Letâ€™s face it, one of the biggest obstacles for elementary school teachers to overcome to feel safe teaching and doing much outside of language and math instruction, is the notion that students have to have mastered those subjects to be successful in school and in life. Many teachers donâ€™t feel that they have permission to do anything else as long as their students lag behind in those important subjects. Many feel their professionalism is at risk if they do more, and at many schools teachers are under the thumb of administration to not go outside language and math except where other subjects can be covered by reading about them, and writing keyword summaries about them, and other similar activities.
Teachers want whatâ€™s best for their students, and the predominate thinking now is that this focused language and math instruction is what is best – especially for struggling students and second language students. If you observe in classrooms where this kind of focused teaching is going on, you see very good stuff happening. You donâ€™t see techniques or lessons that make you think, â€œThis is bad teaching,â€ or â€œThis is bad technique.â€ In fact you come away impressed because it is effective, good teaching. In primary grades especially, test scores are often very good or on the rise, which fuels the belief that this is the right path.
OK, whatâ€™s the point? The point is that the fly in the ointment is that science and social studies and art, PE, and REAL project based work and learning are part of literacy and being literate. You canâ€™t leave them out and expect literacy to come into full bloom any more than leaving out phonics or vocabulary or fluency or comprehension skills. Those subjects and all they entail are actually part of learning to read and do math because they are the schemas and substance that makes language and math make sense. You can make great strides temporarily without them, but at some point (about 4th grade from my experience) students hit the schema and analyzing context wall (and a few other walls too) without the knowledge of the real world and the understanding of accomplishments and defeats and what they mean and are like to experience.
Students that have never played sports or participated in hard physical work like running canâ€™t imagine how great or difficult the feat the character in the story just managed is. They donâ€™t understand the joy of winning, or the frustration of losing, or the feeling of trying your best, or many other experiences involved. If you never made the flour/salt relief map of the country or state, or put the soda can that you have boiling on the hotplate upside down in cold water and watch and hear as it collapses under the weight of our atmosphere, how do you appreciate or relate to things like that that happen in books? On a less academic note â€“ itâ€™s just too antiseptic and boring and wrong without those experiences and some common experiences that help relate everything.
This isnâ€™t a choice between doing science and the other subjects and experiences and learning to read and do math. You canâ€™t do one without the others. And hereâ€™s the really bad news â€¦ it is probably going to cost more to do a good job of it. Because to do it you canâ€™t cut the time spent on those great literacy lessons mentioned earlier, weâ€™ll have to add time to the year and possibly the day (like most of the rest of the world already does) and that will cost more. We will need to provide the learning tools needed to leverage and magnify and present that knowledge, technology, which students need to master if the U.S. is going to compete in this â€œFlat-Worldâ€ anyways â€“ and that will also be a money investment – as will the physical education and sports programs we should put back into elementary schools and all schools nationwide. This would be just about the best money our country ever spent.
Learning should be messy, not antiseptic.