Content Coverage and Coffee Cups

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OK. I enjoy alliteration. Guilty. But I heard something today I have to share. Picture an audience of community college faculty gathered to hear about an approach to supporting students’ reading comprehension in academic courses.

Coffee cup, oil painting detail by Jana bouc

Painting detail, Jana Bouc

Now picture an experienced English faculty member addressing the group. She has been leading a campus-wide effort to use this method for a number of years and has seen it make a real difference for students in her classes. She is talking to the group about something she has heard many of her colleagues express: nervousness about “content coverage,” the need to get through the whole textbook whether students actually understand the concepts by the end of the course or not.

She holds a coffee cup upside down. With her other hand she holds a pot of coffee and begins to pour coffee on the upside-down cup. (She has warned the people sitting up front.) Now she asks the group about what happens to students when we just “pour the content on” but the students aren’t prepared to “receive it.”

I can’t begin to count the times my colleagues and I hear teachers worry that they won’t “get the students through the book” if they stop to work on having students do the hard close reading and thinking necessary to create understanding. I know that in some cases teachers really are threatened by “pacing-guide police,” people with authority to tell a teacher, for example, not to have students reading whole books in an English course because their class won’t be on target with the selected excerpts in the required anthology. But it seems to me that in many more cases, teachers themselves are making decisions to sacrifice comprehension, depth, and student ownership of texts for the notion of doing one’s job by marching students through a textbook.

What’s your experience? How real are the “coverage cops” in your schools and districts and colleges? What guesses do you have about how the new assessments based on the Common Core Standards (coming on line in 2013 in some states) might shift educators in our country toward teaching “depth” instead of “breadth”?

Any sense of increased support for helping students learn to make their own coffee?


Blog contributor, Ruth Schoenbach

Ruth Schoenbach is Co-Director of the Strategic Literacy Initiative at WestEd. She taught and led reform initiatives in the San Francisco public schools in the 1980s and early 90s as an ESL teacher, curriculum developer, and professional development support provider in literacy. Since the mid-90s she and Cyndy Greenleaf have led the Strategic Literacy Initiative (SLI) at WestEd in developing the Reading Apprenticeship instructional framework and its parallel professional development model.

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5 Responses to “Content Coverage and Coffee Cups”

  1. Chris Paulis Says:

    Just today I worked with an English/ESOL teacher in one of my county’s high-performing schools. As we planned, she bemoaned the fact that, in her previous school, she had learned to support “regular” students in reading texts for themselves, but in her current school, she’s pressured to read texts to the students, “spoon-feed them.” She knows that this creates an artificial achievement ceiling, and she cannot stand it.

    I think that the “coverage cops” come in many forms — from the administrators who demand that everything a teacher does reflect and address items on the test, to peers who have become hardened by their assumptions that students cannot read and understand, let alone appreciate, text for themselves.

    What if teachers across the board in even our best schools shattered those assumptions and assumed it to be their obligation or even privilege fill these cups?!

  2. Kelly Pauling Says:

    An alternative definition for the word coverage in the dictionary is to hide – heard that once from a speaker, Susan Leddick. It has always stuck with me because as we rush to cover content, we actually hide understanding, learning, mastery and independence. Kudos to your colleague for creating such a visceral experience for others.

  3. Ruth Schoenbach Says:

    Hi Kelly,
    Reminds me of the idea that the goal is to UNCOVER conceptual knowledge…thanks.

  4. Cathy Enders Says:

    I also thank you for this visual! I have often used the dictionary definition, but sometimes it is not enough. There is nothing quite like the object lesson this visual provides. Couldn’t the same thing be said for the way professional development is perceived and delivered? Pour it on and expect instant results; don’t worry about the audience’s readiness, willingness, and ability. Maybe spending time in preparing the staff to be ready to receive the type of inquiry-based professional development Reading Apprenticeship is built upon would solve the oft-recited problem of “teacher buy-in”.

  5. Sue Peterson Says:

    I have known some teachers that assign 3 lessons a night at the end of a semester just so they can get through the lessons. Believe me, the kids don’t “get it”.

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