Thursday, February 21, 2008

Equality of Subject Areas

I teach 5th grade in an area where my students head off to middle school next year. Their middle school treats 6th grade as a sort of bridge between elementary and middle school. They switch teachers, but have limited options about courses. They are still pulled out of core classes for band, strings, chorus, and gifted and talented services. They have lockers and dress out for gym. It's a good transition year for them, in many ways.

In other ways I feel like they lose out because they aren't in elementary school for one more year. At my school (and I know this isn't true for all, or even most, elementary schools) our students have two and a half hours four days a week for language arts instruction (reading, writing, word study). They probably have an hour and a half on the fifth day. They have an hour, at least, for math instruction five days a week. Science and social studies get less time. My students have thirty minutes four days a week for each of those, at best. Occasionally we'll spend more time on science or social studies when we are really engaged in something. I feel that my students have to be able to read, write, and do math in order to be able to truly understand social studies or science. So I don't have any concerns about how we spend our time (although I love science and social studies and would enjoy spending more time with them).

However, next year they'll have the same amount of time for math class, social studies class, science class, and English class (which will include reading, writing, and word study). What a switch for them! If they remained in elementary school they would still have a greater focus on language arts and math.

This is yet another time where I think tradition and convenience determine how we handle instructional issues. I wonder if one of the reasons we see so many concerns about young people and reading is because of the small amount of attention we give it after elementary school. Does it truly make sense to value every discipline equally? And equally for all students?


Anonymous said...

Jenny: This post really pushed my thinking. Thank you.


A. Woody DeLauder said...

I would argue that we spend entirely too much time on reading/writing/math in elementary school. There is not enough time to explore other subjects. I am a science teacher grades 2-5, and find it hard to get anything accomplished seeing them twice a week for 50 minutes.
Many mundane aspects are still taught in our curriculum. I see many teachers spending time with spelling and memorizing multiplication facts. These are fundamentals that do not need as much focus in the 21st century. I may hear some negative feedback, but facts are facts. Students are asking the same questions... (Why do I need to spend all this time memorizing when a calculator can give me the answer in seconds?),(Why do I need to know how to spell these words, when I can just hit the spell check button?). It seems as though teachers want to make school equivalent to what it was when they went to school. I hear constant cries about kids being lazy. It's not laziness, it's convenience. Just a thought. Thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I think many middle and high school teachers need support with implementing literacy strategies into their content area rather than increasing ELA time. By implementing pre-during-post reading strategies as well as focusing on vocabulary development, using graphic organizers, teaching note-taking techniques, and modeling and incorporating various forms of writing, not only will overall literacy skills improve, but so will students’ understanding of content area concepts and skills. Students’ literacy skills should continue to be supported by teachers of all subject areas K-12.

I agree that elementary schools should devote solid blocks of time to ELA. However, I strongly disagree with students having to be able to read, write, and do math in order to be able to truly understand social studies or science. Teaching math and science through inquiry provides opportunities for students to observe, question, sequence, analyze, compare/contrast, summarize, synthesize, evaluate, communicate findings, and work in an interdisciplinary manner. These are the same key reading strategies we teach in elementary school within the ELA block. Some of my most successful science students were identified as LD and had very limited reading/writing skills. They could reason and think scientifically, generate their own inquiry investigations, had incredible background knowledge, and truly loved the hands-on learning taking place in math and science class. Imagine shortchanging their opportunities to learn in the content areas because someone determined that more ELA time was the answer? A better solution is to develop problem-based learning experiences for students that are truly authentic and can provide rich contexts for both learning and exploring within the content areas as well as provide purposeful settings for developing reading and writing skills.

If anyone has doubts about the importance of teaching science and social studies at the elementary level, please read the recommendations from NSTA and any of the position reports from the NCSS including the report on Social Studies for Early Childhood and Elementary School Children Preparing for the 21st Century.

Jenny said...

Woody: You are saying a lot that I agree with. There are many things being taught that are unnecessary. However, I think students need enough understanding of number sense to recognize when they make an error with a calculator. I'm astounded at how often students end up with an answer that is completely off-base and they don't realize it. Same with spell check, we see students choose words with spell check that don't make sense because they don't have enough basic knowledge.

I say all of this from a standpoint of teaching in a way that is very different from my experience as a child. My students construct knowledge with my support and guidance in all subject areas, not just science and social studies. I think that is one of the problems. We teach science and social studies in ways that are more meaningful and engaging (really best practice), but we don't do the same for reading, writing, and math. I just want more time with my students in order to be able to really explore all subject areas.

Wendy: Thanks for the comments about teaching these skills in all subject areas after elementary school. I hope that is happening because it certainly seems like it makes the most sense for learners.

I hear what you are saying about students who excel in science or social studies but struggle in other areas. I have certainly seen that. My thinking about the need for reading, writing, and math in order to succeed in science and social studies is looking more to those students' futures. Unless things have changed (which is certainly possible), by high school science and social studies classes require a lot of reading, writing, and math.

And I truly don't want to suggest that I don't consider science and social studies important. I do. Wholeheartedly. I just know that we show our priorities by how we spend our time and the differences between elementary schools and secondary schools fascinates me.

Stacey: Thank you. That is the highest compliment I can imagine.

Thank you all for pushing my thinking even more on this.

S said...

Oh, this is a tough one.

As a parent, I want it all! I want there to be time for deep study of language arts and math, but I also fear that there's not enough focus on social studies/history.

Hmm... Can't have it all, Sarah!

Julie Pippert said...


What a good question to pose.

I could write a novel in reply (I have quite a few opinions, LOL) but will try to keep myself short.

Our school system also ends elementary at 5th grade. I'm not sure what to think of this system. I imagine that's because, as you said, there are pros and cons either way.

I do know what I think of how they weight subjects.

I do NOT think it makes sense to weight all subjects equally for all children.

This is why I believe a true certified Montessori approach to education is more successful.

Okay cutting self off.

Great topic!

So glad to see you posing these kinds of questions.

I'm going to pose a question for teachers on my blog soon and I hope you'll weigh in with an opinion of how I ought to go forward as a parent.

Julie Pippert said...

I strongly disagree with the notion of depending upon machines for knowledge, exclusively.

Children need to have facts, basics, of math and reading memorized.


This is because machines don't always know. I am good enough in math and writing to know when a machine spits back an illogical answer. Spell check isn't always right---it can't tell case for you're v. your, for example, or effect v. affect---and grammar check is even worse.

I always found myself at a professional advantage over younger colleagues because I grew up pre-computers, which meant I had to learn them from the inside out.

I operated software and hardware better because I knew how they worked.

My colleagues who were younger had no idea how the operating systems worked behind the fancy GUI curtain.

I think we ALL do better with a background and inside knowledge.

Robin said...

Not to mention they will have no recess....

Lori said...

What a great discussion! My question is, why separate subjects? I agree that reading, writing, and math need to be explicitly taught, but not at the expense of science, social studies and so many other topics. To teach reading, something must be read, so why not a book on how a plant grows or who was the first president? Spelling and grammar must be taught, so why not use prefixes and suffixes used in scientific words as examples to expand vocabulary at the same time? None of these core subjects are used in the world alone, so if we are very intentional not to teach them completely separate of each other, I think the students will be more successful in the long run. Again, I do believe in teaching reading, phonics, grammar, math, etc. explicitly. I just don't think we have to separate them from every other subject to do so.

I also love the point that Wendy made about not needing to have proficient reading and writing skills to understand history, geography and science. Students need to have a chance to learn to think critically in these areas even before they have mastered reading. Being able to apply undeveloped reading skills to a subject that comes naturally to a student will motivate him or her to develop those reading skills.

Jenny said...

Lori: One of the things I love about teaching elementary school is the ability/opportunity to make connections between subjects for my students. We do read and write about science and social studies topics. But, I think it also important that they do experiments and explore historical events more deeply. That's what we can't find enough time for. I'm looking for an answer, but all I come up with is wanting an extra hour or two with my students each day (and then at least that much more planning time). It's a balancing act and I feel like social studies and science are being dropped.