The Missouri Reader Vol. 41, Issue 1 - Page 8



Students need opportunities to work with these alternative forms and to see more than science textbooks (not for alternative information, but to see how scientists report their findings). I taught a group of high-schoolers to read Watson & Crick’s landmark report of their discovery of the structure of DNA. Man it was tough slogging—for them and for me, but we got there, and the kids were enthusiastic about results (they asked their real teacher if they could do more of that).

A counter-example. Last year, I was co-teaching some math classes. The math textbook had been written purposely to place as little reading demand on students as possible. The math book was largely a collection of math problems, without explanation (the teachers capably provided that). That book not only failed to provide kids with opportunities to read math, but the parents hated it because if their children didn’t understand the math, they couldn’t help them to figure it out.

Elementary textbooks and tradebooks often report content information, but they rarely do so from a disciplinary perspective. Historical accounts tend to tell stories rather than revealing controversies, disagreements, or the use of evidence. Science accounts often provide terrific explanations of scientific phenomena, but without much revelation of how this information came into being. And, how often are younger children exposed to literary criticism as opposed to literature.

My point isn’t necessarily that such texts should be included in the elementary curriculum, but if they aren’t then it doesn’t make a lot of sense to try to engage them in disciplinary approaches. Those only make sense when one is reading works that have a definite disciplinary cast or when one is engaged in disciplinary inquiry that includes reading. Until such texts become available—and that could be earlier, but often isn’t until middle school—satisfy yourself with exposing students to lots of informational texts and the knowledge they represent.

Third, disciplinary classes should have a deep dedication to imparting the content of the subjects to students, including information about the nature of inquiry in those fields. What does it mean to work as a historian, scientist, geographer, mathematician, or literary critic? What do they read and why? How do they report their results? What constitutes evidence in their field of study? What does criticism look like?

Some curriculum experts believe that means students have to be engaged in inquiry themselves in the various fields. I like that idea, and it often makes sense. Labs are common in high school sciences, though the lab reporting too often seems distant from how scientists report their findings. In history classes, it has become much more common to see students reading text sets that expose them to conflicting accounts (e.g., History Scene Investigations), so kids can weigh in on contested issues in history.

But inquiry is not without problems (I’ve yet to see a text set that shows students how historians take into account the economic or geographic antecedents of historical events).

Inquiry can be cumbersome and time consuming; it always requires a wise balance of content coverage and the appreciations to be derived from hands-on investigation. And, there are disciplines that simply aren’t amenable to inquiry—math is particularly knotty in this regard (making me wonder if math isn’t different than the other disciplines in that having students acting like nascent mathematicians might not have the same payoffs as trying to read like scientists or literary critics).

In the elementary school, it makes great sense to emphasize learning as well, and there will be times when inquiry is the way to go. (There might be wonderful benefits for writing reports of various types, but such reports tend not to be disciplinary by nature—a report on photosynthesis written by a fourth-grader is going to be more about finding facts in various sources than about reporting scientific information in the way a scientist would).

However, again, that doesn’t mean there is no place for such work in an elementary classroom. Engaging students in trying to solve various kinds of quantitative problems and writing about these explorations makes a lot of sense. Having kids observing some natural phenomenon or conducting an experiment and reading about the phenomenon understudy to