Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A Struggler or A Reader?

On Tuesday, I was working with classroom teachers using the Fountas and Pinnell Benchmark Assessment System for the first time. We were in awe at the amazing information we were learning about students. One of the teachers shared an observation she had made about one of her strugglers. She said, “It was so strange. Every time she came to a word she didn’t know, she kept looking at me. She wanted me to give her the word.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. I had just finished reading What Really Matters in Fluency by Richard Allington. In that book he warned that the tell-tale sign of a child who has been “remediated” is one that exhibits just that behavior! These readers are often interrupted by well-meaning adults who want to “correct” their miscues. Instead of learning to monitor their own reading and developing strategies for solving unknown words, strugglers learn to let other people do the work for them.

The bright side of this story is that the Benchmark Assessment invites “talk” about each book that the child reads. During the assessment conversation, this reader shared how she pictured the red eyed tree frogs. We shared our response to her response. She lit up. No longer did she seem meek and unsure of herself.

As I reflect on this experience, I am realizing that we often make the mistake of emphasizing the struggle with struggling readers. I am wondering how we can shift the emphasis to reader and in doing so, help children emerge more confident and proficient?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Being Resourceful

How excited would you be if you got 541 new books for your classroom library? One of my colleagues is VERY excited because that is how this new school year is beginning for her. She has so many new books that she enlisted the help of her husband to build bookshelves to give them a proper home.

What’s running through your head right now? Are you wondering where the funds for so many new books came from? Are you wondering where she teaches? Where is it that values reading so much that adding 541 new books to a single classroom library was a priority? Are you wishing that you, too, could start the year with 541 new books?

As I pass through conversations in lots of different schools, I hear a great deal of negative criticism about what teachers CAN’T do because schools haven’t provided what they feel is adequate training, resources, or materials. Teachers wish and wonder what it’s like to work where their friends teach and dream about how much better it would be if “this district did it like that district.” As somebody who works with educators in many different districts, I can tell you, no matter where you teach, something will always be lacking. There is NEVER enough money for all the training, resources, and materials that we need, so instead of resisting good teaching initiatives, I propose we exchange CAN’T for CAN and plow ahead with good teaching practices.

My colleague, the one who has 541 new books for her classroom library, is a dedicated reading workshop teacher. With a mere twelve hours of training under her belt, she started independent reading and literature circles with the classroom library she had. In spite of not having an adequately stocked tool box, she dabbled with mini lessons and teaching strategies and forged ahead with her reading workshop. Her courage and can-do attitude helped her figure out what else she needed to make her reading workshop productive and successful. For her, it came down to books. She needed more books.

Probably like your school district, there wasn’t much money in the budget for new titles, especially the number of books she was looking to add to her classroom library. So what did she do? She placed a letter in the mailbox of her many neighbors asking them to donate any gently used children’s book that had been relegated to a dusty shelf or box in their basement. “Please, if you are done using them, I will put them to good use,” she promised her neighbors. And little by little, the books began to appear—in her mailbox, on her stoop, at the end of her driveway stuffed into a paper bag.

Five hundred forty one books later, Michele feels ready to begin her reading workshop. Is this because she works in a dreamy, heavenly district that made her teaching dreams come true? No. This is because she is a teacher committed to helping children become more proficient readers. In order to do this, they need books. Lots of books. And her students will have them because like any great teacher, she is resourceful.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

September Love Affairs

Yesterday I watched a video of a struggling reader with a group of second grade teachers. As they listened to him read and analyzed his miscues and asked questions about him as a reader, they hypothesized and thought about what he needs to get better. They commented on how cute he was and sympathized about his struggle. They wished out loud that they could work with this child. In short, they fell in love.

Last September, this child’s teacher loved this reader, too. She tried her best to teach him, but as he failed to make the progress she hoped he would, he grew apathetic and uncooperative. He became easily distracted and ill-behaved. By June, September’s love affair had morphed into an eager parting of ways. Good riddance.

Anybody who has ever taught children understands what it is like to teach a child who struggles. When children struggle, it is easy to blame the learner. He’s lazy. He’s not listening. He’s not trying. He’s not supported at home. It’s somehow easier to explain away misgivings when it’s the child’s fault.

But…what if it’s not the child? What if it’s something we’re doing? Or not doing?

As we analyzed the behaviors and errors that this child made as a reader, I was reminded of how important it is that we be reflective about the children we teach. On this day in September, we understand what this reader needs. But as he grows and changes, his needs will change. Only if we remain perceptive and reflective will we change our instruction and approach to continue to meet his needs. We can only do this if we care enough to keep trying.

This September, I urge you to not only fall in love with your students, but to stay in love. When you feel frustrated by the teaching challenges before you, ask questions, think out loud with colleagues, but whatever you do, don’t stop exploring what you could do differently or better to teach the children who sit before you.

Have a great year.