The Kids are Still All Right, Despite What Accelerated Reader Might Say

It’s that time of year again!  Renaissance Learning has released their annual nonsensical study and the media is gobbling it up and spitting out soundbites.  For the next few days we will read about how students are reading at lower levels, there is not enough rigor in English classes, and the world is going to hell in a handbasket as a result. It’s an annual frenzy that dies down after just a few days.  But somewhere out there, a school will purchase a reading program because of the furor around this issue and students will suffer as a result.

I wrote about this last year.  And I’ve written about my problems with AR before.

But seriously, can we stop pretending that the people behind Accelerated Reader don’t have an agenda? Can we stop acting like they are some impartial judge?  Come on, guys.  If Johnson and Johnson posted a study, performed in their lab, saying that Tylenol was the only medication that stopped headaches we would laugh.  Of course they say that, consumers would argue. They want to us to buy their product!

So why is it any different when Renaissance, a for-profit education company that reported $130 million in annual revenue in 2010, earned off the backs of students and teachers, says they have the answers to the reading woes of the world??

According to NPR, “For the fifth year in a row, the educational company used its Accelerated Reader program to track what kids are reading in grades one through 12.” This year’s controversy (centered around a small sample size)?  Students are reading books below their grade level.

Last year, almost all of the top 40 books read in grades nine through 12 were well below grade level. The most popular books, the three books in The Hunger Games series, were assessed to be at the fifth-grade level.

Cue the moaning and weeping because students are reading The Hunger Games instead of Anna Karenina.

You know what?  I’m ok with that.  Classics are classics because they are a common, shared experience.  In most cases, that means they are being read in class and discussed.  I don’t know many teachers who use AR and allow their students to take the ridiculous tests and earn points for class reads.  AR is suposed to be used as a management tool for independent reading, not class reading.  Teachers design their own assessments for whole class novels.  Not to mention, I see classics on the list.  And my own students read plenty of classics alongside their contemporary novels.

So I’m not shocked that students are reading pleasure books for AR.  According to the study, “Renaissance Learning recognizes that not all book reading that happens in or outside of the classroom is captured through the Accelerated Reader software; however, it is reasonable to assume that for users of AR much book reading is captured in this way.”  What an assumption to make!  Let me tell you- in my experience that was not the case.  If it was the case, students told me they were not allowed to read any other books because their schools told them they could only read their selected AR reading level and would not allow them to borrow other books.

And that’s the key here.  The study only tracks books students log for Accelerated Reader, a program that schools pay for.  And a program that ties students to a single reading level for the year (or semester).  Pre-test and post-test.  Not a lot of movement in between.  Want to try a more complex book?  Sorry!  That’s above your reading level!

Accelerated Reader is a carrot-and-stick program, a rewards based one that allots points for every book a child reads (after they take a ridiculous, low-level comprehension quiz). Schools and teachers provide the quizzes, after purchasing them, and tell students what level they should be reading.  Books are then leveled according to AR’s readability test.

Schools tend to assign students to a band of points they must earn in order to succeed.  For example, a reader at level J might need to earn 35-40 AR points per marking period.  Students are responsible for finding AR-leveled books, either at school or at their library.  They then take the quiz and earn the points.  It doesn’t take long for students to realize that the easier, low-level point books help them finish this inane assignment faster.  And for many students, their options are limited to the books and tests readily available to them at school.  This means a district must purchase the texts and the sets of comprehension quizzes in a day and age when budgets are tight and orders are hard to come by.  I have  students who tell me that their middle school library stopped ordered new books before they arrived there thanks to budget cuts.  As a result, they were limited to the books on the shelves for their AR points.  Not a lot of room for choice.

But that’s not even the worst part.  The study mentioned above notes that students in high school are reading books well below their “AR level”.  Accelerated Reader levels each text using the ATOS readability formula, which scans vocabulary and sentence complexity to assign a grade level.  Themes and content are not taken into account.

I decided to take a look at some of the whole-class novels read in my school to see where they stack up.  I teach at the #1 STEM high school in the nation and my students are very, very gifted.  They aren’t all enthusiastic readers, but they test well and have the scores to prove it.  They attend Ivy League colleges and other top universities.  I’d say we do a pretty decent job of preparing them for college and the real world. So how does our reading stack up?

Antigone- 5th grade reading level

Romeo and Juliet- 8th grade reading level

Things Fall Apart- 6th grade reading level

Zeitoun- 6th grade reading level

I honestly laughed as I was pulling up these stats, directly from AR’s website.  Zeitoun is written at a 6th grade level? Antigone at a 5th grade level?  The themes and content are not appropriate for those students! But I guess it’s ok if the vocabulary and sentence construction are appropriate for 5th graders.

Look, to put in in STEM terms, the AR readability leveling is like saying, “Hey!  Calculus uses numbers and letters.  5th graders know how to count and can recite the alphabet.  Thus, they should just know how to solve a complex calculus problem!”

Ridiculous, right?

So why are we giving any weight to this study?  And it doesn’t even make any sense!  It bemoans students reading The Hunger Games because it’s rated at a 5th grade level and calls for them to read more Shakespeare and classics.  But then I pulled up classics, like Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales and I had to laugh.  Reading level?  Fifth grade. The study decries the lack of rigor in student reading and calls for more classics, but then the lists of common 9-12 books show plenty of classics.  It’s clickbait and nothing more.  Get districts riled up and they will then turn to AR as a way to get kids reading.  Hmm, sounds like a great way to increase profits….

And while the complete report touches on the fact that language has been streamlined over the past 200 years, none of the articles mention that.  Many classics are ranked at high reading levels because language was complex when the books were written.  Sentences might be 50 words long!  Today, that’s wordy and discouraged.  And guess what?  Texts were more complex back then because education was only for the rich.  The harder it was to read and comprehend, the less of a chance that the  poor would have time to learn to read and then pick up those books.  The lower classes were needed to work in factories and in the fields.  They were not needed in classrooms. Times have changed, Renaissance, and that needs to be taken into account when you put together your study.

I am a voracious reader.  In the last month I have read adult best-sellers, YA, middle grade, and nonfiction.  I’ve read books that I’ve struggled with and books I’ve flown through.  Why should students be treated any differently?  Share reading experiences and books together, help them climb reading ladders.  Encourage teachers to be visible readers.  And lose the carrot-and-stick approach.  The millions of dollars being thrown at Renaissance Learning would buy a lot books for students to read.  Surround students with books, allow them to make reading choices, and read with them.  Encourage discussions, book talks, and debates instead of dioramas, worksheets, and AR quizzes.

I survey my students every year.  You know what they say encourages them to read, without fail? Book talks and talking to all of their teachers about books.  Not one student has ever said, “Man, I wish we had Accelerated Reader”.  And that tells me everything I need to know.

 

Is It the Teacher or the System?

No doubt you have seen this week’s viral video of high school student Jeff Bliss demanding an end to what he calls “packet teaching.”  I don’t disagree with Mr. Bliss’ sentiment and I sincerely hope he does create change.  I hope people continue to talk about education and what students deserve long after the furor has died down. But I do have a problem with how the media has attacked the teacher seen in the video.

Do we blame the teacher or the system? That’s the question we need to focus on.

The media and most comments on news websites are attacking the teacher for being a paper-pusher, an awful teacher, and much worse.  The vitriol is cruel and beyond the pale. But how do we know this specific teacher made the packets that she handed out?  How do we know she had a choice in the matter? We don’t, and that’s a problem.  I refuse to crucify a singular person for what may be a much larger problem over which she has no control.

Right now we have Jeff Bliss’ side of the story, and a 90-second long clip of his speech during class.  We do not have information from the teacher and if she expects to continue teaching in any capacity I imagine we will never hear from her.  However, a little digging will show that she has a social media presence devoted to her classes. (I won’t link to her here because I don’t want to contribute to her name being brought up any more, as the district is not using it in their statements).

She has a Pinterest page devoted to resources students can use, a Youtube page linking to Crash Course videos and other content for her classes, a Twitter account, and a few other history-based resources where she interacts with students.  Obviously, this does not mean she is a wonderful teacher, but it does seem to me  that she is passionate about her job.  Those social media sites are most likely culled together outside of school hours as most schools block them, so she is devoting time outside of the 9-3 of classes to her profession.  It seems to show dedication to her students and passion about the subject matter she teaches.  And I have a hard time juxtaposing that with the comments I am reading on websites decrying her as the world’s worst teacher, a lazy idiot, and a detriment to society. Again, there’s nothing about a social media presence that guarantees she is a vibrant, engaging teacher. But it does give me pause. If she is a terrible teacher who does nothing but pass out packets, why has the district not addressed that prior to this situation? Does she have positive evaluations? Has she been encouraged and mentored? What is the truth about this situation?

I’ve read too many comments on news websites that say something along the lines of,  “Come on, this is all on the teacher.  It’s not like there are principals out there saying, here, hey you have to devote all of your class time to test prep.  You are required to assemble some packets of prep, pass them out, and have students complete them before the standardized tests.”

I have news for those commenters.  There are many, many districts like that.  Too many.  I have friends who are amazing teachers and are now being handed a packaged curriculum, complete with a script, that they must follow.  They are being forced to skip teaching science and history and instead must hand out test prep packets for math and ELA tests that will decide whether they are “good” or “bad” teachers.  They must administer practice tests in their classes instead of doing PBL or science experiments.  One friend, currently teaching elementary school, just told me that after our state tests next week her school will finally let her teach science and social studies.  Pretty much an entire year’s worth of curriculum in one month.  And this is in a good district, a district that people move into because it is highly-ranked!

They aren’t an anomaly.  Sadly, in our standardized-test obsessed culture they are becoming the norm.  And that is a huge problem.  It’s not the students’ responsibility to fight this and I don’t blame Jeff Bliss for standing up to the person in front of him, the teacher he deals with daily.  But the reaction from the public needs to go way beyond that one teacher.  Where is the investigation into the district as a whole?  Where are the interviews with students talking about the test prep they are forced to do in all classes?  Where are the interviews with parents in other states explaining how their children no longer take music or art classes but instead they take test prep classes in their place?  Where are the interviews with administrators explaining how their schools are  considered failing or no good because the difference between their special ed population and gifted student population scores is too large and now they must force packaged curriculum on their teachers and students in order to satisfy the state or federal government?

“But why don’t they fight back? A good teacher would stand up and refuse to teach like that!” commenters say.  But they do fight back. It’s not just in a way that gets them fired and I can’t begrudge them that.  They fight back by attending meetings, bringing research to their supervisors, talking to parents about getting involved, sharing books and other unpackaged curriculum with students.  They put themselves in the line of fire as much as possible without getting fired.  Are we really asking teachers to get fired in order to prove they are good teachers? Can’t you fight from the inside? Don’t you want those teachers in front of your classroom while they wage a silent war outside the classroom walls? Or would you prefer they get fired? Is that the answer?

That’s the problem. And that’s what I wish we were talking about thanks to Jeff Bliss.  And I’m pretty sure it’s what Jeff Bliss wants us to talk about. Because that’s how we will begin to change things.  Not by focusing on a single situation in a single classroom but instead, focusing on the results of NCLB and the standardized tests being forced on our students and teachers.  By 2015, our students will all be taking the PARCC tests and teachers’ jobs will depend on the results. In NJ, PARCC third-grade assessments will have nine sessions with an estimated eight hours of testing compared to NJ ASK’s five hours and four days. The PARCC assessments in other grades will run approximately nine and half hours compared to about six for NJ ASK. That’s a lot of lost teaching time in just a few grades in one state.  It’s even worse in other places.  The numbers get worse when you add in test prep classes that districts require students to take and the time taken from other content areas in order to prepare students.

So yes, Jeff Bliss has every right to confront his teacher and demand a better education.  But the adults reading the articles, writing editorials, and speaking on 24-hour news channels about the situation have a responsibility to dig even deeper.  One teacher in one school is not the problem.  Administrators and districts who demand “packet teaching” are the problem. And that’s what we need to be talking about.  We need to put the spotlight on the decision-makers who choose the curriculum teachers are told to teach with. We need to demand that politicians stand up for our students instead of making money for Pearson and other testing companies.  I am grateful to Jeff Bliss for showing the world what testing culture has done to many of our schools. I just hope that parents and taxpayers start to see beyond that classroom and look at the bigger picture.  Because I don’t think Jeff Bliss is speaking about one situation in one class.  He wants to change the paradigm and we all have to stand up in order for that to happen.

Why I Stay

A few weeks ago, my friend Beth Shaum asked  if I would share why I stay in the classroom, despite the current teaching climate and  teachers leaving in droves. I kept thinking about it and drafting a response, but eventually the email fell  into the abyss of my inbox and I was swept up in taking care of my husband, who was having surgery at the same time.  I never did get my response to her.  But that’s ok.

Beth didn’t need my response, because she received so many beautiful photos and reasons.  She shared her final video this weekend and it’s something that every American needs see.  Teachers, from all over the country, teaching everything from elementary school to high school, share deep and heartfelt reasons for remaining in a profession that’s slowly becoming one of the most negative careers one can choose.

Over the weekend, I shared why I became a teacher, despite being told I was wasting my potential by doing so.

But today I want to share why I stay.

Despite the vitriol.

Despite the standardized tests.

Despite the unions.

Despite the budget cuts.

Despite the mandates.

Despite the disrespect.

Despite the other options.

I stay because what I do matters and it makes a difference.

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I work hard to ignite a passion for reading in my students.  I introduce them to tools they can use after my class to continue reading and finding books.  Sometimes, years later, they contact me to talk about books. They are engaged.  That’s why I stay.

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I try to make writing fun and authentic.  Blogging, poetry, challenges– anything that provides an audience beyond me.  And now I have a classroom full of bloggers, some of whom are reaching out to other bloggers. They are writers. That’s why I stay.

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I create readers.  I create writers.  And there is no job in the world that can make me happier.  I owe my students a thanks for being so awesome.  They are wonderful people and citizens. That’s why I stay.

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Me and some students in central Mexico

I travel and share information about my students with children in other places.  And I bring back ideas and information for my students, who then make connections between their lives and the lives others are leading across the globe. Those connections will make them better global citizens. That’s why I stay.

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Monarch butterflies at the El Rosario eco-preserve in Michoacan, Mexico

I am a reader, a writer, and a citizen scientist.  I want to share my love of nature and science with my students and show them that anyone can participate in science, even if they don’t choose science as a career.  That’s why I stay.

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Watching the Newbery awards announcement with my 6th graders a few years ago.

I am a life-long learner. I love getting students excited about learning because I am excited about learning.  And when they leap out of their seats or squee in excitement I can’t help but get excited, too. That’s why stay.

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Donations for the children’s hospital– Valentines put together by middle schoolers.

The world is a big place and not everyone is as blessed as my students.  Everyone needs to reach out a hand to help those around them.  As a teacher, I can bring those opportunities to my students and help them become compassionate leaders.  That’s why I stay.

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A book can change a child’s life.  With a classroom library and the wide range of books I am always reading, I can help students find that special book.  That’s why I stay.

Not because of the tests. Or the mandates. Or the races to the top. Or the children not left behind. Not because of the curriculum. Or the meetings.  Or the time spent at home preparing lessons and grading papers.

“In the end, we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught.” Baba Dioum

That’s why I stay.

Because of the books. Because of the writing. Because of the changes I see my students leading the world towards.

Because I believe in my students.

Teaching isn’t perfect.  It isn’t fun everyday and sometimes you just want to give up.  But in the words of the Lorax, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”.  I decided a long time ago to be that someone.

“You’re Too Smart to be a Teacher!”

I’m sure this post will make some people mad, but I had strong feelings about assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education Jal Mehta’s op-ed published by The New York Times today.  I don’t agree with most of what he said, but this part struck a chord with me:

In the nations that lead the international rankings — Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Finland, Canada — teachers are drawn from the top third of college graduates, rather than the bottom 60 percent as is the case in the United States. Training in these countries is more rigorous, more tied to classroom practice and more often financed by the government than in America. There are also many fewer teacher-training institutions, with much higher standards. (Finland, a perennial leader in the P.I.S.A. rankings, has eight universities that train teachers; the United States has more than 1,200.)

There are brilliant people out there teaching right now.  I know because many of them are my friends.  I teach with amazing and smart colleagues.  My Twitter PLN teaches me something new everyday and forces me to reflect on my own teaching.  There are also some people who have no business being in the front of a classroom. I know some of them, too.

But too many of our brightest minds don’t even consider going into teaching.

I’m not saying this because I read statistics or talked to someone who did research.  I’m saying it because I lived it.  And I see it everyday with my students.  Teaching isn’t seen as a viable, worthwhile option for our brightest minds and that’s a terrible reflection of the value placed on teaching in this country.

I graduated in 2001 from High Technology High School.  My classmates were all brilliant, the top students in our county, and I count among my friends numerous engineers, doctors, lawyers, scientists, and CEOs.  One friend wrote a best-selling science book.  Another founded a rival to PayPal.  Many friends have worked for Google, Apple, and other top companies.  They write best-selling apps and are involved in world-changing research. They work in labs at Princeton, MIT, Harvard, and Yale.  They write code for Google and Mozilla.  They are the minds behind start-ups and tech giants.

But you know what my friends and classmates aren’t doing?  Teaching.  I can count on one hand those of us who went into teaching K-12 after college.  And that’s looking at multiple graduating classes.  When I decided to go into teaching, people looked at me and said, “But why?  You’re so smart!”.  As if you can’t be intelligent and want to go into teaching. Even today, when old friends learn that I am a teacher, they tilt their head and look at me as if I made a mistake.  They can’t understand why someone “so smart and with so many options” would decide to teach. Then they ask when I will go into administration.  When I explain I love the classroom and have no desire to enter administration, they shake their heads.  Obviously, I am not as intelligent as they thought I was.

It’s no different today. Looking at my current students, I have two or three  who have mentioned even a passing interest in teaching as a career.  And they’ve all told me that their parents are shocked to hear they would consider going into teaching when they “could do anything they want”!

In other countries, teaching is a competitive field.  Only the top third of college students are able to enter teaching programs in many of the countries exalted by the US for providing a top-tier education, such as Finland.  Teacher training courses are rigorous and well-respected.  A small number of colleges and universities are able to grant teaching licenses and teachers continue their training after entering the field, supported by their schools, districts, and the nation as a whole.  While many of these countries are smaller and more homogenous than the US, making the classroom much different from ours, that doesn’t change the respect given to teachers by those nations. And that respect starts when someone enters the teaching field as a university student.  It’s difficult to get into teaching, so you must be great if you make into the major, graduate, and get a job.  The United States is, unfortunately, very different.

Why aren’t our top students becoming teachers?  Obviously not every brilliant person is cut out to be a teacher.  All you have to do is sit in on a few college classes to see that.  But there are many intelligent people out there who would make fabulous teachers and are not entering the profession.  And I think the reason our top students discount teaching is because our teachers are seen as disposable. The public and politicians spit vitriol blaming teachers for everything from student behavior to the downfall of our country.  Teachers aren’t trusted to make decisions about their own classes and instead administrators and corporations hand down scripted curriculums.  Reformers like Michelle Rhee, who have barely any training or teaching experience, spend their days telling us how to teach.

Stop.  Just stop.  Start treating teachers like professionals– like engineers, doctors, lawyers, CEOs, actuaries, scientists–and we will attract more people to teaching.  When more people are attracted to teaching as a career, universities can develop more rigorous teacher education programs.  And teaching can stop being a back-up career for the lowest 60% of college students. Far too many people in the US think that teaching is an easy career, one to go into if you can’t decide what else to do. I have  too many acquaintances who went into teaching because they thought it would be easy or they wanted a job they could do for a few years before getting married.  The requirements for becoming an education major or doing alternate route are much lower in teaching than in many other professions. Do you know what I had to do to enter the highly-respected teacher education program at my university?  Fill out a sheet of paper, have a 2.75 GPA, show proof of a Mantoux test, and pass the Praxis I.  My friends in engineering and science majors had higher GPA requirements and more pre-requisites.

Who on earth would go into teaching today, with the vitriol and hatred spewed at teachers? Certainly not many college-bound students with other options. And those at the top of their class have lots of other options. Hmmm….study business and be respected or study education and spend the next twenty years being cursed and blamed for everything wrong with this country? Sounds like an easy decision to me.

We need to change how teachers are viewed. Obviously there are many amazing teachers out there. I know lots of them. But we need even more. And we need to make sure education isn’t a last-choice major for anyone. If it is, they should be weeded out instead of thrown in front of kids. (*ahem* Teach For America, etc *ahem*). Teaching is a profession, it’s what teachers are. It’s not just something we do. So it’s time to raise the bar.

We need to move away from the Praxis and other one-time tests.  In order to earn certification, teachers should be reflecting and improving constantly.  One way to do this is through a portfolio-based requirement. That’s why I love National Board Certification. Unlike the Praxis exam (pretty much the only requirement in some states), National Board is reflective, difficult, and empowering. Something like National Board certification should be required of all teachers within the first few years of teaching. And the process should start in college, just like it does for other well-respected professions.  Take engineering, for example.  Engineers are expected to attain their PE, or Professional Engineers Certificate.  Many employers in industry and government require licensure in order to advance to senior engineering positions. It’s a years-long process:

The Licensure Process:
1. Earn an engineering degree.
2. Pass the F.E. Examination. (8-hour exam)
3. Gain engineering employment experience. (All states require that candidates complete four years of qualifying engineering experience, under the supervision of a professional engineer.)
4. Pass the P.E. Examination. (8-hour exam)

Engineers are expected to pass two exams and complete four years of work under a mentor before becoming certified.  They are made aware of this in college and begin with internships before graduation. Why aren’t teachers required to do something similar?  Instituting a process like this would require districts, states, and the federal government to provide teachers with more support, more time to collaborate, and more professional development.  You may not agree with it, but the lack of requirements for teaching and the abundance of teacher education programs make the general public see teaching as a career anyone can do.  There’s no challenge in getting certified, as long as you don’t have a criminal record, and it’s a career that anyone can enter.  That needs to change.

Great teachers are passionate.  They love their teaching material or content area.  They are life-long learners and model that for their students.  They read.  They write.  They collaborate.  They are patient. They are kind.  They are the utmost professionals.  But they are treated as inferior and worthless.  “I can be a teacher! It seems like such a nice gig,” is a refrain I’ve heard all to often from those not in education.  They think because they showed someone in their office how to print from the computer or how to use the new Keurig that they can teach a room full of high schoolers.  Or even worse, “I went to school. I had teachers from kindergarten til twelfth grade.  I learned how to teach.” Who needs to study education, right?  Teachers are little more than babysitters in the eyes of too many.

Raise the bar.  Make the education major more like pre-med, engineering, or most hard science degrees.  Require a higher GPA to enter the program.  Institute pre-requisites.  Require education majors to double-major or minor in a subject-area  or child-development. Send students into the field more often and for longer periods of time. When they enter the field, new teachers should be mentored by great teachers for more than just their first year.  Districts should provide more opportunities for authentic professional development.  Teachers should be given more autonomy and celebrated when they and their students succeed (and success should not equal scores on a standardized test).  High-achieving schools and teachers should serve as models.  Pay teachers like the professionals they are.  Not just a living wage, but a respectable wage.  This will take money.  But it’s about time we made education a priority, rather than just a soundbite.

Raise the bar, raise the profession, and raise each other up in the eyes of the public.

When teachers are seen as professionals, it will be a more attractive career choice for the brightest minds.  And a larger pool of applicants, especially talented applicants, can only help students in the classroom.  Choosing to teach shouldn’t be seen as a waste of potential.  It should be the most respected decision one can make.

Our children deserve the best, so we need to attract the best to the classroom and keep them there.  Stop telling me I made a mistake and instead ask me about a day in my classroom.  Stop telling your son or daughter that choosing to teach will be a waste of their talent and instead encourage them to make a difference.  Stop encouraging great teachers to leave the classroom and enter administration, as if teaching is beneath them.

There’s no such thing as being too smart to teach.  Start respecting me and my colleagues.  Start treating us like the professionals we are.  Start making a difference.

Slice of Life March 29th, 2013 #slice2013

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Yesterday it was announced that Amazon will be purchasing Goodreads next quarter.  I’m not sure how to react to this news, because I love Goodreads.  I loved its independence, the community, and the interface.  While I am an Amazon customer (no independent bookstores closer than an hour away), I don’t need Amazon taking over every website I use.  They already own all or part of Shelfari and Librarything, which is one reason I don’t use either site.

But what upsets me the most about the sale is that I encourage my students to use Goodreads.  It was independent and not tied to any major retailer, so I was comfortable recommending it.  It also allows my students to grow as they move through school and eventually graduate.  The few other book social networking communities I tried out were aimed at kids and my students would eventually age out of them.  While this may seem like a silly thing for me to worry about, it’s important that my students find a community of readers that can stay with them as long as they are willing to participate.

When I taught 6th grade, I always shared Goodreads with my students and encouraged them to join (with their parents’ permission).  Many of them did.  It’s been over 6 years since I first started recommending the site and I still hear from many of those students.  There is an ebb and flow to the site, allowing members to pick up where they left off, without any pressure or judgement.  In the last few months I have been contacted by 5 former students, ranging from 8th grade to current juniors in high school, who have become active on Goodreads again.

 One of those students told me she was looking up a book her friend was reading and the search results included Goodreads.  She remembered using the site with me, clicked on it, and soon she was adding books to her “want to read” shelf and reminiscing over the list of books she last updated in 7th grade.  I now see her adding books a few times a week and she even recommended a book to me!  The power of a reading community is stronger than most people realize and too many students (and adults) lack access to one in the flesh.  Too many of my former students tell me that they haven’t heard a booktalk since leaving my classroom, haven’t had a teacher recommend a book that wasn’t canon since being with me, and no longer remember how to find books on their own.  And how can we expect them to keep reading if no one is providing them with the opportunity to find and read books?

That’s why I love Goodreads.  I love that current and former students can message me about books.  I love that our school book club can have conversations between meetings.  I love that I can model my reading life and passion for all of my students (current and former) in an unobtrusive manner.  And I love that there is no commercial tie-in.  We are surrounded by ads all day and Goodreads was a welcome respite from that.  Sure, there are banner ads and such, but they were book-related and usually lead to a publisher’s official site or an author’s blog.  They didn’t lead me to an Amazon order page.

Goodreads is about community and passionate readers.  It’s not about making a buck.  At least, it’s not about making a buck for me.  Sadly, it seems to be about money for the founders.  I can’t blame them for that, of course.  But I do wish they had offered the users of Goodreads an option.  Maybe we would have been willing to kick in money to keep the site independent!  I’d even be ok with publishers buying into the site.  But a single retailer?  That’s harder for me to digest.

We have a while before anything changes because the sale doesn’t close until next quarter.  I’m not going to stop using Goodreads and I hope I won’t have to in the future.  But I will be watching carefully.  And in the meantime, I think I will be doing what author Kate Messner suggests.  We can support other retailers, especially indie bookstores, in the reviews we post.  But my students and I will keep using Goodreads, while crossing our fingers that the community isn’t destroyed by Amazon.  Because the community is what drew me to the site and it’s why I share it with my students.  Losing that would be a shame.

More Reading, More Writing, More Engaged Citizens of the World.

Cum hoc non propter hoc.

Causation does not equal correlation, especially when it comes to children and test results.  In today’s  NY Daily News, Robert Pondiscio, a former fifth-grade teacher at Public School 277 in the South Bronx and now the executive director of CitizenshipFirst, lauds the NYC Education department for “… abandoning the literacy curriculum used to teach a generation of our children to read”.  In the shift to the Common Core, he says the NYC Dept of Ed is leaving behind the balanced literacy approach of Lucy Calkins and the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, which he says has done a disservice to students.  Having taught at a Project school here in NJ and at non-Project schools, I beg to differ.

I began my teaching career in a 3rd grade heterogeneously-grouped class that used Lucy Calkins’ methods.  I attended training workshops, Saturday reunions at the Project, and read every piece of material I could get my hands on.  And I watched those third-graders blossom as readers and writers.  It was hard to facilitate the workshop and took a lot out of me as a teacher, but I was a better teacher for it. I was constantly reading and writing alongside my students, pushing them to reach higher and higher.  While they may have started by reading books that were “just right”, my mentor and I were always pushing them to follow the  reading ladder, as Teri Lesesne shows us.   Students did not stay stuck on a lower level, never moving forward, as Pondiscio insinuates in his op-ed.  That’s not the point of the method! The students receive individual attention, conferences, and book recommendations.  They read constantly, both in and out of class.  In the year that I spent with those third graders, they grew into stronger readers and writers, as evidenced by their assessment scores.

When I moved to my own classroom and started teaching sixth grade, I brought the balanced literacy approach with me.  Today, I teach high school in a co-taught humanities class (alongside the world history teacher).  I continue to use a balanced literacy approach, modified for my high school students and schedule.  And guess what?  It still works.  Which is why I am baffled by Mr. Pondiscio’s claims.

He says,

What is wrong with balanced literacy? It assumes you build readers by encouraging kids to find books they love and read a lot. But over the years, that approach has consistently and systematically failed. Only 23% of our eighth-graders score “proficient” or higher on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a figure that hasn’t budged in a decade.

Before I moved to my current job, I taught at an average middle school in suburbia.  It wasn’t a Project school, but I used the same methods and ideas with my sixth graders at that time.  I still attended Saturday Reunions, on my own time, and brought new ideas and methods back to my classes.  And once again, I watched my students grow into readers and writers. Like Pondiscio’s students, many of mine came to me without background knowledge and needing scaffolding.  Over 80% admitted to being nonreaders on my annual first day survey. So we read.  A lot.  Just like I do with my students in high school.  They read their independent novels, where I challenged them with Donalyn Miller’s 40-book challenge.  We read shared texts in class, both whole class novels and shorter pieces.  And we used Kelly Gallagher’s Article of the Week to share great informational pieces at least once per week.  I expected my students to read and they did.  I expected them to improve as readers and writers, and they did.  I had the test scores to prove it.  Again, these were classes that were grouped heterogeneously and included students from all kinds of economic backgrounds. High expectations yielded higher results.

How does Mr. Pondiscio’s statement relate to balanced literacy? Where is the evidence that there is a connection between the balanced literacy approach and the percentage of eighth-graders who score proficient and higher? Causation does not equal correlation.  My guess is that poverty and other issues outside the classroom contribute a great deal to those numbers.  Do we know what the passing rate would be if the students were not being encouraged to read and write on a daily basis? Of course not.  But we do know that Mr. Pondiscio taught at a school where 89% of students receive free and reduced lunch.    Noted researcher Stephen Krashen has been telling administrators for years that our crisis is not literacy, but poverty.   As Mr. Pondiscio points out in his op-ed, students who come from poverty typically don’t have access to books, museums, and parents who stay home with them.  So if, as Krashen says in his research, “more access leads to more reading, and if more reading leads to better reading, writing, spelling, grammar, and a larger vocabulary (Krashen 2004),” then we need to flood students with books and reading material at school.  And that’s exactly what a balanced literacy approach does.

We do build readers by encouraging them to find books they love and read a lot.  And unlike Mr. Pondoscio, I can share examples with you.  Take this email that I received a few weeks ago from a former student.  Now in high school, she tracked me down via this blog and sent me an email that still has me on cloud nine:

 I don’t know if you remember me but I thought I should contact you because I owe you a thanks. Before having you as a teacher, I wasn’t a fan of books or reading, but you changed that for me. I was able to find my love for books in your class. When you first handed out that reading packet, where we were challenged to complete 40 books by the end of the school year, I was horrified. When the end of the year came and I saw that 38 of those boxes were completed, I felt so accomplished, and to know I enjoyed most of those books was an even greater feeling. It was like I discovered something new about myself. I have a learning disability that is associated with reading so to have flipped my view on reading like that gave me a lot of self confidence, since it was such a difficulty before. I am so thankful to you for helping me discover my love for books, which in the long run helped to minimize my disability. You always encouraged us to read what we would enjoy…

Tell me that a balanced literacy approach doesn’t work and I’ll show you 200 more survey responses, emails, and notes from students that show you it does.  Students who now score higher on their SATs/ACTs, receive higher grades in all of their classes, and are more knowledgeable about the world they live in.

That student is still a reader, so I asked her what her favorite book is (seeing as tastes change after middle school!).  What she said simultaneously broke my heart and made my heart sing:

It’s so hard to pick a favorite book when there are so many good ones out there! I guess if I had to pick I would say that Too Kill a Mockingbird and Penny from Heaven are tied for first. I heard a lot of good things about To Kill a Mockingbird, but my brother and sister told me they hated it for the reason that in high school their teachers made them dissect every detail of the book to the point where the sight of the book made them sick. I wanted to read the book on my own, before I could have the chance to hate it. I needed to read this classic on my own without bias so in the seventh grade, I did. It turned out to be a very great favorite of mine.

Stop buying programs.  Stop buying novel comprehension kits, scripted texts, and items like Accelerated Reader.  They do not work.  They aren’t real.  Instead, they create a false sense of security because students can game the system and “pass” an assessment.  An assessment that looks nothing like the real world.  I asked this student about her favorite book because I wanted to know if she still read.  After leaving my class, students moved on to a new building where they were forced to use Accelerated Reader.  Unfortunately, I’ve shared my frustrations with AR (and similar programs) many times in the past.  Student after student would come back to me and say they were only allowed to read AR books, so they just stopped reading.  We need to stop this.

Mr. Pondiscio is right:  “The more children know, the more they can read with genuine comprehension.”  So let’s give them more knowledge.  Surround them with books, newspapers, read alouds, magazines, websites, technology, and fabulous teachers.  No one method is everything.  Mr. Pondiscio talks about E.D. Hirch’s early-childhood curriculum, one of the many recommended by the Dept of Ed, and says, “Its central premise is that an essential goal of reading instruction must be to ensure that all students — and disadvantaged kids most specifically — are explicitly taught the knowledge and vocabulary that speakers and writers assume they know.”

Exactly.  And we don’t do that when we hand teachers a curriculum and standardize education.  Excellent teachers know that children get smarter when they are all provided with the opportunity to learn more and become more knowledgeable.  So we need ELA and content area teachers working together to flood all students.  That means dropping the standardization and being flexible.  Taking the time to read one more chapter in that great read aloud because it sparked a cool research project for the class, or debating an article in the newspaper because the students have strong feelings about the topic, or throwing out the lesson plan because an issue in a popular novel or nonfiction text has inspired the students to write letters to a local politician.  Students need real-world experiences and real audiences.  They need to read like adults read, talk and write about books the way educated adults do, seek out more information the way your or I might, and write like they will when they are adults.  And we get them there by encouraging them read and write as much as possible in school.

And that’s what I see when teachers use a balanced literacy approach.  It’s a balance between choice and shared reading using authentic texts, not some piece created for a textbook company to use.  As Mr. Pondicio says, “…stops treating reading comprehension as a skill to be taught and sees it as a reflection of everything a child learns about the world.”  Exactly, sir.  More authentic reading. More authentic writing.  And the result? Smarter, more engaged citizens of the world.

*Gasp* Sometimes, #YAsaves!

This weekend, the Wall Street Journal published a piece “Darkness Too Visible: Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity. Why is this considered a good idea?”  The author, Meghan Cox Gurdon bemoans the “darkness” that is in many young adult books these days.  A friend sent me the article on Friday and I just laughed while reading it, chalking it up to a journalist who didn’t do their research.  But then last night, the article went viral.  Now I am furious as I think of all the parents who will read this article and nod their heads, suddenly telling their teens that they can’t read YA anymore.

Are there books in the YA section that focus on “vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff”, as the mother in the article claims?  Of course.  Barnes and Noble has an entire section devoted to Paranormal Teen Romance (another story altogether- my teens can’t stand it that BN has done this).  Twilight and The Vampire Diaries are books that both my former sixth graders and current high schoolers have read and loved.  I also watched those same students become readers after picking up the first book in a vampire series, asking for more books when they finished.  You can’t put a price on that.  Do I love vampire books?  Not really.  They aren’t a genre or plot line I enjoy.  But there are readers out there for those books (as evidenced by the sheer volume of books sold).  There are readers for every book, but not every book is for every reader.

There are also books about self-mutilation, suicide, depression, eating disorders, and abuse in the YA section.  Guess what- there are thousands of teens out there who are suffering in silence and a book can be a lifeline.  Maybe those books aren’t “right” for your child, but that doesn’t give any parent the right to censor those books or call them depraved.  You have every right to censor what your own child reads.  In fact, parents should be involved in the books choices their teens make.  Read alongside them, discuss the issues in those “dark” books, and get to know your teen.  They may not suffer from depression, or abuse, or an eating disorder but I guarantee they know someone in their school or circle of friends who needs help.  Books build empathy.  Books build bridges.  #YAsaves.

YA is written for ages 12-18.  That means there are some books more appropriate for 7th and 8th graders and others that I would recommend to my high school seniors.  Does that mean all YA needs to be censored?  Absolutely not!  It means that teens should (and do) self-censor.  It means that parents, teachers, and librarians should know what their teens are reading.  More importantly, it means those gatekeepers should be reading alongside their teens and reading ahead of their teens.  That way they can make knowledgeable recommendations to teens, recommendations that teens will trust.

And another thing- maybe the author of the article and the mother quoted haven’t looked that the books assigned in middle school and high school English classes lately.  My high school seniors last semester complained that every book they read in English was depressing.  You know what?  It’s true!  My sixth graders read Tuck Everlasting and The Giver.  My freshman read Romeo and Juliet, Antigone, and Things Fall Apart.  My poor seniors!  They read The Johnstown Flood, Animal Farm, An Enemy of the People, and Hamlet.  Talk about dark!

The most frustrating parts of the article actually deal with the booksellers mentioned.  Jewell Stoddard notes “that many teenagers do not read young-adult books at all. Near the end of the school year, when she and a colleague entertained students from a nearby private school, only three of the visiting 18 juniors said that they read YA books.”  Do you know why?  Because schools teach them that the canon, which is awfully dark, is the only literature worth reading.  YA is seen as trashy and silly, not something to waste you time on.  Guess what?  I have seniors reading YA now that it is available in my classroom library.  I have a few who came to be in September to recommend books.  Seniors who love Ellen Hopkins, Sarah Dessen, and Christopher Paolini.  I have freshman who easily move between middle grade, YA, and adult books.  They don’t see a problem with blurring the lines, and they self-censor.  If the book doesn’t feel right in the first 10-20 pages, they don’t read it. We need to trust teens.  My sister is twelve and a lot of her friends are reading The Hunger Games.  She tried it, decided it was “too gross” for her after about 30 pages, and set it aside.  She told me she will try it again in a couple of years.  No one told her she couldn’t read it, no one told her it was not right for her- she just knew.  She picked up The Lightning Thief instead.

And the mother quoted in the article commented that she had a Barnes and Noble employee with her in the YA section who helped her flip through 78 books.  According to that mother, “because she  [the employee] had not in fact read any of the books for sale, she kind of kept me company more than helped, but it was still something.”  Gee, Barnes and Noble.  Maybe you need dedicated YA employees?  I could have found that mother books in under 10 minutes.  How do you expect to survive when your employees aren’t even familiar with the books you offer?  No one can “flip through” a book and understand it.  A parent isn’t going to read 78 books to find one they will give their teen.  Barnes and Noble lost that sale because there wasn’t an employee in the store who could recommend a light, funny contemporary YA book for a 13 year old girl.

But there are happy, funny books out there.  Take a look at some of the most popular books in my classroom.  They run the gamut from “dark” to hysterical.

  • The Hunger Games 
  • The Knife of Never Letting Go
  • Paper Towns
  • An Abundance of Katherines
  • Revolution
  • Going Bovine
  • Bitter End
  • If I Stay
  • Nation
  • Between Shades of Grey
  • Life, After
  • Spilling Ink
  • The Thief
  • Shipbreaker
  • The Princess Diaries
  • Maximum Ride
  • Along for the Ride
  • The Heroes of Olympus series
#YAsaves.  The Wall Street Journal has published this piece as an article, not an editorial, and as such is doing a great disservice to parents, teachers, librarians, and teens everywhere.  They haven’t responded to the amazing #YAsaves hashtag on Twitter (thanks to Maureen Johnson and Libba Bray for getting it started!), so I felt the need to share my thoughts here.  YA is important and vital for teen readers.  Censoring all of it is not the answer.  Knowledge about the genre is needed.

 

 

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