Caution: the Narrow-Minded Misstep

This week I am putting final touches on plans for an upcoming convening that is pulling together dedicated core content teachers to grapple with improving literacy in their classrooms. My preparatory work demanded that I dig into real examples of true disciplinary literacy in social studies, language arts, science, and math. The convening is separated into two groups: humanities one day and math/science the next, and this separation jogged my memory about an ‘incident’, a very telling conversation, I had last spring.

While talking to coaching colleagues in May, I casually made a sweeping statement about English/Language Arts (ELA) classrooms and, in listing key things that I thought to be taught in this course, grammar was near the top of my list. My idea of a focus on learning punctuation and essay structure was lovingly but literally scoffed at. The incredibly thoughtful and invested humanities’ minds at my table instead made it clear that they wanted students to write not to critique grammar, but to expose, discuss and critique ideas. Grammar and essay structure, they continued, are only important as they aid in better communication of these ideas.

In other words, I made the exact assumptions that I fight against every day. I literally cringed at myself.

As a former math teacher and a current math coach, I pretty consistently experience the moment of telling a hair stylist or rental car agent or family member that I’m a math educator only to receive grimaces relating their own poor math experiences.These facial expressions are inevitably followed up by an explanation of the very narrow view of mathematics being referenced. It becomes clear that the math experienced in these remembered classrooms is not the math I try to expose to students. Like ELA classrooms where structure in and organization of writing is important, similar math structures are not the primary driver of a math classroom either. Whether talking about grammar, essay structure, procedural fluency, or mathematical notation, students develop this type of skill set only in service of being able to better communicate the complex ideas of the content. There is no doubt that these are skills that we must help our students develop, but we must continually remind ourselves, our students, and our communities that they are not the end game. These skills are simply an aid to grapple with and express ideas about deep content connections.

So often, as I’m sure I will next week during the convening, I hear a reference to being either a ‘math person’ or an ‘English person’, but perhaps we’re more similar than we let on…