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The “science of reading” versus “what goes on in too many U.S. classrooms” debate is raging in this country. Talk of it is seemingly everywhere.  Diverse groups of parents, teachers, administrators, university professors, school board members, and taxpayers are joining the conversation.  

The good new is that the critical importance of early reading success seems to be something we all can agree on. 

High interest in the topic has fueled a bit of a media frenzy. 

As well it should. 

After all, at the heart of a democratic society is the free exchange of information and ideas about topics that matter to us. 

Yet, as much as I appreciate a productive conversation from differing perspectives, it would be dishonest of me not to admit how aggravated and irritated I’ve sometimes been by the tone of some of the current dialogue.


And I must confess, at times, I am more easily triggered than I’d like to be by what I consider to be misleading generalizations, misunderstandings, misinterpretations and/or misrepresentations. This is especially true, I find, when these distortions come from people outside of education presenting themselves as experts at evaluating what’s going on inside the nation’s classrooms. 

As stirred up as I’ve sometimes been, however, I’ve been steering away from this conversation in social media. I’ve done this in order to avoid the energy suck of being drawn into an unwinnable “battle” with those who seem to stand at the far ends of the debate, swords drawn, looking for the next opportunity to engage in a duel of words 240 characters at a time. 

My hunch is the sometimes less than productive tone may partially be fueled by the era of extreme partisanship and polarization that we seem to be living in. These days it seems so easy to label and dismiss the ideas, observations, opinions, and even research of those we consider to be “on the other side” and even easier yet to bolster and confirm our own viewpoints by simply feeding ourselves a steady diet of social media news feeds carefully curated by to affirm ideas that very comfortably resemble our own. 

A Line in the Sand? 

But lately I’ve also been wondering . . . where does “one side” really end and the “other side” begin? The search for a  clear line in the sand between “our side” and “theirs” leaves me empty handed. Polarities, after all, are simply the far ends of a continuum, aren’t they?  

For instance, if boiling water is one end of the continuum and ice is the other, isn’t everything in between just a few degrees of difference?  Where is the clear line between hot and cold? Is at warm? And if so, what is warm, anyway? Is warm the precise midpoint between freezing and boiling? Or is it something much less objective? 

In much the same way the current debate about reading instruction is sometimes framed as being between proponents of “code-emphasis” and “meaning-emphasis”.  And although these might represent the thinking of proponents on ends of a continuum, is it really possible to find a clear line in the sand between these two ideals? 

Not as far as I can tell. 

You don’t have to dig very deep below the surface of the debate to realize that  both “sides” clearly and deeply value helping kids learn to navigate the alphabetic code and both “sides” clearly and deeply value reading for meaning as the ultimate purpose for learning to read at all.  An either/or approach is not what either “side” is advocating for or providing.  

So, what if each one of us decided to completely let of ego in order to get really curious about what it is we might be missing (misrepresenting, misinterpreting, misunderstanding . . . ) in this debate ourselves? What if we let go of the idea of having to choose a side or defend current practices and just decided to listen and learn for a bit?

A Single Brave Step

A possible starting point might be for each of us to commit to a single brave step toward exploring terrain in the direction that that is less comfortable and familiar to us.  My own learning journey has taken a rather sharp and intentional turn in this direction lately.  

I invite you to join me on this journey by:

  • Reading broadly. Especially books, articles, and posts that push you outside of your comfort zone on the topic. 
  • Following intentionally. Especially authors, researchers, and thought leaders whose ideas about the topic are different from your own.
  • Exercising grace and humility. Especially when it comes to recognizing gaps or weak spots in your current  understandings . (We all have them.).
  • Assuming positive intent. Especially when it might be easier to assume the worst possible intent. (Everyone in this conversations wants kids to thrive.) 
  • Engaging in respectful dialogue.  Especially when your instinct might be to defend, battle, or vilanize. (We can all learn something from each other when we make the space.)  

It may sound hokey, sentimental, or naive, but I can’t stop myself from wondering . . . 

What if we laid our swords and shields down? 

What if we challenged ourselves to keep the conversation open, alive and healthy?

What if we bravely tried to figure out what there is to be learned from each other?  

What if we decided to embrace the current discourse as the opportunity of a professional lifetime rather than a battle to be won or lost?   

What if we did all of this because it seems the only thing that is to be won by any of us is brighter outcomes for students. 

In the words of Sitting Bull . . . 

Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children.