Language arts memo comes under fire at Montclair BOE meeting
By ERIN ROLL
A memo concerning Montclair’s language arts program has come under fire from parents, due to perceptions that language arts teachers are being asked to teach short texts rather than novels in their classes.
The memo from Marcos Vargas, the district’s director of secondary education, was sent out to teachers on Sept. 6, and came to the public’s attention when the group Montclair Cares About Schools posted a copy of it on its Facebook page on Oct. 2.
BOE President Laura Hertzog said Friday that the memo had been sent to the teaching staff, and not shared directly with parents.
Several parents attended the Oct. 4 BOE meeting specifically to voice concerns about the memo.
“Units are 10 weeks in length and aligned to our marking periods. Extended texts may be ‘chunked’ and parts assigned for homework if feasible. Covering an extended text from cover to cover is not always necessary,” the memo states.
Another section of the memo says, “We can get a bigger ‘bang for the buck’ by teaching well-written short fiction in a shorter span over lengthier novels. This is by no means a repudiation on the time-tested genre of the novel.”
Regina Tuma of Montclair Cares About Schools was the first audience member to speak during the public comment period, and she thanked Interim Superintendent Barbara Pinsak for responding to her emails on the subject.
“When you look at the memo, it should disturb everyone ... indeed, (Vargas’s) memo is a response to teacher concerns,” Tuma said. She added that teachers were concerned about where to find shorter texts, and about giving up novels.
Christine McGoey cited a recent magazine article on encouraging children to read longer books, and said she was worried about what the focus on shorter texts would mean for children’s attention spans and ability to read complex material. “They don’t know how to read a long book. They don’t know how to stay with a long book.”
Some parents acknowledged the need for students to be able to understand short texts and informational nonfiction texts, especially considering the current discussion of fake news and how to recognize it.
Pinsak said she was glad that parents agreed with her that finding short texts, including informational texts, was important to the curriculum. As for the novels, she said, the number of novels included in the curriculum was reduced from eight to four.
Pinsak said that there was also the matter of ensuring that students took as much away from a book as possible, instead of it being a long and laborious effort. “Whether you read four novels, or eight ... you have to be careful that the students are reading for the essence of the novel,” she said. “No matter how good the novel ... not being allowed to read for pleasure or enjoyment is also deadly.”
“I agree that students should learn to read novels. But they also need to learn to read shorter texts,” said district parent Andrew Gideon. “More, education can only benefit from a diverse collection of reading material; this is easier to achieve if the assignments include dozens of smaller works rather than only a few lengthier works.”
Gideon added, “Note too that this debate arises as the same people are pushing against homework. I’d have less concern about what our students were reading if people weren’t insisting that students shouldn’t be required to spend nontrivial amounts of time reading outside of school. As students read less, greater care must be taken to choose what they read wisely.”
In an interview after the meeting, Tuma said that MCAS had heard some discussion of a memo that had been sent to teachers. “So we started asking around and indeed it was confirmed that there had been ELA changes,” she said. “We were alarmed to read that our district is headed in this direction.”
Tuma said that the problem was not with the educational standards themselves. Rather, she said, parents are concerned that district policies would limit teachers’ creativity in being able to engage their students. “You don’t dictate curriculum to meet standards,” she said.
Tuma said that she was also concerned about the justifications for putting more emphasis on nonfiction texts, including the fact that the memo did not mention anything related to critical thinking skills or fake news.
“It’s a pseudo choice. Because who said that the choice is between fiction and nonfiction?” she said. She added that research has demonstrated that studying fiction, including novels, helps students build critical-thinking skills. Additionally, she said, there were equity issues; in response to statements by the district that students may be able to read novels for fun on their own time, she noted that not all students may have access to novels and literature beyond what they are assigned for school.
The memo itself, Tuma said, most notably the ‘bigger bang for the bang” statement, was poorly worded. “I think we need to worry when a memo [like this] comes from the administration,” she said. “We’re not here to enlighten kids. We’re here to teach standards,” she said, characterizing the message that parents and teachers might take away from it.
Tuma emphasized that she didn’t want to cast blame on Vargas’s office, adding that the decision was likely made at a higher level in the administration.
“I don’t want Mr. Vargas to get blamed, because this goes beyond Mr. Vargas, and this shows the direction that this district is heading in,” she said.
Tuma said MCAS will continue its outreach efforts over the next few weeks, including holding discussions with parents, school staff and administrators.