Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Spikes and Plummets of Reading

Mother Reading to Child. Artist Unknown.
"The story the data tell is simple, consistent, and alarming. Although there has been measurable progress in recent years in reading ability at the elementary school levels, all progress appears to halt as children enter their teenage years." --Dana Goia, "To Read or Not to Read: a Question of National Importance," 2007.

I saw that slide at Penny Kittle's workshop on Monday. As one who teaches at the entrance to their teenage years, I have three experiences that match this point.

  1. For the first third of my teaching career I did not require, model, or engage students in reading self-selected texts. I did not promote books or do anything out of the scope and sequence of the curriculum. I used to say, "kids don't read anymore." I used to scratch my head and wonder why kids didn't read much. It was the rare student who walked the halls or into my room with a favorite novel under an arm. 
  2. Then, for a span of close to five years I required, modeled, and worked at engaging students with reading self-selected texts. They still read the books rooted in the curriculum in addition to their own, but I saw more readers. I even tracked their reading as I tracked my own. We talked more about books instead of tested on them. When we wrote about books, it was about the changes we saw in ourselves, what we were thinking about, what gnawed at us, what we will take from the book.
  3. This year, taught August and September as I had been, but then I allowed some criticism and questions about grammar (of all things) to derail me--even though I had been working on it through their writing based on the research and models by educators like Constance Weaver, Jeff Anderson, Michael Smith, and Harry Noden. My bookkeeping on student reading was set aside to create more opportunities for grammar. I stole reading time from the classroom for more direct instruction in the textbook. In other words, I fell back into the habits I worked so hard to change because I changed them for the right reasons. While I do have some readers this year, I do not have kids reading at the incredible rates of the previous four years. Additionally, kids are asking me if they have to finish the class novels...I can't recall ever being asked that question...and that falls in line with the traditional student experience with school reading: Cliff's Notes, Sparknotes, or wing it. Kids can get by in school without reading the books--you know that, right?
So what happened to me? 

I let a small, but intense field of criticism and questioning of what is taught become entangled with how everything is taught. I second-guessed myself and reverted to teaching with curb appeal.  But I have to know better. I have to remember that not everyone reads the research or spends their weekends driving across the state to writing workshops to hear what is current in education. I have to be bigger than the test and I have to recognize that when kids are writing and reading in my class and it does not feel or look like a chore that that is good.

My experience shows me that we truly do get what we emphasize.

Even though the scores that our kids will generate on the state tests will be through the roof, it doesn't excuse my going back on my principles and slipping back from what the research says.

Our schools push the idea that all kids should have a common experience in the classroom irrespective of what classroom they are in. This does little but confuse me. If Teacher A and Teacher B each teach nouns and verbs, but with two polar opposite approaches, is that a common experience? If Teacher A drills it with traditional methods and Teacher B does not, is that a common experience?

If a student switches from Teacher A's class to Teacher B's class and it looks nothing like their previous class, is that a common experience? What if Teachers B asks the student to do different things with the verbs? Is that common?

I let all of this get into my head this year and have been beating myself up over it for the past month--actually, since our state tests started.

All I can do is teach like my hair is on fire these last few months and give these kids the best of what they deserve--because the alternative of not modelling reading and engaging kids in reading is too costly.

I don't care how smart the tests say they are.

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