Monday, April 26, 2010

Stop the Insanity

I recently attended a conference and heard Lucy Calkins speak about some research being done at Columbia University about the correlation between students’ guided reading levels and the score they get on the state test. While I don’t have the hard and fast data, she explained that they are finding that fourth graders reading at a level N at the time of the test are the ones more likely to get a 2 and the children reading at a level S at the time of the test would be the ones more likely to get a 3 and the child reading at a level V at the time of the test would be the ones more likely to get a 4. She pointed out that the larger scale implication of these findings is that we need to pay more attention to boosting children’s reading levels. Boosting reading levels requires teachers to amp up the small group and one-on-one instruction. It means monitoring students closely to ensure that they are selecting books on their level and being ritualistic and religious about giving kids independent reading time. Lucy mentioned that when teachers start prepping for the test in January and spend three months committed to practice test after practice test it might well be akin to what happens when children don’t read over the summer—they lose ground instead of gain ground.

When I heard Lucy speak these words, I felt a wave of relief. Could it be that we finally have the research we need to say to those purchasing workbooks and wasting school duplicating resources on test prep packets to STOP! We’re doing more harm than good?

In 2006, in his book What Really Matters for Struggling Readers, Richard Allington wrote,

“The best guideline for test preparation would seem to be to practice a couple of days before the test to familiarize students with the test format and to introduce or review, general test-taking strategies. But daily periods of test preparation across the school year seems more likely to result in lower performances because most test preparation involves little, if any, teaching of useful reading strategies or development of word knowledge.”

Allington has obviously known for years what Lucy is trying to make mainstream, but how can we help classroom teachers buy in? I know so many who attribute their students’ successes to test prep. For whatever reason, they don’t see the value in the quality of their teaching.

I have a fantasy of being a school superintendent issuing a dictum that no school dollars would be used to purchase commercially produced test prep materials. I would forbid the practice of using packets filled with short passages and literal level comprehension questions as reading instruction and add that anybody caught disobeying these orders would be written up for insubordination.

Without the support of administrators, teachers will continue to attribute their test results to test prep. The emphasis MUST be on good teaching. Good teaching makes a difference in student achievement. Not Xerox or March to May or whatever other nonsense they publish to “prepare” students for the state exam.

The test is almost here and we are all preparing to breathe a collective sigh of relief. But before next year’s scramble begins again, perhaps we need to rethink this insanity and refocus on what’s really important: Good teachers + Good Reading Instruction = More Proficient Readers. It’s that simple.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Calling All Learners

Yesterday I attended a conference co-sponsored by the Long Island Language Arts Council and the Nassau Reading Council titled “Calling all Learners.” Before this day began, I gave very little thought to the name of this conference. In my mind, it was a conference—a place to gather and talk and learn with people who love literacy as much as I do.

As the morning got underway, I listened to several announcements and introductions and listened intently as Kerry Vann, president of LILAC spoke about the title of this year’s conference: Calling All Learners. She asked the audience to consider whether we were prepared to answer the call to meet the needs of all learners or would we “screen our calls” and meet the needs of only the ones we thought we could help or felt up to the task of teaching.

When she spoke, I couldn’t believe my ears. Just moments earlier, before the introductions began, I sat chatting with some colleagues whom I hadn’t seen in awhile and our conversation turned to Response to Intervention, one of the hottest buzz words in educational circles at the moment. As we talked, I shared that I thought that the greatest outcome of RTI will be teacher accountability. No longer will it be okay to identify students with reading difficulties and push them along to the reading teacher and say, “okay, now you fix them.” RTI forces classroom teachers to understand and value their role in developing reading proficiency differently. RTI will help to promote realization of a long neglected fact: when children struggle, everybody is responsible. Strugglers are not simply the charge of specialists.

I admit, the telephone analogy implied in the title of this year’s conference was lost on me at the onset of yesterday’s program. But, as a I listened to Kerry speak, I was sold. We are steeped in a culture of technology and instant gratification. We do need to be reminded that we cannot “screen our calls” if we are going to create students prepared to meet the demands of the twenty-first century.

To the people responsible for laboring over a thoughtful title for yesterday’s conference, I’d like to say thank you. You certainly have me thinking about my role and responsibility in “answering the call.”

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Today and Tomorrow

At the beginning of this week, I visited a middle school on the day that had been dedicated to independent reading. At a random moment during each of the nine periods, an announcement was made over the loud speaker “to drop everything and read.” And the students read—for five minutes. At the end of five minutes, another announcement was made to resume normal activity. As I sat thinking about what I could blog about after my two week hiatus, it occurred to me that I could expound the many thoughts I had about this “Drop Everything and Read” initiative, but I thought, keep it positive, Kim. Come back on a positive note.

During one of those five minute intervals of drop everything and read, I flipped through Jean Little’s Hey World, Here I Am. I love this book because it is filled with short but meaty stories. I have read “About Loving,” “About Old People,” “About Notebooks,” and “Five Dollars” at least one hundred times each (I swear, I am not exaggerating). Every time I read these pieces, I find myself thinking new things, recognizing new teaching possibilities. On this particular day, though, I revisited a little gem called “Today.” It goes like this:

Today I will not live up to my potential.
Today I will not relate well to my peer group.
Today I will not contribute in class.
I will not volunteer one thing.
Today I will not strive to do better.
Today I will not achieve or adjust or grow enriched or get involved.
I will not put up my hand even if the teacher is wrong and I can prove it.

Today I might eat the eraser off my pencil.
I’ll look at clouds.
I’ll be late.
I don’t think I’ll wash.

I need a rest.

Now, I know that someone just returning from vacation does not rightfully deserve a rest, but I’ve been feeling very guilty about not having crossed off everything on my to-do list, one of which includes writing this blog. So I hope you will all forgive me when I blame Jean Little for giving me permission not to live up to my potential. I promise you this though, this is only for “today.” Tomorrow, I hope to feel differently.