Literacy, Knowledge, and the Case for Curriculum: Highlights from a talk by Robert Pondiscio

“You remember your first grade teacher’s name. Who will remember yours?” This question from a New York City subway ad struck Robert Pondiscio one morning 20 years ago. At the time, he had a lucrative career with experience leading the public affairs department at Time Magazine and Business Week. Yet the question, “who will remember your name?” still resonated within him. Was his own career as impactful as that of his own first grade teacher?

The ad was for the NYC Teaching Fellows, a training program for mid-career professionals who wanted to pivot into teaching. Shortly after reading the ad, he quit his job and enrolled as a New York City Teaching Fellow, embarking on a mission to close the achievement gap. Twenty years later, he is still working hard to bring quality education to students in need. We at Brilla Schools were lucky enough to host Mr. Pondiscio this past October for a talk on “Literacy, Knowledge, and the Case for Curriculum.” In this article, we share highlights from his talk. We encourage you to check out his writing and his book How the Other Half Learns, if you’re interested in learning more.

“You remember your first grade teacher’s name. Who will remember yours?”

After leaving his job to join the NYC Teaching Fellows, Mr. Pondiscio received six weeks of intensive training and became a teacher at a public school in the South Bronx, just a block away from our own Brilla Schools Network office. It happened to be the lowest performing school in Community School District 7, which is the lowest performing district in New York City. At the time, only 16% of his fourth graders were reading at or above grade level. At first, he assumed that these students could not even “sound out” the words or in educational terms, “decode.” His students could pronounce the words on the pages, the problem was that they did not understand them. To Mr. Pondiscio’s exasperation, the methods that he was taught to solve this problem were ineffective. They weren’t getting to the root of the problem, a lack of comprehension.  

Determined to help his students learn to read on grade level, Mr. Ponsidiscio started doing his own research into educational methods. One of the only people he found who accurately described what he saw every day in his classroom in the South Bronx was E. D. Hirsch Jr, Founder and Chairman of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Dr. Hirsch, a New York Times Bestselling Author, developed the concept of cultural literacy, which is “the idea that reading comprehension requires not just formal decoding skills but also wide-ranging background knowledge.” Finally there was an explanation for why Mr. Pondiscio’s students were scoring so low on their literacy tests, despite the fact that they could ‘decode’ or sound out the words. They lacked a strong vocabulary and the background knowledge that would allow them to make connections and comprehend what they were reading.

A Brilla student focuses on an assignment in class.

“If you take one thing away from my talk today, let it be this: reading is not a skill,” said Mr. Pondiscio to the Brilla audience. Through numerous interactive examples, he demonstrated how without background knowledge and proper context, we can’t truly read. We can pronounce the words, but we can’t understand them. It’s like reading a foreign language. Mr. Pondiscio reiterated this with the example of President Obama’s first inaugural address. It was a powerful, moving moment in history as the first black president addressed the nation while he looked out upon the Lincoln Memorial, a memorial to the president who had signed the Emancipation Proclamation. It was the same spot where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “I have a dream” speech. Consider a line from President Obama’s address:

“For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.  For us, they toiled in sweatshops, and settled the West, endured the lash of the whip, and plowed the hard earth.  For us, they fought and died in places like Concord and Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sahn.”

Sadly, the full meaning of that moving address would be lost on those who had not learned American history. Mr. Pondiscio explains: 

“If you have endured an education where history was a second tier subject, where that shared knowledge didn’t matter, then you were left to wonder who were these people who toiled for us in sweatshops and settled the West? Who were those people who endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth? Who fought and died for us?”

Brilla students practice their brush strokes during art class.

This was not a political statement, Mr. Pondiscio took care to note, but rather an argument for the importance of an education rich in content and knowledge. Just as a child lights up in wonder at new discoveries, learning broadens our horizons and helps us to appreciate more deeply the inherent beauty and goodness in the world around us. 

This is why at Brilla our students don’t just learn reading skills, but rather take the time to dive deep into heroic stories from around the world, the wonders of the natural world, and the greatest works of art, music, and literature that humans have produced. Our content-rich, culturally relevant curriculum ensures our students don’t just develop strong skills, but have a vast vocabulary and wide-ranging understanding of the world and the varieties of cultures and traditions that make it up. 

We are very grateful for Robert Pondiscio taking the time to speak with us. If you would like to learn more, check out his page at The Thomas B. Fordham Institute or the American Enterprise Institute, where is a senior fellow. 

A middle school student practices violin as part of Brilla’s fine and applied arts program.

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