The Problem With Our Early Reading Obsession

When I write about how my daughter is succeeding as a reader even though (or because?) I did not force sight word flashcards or memorizing the alphabet on her as a preschooler, my thinking inevitably returns to readers we would term “at-risk” because of their sorely limited book access.

I wonder if my talk of autonomy and following the child’s lead and student choice & voice are another facet of our privilege, overlooking the needs of kids that need to “catch up” with their peers? Is my priority to cultivate the reader over the reading level potentially damaging for these children?

But this question, and all initiatives out there that insist every child must read by a certain level by age fill-in-the-blank (usually implemented in areas with higher number of at-risk kids), leads to a rather slippery slope with regards to development & choice. We must be wary of practices that suggest that honoring developmental readiness is only reserved for children of a certain class.

This wariness should become sharper when we are faced with programs that overshadow books themselves. When programs > books, we run into equity issues every time, because generally, only the kids that quickly finish up their program assignment get time to simply read books of their choosing (Matthew Effect, anyone?)

So, how do we…

…work to eliminate the reading ability gap our low-income students face while still honoring developmental readiness and choice?

…seek out accountability that all students are receiving high quality reading instruction while also avoiding silver bullet programs that promise guarantees?

…ensure that in our zeal to help them find words, we do not allow our anxious agendas to swallow up their voices & choices?

Even as we work to identify diverse literary needs and developmental readiness, we can find a more joyful, inviting reading community for all as we focus more on nurturing readers & cultures than on pushing reading levels.

“For too long we have focused on the development of reading for skills, not for the love of reading.  Yet, we need both types of experiences in order to fully develop as readers.” ~Pernille Ripp

(so many practical ideas from Pernille on establishing that culture in her post).

For our early readers, we seem to have been especially caught up in the skills side of reading. We need to stop packing in skills so tightly that they crowd out reading itself.

As Donalyn Miller recently summed up,

Each and every one of our early readers deserve librarians just as much as they deserve high-quality reading specialists. They deserve books in their hands just as much as they deserve guided reading groups. And they deserve teachers who share their authentic love of reading just as much as they deserve teachers who effectively build decoding skills.

It’s understandable to feel overwhelmed by fear of kids falling behind. But when we start from a place of love of the reading instead of fear, we ultimately lay a literary foundation that is much more lasting and meaningful for all our readers.

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Ever-Evolving Book Environment #TeacherMom

Our books have seen a lot of different kinds of arrangements. And most of what I’ve shared here has been of the pretty kind:

Bedside reading:

Display for our books from the library:

Spring cleaning sorting by author, size, and collection:

Variety is key, and it’s not always super pretty. It’s all about access. Which means it should be ever-evolving, based on our observations of our kids’ shifting needs. And access wins over pretty every time.

This might look like…

…pulling out books from our tightly-packed shelf onto the display area with the library books to remind our kids of gems they’ve forgotten.

…giving them their own shelf to organize favorite books (and to keep them safe from book-shredding little brothers for now).

…letting them go to town arranging their own personal “library.”

What are ways you help encourage book access with your kids at home? How does that shift over time?

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Inquiry into Skills: Social

This is part of a series of inquiry-based provocations for essential elements of the PYP and the Learner Profile. For more, click here.

As I come toward the end of sharing provocation resources for each of the PYP essential elements (just 3 to go!), I was surprised to realize that finding ones for social skills was tricky. But then I realized that was because I was looking at it as a whole instead of breaking down more specific skills. The PYP social skills include:

  • Accepting responsibility: taking on a completing tasks in an appropriate manner; being willing to assume a share of their responsibility
  • Respecting otherslistening sensitively to others; making decisions based on fairness & equality; recognizing others’ beliefs, viewpoints, religions, & ideas may differ from one’s own; stating one’s opinion without hurting others
  • Cooperatingworking cooperatively in a group; being courteous to others; sharing materials; taking turns
  • Resolving conflictlistening carefully to others; compromising; reacting reasonably to the situation; accepting responsibility appropriately; being fair
  • Group decision-makinglistening to others; discussing ideas; asking questions; working towards and obtaining consensus
  • Adopting a variety of roles: understanding what behavior is acceptable in a given situation & acting accordingly; being a leader in some circumstances, a follower in others

In breaking them down, it became clear that I’ve been sharing resources for all these skills all along. There is so much overlap among all the PYP essential elements, but I think this is particularly the case when it comes to social skills. Each of the other PYP essential elements may help students investigate & build up their own social skills in addition to the specific attitude, skill, or attribute.

So this week’s provocation is designed to think about the big picture of social skills as a whole, but know that if you are looking to hone in on the more specific skills listed above, you may find what you need in the complete list of provocations into the PYP essential elements, or even the complete list of all inquiry-based provocations on this site.

Resource #1: Family Rescues Whale Tangled In Net via The Dodo

Resource #2: Brene Brown on Empathy by The RSA (yes, this is a specific skill, but watch closely for multiple social skills here)

Resource #3: Kids Meet a Person with Cerebral Palsy via The Kid Should See This

Resource #4: ADA at iPark Museum of Art via The Kid Should See This

Resource #5: “We Found A Hat” by Jon Klassen

Provocation Questions:

  • How do social skills impact our relationships?
  • What are social skills?
  • How do we improve our social skills?
  • What is the impact of social skills on our lives? On our communities?
  • What is our responsibility to cultivate our social skills?
  • Are there different perspectives on what good social skills are? If so, what are they, and why do they exist?
  • How do social skills connect to collaboration?
  • How do social skills impact our ability to accomplish goals?

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She Just Asked Google To Remind Her to “Read All the Books On the Bottom Shelf” #TeacherMom

A few days ago, I overheard my 8 year-old adding her day plans to our shared daily to-do list (more on that here). Using the speech-to-text feature, amid other typical tasks, I suddenly heard her say, “Read all the books on the bottom shelf.”

Teacher mom that I am, of course I was delighted. 

But then I turned to reflect once more on our journey of her literacy:

The pressures I felt to ensure she memorized the ABC’s before kindergarten.

The way I felt like a failure as a teacher when she would not cooperate with my beautifully laid-out magnetic letter play.

The constant tension I felt between whether I should let her choose her own books or drill her on-level basal reader or sight-word flashcards to push her to the next reading level.

The nagging worry that I was denying her opportunities by turning down programs with the label, “proven to be successful in improving the reading skills of every student who participates.”

The way I wondered if I was wrong to yield to her book-making efforts over any worksheets that came home.

Yet amid all the angst, here we are to nearly the start of 3rd grade, and not only is she a fantastic reader and writer, but she’s adding items to her to-do list like “read all the books on the bottom shelf.”

It makes me wonder. Had I pushed all those academics and level advancement on her from my place of stress and worry, would she be making such choices for her summer? My suspicion is that had I pushed my agenda on my strong-willed child, she would want little to do with books today–especially on her “time off.”

It seems that those of us raising kids today are given every reason to believe that to trust our kids’ autonomy over their learning is tantamount to negligence. We are constantly bombarded with ads that offer promises of confidence in our children’s future success. We are so stressed by questions on whether we’re doing enough for our kids, that there is little room left for noticing the learning that quietly and naturally unfolds each day.

This is where I’ll share and re-share this quote from Brene Brown (see it also on Preschool, Kinder-Prep, & 3 Things Kids Need Most):

There is an abundance of learning and growing happening within our kids each day. Recognizing, embracing, and celebrating that from a place of love will always outperform operating from a place of not-enough stress and fear. Not because it will guarantee some future Harvard acceptance or a job on Wall Street, but because it will cultivate a lifetime of joyful learning.

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Inquiry into Skills: Communication

This is part of a series of inquiry-based provocations for essential elements of the PYP and the Learner Profile. For more, click here.

Communication is obviously a biggie. It shows up in the 4 C’s of 21st century learning. It comes up in the lists of skills employers most desire. It comes up in wellness articles and self-help books and relationship therapy.

Maybe it’s time we deliberately help students develop communication skills. As we do so, I hope we’ll also teach them more about what it means to be a communicator (see separate provocation on just that!). These resources are intended as a start; please feel free to add others in the comments that might help provoke student thinking and discussion.

Resource #1: How Miscommunication happens (& how to avoid it) by TED Ed

Resource #2: Tools of the Mind (intro video at top of page)

Resource #3: Click, Clack, Moo: Cows that Type by Doreen Cronin & Betsy Lewin

Provocation Questions:

  • What does it mean to communicate?
  • What are different forms of communication?
  • What are communication skills like?
  • How does communication impact our lives? Our communities?
  • What is our responsibility to communicate effectively?
  • What is the connection between learning and communication?
  • What is the connection between self-regulation and communication?
  • What are the different perspectives of individuals in conversations?
  • [if you also shared the provocation on being a communicator] What is the difference between communication skills and being a communicator?

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Learning to Cram or Learning to Live?

One of the most powerful moments of the film “Most Likely To Succeed” (shared with me by my friend Abe Moore) was when a group of students, when faced with the question of whether they’d like to learn to apply to their lives or learn to ace the tests, they all choose acing tests.

Why? Because this was me in high school, too. I did not have patience for the teachers that tried to push their mumbo-jumbo philosophy of life on us, because we all knew that ultimately, it was only the tests that mattered anyway.

The tests. The gateways to colleges and careers. And if you hadn’t already started cramming for them, you were doomed, right?

So moving was that moment — especially paired with a parent explaining to the progressive teacher that she just “didn’t want any doors closed” to her child, it was almost enough to throw out the whole premise of the documentary, which is that we must change the way school works in order for kids to succeed in this ever-changing world.

Almost enough. But not quite. Because as I continued to watch, I became curious. If these kids aren’t taking the traditional courses and writing the traditional essays and memorizing for the traditional tests, are they getting into college? And if so, are they succeeding there?

It would seem they are. In my curiosity, I came across these High Tech High alumni stories, and I was impressed to hear the kinds of resilience and self-awareness these kids have clearly cultivated and are applying to their higher education journeys.

But even they conceded that in college, they still must face pressure and cramming and testing — but they reassure younger students that they will be ok and that it’s hard for everyone. Meanwhile, as the end of the movie points out, these students are still scoring well on the state standardized tests and getting into college, even without all the emphasis on test prep.

All this leads me to conclude that cramming doesn’t deserve the emphasis we’ve been giving it all these years. Wouldn’t it be better to first cultivate curiosity, determination, resilience, and sense of self, and then trust that our kids will be able to face the obstacles that arise?

I’ll close with one of the final remarks from a teacher in the documentary:

“There is a chance that they will come out without all of the extremelytangible skills and content that they would get at a normal high school…but if we’re going to believe that the content knowledge we’re trying to impart on them in a traditional school is not being retained, then I would argue, what is it again that they’re missing?…Here, they’re gonna leave with an extreme depth of some content and a whole bunch of other soft skills, they’re gonna have grit, they’re gonna be able to persevere through difficulty, they’re good at communicating with adults and their peers, they’re collaborative, they have empathy, all these things that are not things that disappear your junior year of high school. And so, when parents ask that, and they do ask that all the time, it’s really kind of a what do you want out of your student, who do you want them to be?”

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On Taking Their Learning Autonomy Seriously #TeacherMom

I watched him eagerly build. Forget that parking garage we’d given him; his backdrop for his car pretend play needed to be a magnificent double castle. It was clear that for him, his make-believe was thoroughly real and satisfying and rich.

And I wondered how often I have not recognized such pretend play for what it really is: self-constructed learning experiences.

Now, as I watch my kids play and explore and learn, I am filled with questions.

Do we recognize their fantastical play of equal or greater value than “real world” play?

Children use fantasy not to get out of, but to get into, the real world. ~John Holt

Do we see a child at play or a person constructing meaning for themselves?

Do we believe that play has its place, but that that place is still below drilling shapes, colors, and counting if the child has reached a certain age?

“Children naturally resist being taught because it undermines their independence and their confidence in their own abilities to figure things out and to ask for help, themselves, when they need it.” ~Peter Gray

Do we allow panic of “readiness lists” (for any grade or age) to override our child’s autonomy over what they’ve indicated they are ready for? 

And most personally relevant: will I avoid the same mistake I made with my oldest (from which her own stubbornness saved us both), assuming that unless I assert my agenda and timetables and learning, my preschooler will fail?

Even as I work to provide a learning environment, I will try to remember an equally, if not more, important role: to trust them enough that I take their own learning autonomy seriously.

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