Monday, March 26, 2012

New Adventures

As many of you know, I have been journeying to learn everything I can about the Common Core.  I have been driven by curiosity to look closely at the new standards to help me understand how best to refine my own instructional practices and consider how these changes will influence the future of literacy instruction.  As it turns out, I haven’t been on this journey alone and am very excited to share with you that I am now collaborating Jan Miller Burkins, author of Preventing Misguided Reading to scrutinize and understand the Common Core State Standards.  We have set up a new website where we are blogging and reporting daily about many important issues surrounding implementation, interpretation, policy, and understanding each of the six shifts.  If you share my concerns and curiosity about literacy and the Common Core, I invite you to visit As I mentioned before, we are committed to daily posts and reports so be sure to subscribe for email updates or add this new site to your RSS feed.  In addition, Burkins & Yaris has a Facebook page and Twitter account where we will be posting important links to valuable information about the Common Core, so be sure to follow us there, too!  We plan to be very busy and we hope that you’ll join us on our journey.  The more you interact and share your concerns with us, the better we will be able to utilize this outlet to address the issues that are paramount to teaching reading and writing in the Common Core era!

I hope to see you at Burkins and Yaris! (But don’t worry, I’ll still be blogging here too!) 

Friday, March 16, 2012

Pruning the Educational Landscape

If you’ve been in education long enough, the refrain, “The pendulum swings again,” is not new to you.  With the Common Core State Standards, many teachers have expressed a concern that as we usher in this new era, we’re saying good-bye to our latest and greatest and moving on to yet something else that is new.  I share this concern and I’ve been watching this unfold very closely.  I have a lot questions, and one of my biggest is about the suggestion that all students need to read grade level complex text and the way in which to go about this is through close, careful reads.  I come from the school of strategy instruction.  I’ve taught children how to connect, infer, question, determine importance, visualize, and synthesize with success.  The suggestion that I abandon this practice in exchange for something that seems to be brand new to the educational landscape makes me say, “What gives?”

What gives is the need for me to be open minded.  If this is the new educational dictum, then before I can criticize it, I need to really understand it.  I need to carefully consider what I don’t understand about close, careful reading, and I need to understand what’s behind the suggestion that this practice could potentially help solve the problems that ail American schoolchildren when it comes to comprehension. And so, I have been on a quest to learn everything I can about close reading.  I have watched and rewatched the EngageNY videos about the Gettysburg Address and Letters from a Birmingham Jail.  I have scrutinized the Feynman text and I have read and listened as people who know way more than I do about reading explain the rationale and justification behind it and I confess, I have stumbled upon some new understandings. The first being this idea that if children are going to be successful on state assessments, the first time they see grade level text cannot be the day of the test.   Now, I don’t mean to imply that the authors of the Common Core are only about good test scores, but I think it’s fairly safe to say that they are about improving reading proficiency.  The contention is that in our classrooms, we don’t do enough to create dissonance and when students don’t have ample opportunity to puzzle through the complexities of complicated text, they don’t stretch as readers.  Instead of working in zones of proximal development, we create zones of maximum comfort and like an exercise routine that isn’t adjusted when a certain comfort level is achieved, growth stifles.  We don’t get the results we are looking for.

So this idea of stretching a reader is an ideology that I share with the Common Core so I found myself very willing to experiment with close reading. Part of the theory suggests we shouldn’t provide students too much information about the text before actually reading it because doing this takes away the need for students to attend closely and puzzle out what the text is really saying.  This idea intrigued me because I’m so conditioned to preview and provide background knowledge but I decided to suspend what I know best and give it a try. And I have to say, I’ve noticed some interesting things begin to happen.

In the past, as I prepared students to read, I would often invite them to share their experiences and talk about their connections to what they thought they were going to read about.  Students would get super excited and we’d sometimes have interesting conversations, but there were also plenty of occasions when I felt like I was running interference trying to get the students back on track because the conversation had taken a serious detour from what the text was really about.  In addition, these pre-reading conversations would often eat up a lot of time.  Once upon a time, I thought it was time well spent. But since I have backed off from activating schema, I have found myself entertaining far less extraneous conversation about text.  Because there is less idle chatter, there seems to be less “noise” interfering with students’ understanding. On many occasions I’d observe students answering questions based on what they knew rather than what the text actually said.  I’m seeing a lot less of that now and it’s the result of a simple change.

My little experiment has taught me many things, mostly about close reading, but also about change.  Skepticism is a knee jerk reaction to change.  So is dread. Cynicism. Criticism.  When I first encountered the Common Core, I was suspicious that as educators, we were “being forced into a brand new educational landscape.” As I become more familiar with the Common Core, its shifts, and ideals, what I realize is that we’re not creating a brand new landscape so much as we’re pruning the one we already have. While we can hope that the greatest outcome of the Common Core will be better readers, writers, speakers, and listeners; the more immediate outcome will be reflection.  This document will force us to “closely read” our curriculums and teaching practices.  It will force us to try new things and in pruning the landscape, we may actually begin to create a new—and better—landscape for the 21st Century.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Reading Volume in the Age of the Common Core

Back in November, I worked with a group of fourth grade students on how to determine the main idea of a passage.  We worked with a passage about forest fires that read as follows:

Some fire is a natural part of the life of a forest.  Fire cleans out dead brush by burning it to ash.  Then animals that live in the forest can find food more easily.  New plants and trees have more room and sunlight to grow.
From Fires and Floods by Kate Waters, p 11

When students finished reading, I gave them the following question:

What is this passage mostly about?
A. How fires destroy forests
B. How fires can be helpful
C. How fires help animals
D. How fires clear away dead brush

The students collaborated and wrestled with each of the responses and then we gathered to sort out which response was the best one. After some debate and discussion, the class decided that the right answer was B. 

Sitting off to the side, there was one little boy who wore a puzzled expression.  He squinted his eyes, tilted his head, raised his hand and voiced his vehement objection, “Mrs. Yaris, there is no way that the answer can be B.  This is about fire and I know that fire makes smoke and when smoke goes up into the sky, it makes holes in the ozone layer and that causes global warming.  Global warming is bad.  Fires aren’t helpful.”

Take a moment to digest this story.  Think about what this child is doing as a reader and then think about what went wrong on his path to answering the question correctly.

As you do that, allow me to tell you one more story. 

Last week, in my post titled The Reading Advantage, I wrote about the importance of reading volume and it sparked a lot of conversation in the twitterverse and among my local colleagues.  As I chatted with classroom teachers about what gets in the way of allowing ample time for students to read, the conversation kept coming back to “the curriculum” and concerns about being in compliance with “the Common Core State Standards.”  One teacher even shared that in “shifting curriculum and instruction to meet the new demands of the CCSS,” she felt like she was sacrificing what she “innately knew was good teaching and learning.”  She felt like the Common Core didn’t allow room for creativity in teaching and certainly there would be no room for reading volume.

When she said this, it surprised me.  My reading of the Common Core had led me to believe that reading volume was central to achieving the goals of this document but yet she planted enough doubt to force me to go back to look again.  As I reread, I encountered line after line, paragraph after paragraph that spoke both directly and indirectly to this issue of reading volume: 

From the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading:
“Through extensive reading of stories, dramas, poems and myths…”

Appendix B, page 3:
“There is also evidence that current standards, curriculum, and instructional practices have not done enough to foster independent reading of complex texts so crucial for college and career readiness, particularly in the case of informational texts.”

The bottom of page 3 of Appendix A discusses the “general lack of reading” and goes on to attribute the “deterioration of overall reading ability” to “the problem of lack of reading.”

Also on page 4 of Appendix A:
“To grow, our students must read lots, and more specifically they must read lots of ‘complex’ texts—texts that offer them new language, new knowledge, and new modes of thought.”

Surely, if I looked hard enough, I could cite other examples but in going on this quest, I began to wonder if some educators are reading the CCSS in much the same way that my fourth grade student read the text about fire.

His response to the question about main idea was rooted in his background knowledge.  While extensive and impressive, he wasn’t using what he knew to support what he was learning. His response was based on his reaction to the topic. And because of that, he got it all wrong. 

In thinking about implementing the CCSS, we need to carefully consider the way in which we have read this document.  Are our understandings of the Common Core based on what we know?  Or, are they based on close, thorough readings of the text itself?  If we allow our background knowledge to drive our understanding, like my fourth grader, we run the risk of getting it all wrong. 

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Reading Advantage

During a recent teacher training with a group of middle school teachers, I shared a video titled Why Students Don’t Read What’s Assigned in Class. 

In this video, high school students come clean about what they have and haven’t read in high school.  When left to read “according to the curriculum,” some students admitted to reading only a couple of books that were assigned. Some read only one.  Others said they didn’t do a single bit of the reading that was assigned.  As I watched, I wasn’t surprised by these admissions, because after all, I was once one of these very same high school students doing the very same thing—reading Cliff Notes and faking it.  It’s discouraging to think that things haven’t changed in 25 years. We know so much more about engaging teaching practices.  We have barrels of evidence about how reading volume improves proficiency. Yet, we still churn out generations of kids who don’t read.  Why is this?

Still mulling over these heady questions of reading volume and curriculum, I went home to  poke around the web, and as I did, I came across a new manifesto by Seth Godin about changing education titled Stop Stealing DreamsIn the opening pages, Seth writes:

We invest thousands of hours exposing millions of students to fiction and literature, but end up training most of them never to read again for fun (one study found that 58% of all Americans never read for pleasure after they graduate school).

There it was again: this idea that in our schools, we don’t create readers.

And I began to think about why this bothers me so much and in the deep recesses of my mind, I heard the echo of Mark Twain’s famous words:

 “The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.”

During the days when our economy was based on factories and a good worker was one who could follow and execute instructions and provide brawn to perform manually difficult tasks, I suppose this was fine.  But now, success in a global economy means being one step ahead of competitors; it requires innovation. Reading inspires ideas.  It spreads knowledge that leads to new and deeper understandings.  Never has the need for an informed and literate citizenry been more important, yet, we are in the same place that we have been for years and years with kids who barely read…

When I talk with teachers about what they believe lies at the root of this problem, they cite things like “curriculum demands” and “getting them ready for the test.” But what I’m wondering is this: Are these “demands” a distraction from what really matters?   In “getting ready for the test,” do we sacrifice a more pressing need: getting them ready for life?   And if that is indeed the case, what can we do to change this?