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Literacy and Power

This is a guest post by Susan Biggs

1187874_book_and_character_2I’ve been meaning to take some time to reflect in writing about the conversation I’ve been engaged in recently with a cohort of National Writing Project colleagues concerning Content Area Literacy. I’m a former H.S. English teacher who now works in professional development with my local writing project, the Western Massachusetts Writing Project, working with teachers to improve learning in our schools. The opportunity to guest post here on Joel’s blog seemed like the right time.

Power. I can’t stop thinking that it is all about power. This thought surfaced after reading the article, “Why Content Literacy is Difficult to Infuse into the Secondary School: Complexities of Curriculum, Pedagogy, and School Culture.” The article is a bit dated, 1995, and thank goodness I read it amongst a community of learners. It was a challenge to get through. It is less what the article says, and whether I agree with it or not, and more about the conversations that grew from the collaborative reading process.

In secondary schools, sub-cultures grow out of the separation of content areas and a sense of hierarchy is created through this separation. This, along with the structures within a school, help create this inequity of power. As long as this separation and hierarchy exist, school change will be difficult. In fact, I wonder whether those changes that do happen can be sustained if they exist in a culture and structure that contradicts them.

Take for instance, band at my own children’s middle school. First off, it isn’t considered a piece of the core curriculum. It is pushed aside as “other,” labeled as an elective course. Yet, such important learning happens or could be happening here. Literacy is infused in the world of music. Kids read, listen, speak, and write music. In fact, I’d like to suggest, as many others have, that music education supports and expands all learning. Yet, by not considering it part of the core curriculum, kids and teachers think differently about these courses. It is undervalued. Discipline is always an issue in these courses. And I’d like to question whether that might be rooted in the fact that kids and the school community don’t see these courses as “core.” Interesting how important language is. And why is it that a hierarchy of power exists even within this music education world. At this particular school orchestra reigns (the real serious world of music), band chimes in next, with the world of chorus sitting at the bottom.

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Consider even the name: band. Why not call it “music education,” since it truly is one of three choices students have: band, orchestra, and chorus?

Consider the schedule. It is the first course cut during any shortened day.

Maybe it will maintain this identity and status until the state decides that kids will take one more standardized test—in the area of music. Why do we allow others to tell us what’s important in education and learning?

So, how can we work together as teachers to integrate literacy into our content areas, or unearth and share the literacy education that’s already happening there, if the separation of content areas and the structure of schools encourages us to think that literacy belongs to them—those English teachers?

The question that really echoes inside my head and will guide my inquiry this year is this: What other areas of quality instruction and learning is this structure of hierarchy that we’ve bought into getting in the way of? Power. I can’t help thinking it is all about power. Visit me over at WordPower for more conversation about the power of words and the world of learning.

4 thoughts on “Literacy and Power

  1. Great thoughts here! I remember a few years ago that I decided to get with some of the social studies teachers and tried to collaborate some of my beginning band curriculum with theirs. It never really came together, but if I had spent a bit more time working on it, it would have. We could have been learning Renaissance music at the same time they were studying the Renaissance. We could have played some Chinese music while they were learning about Asia.

    For that matter, music teaches things that apply to every single subject area. I even have my kids introduce concert pieces (speech) and have had them help make posters for the walls and design concert programs (art).

    Most people have absolutely no comprehension of all of the learning that goes on in my classroom. I understand that, but I’m also okay with it. I just keep plugging away, making the kids sound great, and laughing at those who miss out. Because if it comes down to it, I know I can justify my program’s existence based on what I actually do.

  2. How timely is your article to me! I am writing a Literacy Initiative for our middle school with the basic premise “We are all literacy teachers!”. Vocabulary activites and reading strategies across the content areas are at the top of my list. As a music/drama teacher for many years before I went back to teaching humanities, I couldn’t imagine not incorporating the topics they were learning in other classes into mine. It made my planning so much easier!Thanks for your great insights!

  3. You are obviously a thoughtful and passionate educator and you make some astute points about music, administration and the ‘hierarchy of power that exists in the music education world’. However, I would argue the following statement:

    ‘Consider even the name: band. Why not call it “music education,” since it truly is one of three choices students have: band, orchestra, and chorus?’

    Music educators have backed themselves into a corner by relying on academia and specifically, band, chorus and orchestra programs as the mainstay of the profession. Now as programs are being cut, they can only site suspect studies about ‘improved math scores’ or ‘increased cognitive thinking’ for reasons to save their own programs and positions. And herein lies the problem.

    Unfortunately, in too many instances, ‘band’ (and by that I mean band, chorus and orchestra programs) is NOT music education. It is simply a place where pieces of music are taught (rather than musical concepts or history) and musicianship is graded by success at competitions in either a solo or ensemble setting.

    I agree there is a place for these types of programs but it should NOT be mistaken for music education. I would venture to say it more often results in student abandoning their pursuits – how many people do you know say ‘I used to play an instrument in high school’?

    Our university system only facilitates the problem by actually teaching and promoting future educators to be ‘band’ guys and girls. I suggest adding entrepreneurial and business classes to music ed. curricula so that future grads can work privately, in their communities, to reach those 20 somethings, adults and senior students who want access to great music education – not to mention all those kids who want to play piano or guitar. We need to save our profession by thinking more like business people!

  4. Thanks for the amazing discussion all. A few follow up thoughts.

    Joel, I agree exactly, that so much learning goes on in the music, art, tech ed, etc. classrooms! In fact, when I taught middle school Theater Arts, I just moved all my ELA curriculum over into the arts class. And that was when I started having more success. I left that job believing strongly that all middle school curriculum should happen within an arts based program. I guess there are charter and magnet schools out there, trying to do just that.

    I feel fortunate to have my own two children grow up in a community where music programs exist. However, they still lose half their students between 7th and 8th grade. Now, I know this is due to lots of things. But, I also wonder whether it isn’t also connected to the way the school assigns power perhaps without really knowing it. Kids are smart. They pick up on these things. They can even articulate that their school says they value music education, but then why isn’t it a required course? I think it invites kids to behave differently in these classrooms.

    I love Eugene’s thinking about adding business courses to the music educ program at the University, but why not before? I love the cross-curricular aspects of it.

    What I’ve come across when working with teachers, TLBowes, is that there are a lot of math, social studies and science teachers who bawk at the idea of being asked to teach literacy, because quite honestly their curriculum content is huge when in reality they probably already are teaching literacy. We’ve had great success with inviting content area teachers (including ELA) to share what they are already doing. Starting out that way seems less threatening. But, for me right now, it is this term–content area teachers. Who does it include and who does it exclude. And what does this term say about those who aren’t included in this group? Do they have no real content to teach. These are the issues of power in schools I’m trying to explore.
    Thanks for pushing my thinking.

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