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Thursday, Apr 24, 2014

Scullin: Schools should foster inquiry, critical thinking


School’s back in session, and in addition to changed routines and slower morning traffic, that means the annual open house ritual for those of us with kids in school. This is where you get to meet all of the teachers, learn about the various classes your child is taking and, literally, spend a few minutes in their seats.

Ours was this past week, and I was especially struck by what our daughter is reading in her eighth-grade language arts class. Maybe it’s because I was an English major in college and still love talking about books and ideas. It’s a passion I hope spreads to my daughter, because I think a love of reading can spark curiosities that can guide you through life and make whatever paths you end up following richer and more enjoyable.

This year’s reading list is all about the classics: “The Red Badge of Courage,” “Little Women,” “The Grapes of Wrath,” “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The selections are meant to inspire discussion about major periods of social change in our nation’s history – the Civil War, the Great Depression, Jim Crow – and connect with the students’ U.S. history class.

Chalk that happy accident up to an enterprising school staff, but also to the school district’s efforts to gradually integrate the Common Core, even before we officially switch to the new national standards next school year. Common Core has sparked a lot of controversy about how much federal coordination is wanted when it comes to what students are learning, to say nothing of the costs of making the switch. That’s a good debate to have, and we’ll continue to chronicle it for you and, I hope, provide meaningful ways for you to participate.

Regardless of where you stand on Common Core, maybe you’ll appreciate, as I do, its aspiration to integrate learning across the disciplines and to encourage more reading, writing and critical thinking. My daughter’s reading list is a good example of how that might work. At the same time students are learning about the Civil War, the Depression and segregation, they’ll also be examining the literature of the day to see how those historical tidal waves were sweeping across American culture. How did historical events affect the lives of ordinary and not-so-ordinary people? And what about those times may have been lost to history and only be preserved in literature?

I’m glad for the intellectual journey I see my daughter taking this year. At its best, school should teach you how to think, not what to think, and reading and discussing important works of literature is a fine way of doing that.

I also relish the chance to share some of that journey with her, as I foresee many interesting discussions ahead for us – like the ones we had after our family went to see the St. Petersburg City Theater production of “To Kill a Mockingbird” this year. I may even read some of those books along with her. At a time when teens are starting to pull away and stake out their independence, it’s important to seek out connection points.

My open house experience also got me reflecting on my responsibility as the editor of your hometown newspaper. Like a good school, a good newspaper should encourage critical thinking about the important issues of the day and provide its readers with meaningful ways of discussing them. There was a time where journalism was a one-way street, where the newspapers and networks told their audiences what was important and rarely asked for feedback. Times have changed. As the recent Lens referendum in St. Petersburg reminded us, people expect to be heard and considered. I encourage you to use this newspaper as a way of sharing your ideas, of highlighting the issues you see as important, and of making sure a diverse range of perspectives is heard.

Meet the editor

I’ll be at Banyan Coffee and Tea, at 689 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N., from 9 to 10 a.m. Tuesday. Please stop by and say hello.

(727) 828-6150

Twitter: jscullinTBO