Editor’s Note: In the next five years, most of America’s most experienced teachers will retire. The Baby Boomers are leaving behind a nation of more novice educators. In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. Less than three decades later, that number had fallen to just three years leading a classroom. The Atlantic’s “On Teaching” project is crisscrossing the country to talk to veteran educators. This story is the 20th in our series.
“Look at this cloud,” Deloris Fowler coaxed her third graders during a science lesson about different types of clouds last year. “What shape do you think it is?”
A student I’ll call Abby raised her hand. “That cloud is shaped like an anvil,” she volunteered.
Fowler was impressed. Anvil isn’t a word most 21st-century third graders would know. Abby came from a family with little formal education and was particularly unlikely to have picked up vocabulary like that at home.
In fact, Abby remembered the word from a story Fowler had read to the class weeks before, about a Viking boy whose father was a blacksmith—a story all the kids had followed with rapt attention. Abby had a reading disability, but Fowler had seen her confidence grow over the course of the school year. She often contributed some of the most insightful comments during class discussions. While she still had some trouble sounding out words, her score on a reading-comprehension test had zoomed from the 10th percentile at the beginning of the school year to just below average by mid-December.
Things weren’t always like this in Fowler’s classroom. In her 28 years of teaching, she’s seen educational reforms come and go. That’s not unusual; in a 2017 survey of a nationally representative sample of teachers, 84 percent said that as soon as they “get a handle on a new reform,” it changes. To Fowler, some of the changes only seemed to make it harder for her students to learn—like a directive to discontinue an effective phonics program, or the emergence of a joyless and stressful regime of test prep. So when the district unveiled yet another new initiative a few years ago, Fowler was skeptical. But, to her surprise, it turned out to be the one that did the best job of achieving what has always been her goal: inspiring a love of reading in her students—including struggling ones like Abby.
Fowler grew up in Silver Point, a rural hamlet in Putnam County, Tennessee, about 70 miles east of Nashville. Her parents only made it through eighth grade, although her mother eventually got her GED. But they put a high value on education. As a child, Fowler was a precocious and avid reader. Books, she felt, made life interesting.
With the help of scholarships, she attended Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville—a town of 35,000, about 15 miles from Silver Point—that Fowler’s family considered “the big city.” Inspired by a charismatic literacy professor as well as her own book-filled childhood, Fowler made it her goal to introduce children to the delights of reading.
Graduating with a degree in elementary education in 1992, she snared a job teaching first grade right in Cookeville, at Capshaw Elementary. And though she’s bounced between first, second, and—for the past seven years—third grade, she’s been at Capshaw ever since.
When Fowler started, her school district, like most across the United States, grounded its literacy instruction in a textbook called a basal reader. Intended to teach both aspects of reading—sounding out words and comprehension—the reader didn’t do an adequate job with either, in the opinion of Fowler and her colleagues. In terms of comprehension, the reader was organized around skills and strategies, like “finding the main idea” and “making inferences,” but it presented the skills in such a fragmented way that kids soon forgot them. So the teachers supplemented the reader with a phonics program, paid for by the school’s parents’ organization, that systematically taught students to hear the individual sounds in words and connect them to letters. According to Fowler, the supplementary phonics program worked—until the district directed teachers to stop using it.
Fowler found her own way, trying to teach comprehension skills through texts that could infuse more joy into the process than those in the basal reader. She read aloud chapter books by well-known children’s authors and biographies of historical figures like Helen Keller. The children were far more engaged in those books, begging her to keep reading when it was time to stop. She would also try to carve out 15 or 20 minutes a day when kids could choose books from the classroom library and read silently on their own. Sometimes she would have students do spontaneous talks to describe the books and convince others to read them.
But the best parts of teaching, for Fowler, were the two- or three-week units she and her colleagues created around science and social-studies topics. When the class studied Italy, for example, they read books by the Italian American author Tomie dePaola and went to a local Italian restaurant to eat spaghetti. A unit on Japan included reading books by Japanese American authors and making kimonos. When kids studied the Arctic, they did projects on penguins. “I always felt in my heart that was the best way to teach kids,” Fowler told me, “because they got so involved in it.”
Then, in an effort to boost student achievement and address inequities, Congress enacted No Child Left Behind in 2002. The legislation required states to give annual reading and math tests in third through eighth grade and once in high school. If schools didn’t make sufficient progress toward the goal of 100 percent proficiency, a range of sanctions could be triggered. In Tennessee, as in many states, the scores also factored into teachers’ job evaluations. Capshaw had a relatively affluent student body, and test scores were fairly high. Nevertheless, Fowler says, teachers there came under pressure to teach to the test.
The district continued using the same curriculum—which, for literacy, was essentially the dreaded basal reader. But there was no more time to enrich it with perceived frills like deep dives into Italy, Japan, or penguins. The focus had to be on the tested subjects, reading and math. And, for several weeks before the tests were given in April, the basal reader was abandoned in favor of instruction that mirrored the test format—even for the first graders Fowler was teaching. While they weren’t yet required to take state tests, first graders were given other tests designed to predict their performance in years to come.
To prep them, Fowler would give her students workbooks with reading passages on disconnected topics, followed by comprehension questions. The kids were uninterested in the passages in the workbooks, and they found the testing stressful. Some started to hate reading. Fowler found the situation so dispiriting that she briefly considered taking a different role in the school district.
While Fowler could see how the focus on testing was failing her students, others in the district—particularly Jill Ramsey, who oversees elementary curriculum—had a view of the bigger picture. Throughout the district, there was a dramatic drop in scores after fourth grade. The problem, Ramsey believed, was that at higher grade levels, students were suddenly being confronted with test passages that assumed more academic knowledge—knowledge that elementary schools had been failing to build. What looked like a middle-school problem, Ramsey thought, was actually an elementary-school problem.
The solution was yet another reform, but this time the impact would be very different. In 2016, the Putnam County School District decided to try a more rigorous literacy curriculum, beginning in the elementary grades—one that included solid phonics instruction and also built the kind of knowledge students would need in order to understand material at upper grade levels. They opted for Core Knowledge Language Arts, or CKLA.
The next year the district piloted CKLA’s “Listening and Learning” strand, which—unlike basal-reader instruction—was organized around specific topics in subjects like history and science. A teacher would spend two to three weeks on each topic, reading aloud about it to the entire class and leading class discussions based on questions provided in a teacher’s guide. Students would also have simpler books to read on their own. The pilot involved one teacher at each elementary school. At Capshaw, that teacher was Fowler, then teaching third grade.
At first, she had serious doubts about the new curriculum. CKLA didn’t explicitly teach comprehension skills, and it covered topics that seemed far too sophisticated for third graders, like the Vikings, ancient Rome, and astronomy. It seemed, she says, that this approach was “taking a big gamble on kids.” And, like many teachers, she didn’t relish the idea of teaching from what she saw as a script.
But Fowler found that her third graders were not only able to understand the material, they also loved it. Eager to learn more, they would often read ahead in their student books. Fowler still tried to make time for students to read books of their choice, but she found they often wanted more books on the CKLA topics. When they clamored to learn more about Pompeii, Fowler appealed to the school librarian for additional books, bought some with her own money, and brought in a friend who had traveled there to do a show-and-tell.
Fowler was also impressed by the improvement in students’ writing. Writing instruction at Capshaw, as at many schools, had long been a struggle. To prepare kids for the writing component of the state tests, teachers would mimic the test format, providing them with two or three paragraphs of information about a topic like insects and asking them to write a paragraph in response. The kids had trouble producing anything. But with CKLA, they had lots of information to draw on and eagerly wrote multiple paragraphs on the topics in the curriculum.
By the end of the pilot year, all 20 teachers who participated were enthusiastic about the curriculum, and it was tried district-wide the following year. This past spring, Putnam County officially adopted it for kindergarten through fifth grade.
Fowler says she doesn’t worry anymore about CKLA’s “scriptedness”; teachers infuse the lessons with their own personalities. And she values the equity in giving all children access to the same content, regardless of individual reading ability. While Fowler will occasionally work with small groups of students on discrete skills—like coming up with the topic sentence of a paragraph—students no longer routinely work in reading groups. She’s found that all children, including those with a disability like Abby, are able to take in more sophisticated information through listening than through their own reading—and that inspires them to stay engaged. At the end of the school year, Abby told Fowler she would keep reading over the summer. “I’m not going to stop,” she said, bringing Fowler and the girl’s mother to the verge of tears. “I promise you.”
CKLA isn’t perfect, Fowler says. She wishes the curriculum included more fiction and poetry—partly because she feels kids should be introduced to a variety of genres, and partly because the state tests expect third graders to know about elements of fiction like plot and setting. The tests—now required under NCLB’s successor legislation, the Every Student Succeeds Act—still loom large, and they aren’t connected to the content in CKLA. But Ramsey, the curriculum supervisor, hopes that the knowledge and vocabulary students are now acquiring beginning in kindergarten will eventually result in better scores at upper grade levels.
As for Fowler, the measure of effectiveness is, as always, whether her students are finding joy—and she sees them discovering not only the joy of reading but also the joy of learning. Instead of making kimonos and dioramas of penguins, they’re dressing up like ancient Egyptians and building pyramids. But their level of engagement is the same.
“This is how I used to teach 20 years ago,” she says. “I’m back to the beginning. This is what I thought kids wanted. So it makes my heart happy.”
This article is part of our project “On Teaching,” which is supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Panta Rhea Foundation.