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Teaching in Tough Times: Addressing A Different Sort of Learning Loss

It’s tough out there.

The threats against schools and teachers have never been more devastating. No school appears safe from mass shootings. Schools are redesigning their architecture to protect themselves against gun violence, and dress codes are being rewritten to prevent students from wearing body armor, loose clothing, and backpacks that hide their contents.

From within, few teachers are safe against the punishments that await those who suggest that the nation might have a problem with racism, that LGBTQ+ people exist and deserve respect, that the United States has a tradition of inequity, that women ought to have the same opportunities as men, or even that teachers should have the ability to decide what goes into the curriculum and how to teach it.

Surrounding it all are the conditions following from the coronavirus outbreak of 2020, which spawns new variants seemingly at will. This global pandemic has exacerbated all pre-existing tensions as people have made the disease ideological. Throw in an invasion of a neighbor by an egomaniacal dictator that has destabilized the global economy and political balance, and a new scourge in the form of monkeypox, and you have a world and nation beset by turmoil and anger.

These tensions have made teaching a difficult profession. Addressing problems of discrimination in school may lead to censure and termination. Not addressing them allows inequity to thrive.

The pandemic and resulting shutdowns and shortages have kept students at home a lot, and disengaged when they return. They have fallen behind in developing social skills and classroom skills according to the scope and sequence charts, also known as “learning loss.” The curriculum specifies which skills and knowledge should be emphasized at each grade level. When students fall behind in building these skills and knowledge, we believe that something has been lost.

And so, the world is burning, there are daily protests in the streets either for or against the issue of the day, the direction of the nation is at stake, and people are growing more violent to pursue their ends. That’s a lot to learn about. But the learning loss raising alarms in the press and among school leaders is moreso about whether or not students know how to use a colon to introduce a list, and whether they know it by the second month of the second semester of the second year of high school.

But we are concerned about a different sort of loss: the opportunity to engage with and learn about the volatile social world that frames and forms the rest of students’ lives. Unfortunately, parents are storming school board meetings to prevent such learning. As a result, students learn about social issues through Instagram and Tik Tok, with little opportunity for the critical understandings and reflections that a skilled teacher can promote through inquiry-oriented teaching.

When we say “inquiry-oriented teaching,” we mean the kind of teaching that proceeds from questions rather than settled answers. Often in school, the task is to figure out which of four options provides the correct response to a question. The capital of Georgia is Atlanta, not Savannah, Macon, or Hopeulikit. And that’s all there is to it.

In our new book Teaching Literacy in Troubled Times, we collaborate with teachers to present concept-themed units aimed at helping students study the social issues that surround them every day. We try to create a civic discourse in the classroom that relies on listening to opposing views and addressing them respectfully, even when talking about sensitive topics like racism and patriotism.

The inquiry approach we present asks questions whose answers are not settled. They are open to discussion and disagreement, and disagreement is the iron that sharpens iron in discussing ideological questions. The teacher’s challenge is to help students investigate what concerns them, without imposing an ideology on students’ perspectives or allowing aggressive and forceful students to dominate discussions.

The approach is inductive. Students are given materials to make sense of the world without being required to take someone else’s position. The questions they pose originate in their interests in learning more about the world around them. They have the opportunity to incorporate a variety of disciplines into their inquiries. They have the opportunity to learn how to disagree, to listen reflectively, to express themselves respectfully: to engage in civic discourse.

We hope that teachers can find ways to make the social world the center of the curriculum and provide their students with tools for inquiring about it.

The perspective we offer might be challenged by those who wonder: What has that got to do with an English class? Plenty, we think. Literary themes are available for virtually all topics. Students will read and write on many occasions, and will have a final product that presents their perspective on a difficult social question. Then, it really matters how students use a colon in a sentence, because punctuating sentences helps them express themselves clearly.

Learning loss? It’s happening every time schools shut down explorations of imminent social issues. We hope that teachers can find ways to make the social world the center of the curriculum and provide their students with tools for inquiring about it.

Written by

Allison Skerrett is Professor of Curriculum and Instruction and Director of Teacher Education in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin. A former secondary English teacher in Boston Public Schools, Allison continues her commitment to secondary English teachers, students, and ELA curriculum and instructional practices through her teaching and research at the University level. Dr. Skerrett works with secondary English pre-service and in-service teachers as a teacher educator. Additionally, her research focuses on diverse adolescents’ literacy practices and the design and implementation of secondary English curriculum and instructional practices that reflect the strengths and needs of diverse student populations. She is the co-author of the book Teaching Literacy in Troubled Times: Identity, Inquiry, and Social Action at the Heart of Instruction.

Peter Smagorinsky is Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Language and Literacy Education at The University of Georgia, emeritus; and Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the Universidad de Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico. From 2012-2020 he served as the faculty advisor to the student-edited Journal of Language and Literacy Education at UGA; and from 1996-2003 he coedited, with Michael W. Smith, Research in the Teaching of English. Recent awards include the 2020 Horace Mann League Outstanding Public Educator Award, 2018 International Federation for the Teaching of English Award, and 2018 Distinguished Scholar recognition by the National Conference on Research in Language and Literacy. His research and teaching take a sociocultural approach to issues of literacy education, literacy teacher education, and related social concerns. He is the co-author of the book Teaching Literacy in Troubled Times: Identity, Inquiry, and Social Action at the Heart of Instruction.

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