dianne salerni author
dianne salerni author

This will be the final post in a series of Why I Had to Leave Education … for now. (Until something else sets me off.)

When my nephew started third grade at my former school this past fall, my brother-in-law asked me, “What’s this ‘content class’ Joe keeps talking about?”

And I groaned. Because the dismissive term administrators used to refer to science and social studies had finally trickled down through the teachers and is being used with students. That was something I always refused to do. I always called the class science or social studies in spite of what it said on my schedule. (Social studies was a term that confused kids enough, since it included history, geography, civics, and economics). Calling any part of a student’s day “Content” is like — in my daughter’s words — offering a high school class called “Stuff.”

I can trace the use of the term “content” back to a philosophy of education that states: “Process is more important than content.” That is, teaching students strategies for learning was more important than what you were actually learning. The facts themselves didn’t matter. I disagree with this philosophy. Yes, it’s important to teach students how to find the main idea and supporting details in a non-fiction text. It’s important to teach them how to research, how to summarize, how to analyze — how to learn.

But the content matters! Elementary students should be learning the classification of animals (mammals, fish, birds, reptiles, amphibians), the continents and oceans of the world, the difference between climate and weather, the geography of the U.S., the water cycle, etc. These facts produce a wealth of background knowledge that American children should have – and that actually improves their reading comprehension! (Something administrators tend to overlook.) It may be true that in today’s modern world, we can Google anything we want to know, but that does not replace the benefit of having a wealth of information already inside our heads!

I saw this for myself every year when I used a released item from the PSSA as a reading assessment. The story was called Running from the Sun, and it was about two space cadets trying to survive on an asteroid after their shelter explodes. A rescue ship is hours away, and the cadets are in danger of being boiled alive in their space suits when the sun rises. So, they decide to run across the surface of the asteroid – using the low gravity to help them – keeping just ahead of the sunrise until the rescue ship can arrive. It’s a great short story, one of the very few reading tests from the PSSA that was worth reading on its own (exciting, with themes of friendship, perseverance, and bravery) as well as an excellent reading assessment.

Over the years, I saw reading comprehension greatly decline on this test. Why? When I started using it, I could count on fifth grade students knowing what an asteroid was and some facts about space. In my final year of teaching, most students did not know even the most basic concepts necessary to understand the story.

The final blow for me, as a teacher, came last year when the 60 minute Content class was slashed back to barely 30 minutes to make room for RTII – Response to Instruction Intervention. What the heck is that? It’s a Pennsylvania mandate requiring reading intervention for 100% of students, based on data from diagnostic tests. For RTII, each teacher in my building was assigned 2 or more different groups for reading intervention, including a “core” group that didn’t really need intervention but was going to get it anyway. The groups ran for 6 weeks, and then we would have 2 weeks off to analyze the data and form new groups.

What did we do with the 2 weeks in between?  Here’s a quote from my former principal:

“Keep up with the reading strategy instruction. I don’t want to see you using those 2 weeks to sneak more content in.”

Sneak more content in. Remember: Content is science. Content is history. Not … you know, cigarettes.

This was yet another nail in the coffin for me: Why I Had to Leave.