The Healthy Skeptic

The Healthy Skeptic

by Kate Roberts, a member of The Educator Collaborative

Soon, my next book will be published. I am proud of it, but also awfully nervous to see it fly off into the world. See, it’s a little bit controversial. I am a die-hard Readers Workshop person. I believe in choice, and independence, and student centered teaching. That is my true north. And yet, in this book, I argue for the worth of the whole class novel, of every kid reading the same book for a chunk of time, some of the time. *

This was not where I thought I would be. As I began working with teachers around the country to develop engaging, rigorous, choice based reading workshops, I was asked continuously about the whole class novel. “Can I teach To Kill A Mockingbird/Because of Win Dixie/insert favorite title here?”

I knew what to say, the reasons why many educators choose to avoid putting a whole class of kids in one text for a long period of time: engagement, volume of reading, text difficulty, personalized learning. I knew these reasons, and I still agree with almost all of them. What’s more, my heroes mostly – if not only – spoke in this way, and I modeled myself after them. (Thank goodness, because I became so much better at teaching!)

This was my community. This was what my community said. And I agreed. Mostly.

 

But…

 

There was this other voice in my head and heart. This very quiet one, that was….skeptical. Is it true that every whole class novel is un-engaging? Is it always true that being in a tough text will not teach you to read more powerfully? Is it ever worthwhile to read as a community, to read a text someone else chooses for you, one that you would never read on your own? How could it work better? Can we bridge the gap?

It is from here – from these skeptical questions, these “buts” – that I began to work in classrooms in new, scary ways that helped me to articulate one way we could consider using whole class texts in ways that keep readers at the center. It is from the skeptic that this book was born.

I believe in the power of healthy skepticism. I believe that while listening and learning is essential to growth, so is questioning, problematizing, and critiquing, particularly when everyone around you is jumping onboard. By listening to the “buts” in your heart – at your PD session, during that webinar, and as you read that professional book or tweet – I believe you serve three high ideals that better us all. When we are healthy skeptics we:

  1. Push to make the work the best it can be.
  2. Feel a sense of ownership and integrity over our own professional life.
  3. Nurture the best in everyone around us.

I believe that while listening and learning is essential to growth, so is questioning, problematizing, and critiquing, particularly when everyone around you is jumping onboard.

I have so many of these “buts” in my head right now, as I’m sure you do too. Are templates always bad? Is Teachers Pay Teachers always the lazy way out? What about grammar instruction? I do not have the answers to these questions yet, but they are the beginning of future research, of hard work, of collaboration and practice and lots and lots of productive failure.

It is difficult to find this balance of healthy skepticism and open-mindedness. Too skeptical, too vocal, and we become that guy in the room – the one everyone cringes listening to at the staff meeting. We need to stay open, to think and mull, to find the right time and place for our questions. Too open and we find ourselves parroting back things a speaker said that we don’t even know if we believe – it’s just that she sounded so good saying it at that workshop and everyone else seems to agree so….

 

Here are a few ways we can nurture the healthy skeptic in all of us:

1. Listen critically, especially to the people you agree with.

This is hard. If you are like me, you have many professional “crushes,” teachers who inspire you, fill you with energy and help you to see answers to tough questions in your practice. And yet when we like someone, we have to be particularly careful not to automatically nod along. I liked President Obama. But I did not like his drone program, his education policies, and many other moves I believed to be unproductive or abhorrent. Both can exist. I work to listen for the “buts” when I am listening to my heroes, not to tear them down, but to build me up.

2. Name your biases.

We all have them: beliefs about teaching that we wear like a cloak into every encounter. I try to name mine so that I can be aware of the other “side.” For example, my bias will always be for choice, and for skills and strategy instruction. By naming this as my bias I can pause when I find myself automatically disagreeing with someone to see whether I think they are wrong, or if they are simply presenting an alternate model or method of teaching – one that might have value and might make me better at what I do.

3. Constantly ask: Do I agree with that? Do I agree with all of it?

Rarely, of course, is it a question of all or nothing. More often I agree with that one part of what I learned but not that next part. Or I agree, but not with the intensity or absolutism surrounding the idea. An example: I have come to realize that I do not agree with always assessing a child’s reading level and holding them to that level, and yet I also do not subscribe to never guiding kids to levels that they can read with strength. In the course of my career I have been at one extreme or another, but I am now in a place where my relationship with reading levels is close, but more flexible. It’s important to break down the parts and levels of absolutism within arguments, methods, and models to see which resonate for us and which give us pause.

4. Search for a wide range of teachers.

As I began chasing down some of my questions about whole class novels, I began to read up on people whom I had avoided before, who I somehow had designated “against” what I believed. And, well, I disagreed with a lot of what I read. I even got angry. (How can you honestly argue for the canon 2018?) But more importantly, I learned. These teachers, authors, and speakers pushed me, they made me smarter, they introduced me to ideas and practices that felt very true but that I had never given time to consider. By learning widely in our field, we can only get better.

5. Name what you truly believe in vs. what feels debatable.

As we study widely on our skeptical questions, some truths will emerge. I now believe very strongly, for example, that only teaching whole class novels – one novel for 8-10 weeks where the work is mostly content driven – is not good for most kids. I believe that independence – what kids are able to do without us – is everything in teaching. I believe that our curriculum must strive for relevance, engagement, and meaning. But then there are all of these other things that feel debatable. How long exactly should a whole class novel be? Not sure. How many skills should we focus on in a unit? Lots of possibilities. How much should kids write about their reading? Find what works for you. Developing my own non-negotiables – mine, not my administrator’s – helps me to decide when I stand firm and when I play, and practice, and adapt.

Bonus: Find productive ways to enter into a dialogue.

There is nothing more distracting than the person who sits arms crossed for an entire workshop, peppering the speaker with questions that poke at possible holes in the argument, always bringing up the counterpoints. Even when they are right, it makes the work unproductive for the group, takes all momentum out of the air. Similarly, if my administrator is presenting a whole school focus on close reading, while they are standing in front of the school may not be the best time to bring up my very healthy skepticism. Instead, find productive times to offer up your questions, and be ready to debate. Most importantly, offer an action plan (I was thinking I could try it this way and see how it goes) to help your skepticism feel like more than complaining.

 

Of course, there are dangers to embracing your inner skeptic. People don’t always enjoy pushback, and you may find striking the balance between being annoying and productively critical challenging. And yet if we aren’t skeptical – of the new boxed curriculum at your gate, the “newest” thinking on the block, or even at the next PD workshop I am facilitating, we run the risk of allowing others to tell us how to teach. And when we do embrace our inner skeptic in healthy, productive ways, we are able to use the work of others to craft our careers with even greater depth, investment, and integrity.

 

Skeptics Unite!

 

*See my TheEdCollab Gathering presentation for more on my work with whole class novels right now: (https://gathering.theeducatorcollaborative.com/session-one/session-1-workshop-1-balancing-whole-class-texts-with-choice-reading-in-the-purposeful-joyful-classroom-5-12/)

…and look for A Novel Approach: Whole Class Novels, Student-Centered Teaching and Choice, out February 2018 through Heinemann Publishing.

 

2 comments

  1. Katie Minkalis says:

    This is a topic that we’ve tried to navigate at our middle school too. Like you, I think I can see how to balance my pedagogy with the un-replicable experience of sharing a novel together. But it seems really easy for teachers to bring old thinking to it, rather than new. So…I’m thrilled for your book as I’m sure you’ll bring practical and wise insights to advance our discussions. Can’t wait!

  2. brophycat2015 says:

    Dear Kate,
    Thanks so much for sharing your thinking! My favorite line is
    “Rarely, of course, is it a question of all or nothing.” I keep this in mind whenever I am am faced with choices about how to teach; and as you know, every day, every group of students, every lesson is different. It is what I love best about the craft of teaching~ it is truly an art~ one that often depends upon the finest adjustments at any given moment. I am currently in the middle of using a whole class novel in our fantasy book clubs, and one student who is a Star Wars and historical fiction aficionado shared with me, “Mrs. Brophy I can see that this author is a fantastic writer, but I am not really into this book, I don’t know why, I’m just not.” I was happy he felt comfortable enough to share that with me in front of his classmates, as the other students cautiously awaited my response. At that moment I recognized even though we were reading one of MY all time favorite books, each of my students had their own favorites they were equally passionate about. So, lesson learned with this group of students, as we continue our study of fantasy and author’s craft, and I adjust my thinking yet again.

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