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 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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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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I Can Never Go Back

A couple days ago, I was chatting with friend who teaches in our local school district. I shared my plan to teach in the same district when my kids reach school age (due to unfortunate logistics, I won’t be returning to a PYP school). Then I shared that I am nervous about doing so. And then she asked me why.

I was grateful for the chance to really consider the question; I’ve been fretting about it for some time, and fretting is never as productive as reflecting. Why am I nervous? Is it that I’ve been away from the classroom for too long? Am I worried about transitioning back to working full time?

Then I realized the answer rested in a story I wrote on Edutopia a couple winters ago in which I shared before/after approaches to teaching poetry (& literacy in general):

“My students could describe the difference between a limerick and a couplet, but could they articulate why a poem mattered to them? I knew the answer was no.”

In recalling that anecdote & sharing with my friend, I realized I can never go back to teaching in a way that prioritizes memorizing content over constructing meaning. My nervousness stems from not knowing to what degree my yet-unknown future school will let me choose.

If I needed any further convincing about the impact of the latter approach, a parent of one of my former students recently shared a video of his performance as captain of his school’s poetry slam team. In her words,

“Today my son whom is ADHD, struggled reading for so long just lead the first ever Herriman High High School Slam Poetry Team to a 6th place finish. He was team captain and scored the highest of his team with a 27 out of 30. His original poem was on being ADHD and it was remarkable.”

Take a listen. I promise it’s worth the 3 minutes.

And I can never go back. After witnessing the way learning can truly transform & empower & matter, I can never go back.

As if to reinforce this conclusion, later that day, the words from “Come Alive” in The Greatest Showman jumped out at me:

“No more living in those shadows
You and me, we know how that goes
‘Cause once you see it, oh you’ll never, never be the same
We’ll be the light that’s shining
Bottle up and keep on trying
You can prove there’s more to you
You cannot be afraid

Come alive, come alive
Go and ride your light
Let it burn so bright
Reach it up
To the sky
And it’s open wide
You’re electrified

…So, come alive!”

It should be noted that my friend kindly reassured me that she thinks I’ll find a good fit in the district, and I’m sure she is right. Meanwhile, I will try to convert my nervousness into commitment to, as my friend Monte Syrie regularly says, “Do. Reflect. Do Better.” Which is something I know with certainty that I owe to my past & future students, and to myself.

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Revisiting Debate on Teacher’s Personal Generosity

I first started blogging here when I was put on bed rest, mostly because I needed something to minimize the depression and sudden disconnect from teaching.

Then, when I decided to continue my break from the classroom until our little ones are in school, blogging became a way for me to stay involved in the teaching world while meeting our family’s current needs. Because it’s a sponsored blog, it also became a way I could continue to contribute to our family’s finances in a small way.

All of this seems reasonable enough, but that last bit in particular gave me trouble for the first year or so. I struggled with feeling like I had become an outsider selling ideas to teachers still in the trenches.

None of this was helped by the fact that when I first started, I thought I needed to focus my content on what seemed “clickable.” My posts needed to be as shiny, professional, and appealing as possible on a sponsored blog, right?

All of that worry dissolved as soon as I remembered to simply focus on the learning. My learning as well as student learning. Interestingly enough, this became much more practicable for me when I switched to blogging 3 days a week on a topic schedule — it has me looking for learning opportunities everywhere.

I share this story as a way to continue the discussion on teacher’s personal generosity.

Any time we introduce a business element to the teaching profession we run into this pitfall: it becomes a constant incentive to focus on what would sell over what’s best for students and learning. What’s worse is the fact that the shiny glitzy stuff does sell because, well, learning is messy, and who wants to buy messy?

As Edna Sackson pointed out this week:

In my last post on teacher’s personal generosity, I chose to focus primarily on compassion, understanding that since teachers are so often underpaid and under-budgeted, we should be cautious about judging. I only added a P.S. to watch out for the fluffy extras that have little to do with learning. I now realize that was a mistake, because it fails to acknowledge how tempting it becomes for learning to go out the window when faced with commercialism.

The truth is that whether we’re in or out of the classroom, we’re all surrounded by companies, programs, & yes, “Craptivities” vying for our attention and money. We must be seriously discerning consumers and contributors, filtering out the valuable learning from the time-fillers/control-perpetrators, and welcoming feedback when we fall short (which is, of course, one of the reasons I am so grateful for my PLN!).

Ultimately we can recognize the limitations and strains placed on teachers while also insisting that what we share, buy, retweet, and pin is worthy of our learners — their agency, their voices, and their dignity.

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What Trust Is Not…

Whenever we talk about trusting our kids, reservations inevitably arise. Safety? Wasted opportunities? Wasted time?

Often, these fears grow from a convoluted interpretation of what it means to trust our kids. So I’d like to start a discussion here on what trust is not. Trust is NOT…

negligence. Quite the opposite. When we define all the timetables, we are directors of our students, which really can take place at an arm’s length (I assign the work, you complete it by the end of class, test, repeat). When we trust, when become learners of our students, watching and listening as we immerse ourselves in their progress, offering guidance along the way. I found this approach to be beautifully captured by Faige Meller here:

We always wonder if they’re learning, if we’re doing a good job, if were covering the curriculum and if they’ll be ready for the next grade? We test, we do running records, we talk, we ask questions and we write report cards. But I have another idea!  How about we also watch the kids, we listen to them as they’re doing the learning. We see how they incorporate what we’ve taught in their authentic application of the learning as they write graphic novels; how they laugh gleefully reading to each other, discovering something in the story that was new to them; how they figure out how to cut paper to make pop ups (there’s math there folks,) and how eager they are to share with their teachers all that and more!

turning a blind eye. Sometimes, our students will waste their time, just as at times, adults waste time. But that doesn’t mean that clamping down on trust for them all is the answer. Trusting our students involves getting to know them extremely well. and then using that information to make more whole-picture decisions when they seem to fall short. This example from my friend Monte Syrie went viral on Bored Panda because people know it’s not about ignoring problems, but acknowledging the whole context with humanity.

a total lack of boundaries. That, of course, would be educational suicide. The nature of boundaries in a trust/student-centered classroom is a much more nuanced conversation. But mostly involves a lot of conversations with our students, both on the individual level and as a whole. More on that discussion here in “Baby Gates & Boundaries.”

insisting on too little structure too soon. Especially after years of being trained that teachers make all the important decisions regarding their learning, it’s understandable that many of our students struggle with ownership being given back to them.

We recognize that working toward greater levels of trust, along with that “gradual release,” is always an ongoing process, guided by how well we’ve come to know our kids and gaining their trust in return. (planning on centering next week’s provocation around this!)

lack of planning. When we become more focused on following and trusting the child, we work to become experts of the mandated curricula so we can identify where to help students make connections in their own learning paths. Sonya terBorg describes this well in her post on control:

Giving control of learning to the child doesn’t mean sitting in the corner with your feet up and letting them flounder.  It means becoming an observer, a guide, a road map of sorts – ready to be referenced.  It means being attuned to what is going on in your classroom and being prepared to ask for clarification from the children in your class.  It means posing the right questions, sharing the right provocations, providing the appropriate amount of time for them to work their magic.

unwarranted risk. We may face the raised brow by those who claim that the system — the programs, the lectures, the testing, the teacher control — is working just fine. For the few that still believe that, it may be hard to convince them that any deviation is necessary. But for those of us who see that kids aren’t retaining information fed to them in traditional school, aren’t applying learning in ways they find meaningful, or aren’t developing the skills the 21st century (and 22nd) will demand of them, we see we really don’t have a lot to lose with making a change. You’ll find a lot of us on Educator Voices, a shared blog of teachers who “share and celebrate how we are pushing the boundaries, shaking up the system and challenging the status quo!”

In the end, we may worry about what might happen if we trust our kids, but what we should be worrying about is what might happen if we do not. The benefits and opportunities far outweigh the perceived risks of trusting our students, as Taryn writes, “to make mistakes, fail, run out of time, learn, reflect and, inevitably, grow.”

(by the way, I have to throw out that this totally has #TeacherMom applications, too. See one of my favorite parenting sites, LetGrow, to learn how we can better trust kids to own their own childhoods).

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7 Ways For Promoting More Choice within “Compulsory Schooling”

In John Taylor Gatto’s book, Dumbing Us Down, he contends that compulsory education impacts children in the following ways:

#1: It confuses students.

“I teach the un-relating of everything, an infinite fragmentation the opposite of cohesion.”

#2: It teaches kids to accept their rigid class & grade-level placement.

“The lesson of numbered classes is that everyone has a proper place in the pyramid and that there is no way out of your class except by number magic.”

#3: It makes them indifferent.

“The lesson of the bells is that no work is worth finishing, so why care too deeply about anything?”

#4: It makes them emotionally dependent.

“By stars and red checks, smiles and frowns, prizes, honors and disgraces I teach kids to surrender their will to the predestined chain of command.”

#5: It makes them intellectually dependent.

“We must wait for other people, better trained than ourselves, to make the meanings of our lives. The expert makes all the important choices.”

#6: It teaches provisional self-esteem.

“A monthly report, impressive in its provision, is sent into students’ homes to signal approval or to mark exactly, down to a single percentage point, how dissatisfied with their children parents should be.”

#7: It teaches them that they cannot hide, due to constant supervision.

“I assign a type of extended schooling called “homework,” so that the effect of surveillance, if not that surveillance itself, travels into private households, where students might otherwise use free time to learn something unauthorized from a father or mother, by exploration, or by apprenticing to some wise person in the neighborhood.”

While I don’t necessarily agree with all he writes, he makes a pretty solid case regarding these consequences of the institution of school. Despite the fact that he wrote it in 1991, we are still seeing similar consequences today.

by Jerry Scott & Jim Borgman, April 22, 2018

Nonetheless, here in 2018, we have so many opportunities to address these issues, even within the construct of “compulsory schooling.” I would like to visit how we might address each one today.

#1: Confusion Seek out inquiry & concept-based learning in which students start with the big concepts. Start with the student by provoking thinking and connections. See my list of provocations here on concepts ranging from empathy to color to how we organize ourselves. And check out Laura England’s fabulous recent example with her students’ big thinking.

#2: Accepting class/grade-level placement  Encourage student voice & global collaboration. Solicit their feedback & regularly meet in class meetings to ascertain their feelings about “how things are” and whether they have ideas on how it might be better. And if they want to talk with students or experts beyond their assigned grade level, facilitate that! See amazing examples here.

#3: Indifference Make time for student inquiry such as Genius Hour or Passion time for students to pursue personally meaningful learning over the longterm. See AJ Juliani’s guide.

#4: Emotional dependence → Reject trinkets & prizes in favor of intrinsic motivation. See this great example of how we can do so with regards to reading from Donalyn Miller.

#5: Intellectual dependence Put students in the driver’s seat as often as possible, from planning their day to self-regulation (see more details). 

#6: Provisional self-esteem  Implement Student-led conferences & blogging to allow students to clearly recognize and share their own learning.

#7: Lack of privacy  Ask what parents need (& otherwise view ourselves as support/appendages to the family, rather than family as an appendage of school).

There will always be limitations within the rigid public school system. However, especially as we make advances in technology that provides more opportunities for personalized learning and agency, there will always be ways to find flexibility to help learners take more ownership over their lives as learners. It may be the next best thing to fully self-directed learning.

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Turning Around “Family as Appendages of an Abstraction”

This phrase, “family as appendages of an abstraction,” leaped from the page as I read John Taylor Gatto’s Dumbing Us Down. While there were several points in the book with which I disagree, this one stands out to me, because it is a harrowing reminder of the ways that once viewed family as an appendage of school, rather than the other way around. This included:

  • Insisting that reading logs be signed by a parent each night, even when a parent told me she knows her daughter reads for hours each day & indicated that the log would not have any value for their situation.
  • Questioning why on earth a parent was opting out of homework so her daughter could focus on her rigorous gymnastics practice/competition schedule.
  • Feeling frustrated when some families expressed dismay when we discontinued math worksheets for homework in favor of what we viewed as a more relevant, choice-based approach (“Can’t they see this is better for their kid than some worksheet?”)
  • Any time I viewed myself as a greater authority on a child’s needs than the parent.

I cringe at these memories. Families are a child’s most lasting community, and parents their most lasting teachers. Gatto writes,

“The deepest purposes of these gigantic networks [like schools] is to regulate and make uniform. Since the logic of family and community is to give scope to variety around a central theme, whenever institutions make a major intervention into personal affairs they cause much damage. By displacing the direction of life from families and communities to institutions and networks we, in effect, anoint a machine our King.”

It’s why I appreciate teachers like Taryn Bond-Clegg who realized that on the homework issue, rather than making mandates for or against, she could ascertain from parents and students themselves what would be most helpful for their families.

It’s why I recently wrote about ways we can truly form partnerships with parents.

And it’s why I loved this response from Chris Tuttell on Bill Ferriter’s “5 Lessons for the Student Teachers In Your Lives:”

“18 years in and I still feel like I have so much to learn. As a beginning teacher I had such an idealistic view – I always knew I wanted to teach in schools that served lower socioeconomic students and I thought I would change their world – I watched ALL the teacher movies – “Dangerous Minds”, ‘Stand and Deliver”, “Lean on Me”, “Freedom Writers”, etc. I thought and said, more times than I care to remember, “Education is your ticket out.”

Can you imagine hearing that as a kid? What was I thinking? Was I really suggesting being educated was more important than the connections the kids had with their family, friends, community? Or worse, that being educated meant you had to leave behind the life and people that matter most? It’s really horrifying isn’t it? I was so ignorant.

Now, all these years later, I focus my efforts on connecting with the families, visiting the community – entering as a learner – seeking to understand by asking questions and truly listening. I try to live by Maya Angelou’s words “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” I don’t succeed everyday but I am trying.”

I, too, am trying to learn & reflect as much as I can & come to know better so that once I return to the classroom, I can do better.

Of course, all this isn’t to suggest that all our kids’ home situations are ideal; far from it. But the point is that every family benefits when we focus on learning how we might support them, “seeking to understand by asking questions and truly listening.”

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