Louisiana Sunshine

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Nov 22 2009

PRAXIS! (plus some thoughts on reading)

So I’m all signed up for the not-so-cheap PRAXIS II. It was $220, which hurt a little. Thank goodness I don’t have to take the PRAXIS I, too. (You don’t have to take it if your SAT and/or ACT scores are high enough, or if you have a Master’s degree. They are and I do. *whew*)

I feel pretty good about the content-area test (I mean, I’m pretty well educated. Even if I can’t remember 3rd grade science, I bet I can fake it), but I’m SOOO not confident about the PLT (that’s Principles of Learning and Teaching, for all you who haven’t waded into Praxis terminology yet). It tests (surprise, surprise) the kinds of things you would learn in whilst taking an education degree, which of course are exactly the kinds of things I don’t know — all sorts of stuff about childhood development and Bloom’s taxonomy and how to formulate a course objective. There are all kinds of questions that read “All of the following are effective ways to teach xyz EXCEPT…” and I invariably pick the wrong thing. I’d hoped I would have better intuition than that.

I did finally manage to track down a prep book that actually provides some of this information, though. The first one I got (from the library, fortunately. I would be sad to have paid for it) didn’t have any specific info about what the test actually covered (also no explanations of why some answers were right and some wrong–useless). But then a couple days ago, I found one that actually contains a nice 20-page overview of the relevant educational theories/researches/etc. Now for the actual studying…

In more or less unrelated news, I’m currently reading “The Knowledge Deficit” by E.D. Hirsch, which I’m finding riveting. Possibly because it confirms a lot my preconceptions about literacy education, but riveting nonetheless. (And I know, it takes a special kind of person to riveted by an treatise on education, but THAT is why I’m (hopefully) perfect for TFA.) Anyway, Hirsch’s basic argument is that the kind of reading education done in most grades and most schools (ie teaching students reading strategies that are meant to function independently of the text’s actual content and that therefore often use reading passages with fairly vapid or slight content/interest–he uses Open Court-type curricula as a prime example) are only really effective in small doses and in the lower grades. In order to really boost reading comprehension, you need to provide students with enough generalized background knowledge that they can adequately contextualize the reading and glean the unstated information/assumptions without having to strain for it. If they don’t already know 90% of the vocab and have a pretty solid understanding of the context of the passage, then they have to work really hard to generate even minimal comprehension–and this isn’t even the kind of comprehension that we’re thinking about/hoping for when we talk about people learning from what they read. Hirsch cites one study that compared a group of low readers who knew a lot about baseball to a group of high readers who didn’t. They were each given a passage about (you guessed it) baseball, and the researchers found that the low readers exhibited much better comprehension of the passage, even though their reading skills were generally inferior — because they already possessed a base of knowledge about the content of the passage.

Hirsch contends that students need a lot more instruction in basic educational content (science, history, geography, etc) and that that knowledge will automatically, if not immediately, improve their overall reading comprehension. Schools that have cut instruction in traditional subjects in order to spend more time on reading may actually be doing their students a disservice, because it’s that very instruction that enables them to be competent readers of a wide variety of texts.

Part of why this is all so compelling for me is that for several years I taught a general education course in US history and culture that focused on reading and analyzing primary documents. The course emphasized reading skills and comprehension–while there was some content-knowledge conveyed, the course designers insisted that the main purpose of the course was to improve students’ critical thinking skills and ability to make connections between different documents. But here’s the thing: It didn’t work. We instructors were told repeatedly that we didn’t need any specialized historical knowledge to teach the class and that we didn’t need to (and shouldn’t really) lecture–the point was for the students to rely on the documents themselves for context and to come to their own conclusions through class discussion and writing assignments. Which is all well and good, but they didn’t have enough background knowledge to put the documents into any kind of meaningful context. So, for example, if I expected them to say something intelligent about writings by Hamilton and Jefferson, I had to somehow provide them with a whole slew of information about federalism and agrarianism and the economic structure of early American society. Which is why Hirsch totally makes sense to me: how can you adequately comprehend any reading unless you already have a knowledge base that more or less corresponds to what the author thinks his/her audience knows?

Anyway, I’m all excited now about the idea of putting together really comprehensive units that examine a topic from all different angles–scientific, historical, artistic, literary, etc.–and finding interesting and worthwhile readings that support and advance that instruction. I’m getting more and more pleased and excited to be teaching elementary–I’ll have (I hope) so much more time and leeway to develop really comprehensive instruction. Right?

5 Responses

  1. Are you taking both of the Praxis II test on January 9th? What are you using for a study guide? I printed the one off of the tfanet, wondering if I should get some additional materials.

  2. Sara

    Not quite. You will have to teach state standards. You can probably find Louisiana’s online to give yourself an idea of what you are looking for. Unfortunately, most struggling schools focus on a test prep curriculum, so just because this research you found seems to make sense, don’t expect to put it into practice.

    As a staff member who has worked at summer institute, I would really recommend not spending too much time thinking about HOW and WHAT you are going to teach, content wise. We train you how to do that in a very specific way and I’ve found that the people who already thought they knew how things would work are often really disappointed and have a hard time shifting their beliefs and frameworks.

    You might want to read Understanding by Design (by Wiggins and McTighe I think) as this is how TFA basis our instructional model.

  3. What was the name/brand of the prep book that you got that was helpful? I have to take the PRAXIS II as well, and am nervous!

    I agree with your thoughts on reading! As someone majoring in history, the idea that you can read historical documents without context is rather appalling.

  4. loulou

    @ Ms. G and Ms. S – I ended up with Barrons, I think. But I also looked at a Kaplan guide that was pretty similar. The TFAnet info wasn’t up when I looked for it, so I don’t know how it compares to what’s in the guide. Good luck with your tests — Jan. 9th is suddenly feeling very close.

    @ Sara – Thanks for the book recommendation. And point(s) taken. :)

  5. Kira

    Absolutely YES, I am completely with you (and Hirsch) on the reading comprehension issue. I took an AP US History class in high school in which the teacher lectured every single day, and we were given readings to do outside of class — the overall comprehension and ability to discuss those readings later was rather incredible, even for AP students who (presumably) already have good reading skills. Then in college, I took a class on the French Revolution which was based ENTIRELY on readings and class discussion. The professor didn’t lecture at all, which was doubly frustrating because she clearly knew a lot about the subject and wasn’t sharing her knowledge. Point is, I got absolutely nothing out of that class. Difference? Context for the reading material.

    Anyway — all that to say, I’ve enjoyed reading your blog. I have my final interview on Thursday so I’m a little gung ho. :)

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