My Dog Ate the Front Matter

I came to write for Center for the Collaborative Classroom after teaching for 8 years. When I heard my CCC colleagues talk about “front matter,” I kept quiet, at first because I had no idea what “front matter” was, and later because I realized those pages describing the program and its philosophy were the first 30 or so pages that I always flipped past to get to the “real” reading.

In talking with my teacher friends, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know what “front matter” was. Here are some of the things they said when I asked them about it:

  • That’s what it’s called? Haha, ‘front matter!’ What a strange phrase.
  • Do people actually read that stuff?
  • The time taken to read the front matter is time taken away from our other planning. In addition, the front matter always seems to be written and formatted to be flashy and redundant, almost as if it were created to sell the product or walk a district through a static professional development session. I don’t need to be sold on anything, I need to teach.
  • I am always super pressed for time-there never seems to be enough as a teacher. So I find myself only reading what is necessary to teach the next few lessons well. However, whenever I get time to read ‘front matter’ (such as in PD) I always find it enriching.

I have now actually read front matter! Not only that of CCC’s programs, but also other language arts curricula. When reading, I have been struck by the differences in tone, content, and purpose amongst programs. The front matter of one widely adopted basal series is exactly the sales pitch one teacher described:

[This program] is the proven curriculum for teaching children how to read, comprehend, and gain knowledge from what they read.

Many programs I read used the front matter to sell additional components and outline dry lesson plans. Subheadings and short paragraphs glossed over such topics as teacher modeling, preparing to read, assessment, and language arts (spelling, vocabulary, penmanship).

Compare that to this:

As you teach Making Meaning lessons, you will see that the children’s ability to learn reading comprehension is inextricably linked to their ability to work together and to bring democratic values like responsibility, respect, fairness, caring, and helpfulness to bear on their own behavior and interactions.

CCC’s front matter is different. It is professional development, packed with research, strategies, and tips, there for teachers as a reference. The materials make clear that you are teaching children, not a program. Those thirty pages at the front of the manuals remind us that we are not delivering instruction, but rather connecting with living, breathing children who have social and emotional needs. The pages explain the rationale behind the instruction and strategies, and they provide concrete examples and tips.

As a teacher, I skipped past the front matter to get to the lessons, searching for places to modify lessons and incorporate my own voice and style. Now, I realize that the front matter of Being a Writer, Making Meaning, and Words In Action (all of which I used in my classroom) actually explained how I could have taken greater ownership of the lessons.

I hope you’ll share your experience with reading (or not reading) the front matter of the programs you teach. There’s no shame here. There is only an opportunity to dig in, take ownership of our own learning, and better support the children in our care. Even if you choose not to share your thoughts on front matter, I hope you’ll come back for my next blog post, “Why the Front Matter Might Actually Matter.”