Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Terminology Drift

I went to a teacher supply store today and didn't find much of what I was looking for. Much of what I saw made me think of this quote from the Harvey Daniels book I'm reading, Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups.

"In education, we have a recurrent problem that might be called 'terminology drift.' Here's what happens. First, a new pedagogical practice - take 'writing workshop,' for example - is invented, described, and introduced to the profession. There are originators, there are definitions, there is literature specifically describing the practice. In 'writing workshop' the innovation was outlined back in the 1980s by authors like Nancie Atwell, Don Graves, and Lucy Calkins. They identified the key, defining features of a workshop: student choice of topics, a big chunk of writing practice time, teacher as mentor and coach, a process approach featuring formative conferences, using peers as editors and collaborators, helping kids develop a portfolio of ongoing work, and so forth.

Then the idea of 'writing workshop' starts to spread around the country. It gets popular. The term 'writing workshop' just trips off the tongue. It sounds good, current, with-it. Suddenly, there are teachers who call it 'writing workshop' when they assign kids to write a five-paragraph theme on the color symbolism in The Scarlet Letter or a story titled 'How It Would Feel to Be a Butterfly.' All the essential, defining ingredients of true writing workshop - student choice and responsibility, teacher mentoring - are absent; the only ingredient of writing workshop that's present is the name.

Now, I'm not saying that the above writing assignments are evil, wicked, sinful, or even wrong. But they are not writing workshop. And the same thing has happened to literature circles, big time. Today, it seems that any time you gather a group of students together for any activity involving reading, you can go right ahead and call it a literature circle. . . . I try to remember to count to ten when I see the advertisement for another thirty-dollar compendium of handy-dandy role sheets. I bite my tongue during the workshop on 'Infusing Punctuation Skills into Literature Circles.' But while letting everyone have their own meritorious adaptations and second-generation versions, I'm going to oppose severe terminology drift. If people don't know what the thing really is, they can never try the real thing."

He goes on to define, very clearly and appealingly, what the real thing is.

Lots of terminology drift at the teacher store. Lots of worksheets on the writing process and literature circles. And everything costs a fortune!

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