Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What’s Worth Fighting For?

This past Saturday, Linda Darling-Hammond, educator-extraordinnaire, stood before an audience of approximately 3000 people in Riverside Church in New York City and told a story of some doctors who had gathered at a conference in her home state of California to discuss the issue of inmates who had been sentenced to death row.  The question that sat before this group of anesthesiologists was this: What is the best way to end a human life?

The doctors talked and wrestled a little with the question but it didn’t take them long to realize that they while they could answer this question and offer the state of California more humane options for death row candidates, they would not.  They decided that they were not in the business of killing people and so decided to stand together as professionals and say, “This is something we will not do.”


Dr. Darling-Hammond then asked the large crowd assembled before her, “What is it as educators that we should stand up for?  What is it that we should be refusing to do?”  With the exception of the occasional voice speaking up to say, “standardized test,” she rendered the crowd speechless.  We were all lost in our own sea of thoughts thinking hard about what it is that we do as educators that deserves that kind of unanimity?

Since Saturday I have found myself thinking often about this question and I find myself thinking a lot about instructional decision making and educational programming.  So much of what we do depends on conflicting directives.  Decisions are made on the basis of anything from funding to staffing to research to the whim of a single individual. Directives are given and in spite of whether or not the directive is in the best interest of the students we teach, we comply.  When I think about this and I think about the question that Dr. Darling-Hammond posed, I answer her question like this: I will not do anything that is not in the best interest of a child. 

Instructional programming and decision making can’t be about politics and whim.  They need to be about children and their best interests.  That’s what I’m willing to stand up for.  And you?    

Friday, March 11, 2011

Planning Units of Study: Immerse Yourself First

Every time I sit down to plan a unit of study in writing, I begin with envisioning. I start with the same big questions I ask myself at the beginning of every unit of study: Why am I teaching this? What do I want my students to learn? I close my eyes and try to imagine the mini lessons that I will teach during this unit. On more occasions that I care to count, what do I see?

Absolutely nothing.

Has this ever happened to you? Every time it happens to me I feel frustrated and overwhelmed. I begin to question if this unit is even possible, whether it’s “developmentally appropriate” and feel ready to throw in the towel and move onto something more comfortable and familiar.

Then I regroup. I begin to think about what I’ve done in the past to make planning more successful and it occurs to me: I need to look at samples of books from the genre that I am thinking about studying with children. Without a clear picture of these mentor texts in my brain, I find it impossible to establish my objective for the unit. Only flipping through the pages of books helps me to understand my goal and envision possibilities for mini lessons.

Great teacher educators like Donald Graves and Lucy Calkins and their respective colleagues have long impressed the importance of beginning units of study by sharing mentor texts and examples of the genre with students. I can’t imagine asking students to write in a genre without first showing them what it looks and sounds like. How it ever occurred to me to envision teaching a genre without first immersing myself in what it looks and sounds like eludes me. But I promise you this: It is a mistake I will NEVER make again. From here on in, planning a writing unit of study will always begin with a pile of books and some quiet reading time. I know now that it is only then that successful envisioning can begin.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Weighing the Options: Alternatives to Round Robin Reading

Psst. I have a confession to make. There was a time when I felt that an occasional “popcorn” around to different readers in the room would do no harm. However, through the years, my thinking has evolved because the evidence against it is beyond persuasive. Research on round robin reading tells us:
  • It slows down reading rates.
  • It lowers the quantity of reading students do. (Research estimates that students actually read between two to six minutes in a typical round robin reading session. Any way you slice it, it’s not much.)
  • It is ineffectual at improving reading comprehension. When reading aloud, pronunciation is emphasized over meaning. In turn, text is often read slowly and disfluently which interferes with meaning making.
  • It is detrimental to fluency because children are often asked to read texts that are too difficult which leads to choppy models of what reading sounds like.
  • It highlights the displeasures of reading leaving children feeling disinclined to pick up books and read on their own.

Yet, in spite of the strong case against round robin reading, over 59% of kindergarten through eighth grade teachers admit to using popcorn reading as a teaching tool in their classrooms. And I suspect that if we had a way of being omnipresent in all classrooms, we’d discover that that there might be a percentage more teachers secretly holding on to this teaching practice. The question we need to ask now is: why?

When asked, teachers cite a number of reasons why they believe in and practice round robin reading but the bottom line seems to be this: Most feel it is their best and only option for coming together around a shared text which means that if we are going to change this practice, we need to provide teachers with better alternatives.

But what would those be?

One option teachers have is to read the text aloud. The benefits of reading aloud to children are well documented. Unlike round robin reading which has many strikes against it, reading aloud has many benefits, including: 
  • It models what expert reading sounds like.
  • It helps kids know and love many different authors.
  • It exposes children to many genres.
  • It actively engages children in thinking and meaning making while enjoying the piece being shared.
  • It conditions the brain to associate reading with pleasure.
  • It creates background knowledge.
  • It builds vocabulary.

Some might argue that reading the text aloud does nothing to build reading volume but when you weigh the amount of time children actually read during round robin (>5 minutes) against the benefits of a read aloud, it seems like a no brainer.

If the issue remains that we want our students to do the reading, then why not have them read it silently? Teachers often worry that student won’t actually read or might not understand what they read. If that’s the case, we’ve got to consider the underlying issues. Are they not reading because they don’t have the stamina they need to get through the text? Are they not reading because the text is too hard? It is only through honest reflection that we are able to answer these questions and in answering them, we inevitably find our way to better alternatives to round robin reading.

When your students need to come together around a shared text, how do you make sure they all get what they need? What alternatives do you propose?