29. Controversies about the Subject Area Mastery Statement

Barbara and Mary knew any discussion about the proposed language arts mastery statement would be intense.

Seasoned teachers may argue that everything in the mastery statement is already being done in their classes in subliminal and nuanced ways. To pinpoint behaviors and responses in specific terms is both impossible — even ludicrous.

Experienced teachers might say that evaluating students formatively and individually, using some of the verbs found in the mastery statement, is too subjective. Evidence is vague and teacher opinion slippery. Both operate in the realm of attitude, bias, and belief systems.

The reason for this opinion is historical.

For decades American teaching and learning has been based on a pedagogical discipline that glorifies factual precision, both taught and assessed in concrete ways.

It seems more scientific and fact-based. More measurable and significant.

The antithesis of such thinking is believed to be untethered opinion emanating from emotion or supercilious conjecture. But that belief is grossly unfair to truly professional teachers who, like other learned decision-makers, are effective only when they can plumb the depth of their own intuition and inspired imagination.

The new learning infrastructure depends on the human gift of intuition and imagination, just as much as on measurable facts and statistically measured outcomes.

Expanding on a traditional language arts curriculum is a major challenge.

No one disputes the need for students to prove the extent of their knowledge (as in comprehension). Or to perform in ways established as effective and proper (as in reading, writing, composition and speaking). Those elements are foundational and critical.

But those skills are just tools we use to interact with our world and each other. They are not in themselves symbolic of our intellect, creativity, and resourcefulness.  

Curricular expansion incorporates behavioral outcomes rooted in reflection, deep background knowledge, and broad understandings of the human condition.

That was the challenge faced by Barbara and Mary. To help their colleagues expand on traditional thinking. To ensure the final draft of the language arts mastery statement was not simply “same old, same old” written in outcome language.

  Barbara and Mary’s Story – Part 4

We scheduled a subject area committee meeting when five contiguous hours could be set aside.  With twelve SAC members, not including ourselves, we broke the group into four teams of three each.

Teams were first asked their opinion of the proposed outcomes: as an academic program that traditionally includes basic skills in reading, writing, speaking, and listening. In what way should those intentions for student learning be included, and in what grade levels?

Second, teams were given three outcomes within the proposed mastery statement to review and critique. Recommendations were to be categorized as follows:

  1. Is this outcome appropriate for our K – 12 language arts curricula? If not, should it be in the curriculum of another discipline? Should it be included in ANY district curriculum?
  2. If it is appropriate, does it need to be modified? How should it be addressed at each grade level? In what grades should this outcome be introduced, reinforced, and mastered?  
  3. For an outcome considered appropriate, what does it mean? In what way does it fit conventional or virtual classroom settings, teaching/learning schedules, and dynamic student involvement?

EXAMPLE OF HOW THE FIRST INTENDED OUTCOME MIGHT BE ADDRESSED: Defining reality in the context of decisions made valid through background knowledge and evidence.  

Meaning: Reality is life as we perceive it in our world now and in the future. We define reality by what real people do as they interact with each other in real world settings. They succeed or fail in their personal endeavors as they accurately perceive the world through their own insight and acceptance of available evidence.

It fits conventional or virtual classroom settings in terms of role play and use of scenarios, strategies that require considerable planning and follow-up. Those instructional techniques have significant ramifications for the use of virtual teaching platforms.  

Teaching/learning schedules must be as contiguous as possible and not chopped into abbreviated segments.  

Dynamic student involvement must involve both individual and group interactions.

We were ready for arguments against the first outcome. Arguments that would be repeated in all the other outcomes shown in the proposed mastery statement.

Experienced teachers accustomed to covering a curriculum will say the operant verbs and content fields are extremely broad for all the outcomes in the mastery statement.

Planning lessons for either onsite or virtual classrooms will take considerable time. Implementing those lessons via use of role play and scenarios will be challenging.

Those strategies are especially arduous for virtual instruction.

We were not planning to offer any counterpoint to those perceptions. Because we knew them to be accurate. We discovered those challenges in our teaching. Or preparation for teaching.

Big ideas need big time to convey, so the answer was in allowing time to be the variable. Not a lesson’s content.  

For this first outcome alone, planning and execution of the instructional program would be massive. Even more challenging was the evaluation of student learning.

How could a teacher even begin assessing the effectiveness of students in defining reality?

Students would be asked to make distinctions between what is and is not “real.”

This seemed ludicrous on the surface, but 21st Century technology and political discourse has confused everyone. What we choose as being valid may or may not have authentic underpinnings.

Unfortunately, the English language can be manipulated to justify almost anything by anyone adept at selling an idea or relating an opinion.

Our ability to define reality is inherent to the survival of both capitalism and democracy. Both can be manipulated by people who wish to sway opinion in a direction advantageous to themselves.

Some members of the language arts subject area committee may dig in their heels. Disputing even the first of the many outcomes in the proposed mastery statement.

We must decide ahead of time what is worth debating. What must be accepted? What should be compromised or dropped?

Our curriculum director, Dr. Rebecca Johnson, would join our discussions. She would help us make go/no go decisions. Dr. Johnson would base her decisions on those made by the Curriculum Council and Board of Education.

The Curriculum Council would make decisions based on new learning infrastructure goals. The council would then ask the board to confirm decisions that required major and even expensive modifications in curricular design.

Teaching and learning a more impactful and significant curriculum would mean changes in priorities and the techniques needed to meet them.

Teachers must have the opportunity to offer opinions and arguments that support them. But final decisions about emphasis and expense must be made by those responsible for policy and the acquisition of financial support.

Now the real adventure begins! How will members of the language arts subject area committee discuss and debate the proposed mastery statement? And how will the final decisions be made?  

©2021 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

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