Politics & Policy

Fuzzy Reading

Columbia University Teachers College offers a feel-good reading program.

Last year, New York City parents objected to reading books put in their local school’s sixth-grade classroom library. They complained about Am I Blue?, a collection of stories about gay teenagers, and You Hear Me?, an anthology of poems written by teenage boys. You Hear Me? contained a ditty called I Hate School that included the rhyme, “F*** this sh**, up the a**. I don’t think I’ll ever pass.”

The New York Daily News gave the event headlines, and the principal removed the books. But the incident only scratched the surface of a much broader problem nationwide. Public schools and students are being bombarded with texts of questionable quality, many of them coming from an unexpected source, the Columbia University Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.

For many educators, not just in New York City but nationwide, the Project and its “process method” is a creed. It is a beacon to teachers all over the nation, drawing on a method that departs from traditional content and language skills. The system employs trendy content, stresses children’s own “voices,” and writing as a “process.”

As a result, in New York and all over the country, countless kids are taught to read and write using freewheeling methods that fail to deliver vital language skills. The system is long on promises and short on delivery, and there’s no good evidence that it actually works. “No independent research backs the efficacy of her programs,” said Barbara Feinberg, a well-regarded children’s book author, in a Hoover Institution review of the Calkins method.

Founded 20 years ago by the charismatic Lucy Calkins, the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project has spurred a revolution in classrooms nationwide. It’s hard to overstate the impact on reading and writing instruction. About 105 New York City schools have some kind of relationship with the project, and at least 10,000 New York City teachers have gone through Calkins’ workshops. The project has millions of dollars in city contracts.

High-priced consultants fan out each summer for teacher workshops all over the country. This summer’s workshops for primary grade teachers featured Sharks, Magda’s Tortillas, and Stuart Little at the Library (no relation to E.B. White except for the graphics).

“We select poems and picture books that make us all laugh and fall in love with words,” Calkins has written of her reading choices. Translation: In the name of joy and up-to-the-minute content, juvenile classics are rendered extinct.

“We are putting books in their hands that they want to read,” Calkins said when the New York City parents complained. She insists her method gets kids reading and writing — and, ultimately, doing it well.

But in reality, thousands of teachers and school librarians nationwide are choosing the wrong books for classrooms and school libraries, thinking this is the only way to get kids to read at all.

Buoyed by the Calkins philosophy, teachers and librarians who are already desperate to find solutions for poor, often non-white, sometimes reading-resistant children, fill schools with books containing easily recognizable situations and here-and-now themes—including “published works that are written by kids.”

Calkins’ project takes a very loose approach to form and structure. When children write, teachers do not correct errors. Students edit each other’s work. The system abandons firm instruction in grammar, spelling and punctuation.

According to Calkins’ reading of the research, “instruction in formal grammar has no effect on the quality of student writing.” If teachers correct errors, they’re cautioned to be ever sensitive that any red pen at all might crush a child’s love of writing.

What all this adds up to is a literacy program aimed at children – many from non-English-speaking backgrounds — that promises to deliver in the way of self-esteem and social justice but is short on academic footing.

Educators who are trained in the Calkins method are well-intentioned. They really do want kids to feel good, and to learn to love to read and write. Who can argue with that?

But devotees set the bar very low. To try to capture kids’ attention, in higher grades, they often seek out narratives that have a whiff of Jerry Springer. Without meaning to, they sanction the vulgar and cheap. While choosing books about French kisses and hating school, teachers willingly sideline what is high-minded.

By shortchanging or avoiding grammar and spelling, trivializing content to try to make easy connections with 12-year-olds, teachers offer a false promise, and ultimately exchange a worthwhile curriculum with a curriculum that will fail to satisfy students in the long run.

It is not surprising that New York parents did not welcome the Calkins reading choices. They are correct to think the project’s elaborate theoretical designs for literacy undervalue what their children are capable of learning.

Gilbert T. Sewall is director of the American Textbook Council.

Gilbert T. Sewall is currently a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Since 1989, he has been director of the American Textbook Council in New York City. Sewall is a former history ...


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