Colette Marie Bennett, an English teacher in Connecticut, is on the case.
In “David Coleman: The Cheshire Cat of Education,” Ms. Bennett is as leery of Mr. Coleman as I am. Her thesis: “Coleman has materialized, like Lewis Carroll’s enigmatic Cheshire Cat, as the cool outsider who surveys education as a Wonderland ruled by nonsense.”
Ms. Bennett offers several excellent reasons for her leeriness. She contrasts her 21 years in the classroom with Mr. Coleman’s zero. She “remains unconvinced” (as I do) that a greater emphasis on close reading (the New Criticism approach) would significantly improve reading skills. (It might bore students.) And she prefers a balanced approach to reading instruction, one that blends close reading with Reader Response and independent reading.
I agree with Ms. Bennett. To teach reading well, we can’t approach it in just one way. Even if Mr. Coleman is right, his unmitigated push toward one teaching method is too absolute and will not engage all students to enhance their reading skills.
The biggest criticism that Ms. Bennett advances is that Mr. Coleman is an outsider, and she’s tired of non-educators telling teachers what to do. She concludes:
Carroll’s Cheshire Cat character is a tease, an enigmatic riddler who offers judgments and cryptic clues but no solution to the frustrated Alice. Coleman is education’s Cheshire Cat, offering positions in education but with no evidence to prove his solutions will work.
Unfortunately, even though Mr. Coleman does not have evidence to support his conclusions, neither do most English teachers. The fact is, by high school, our students enter our classrooms as poor and reluctant readers, and it’s not clear right now what the best approach is to accelerate their skills.
My work this year — engaging teachers to put reading at the front of their practice — hopes to deliver some data for this inquiry. And I’m pretty sure that this hybrid approach that Ms. Bennett and Kelly Gallagher and I embrace is the right one, but in order to counteract Mr. Coleman and other strong political forces, we’ll have to have more numbers.