Studio Course is good stuff -- if it gets kids to read more

December 21, 2005|By GREGORY KANE

Lordy, I never thought I'd be writing this.

Baltimore schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland has been on the hot seat the past two weeks. Copeland's taking the heat for the implementation of a new middle school reading curriculum called Studio Course. Many people have a problem with Studio Course, especially that one lesson plan where a noun was defined as "stuff" and a verb as "what stuff does."

There are other problems. According to an article by Sun writer Sara Neufeld, the curriculum uses magazines to encourage reading. Among them was CosmoGIRL! (It has since been yanked from the curriculum.) One of that magazine's offerings in the December issue, according to Neufeld, is an article called "Five Hot New Kisses." Another magazine offers such cerebral fare as "Hot Boy Next Door" and "Flirt Better!"

Under normal circumstances, I reach for the closest pain-killing medication whenever I read things like this. Copeland might have reached for some herself. Quite a few people have weighed in on the Studio Course. Many of them have been quite scathing in their remarks condemning it. I would, too, if it weren't for two very significant words:

Middle school.

Let's be clear. Middle school isn't like elementary school. It's not like high school, either. Baltimore public middle schools - notorious for a lack of pupil discipline, critics say - are a place where even angels should fear to tread.

So if there is one place where little to no progress has been made on test scores, it would most likely be in Baltimore's middle schools. And that's exactly what Copeland and others in the system discovered.

"In 2005, only 35 percent of our middle school students scored proficient or advanced on the Maryland School Assessments," Copeland announced in a letter to Baltimoreans defending the program. Copeland said the reading performance for the city's seventh- and eighth-graders declined by 2.9 percent in 2004 and 2.5 percent in 2005.

That's why I'm not criticizing Copeland or anyone else at North Avenue school headquarters for implementing the Studio Course. Copeland and Co. probably figured they had to do something, even if that something was wrong. Because doing nothing would have been even more wrong. Doing nothing was not an option.

And now that something has been done, we can ratchet up the debate about everything that's right or wrong with the Studio Course.

According to the folks at North Avenue, Booker T. Washington Middle School language arts teacher Carolyn Kiah finds several things right about Studio Course. Vanessa Pyatt, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore school system, faxed me a copy of Copeland's letter. Along with it was a letter Kiah sent to editors of The Sun and some answers to the most frequently asked questions about Studio Course.

"Studio Course has afforded my students the opportunity to challenge their capacity to become better readers and better writers," Kiah said in the letter. "I have witnessed firsthand a growth in reading and writing, but more importantly the students are becoming critical thinkers. My students are writing: they aren't just writing for the sake of writing. They are writing with a purpose and with meaning."

So that's a big thumbs up for the Studio Course from a teacher who teaches it. A big thumbs down comes from another teacher, a veteran of over 30 years who is one of the most respected in the city: Charles Dugger.

Neufeld quoted Dugger's Nov. 8 remarks to the school board about Studio Course in her article.

"We're cheating our children," said Dugger, who teaches at Benjamin Franklin Middle School. "Why is this being done? It's insulting to say, well, you know these children can't capitalize in the city, and they don't know how to spell. You know why they don't know? Because we don't teach them."

Dugger's problem, Neufeld wrote, was the Studio Course's "failure to grade children on grammar, punctuation and capitalization."

The topic of grammar was covered in the "Studio Course Q&A" Copeland sent out, under the question: "Why does the Studio Course teach nouns as `stuff' and verbs as `what stuff does'?" Here's part of the answer, which might reveal why teachers like Dugger are so upset.

"Knowledge of grammar does not equate to knowledge of how to write a strong sentence, or a strong paragraph."

That tremble you just felt was caused by dead English teachers turning over in their graves.

Knowledge of how to use jabs, crosses, hooks, uppercuts, feints and good defense - in other words, the fundamentals - might not "equate" to knowledge of how to be a good boxer either. But the fact is, the best boxers are well-schooled in those fundamentals.

Copeland and I will have to agree to disagree on the grammar. But if the Studio Course is what it takes to get middle-schoolers to even think about reading and writing more - even if they're reading magazines - perhaps it's worth a try. I have only one regret.

Where's Emerge magazine now that we really need it?

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