas, especially important in districts that can’t rely on the families to take the kids on a lot of vacations throughout the country (Williamsburg!) or make frequent trips to the Science Center. Adding time to the school day is probably needed.

3. Make the science and social studies MAP tests required, not optional. What gets tested gets taught.

I would love to hear other ideas. I especially liked the baseball and cricket examples in the YouTube clip above. Don’t miss it!