Sunday, November 27, 2016

Heavens to Betsy (DeVos)!

My paternal grandmother, Eleanor Cunningham Walsh, disdained the use of coarse language of any type. Whenever one of her many grandchildren would do something particularly boneheaded, the most virulent epithet she could muster was, "Heavens to Betsy!" When president-elect, Donald Trump, announced his choice for Secretary of Education, billionaire Betsy DeVos, I must admit that "Heavens to Betsy" was not the first phrase that came to my mind, but on reflection I think it is very appropriate.

DeVos is the ultimate privatizer of education. Not satisfied with using quasi-public charter schools as a way to drain resources from actual public schools, DeVos goes Full Monty on vouchers. She wants to eliminate public education entirely by giving every child a government check to go find the private school or religious school of choice. It is, of course, "the civil rights issue of our time." I have cataloged the danger and false promises of vouchers in this post from a few years ago. It is important to note that the heavily education reform-minded Obama administration rejected vouchers as a solution because it drained public dollars from public schools that were already strapped for resources and because vouchers did not work.

The idiocy and danger of this appointment has been well documented by other bloggers. If you have not done so already, I suggest you read the posts of the always on target Peter Greene here and here and here, Jersey Jazzman's analysis of Devos' husband's charter school fiasco here, and Michigan State University professor, Mitchell Robinson's account from DeVos' home state here. G.F. Brandenburg has pointed out that all that DeVos money comes from Amway Products, the quasi-legal pyramid scheme of a corporation that sucks money from poor unsuspecting would be small business owners in order to enrich the very few at the top of the pyramid. The Badass Teachers Association has also compiled a reading list on DeVos you can find here. 

So, what do we do now? Where do those of us who care about public education turn after years of disastrous leadership in the Department of Education, with an appointment that promises to be even more disastrous?

I suggest we join together to resist. First we need to resist by direct action to try to block this nominee. The Network for Public Education has begun a letter writing campaign you can access here. Better yet, call your senators (who will vote on the nomination) and your representatives (who will advise the senators). Directions for calling can be found here. 

Secondly, we need to resist on the state level. The federal government can and has done plenty of damage to public schools in the last 20 years, but under the new ESSA rules and under the current funding structure for schools, the feds need complicity in the states to make bad stuff happen. So, support your local and state teacher unions and parent organizations that will fight against federal efforts to expand vouchers and charters. Elect pro-public education officials. Go to school board meetings and let your voices be heard.

Thirdly, we need to resist by challenging this false narrative of charter schools and vouchers being the "civil rights issue of our time." Here we can fight back with real documentation. A recent study by Mathematica, a respected research group that generally finds in favor of the privatizers, found, after an extensive study, that the quality of the teacher is not a factor in the different educational opportunities of children. Here is how Mathematica's Senior Researcher, Eric Isenberg, put it 

Contrary to conventional wisdom, we found only small differences in the effectiveness of teachers of high- and low-income students in our study districts. This suggests that the achievement gap arises from factors other than students's access to effective teachers.

My favorite part of this statement is "contrary to conventional wisdom." This is unintentionally funny. It should say "contrary to the conventional wisdom of corporate education reformers who have been clueless on this issue from the start." All the rest of us have always known that it is poverty, inequity, and segregation that are the main contributors to the achievement gap.

Two summaries of the research on vouchers I find helpful are provided by the NEA here and by Keystone Research Center here. The conclusion: vouchers drain money from public schools, fail to expand choice for most parents, fail to improve student achievement, fail to provide safeguards for how the money is spent, and end up costing the taxpayers more. Vouchers, in other words, are a scam of the proportions of Amway. No wonder DeVos is a fan.

So, dear teachers, we must resist. We must resist with our actions and we must resist with our voices. We must help the nation realize, in what promises to be a difficult time ahead, that the real "civil rights issue of our time" is inequity, and that until we get to work on that issue, no scheme to line the pockets of the wealthy with monies intended for school children is going to narrow the achievement gap. Let us all commit to calling that gap what it truly is, an opportunity gap, a gap that the billionaire Betsy DeVos cannot possibly see from the platform of privilege where she has been standing her entire life.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

How Many Days to America? A Thanksgiving Reflection

The title of this post comes from a picture book by Eve Bunting, with illustrations by Beth Peck. Back when I was teaching elementary school, I always read this book aloud to the students around Thanksgiving. The book tells the contemporary story of a family from an unnamed Caribbean island who flee their home by night to escape political persecution at the hands of government soldiers. They board a boat and endure many hardships on a journey that ends with a landing in Florida on Thanksgiving Day. Once safe on land, they spend their first day in America celebrating their freedom and safety with relatives on shore.

I love this book for many reasons, Bunting's spare, but vivid prose, Peck's wonderful crayon drawings, the joyous ending, but especially because it resonates so beautifully with the experiences of those other Pilgrims who celebrated the first Thanksgiving - escaping persecution to find freedom and safety in a faraway new land. I would usually back up this reading with a reading of Ann McGovern's classic, If You Sailed on the Mayflower in 1620, illustrated by Ann Devito.

Thanksgiving, that most American of holidays, rolls around this year as the meaning of the recent election begins to be revealed. I find myself thinking about how grateful I am for the diversity of peoples and cultures that make up the American family. This diversity has enriched my life in so many ways, profound and trivial, and I hope that we all can take a moment to reflect on this during this year's Thanksgiving celebration, as it becomes increasingly apparent that not all Americans share in a joyous view of diversity.

Last week in the Food section of the newspaper, the New York Times took a look at the many ways Americans celebrate this holiday. Each of the many cultures that make up the American quilt have contributed foods and traditions that recall home at the same time they celebrate the gifts that life in America has brought. It was compelling to read about these many diverse cultures, all putting their own stamp on the celebration, but all celebrating America as Americans.

As a parent and teacher, wanting to share this sense of "many cultures, one country" with my children, grandchildren, and students, I naturally turn to read-alouds and picture books. Fortunately there are many good books to choose from. In addition to the two mentioned above I recommend the following:

Squanto's Journey, by Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Greg Shed.

The Thanksgiving story told from the point of view of the Native American whose actions helped save the Plymouth Colony. An historically accurate, detailed account.

Duck for Turkey Day, by Jacqueline Jules, illustrated by Kathryn Miller

A young Vietnamese girl worries what her teacher and classmates will think because her parents insist that duck is tastier than turkey and insist on serving it for Thanksgiving.

Molly's Pilgrim, by Barbara Cohen, illustrated by Daniel Mark Duffy.

Recent immigrant Molly helps her classmates learn that it takes all kinds of Pilgrims to make a Thanksgiving. Powerful, classic story with new illustrations.

Gracias, The Thanksgiving Turkey, by Joy Cowley, illustrated by Joe Cepeda

When Miguel's father sends home a live turkey from his job on the road driving a truck, Miguel names the bird Gracias and walks him around the neighborhood on a leash. He then must fret about the bird's fate when his father gets home.

Want more? Here is an online resource for multicultural Thanksgiving Day books.

Happy Thanksgiving. May the holiday bring you together with family and friends and may we all take a moment to give thanks for the diversity that makes us who we are. And also, perhaps, to remember that for many of us, some young ancestor from a far away land likely looked up at his parents and asked, "How many days to America?"

Sunday, November 20, 2016

What Is Research-Based Instruction?

Did you ever wonder about the term "research-based"? We all want to make sure our instruction is research-based. But every commercial program for reading instruction on the market advertises itself as research-based and professional developers always preface their talks by saying their recommendations are research-based. We are told the Common Core is research-based. What exactly does "research-based" mean?

The conventional definition of research-based is instructional practice that is "founded on an accumulation of facts that have been established in research." Let's take that Common Core favorite close reading as an example. Close reading is research-based. It is founded on some things that we know about reading instruction. For example, research shows definitively that reading comprehension and fluency are improved by repeated reading. Research also shows that focusing on vocabulary and sentence structure strengthens reading comprehension. Since close reading deals with these factors of reading comprehension proponents can say that close reading is research-based.

What close reading is not is researched. According to the Common Core's own review of the literature published here, "close reading was not a widely practiced method prior to the adoption of the Standards, [and so] it has not been studied directly through rigorous academic research." There are no studies that demonstrate that close reading accomplishes improved reading. There are no studies that show that close reading makes you more college and career ready. There are no studies that demonstrate that close reading is a better use of time than other instructional strategies focusing on fluency, vocabulary, and syntax.

Is this a distinction without a difference? I don't think so. Let's look at an instructional strategy that has been proven to improve reading comprehension - reciprocal teaching. Reciprocal teaching is an integrated strategy approach where students are taught to use several reading strategies within a small group discussion environment to process their understanding of the text. Like close reading, reciprocal teaching combines several well-researched reading comprehension strategies for improving comprehension, in this case summarizing, question generating, clarifying, and predicting. Like close reading, reciprocal teaching focuses on vocabulary and comprehension. Unlike close reading, however, reciprocal teaching itself has been subjected to rigorous research and has been found to be effective in improving student use of reading strategies and improving comprehension.

So, as teachers, we are faced with a dilemma. Do we spend scarce instructional time on a research-based strategy like close reading that is being heavily pushed by Common Core proponents and perhaps by the administration of our school or do we focus on a researched strategy like reciprocal teaching as the more likely to get the results we want (improved comprehension, vocabulary, sentence level understanding) or do we do a little of both?

To help us make a decision we can take a look at what the literacy experts say. In any research-based sales pitch we must always be aware of who is doing the selling. Common Core proponents support close reading, but these people are not literacy specialists. The leading researcher on reading comprehension in the country, P. David Pearson, has some concerns about close reading. Pearson has critiqued close reading's emphasis on text dependent questions and tasks as too narrowly focused and too dismissive of student background knowledge. Another researcher, John Guthrie is concerned that close reading ignores the importance of student engagement in the reading. Snow and O'Connor have suggested that close reading works against the valuable outcomes that come from discussion and argumentation, because students are limited to only what is in the text (Pearson & Hiebert, 2015).

So, when we see the term research-based we know as teachers that we need to dig a little deeper. If the proponents of the Common Core were devoted to the research, they might well have wanted to highlight reciprocal teaching as a strategy to be supported and spread through every classroom in the country. But as is true with many things in literacy instruction, the Common Core was driven by a political agenda (college and career readiness) and proponents found the research on which to base their recommendations for meeting that agenda. As teachers in classrooms full of real kids with real learning needs, we need to do better.

Embracing research to guide our work is a good thing. But teachers must be wise consumers of that research. Teachers must surely make decisions on the basis of research, but just as surely on the basis of the particular needs of the children in front of them. Close reading may well be a valuable instructional strategy, but based on the lack of research, the jury is still out. We may want to include close reading in our instruction, but we certainly would not want to do so to the exclusion of strategies with a stronger research base.

Here are some questions that may help you be an informed consumer of research.

  • Who paid for the research?
  • Who stands to profit from the research?
  • Who conducted the research?
  • What particular theoretical/psychological construct seems to underpin the research?
  • Has the research appeared in a peer reviewed journal?
  • Does the research square with my own experience?
  • Has the research stood the test of time and been replicated by others?
  • Does the research square with what we know about how children learn language?
  • How well does the population studied in the research match with my own students?

Work Cited

Pearson, P.D. & Hiebert, E.H. (2015) Research-Based Practices for Teaching Common Core Literacy. NY: Teachers College Press.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Purposeful Reading: Engaging Students in Content Text

I had the opportunity to observe a guided reading lesson in a second grade class last week. The children were reading a book called Wonderful Worms, by Linda Glaser. The teacher did a fine job of introducing the book to the children and worked hard to set the purpose for reading. The teacher said, "I want you to read this book to find out why the author named this book, Wonderful Worms." As purpose setting questions go, this is a good one, because it was general enough to allow the children to think about the whole story and specific enough to allow the students to focus on the main message of the story. As Tim Shanahan has pointed out here, when purpose questions are too specific they may take student attention away from a fuller understanding of the text. The teacher added to the purpose setting by asking the students what questions they had about the story. These questions tapped into the students' own curiosity on the topic and so were also helpful in setting purposes for reading.

Despite these fine efforts by the teacher, not all the students in the guided reading group were buying into it. One boy sped through the pages very quickly and when the teacher went to his side and asked that he read aloud, his oral reading showed lots of speed, but little meaning making. The overall impression was that this child's purpose was to get through with the task as quickly and as painlessly as possible. He wanted to be done with the exercise and comprehension be damned. All the good work of purpose setting was lost on this reader.

Student purposes and teacher purposes are often in competition in a reading assignment. Very often students who are asked to answer questions at the end of the chapter will ignore the reading of the chapter altogether and just search the text for the answer to the question. The students' purpose here is similar to that of the second grader in the lesson above - not to learn the information - but, as Shanahan suggests, to complete the task in the most efficient way possible.

To understand why, I think we need to look at the reasons adults read and then see how we can apply this understanding to young readers. I read for many reasons every day. I read to stay informed, I read for entertainment, and I read for work. To stay informed, I read the New York Times. I read the Times selectively, skimming headlines to see which articles I want to read more fully. Everyday I linger over the obituaries, which I consider a kind of daily history lesson, the opinion pages, as well as movie and theater reviews. If an article relevant to education pops up, I read it closely, sometimes even leaving a comment.

For entertainment each day I read a poem. I enjoy poetry, perhaps because I have a short attention span, but also because I enjoy the interplay of words at which poets are so adept. I look for this word play and I also look for insights that illuminate the human condition. Finally for work, I may take an entirely different approach to reading. Recently, I have been creating power points for a graduate class I am teaching. This requires reading large amounts of research and theory and translating that into pithy power point slides. This is a very different kind of reading that has me focusing on key points to share with my students.

Each of these kinds of reading has a specific purpose and requires a specific kind of reading. The key is that I, the reader, determine the purpose and that that purpose fulfills some need, personal or professional, in my life. What I am doing is purposeful reading and what we want to foster in our students is not a teacher determined purpose, but a condition that sets them up to do purposeful reading.

Literacy researcher, Nell Duke says that we need to create classrooms where students "read informational text as often as possible for compelling reasons." What are some ways we can foster compelling reasons for reading?

Reading as inquiry - students who are curious about a topic have a genuine purpose for reading. Teachers can foster curiosity through setting up conditions where students observe phenomena and then seek information to explain it. Raising butterflies or tadpoles or having an ant farm in the classroom may pique student interest. Simple experiments (Duke suggests evaporation or magnetism) may send students off to find information to explain what happened. Skillful teachers help students activate curiosity and then point the students to books, articles, web sites they can read to quench that curiosity.

Reading to share - Research shows that when students are asked to read something so that they can share that information with others, they read more strategically and with greater comprehension (Guthrie , 2003). One way to set up a reading share is a jigsaw activity. In a jigsaw, small groups of students form a home group. Each member of the home group is assigned to an expert group where they will read one chunk of a longer piece of informational text. The students read and discuss what they have read with their small group of other experts and then are responsible for sharing that information with their home group. In the home group, experts on different parts of the text share what they have learned.

Reading to write - Duke suggests that reading to write can also increase authenticity. If reading on pollution is paired with the goal of writing letters to the community regarding recycling practices, the purpose of the reading becomes more clear. The same may be true for reading about a particular country that culminates in a travel brochure. Purposeful writing tasks make can make for purposeful reading.

Anticipation/prediction guides - Anticipation/prediction guides are a good strategy for helping students activate background knowledge and generate curiosity about a reading. To make an anticipation/prediction guide the teacher chooses a passage and determines what key ideas the author is communicating. These key ideas are then expressed in simple declarative sentences and arranged in a yes/no, agree/disagree, true/false format. Students predict whether they will read that these statements are true or false according to the author. An important aspect of the anticipation/prediction guide is the discussion generated by student choices prior to reading. You can learn more about anticipation guides here. Below is an example of an anticipation/prediction guide that has the student revisiting the predictions after reading.

The research has long been clear that reading with a purpose improves comprehension. What has also been clear is that no matter how hard teachers work at creating purposes for reading, student purposes may not match teacher purposes. Working toward developing curiosity and real reasons for reading may lead to the kind of purposeful reading that is engaging and which fosters use of reading strategies and improved comprehension.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Racist Genie is Out of the Bottle (again)

Like many teachers across the country, I walked into my classroom for the first time after the election with a sense of trepidation. I teach a college freshman class focused on reading improvement. The class is quite diverse, about 55% African-American, 30% white, and 15% Hispanic. I planned to address the election because I knew it would be on the mind of all my students. I planned to show them the video of President Obama’s post-election speech from the White House lawn. The President, following the tradition of Presidents before him, sought to ensure a smooth transition and articulated a hope that all American citizens would work together for the success of a Trump presidency. I told the students that the President was trying to show us the best way to respond to surprising and perhaps worrying change.

I then asked the students to write in their interactive notebooks in response to this prompt: What are some of your worries and some of your hopes as we look forward to a Trump presidency? The students wrote for about 15 minutes and then I invited them to share. More hands went up than at any other time in the semester. Worries, for the most part followed a familiar pattern. Students of Hispanic descent cited fear that they or their friends and relatives would be targeted for deportation. Some students worried about the hateful targeting of their Muslim/Hispanic/African-American friends. Many students expressed surprise that so many women had voted for Trump in the wake of his sexist statements and behavior. One student worried that the election would further divide the country, while another student offered that he thought the campaign had divided the country long before the election took place and he blamed both candidates for taking the low road. The students were thoughtful and articulate and impassioned.

One student offered the hope that Trump would moderate his attacks on people of color, Muslims, immigrants and others now that he had won the election and realized he had to serve all of us. I said I thought we could all agree that this was greatly to be hoped.

And then it happened. Something I was not expecting, but something that brought great clarity to what this election really means to many of the young people in my classroom.

A normally quiet young woman raised her hand and said, “It is not so much Trump I am worried about, but his followers who now feel free to act out all their feelings towards minorities.” The young woman then went on to tell about three separate incidents of intimidation and bias that had been directed at her, on campus, to her face, since the election. The young woman, who is Hispanic and born in this country, was asked if she was ready to be deported now that Trump was elected. Other taunts of the “we are going to build that wall and send you back where you came from" variety came a little later and she reported them to campus authorities, all of them written down on her phone so she could get the language verbatim.

Another young woman raised her hand to report on a tweet she received that stated, “If my president can grab your pussy, then I can, too.” Other young women reported receiving the same tweet. Another student reported on a tweet she received saying that, “At last we won’t have to put up with those ‘things’ coming over the border, cause Trump is going to build a wall.” Several students reported on racist tweets that were circulating since the election. Another student said that friends reported to her that they had voted for Trump because every time they saw a Muslim on the street they were afraid and Trump was going to kick them out.

Trump’s campaign of hate has let the genie out of the bottle. The racism that is never far from the surface in America has been unleashed, has been made acceptable and has empowered the most bigoted in our society to own their bigotry as a weapon against all people they identify as the “other.” I talked briefly, trying to give all this context, about Germany in the 1930s and how the politics of fear can unleash the most horrific perversions of human behavior.

A young man raised his hand. “I am scared, and all my friends in the LGBT community are scared, too. We don’t know much about Trump’s position on LGBT rights, but we know all about his Vice President, Mike Pence’s, positions on gays and transgender people. I fear that since Trump doesn’t have any experience in governing, he will listen to people like Mike Pence.” The emotion in the young man’s voice was palpable. His classmates offered support, and I lost it.

“Look folks," I said. "This is not OK. You need to know that this is not OK. If any of you at any time are subject to any of these attacks, tweets, Facebook posts or just campus innuendo either because of your race, your gender, your sexual identity, please report what has happened immediately. If you are afraid to report it to the authorities on campus, come to me and we will do it together. This must stop now.”

It was a highly emotional classroom. We never got to the planned essay reading for the day. Class ended in hugs and attempted reassurance. When I got home and shared with my wife, she told me about news reports coming in from around the country of similar types of intimidation and race baiting in schools and public places.

This morning the New York Times published an editorial asking that the President-elect directly and immediately denounce the hate and let his supporters know that this targeting behavior is not OK. But once you let the hate genie out of the bottle, it is devilishly difficult to put it back in. Racism, xenophobia, and misogyny are never far from the surface in this country and when these baser instincts of humans seem to have the imprimatur of the leader of the country, it may take a lifetime to tame them.

As teachers, we need to be on guard and vigilant. We must re-double our efforts to make sure the classroom, the hallways, the cafeteria, the locker room, the campus are safe for all people, including Trump supporters, who will almost certainly be the targets of backlash as well.

In 1992, Rodney King, the African-American victim of a brutal police beating in Los Angeles asked, “Can we all get along?” Apparently not, Rodney. Not yet, anyway. There is still a lot of work to be done.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Can Fiction Save Democracy?

By many accounts this is the most contentious presidential election ever. There seems to be genuine fear that our democratic system of government, built on the ideals of the rule of law, an honorable and peaceful political process, and the ability of elected leaders to compromise in the face of difficult decisions, has devolved into warring camps on constant attack. These camps then use a variety of media outlets, which often seem more like political arms of the dueling parties rather than journalists bent on informing the public, to push their point of view down our throats.

How are teachers to respond to this? Our educational system was built on the ideal that a thriving democracy depended on an informed, educated citizenry. What is our responsibility as teachers in the face of the growing polarization of the parties and the overwhelming amount of propaganda parading as information bombarding our students?

Some educators are arguing that what we need is to help children develop news literacy. The News Literacy Project defines news literacy as the ability to discern between reporting that seeks to present information fairly, accurately and contextually from reporting that is rooted in opinion, rumor and disinformation. You can learn more about the news literacy approach from The News Literacy Project web site and the Center for News Literacy, both of which are developing lesson plan ideas for teachers.

News literacy is a worthy and necessary goal, of course, and it has the advantage of slipping nicely into place alongside the Common Core State Standards' call for the reading of more nonfiction text in school and for the critical analysis of that text. But I would like to focus on one way we can address the threat to democracy that may not be as obvious, and that seems to be downplayed in the Common Core, but is nonetheless vital if our country is to survive. I want to suggest that reading fiction is the best hope for our current and future democracy.

Why fiction? I believe that our current state of political affairs is the result of an increasing inability to see another person's point of view as legitimate. I am talking here about empathy. The ability as the songwriter Joe South put it, to "walk a mile" in the other guy's shoes. Our increasing isolation as a country, the diminution of community spirit and the increase in the politics of me, has sneaked up on us. It is in part the result of technological innovation including the automobile, the television, and the internet.

It is ironic that the internet, with its promise of opening the world of knowledge to us, has instead become an echo chamber where we only really hear the voices that agree with us. The victim of this isolation has been our ability to empathize with others. This growing isolation is one way to explain the vitriol directed at immigrants, the increased racial segregation 60 years after Brown v. The Board of Education, and the stark division between red states and blue states. Other factors are at play of course, but empathy is one that we can address in school.

It is well documented that fiction helps individuals develop empathy (Mar, Oatley & Peterson, 2009). Several studies have shown that reading literary fiction, as opposed to non-fiction or formulaic fiction, helps develop what researchers call Theory of Mind. According to Kidd and Castano (2013) "Theory of Mind is the ability to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from one's own beliefs and desires" (page 337). Kidd and Castano found that reading literary fiction helped readers develop Theory of Mind. A study by Vezzali, et al. (2014) found that reading Harry Potter books (with their depiction of prejudice against Muggles) reduced racist attitudes of high school students. Vezzali says that when you read fiction, you don't just learn a new way of interacting, you actually put yourself in the place of the character.

And that is what we need to be doing at this critical time in our history - putting ourselves in the other guy's place. One of the first great, long novels I ever read was The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck. This book helped me develop an understanding of people that were far out of my own suburban Philadelphia experience, but who I could see were real, hard-working, very American people trying to make a go of it in a world that was conspiring against them. The words of that heroic Everyman of the novel, Tom Joad, resonate in my ears to this day. And then, in the height of the Civil Rights movement, I read To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. After reading that book, I wanted to become a lawyer. I wanted to right wrongs. I wanted to be a better person than I was. Atticus Finch is still an important model for me in trying to be a good person and a good father. In college, I read Bang the Drum Slowly, by Mark Harris. I was and still am a huge baseball fan and here was a book that used baseball as the backdrop for a very human story of an unlikely friendship between an educated, erudite star pitcher and a slow-witted, uneducated, third-string catcher. That book opened my eyes to the basic humanity in us all, no matter how limited or humble our background, how unhappy our circumstance, or how limited our prospects.

And that is just three books for me. In the classroom, I have seen students transformed by the insights they found in characters in picture books like The Other Side, by Jacqueline Woodson, or Fly Away Home, by Eve Bunting; by novels like The Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Patterson; Freak the Mighty, by Nathaniel Philbrick; The Giver, by Lois Lowry; The Man Without a Face, by Isabelle Holland and so many, many more.

So the answer to what is ailing the country is right there on the shelves of our classroom library - good fiction. Now the job remains to make sure we connect the kids with these books and that that connection leads to a life of reading that fiction and nurturing that empathetic soul that resides in us all. Only by seeing the other person as one with us in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness can our ideal of a democratic nation survive.

So, I ask you to go out and vote for the candidate you think best represents the kind of empathy that is the American ideal and then come home, pour yourself a glass of wine, and open a good book.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Professional Development: Committing to Continuous Improvement

My life outside of my home and my family is animated by three passions: teaching, writing, and acting. I have been pursuing each of these passions for more than 50 years. Despite this long pursuit, I will freely confess that I have never taught the perfect lesson, written the perfect book, article, or blog post, or given the perfect stage performance. Perhaps this is because I am a slow learner, but perhaps it is also because my three passions are my three passions precisely because they require a constant pursuit of a perfection that remains tantalizingly beyond my reach.

The one thing I have done is continuously strive to get better. In writing this has meant seeking feedback from other writers, reading what other writers have written, and practicing daily in search of that "just right" sentence that rarely comes. In acting that means seeking opportunities to act, participating in acting workshops, and attending as many shows as possible to watch great actors. As for teaching, trying to get better has meant continuously reading the books and journals of my profession, listening and sharing with colleagues, attending conferences, and seeking out professional development opportunities.

I have always disputed the common assertion that teachers tend to peak in their proficiency after about 4-7 years. It certainly took me four years to become any semblance of a good teacher, but since that time I feel I have only gotten better, if also grayer and more weary. I started professional life as a secondary school history teacher and twenty years later became an elementary teacher. I often say that it took me 20 years to get good enough to teach elementary school. See - slow learner.

This continuous improvement is not easy, however. It requires a commitment to professional growth that can be hard to maintain at the same time as we are working full time in a classroom full of children, all with their own needs and demands and while trying to meet the often changing and confusing demands of administrators, state overseers, parents and the public. It is difficult, but it is necessary and if there is any place for a "no excuses" policy in schools, it is in the area of our professional commitment to get better at what we do.

Like you, I have often been required to attend professional development trainings that were mind numbingly dull and which had little apparent relevance to my immediate needs as a teacher. Like you, I have witnessed colleagues talking in the back of the room, texting on their phones, grading papers, or sleeping, while some hapless presenter in the front of the room tried to share some information. I have also been that hapless presenter in the front of the room watching teachers doing everything but attending to what I was trying to say. When this happens, I take it as a sign that my presentation needs to be more engaging, but I also take it as a sign that some teachers are not as committed to continuous improvement as I would hope.

I can tell you honestly that over a 45 year career I have attended more professional development presentations than most people reading this blog and I have never walked away from a session without learning something useful. Bold statement? Not really. Any professional development opportunity is a two way street. Much depends on the presenter, but just as much depends on the attendee. Teachers who commit to finding the laudable nuggets in any presentation will find them. I know; I have. At any rate, common courtesy dictates that we don't subject a guest presenter to behavior we would not allow from our own students.

How does a teacher make a commitment to continuous improvement? Here are three ways I would suggest.

Professional Reading: One of the things I like about my cardiologist is that whenever I have a question about my treatment, he begins his answer with, "You know I was just reading in my medical journals about recent research on this medication...." The guy is current; he is a reader; his continuous learning inspires confidence. Just as we would not want to go to a doctor who has not read a medical journal in 20 years, we would not want to have children in a classroom where the teacher is not up to date on the latest research. This means that teachers must be avid readers of the professional journals. For me the go to journals are The Reading Teacher, The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, Reading Research Quarterly. These journals along with The Marshall Memo (a digest of current publications), the multiple blogs that I follow, and the latest releases from Heinemann and the International Literacy Association keep me hopping, thinking, and informed.

Collegial Sharing: One of the more heartening developments that I have seen coming out of reform efforts in the past few years is the Professional Learning Community (PLCs). I know that many teachers have had bad experiences with these when they are poorly implemented, but I do believe that rightly done, these PLCs offer a good opportunity for teachers to take control of their own professional learning. And that is as it should be. Professional learning is best when it is rooted in the reality of the classroom. One of the problems that I see with PLCs is that they have been co-opted by the accountability movement. When the standard for excellence in teaching is tied to standardized test scores and spurious schemes like student growth objectives, it is going to be difficult to get teachers to buy in.

Ideally, PLCs are driven by teacher's agendas rather than national, state, or education reform agendas. What would this look like? In my mind a high functioning PLC would have the following characteristics.
  • Teachers gathering together to look closely and critically at a common "problem of practice."
  • Teachers sharing the research and their own ideas around this problem of practice.
  • Teachers deciding on a few approaches to instruction that would address that problem of practice.
  • Teachers observing each other implementing the instruction and giving feedback to each other on what they have seen.
  • Teachers examining each approach to the problem of practice by looking at student work across classrooms.
  • Teachers deciding to adopt instructional practice that seems to be most effective for the particular problem.
  • Teachers continuing to look at student work to ensure that the newly adopted practice is working.
This type of PLC requires committed teachers and cooperative administration. It requires time and resources. It will be difficult, but it is our best hope for continuous improvement of practice. My thinking here is based in part on the concept of instructional rounds, but in this case, put in use by classroom teachers, not administrators. You can read more about instructional rounds here

Professional Development Opportunities: While fully embedded professional development such as that described above is the best model for professional learning, it is often necessary to seek the advice of outside experts as well. Again, these models work best when teachers have a voice in the professional development and some choice in what professional learning opportunities they receive. One way to ensure choice is by attending local, state, and national conferences. Attending these professional conferences was critical to my own development as a professional. Attendance allowed me to increase my understanding on a broad array of literacy instruction issues, to hear the most up to date research delivered by the researchers themselves and to network with people with similar interests and concerns. A truly committed professional attends professional conferences when possible and a truly committed school district administration makes sure that such attendance is encouraged and supported financially.

Sometimes it is more efficient, financially and practically, to bring the outside expert into the building to share expertise with the entire staff. This type of professional development has rightly been criticized as being ineffective "one shot" experiences that do little to change instruction or improve the outcomes for children. But there are better models to follow. In my own consulting over the past twenty years, I have recommended the following model for professional development.
  • Administration and staff decide on a goal for professional development for the school year. For illustration purposes let's say the school decides to work on improving guided reading instruction in grades K-3.
  • The teachers and administrators put out a Request for Proposals to consultants who are invited to submit proposals on how best to help the school meet its goal.
  • The Request for Proposals requires the consultant to follow a protocol for delivery of the professional development. The protocol includes the following:
    • One or two days of training in guided reading
    • Opportunities for every teacher to observe the consultants doing guided reading in the classrooms with the students and then to discuss what they have observed with the consultants.
    • The consultant observes every teacher implementing the guided reading instruction and provides individual constructive and non-evaluative feedback to the teacher.
    • A few weeks aftrer providing initial feedback, the consultant observes the teacher again to see how well suggestions have been implemented
    • A final full-day workshop brings all teachers together to discuss progress and continuing concerns and to set goals for the following year.
  • The teachers and administrators determine which proposal to accept and schedule the professional development.
This model follows what we know about good instruction. A goal is identified and clearly articulated; information on how to achieve the goal is provided; methods for achieving the goal are modeled by an expert; guided practice is facilitated by the expert and then independent practice is initiated and assessed.

Part of being a professional is a commitment to continuing growth. As teachers we need to be constantly working to improve our practice. This work can be facilitated by thoughtful and supportive school and school district policies and practices, but ultimately it is up to the teacher to push for and participate fully in the kinds of professional development that will be most productive. 

And when the professional development we are offered falls short of these optimal practices? Then common courtesy and professional behavior demand that we try to make the most of it and find that one nugget of knowledge that is waiting for us in every professional development session.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Independent Reading: One Key to Balanced Literacy Instruction

Two weeks ago I posted a research-based response to literacy commentator Tim Shanahan's continuing dismissal of Independent Reading. The post prompted a twitter exchange with Dr. Shanahan in which he questioned the research and I reiterated the broad based support for Independent Reading that I found among literacy experts. The exchange ended with this tweet.

Ignoring for a moment that "fair and balanced" is the slogan of Fox News, I would like to address how Independent Reading is, indeed, a part of a balanced approach to literacy instruction. You can judge who is being fair to kids.

Since its introduction in 1983, Pearson and Gallagher's gradual release of responsibility model has been the gold standard for teaching complex reading strategies. The gradual release model calls for instruction to be organized around four experiences to ensure student learning: explicit description of the strategy, teacher modeling of the strategy, teacher and student collaboration and guided practice in using the strategy, and independent use of the strategy. This model informs much of the current literature on teaching, including Lucy Calkins' "mini-lessons" in reading and writing workshop. Pearson and Fielding (1991) further refined the model specifically for reading comprehension instruction practices that called for read alouds, shared reading, guided reading, and independent reading.

In her highly influential book, Becoming Literate (1991), Marie Clay called for a model of instruction where students had daily opportunities to be read to, to be read with and to read on their own. Once again we see an instructional design that includes Independent Reading as a part of the mix for balanced instruction.

So just what does constitute balanced literacy according to the models of Pearson and Clay? Clearly, read aloud, shared reading, guided reading and independent reading all play a role. Let's look at the role of each.

Read Aloud: I have written about the need for read aloud in the past here and here, but for the purposes of this post I would like to address interactive read aloud. An interactive read aloud provides an opportunity for teachers to stop along the way of the reading and model, through a think aloud, problem solving strategies as they are reading. Strategies that can be demonstrated this way include comprehension monitoring (Oops! I didn't understand that.), fix-up strategies (re-reading, adjusting reading rate, activating background knowledge), vocabulary in context strategies, etc. The key to interactive read aloud is to explicitly identify the strategy for the students, explaining why you are using the strategy and then talking aloud to model the problem solving process.

Shared Reading: Teachers often think of shared reading as "big book" reading, where a large format book is placed on the easel and teacher and student read the book interactively, usually with primary grade students. But shared reading can use a wide variety of texts and is effective across the grades. Poetry, short passages from longer texts, even textbook passages can be used for shared reading as long as all students can get eyes on the passage at the same time. Shared reading experiences should include an element of teacher modeling, collaborative predicting and questioning, choral reading, and teacher and student collaboration in word identification and comprehension.

Guided Reading: In guided reading, students and teachers collaborate to read a text that provides a bit of challenge for the reader and that allows the reader to use learned strategies on the fly in real reading situations. It is "guided" by the teacher because the teacher chooses the text, determines the teaching targets, listens in and scaffolds the reading of the text and leads the discussion after reading. Students practice their growing reading abilities in a supportive environment and with a book that asks them to stretch within their own "zone of proximal development."

Independent Reading: The opportunity to sit and read a book of your own choosing and at your own comfort level completes the instructional cycle that is the gradual release of responsibility. Independent Reading is the "reading by" of Clay's model. Independent Reading gives the reader an opportunity to consolidate skills, practice strategies taught in the classroom, and learn that reading can and should be an enjoyable, transporting experience. Independent Reading does not mean "hands-off" teaching, however. Children, because they are children, are not always good at making choices. They need our guidance to make sure that they find something to read of interest and within their reach as a reader. Independent Reading also provides the teacher with an opportunity to listen in to a reader and to to have a conversation with a reader about the reading. It is important that these conversations be a collaborative exchange and not a comprehension quiz. It is also important that readers have a chance to talk about their reading with other students in the class.

Tim Shanahan says that the research does not support Independent Reading as a productive instructional strategy. He bases his position on his reading of "scientific" research. He says that all the research supporting Independent Reading is flawed or unable to make a clear causal relationship between Independent Reading and improved reading achievement. In my post two weeks ago, I tried to show that many other respected researchers and theorists in the literacy field disagree. When we apply models of instruction such as those suggested by Pearson and Clay, we can see yet another reason to support Independent Reading in a balanced approach to literacy instruction.

Works Cited

Clay, M. (1991). Becoming Literate. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Pearson, P.D., & Fielding, L. (1991).Comprehension Instruction. In R. Barr, M.L. Kamil, P. Mosenthal, & P.D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of Reading Research. (Vol.2, pp. 815-860). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Pearson, P.D. & Gallagher, M.C. (1983). The instruction of reading comprehension. Contemporary Educational Psychology. 8(3), 317-344.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Bob Dylan Wins the Nobel Prize and Walt Whitman Smiles

While many people expressed surprise and some even outrage over Bob Dylan’s selection as the Nobel Prize winner for literature, I must admit, I was not surprised and I was extraordinarily pleased. I had always thought of Dylan as a poet. Dylan was the first poet I thought “I got.” He spoke mostly through song, but I heard the poetry of the words. I was introduced to Dylan the poet early on. He wrote a long and rambling poem as the liner notes to one of the first full length vinyl albums I ever owned – Peter, Paul and Mary’s 3rd album – In the Wind. I read it over and over as I listened to that seminal album over and over.

Later as a teacher, I had a slim volume of poetry in my middle school classroom library, Sounds and Silences, edited by young adult author Richard Peck especially for middle schoolers. The book contained several lyrics from Dylan songs.

As I became more immersed in poetry as an adult, I came to view Dylan as the latest link in a long chain of distinctly American voices in poetry, from Walt Whitman, through Carl Sandburg, to Allen Ginsberg. Dylan and Ginsberg were great friends, of course. The much honored (and reviled) poet was prominent on stage and off on Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review. I also have read that Dylan was a fan of Sandburg, even going so far as taking a pilgrimage to an aging and ailing Sandburg’s home in the 1960s.

Whitman, of course, was long dead before the former Robert Zimmerman was born, but reading the poem below makes me think Walt would have welcomed young Bob, not to mention Sandburg and Ginsberg, to the club.

Poets to Come by Walt Whitman

Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental,
               greater than before known,
Arouse! for you must justify me.

I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.

I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a casual look upon you and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,
Expecting the main things from you.

Whitman welcomes “orators, singers, and musicians" to the club, as the Nobel Committee has apparently also begun to do.

One way we can see this American voice across the years is through the all too present existence of war in American history. Each of these poets’ had a response to the wars of their lifetme. For Whitman, it was the Civil War; for Sandburg, WWs I and II. For Ginsberg it was the Cold War and for Dylan, of course, there was the Vietnam War. Here is a look at American war history through the eyes of these four poets. I think the through line is clear.

From The Wound Dresser by Walt Whitman

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.

I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.


Thus in silence in dreams’ projections, Returning, resuming,
I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
 (Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)

 The Wars by Carl Sandburg                      
 In the old wars drum of hoofs and the beat of shod feet.
In the new wars hum of motors and the tread of rubber tires.
In the wars to come silent wheels and whirr of rods not yet dreamed out in the heads of men.

In the old wars clutches of short swords and jabs into faces with spears.
In the new wars long range guns and smashed walls, guns running a spit of metal and men falling in tens and twenties.
In the wars to come new silent deaths, new silent hurlers not yet dreamed out in the heads of men.

In the old wars kings quarreling and thousands of men following.
In the new wars kings quarreling and millions of men following.
In the wars to come kings kicked under the dust and millions of men following great causes not yet dreamed out in the heads of men.

From America by Allen Ginsberg

America you don't really want to go to war.
America it's them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia's power mad. She wants to take
our cars from out our garages.
Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Readers' Digest. Her wants our
auto plants in Siberia. Him big bureaucracy running our filling  stations.
That no good. Ugh. Him make Indians learn read. Him need big black niggers.
Hah. Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. Help.
America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
America is this correct?
I'd better get right down to the job.
It's true I don't want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts
factories, I'm nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I'm putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

Masters of War by Bob Dylan

Come you masters of war
You that build the big guns
You that build the death planes
You that build all the bombs
You that hide behind walls
You that hide behind desks
I just want you to know
I can see through your masks

You that never done nothin'
But build to destroy
You play with my world
Like it's your little toy
You put a gun in my hand
And you hide from my eyes
And you turn and run farther
When the fast bullets fly

Like Judas of old
You lie and deceive
A world war can be won
You want me to believe
But I see through your eyes
And I see through your brain
Like I see through the water
That runs down my drain

You fasten all the triggers
 For the others to fire
Then you sit back and watch
When the death count gets higher
You hide in your mansion
While the young people's blood
Flows out of their bodies
And is buried in the mud

You've thrown the worst fear
That can ever be hurled
Fear to bring children
Into the world
For threatening my baby
Unborn and unnamed
You ain't worth the blood
That runs in your veins

How much do I know
To talk out of turn
You might say that I'm young
You might say I'm unlearned
But there's one thing I know
Though I'm younger than you
That even Jesus would never
Forgive what you do

Let me ask you one question
Is your money that good?
Will it buy you forgiveness
Do you think that it could?
I think you will find
When your death takes its toll
All the money you made
Will never buy back your soul

And I hope that you die
And your death'll come soon
I will follow your casket
By the pale afternoon
And I'll watch while you're lowered
Down to your deathbed
And I'll stand o'er your grave
'Til I'm sure that you're dead

@Bob Dylan Music Co.

So congratulations to Bob for this prestigious award and thank you from one long time devotee for keeping the American poetic voice front and center for the world to hear.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Teachers as Writers: You Can’t Teach Swimming from the Side of the Pool

Today I am pleased to offer a guest post from Cynthia Mershon on the importance of writing teachers being writers themselves. Cynthia is a former long-time literacy specialist and writing teacher and is currently a workshop presenter for Teachers College, Columbia University.

by Cynthia Mershon

During high school and college, I worked as a life guard and a swimming instructor.  Most of the children I met in swimming lessons were between the ages of five and ten – some had never had a swimming lesson, but some knew a little about swimming.  As a swimmer myself,  I appreciated the importance of being in the pool with them, standing beside them and talking with them as they clung to the wall or bobbed up and down in the shallow end of the pool. 

When it came time to demonstrate a particular swimming skill - how to use arms to stroke through the water, or feet to kick, or how to turn the head to breathe - it was easy to gather them around me so they could watch as I moved my arms, or held onto the wall and kicked, or put my face in the water and turned my head to the side and took a breath.  Most of the time, they were close enough for me to touch them and I often did, supporting their bodies while they tried each skill so they could feel what it felt like to be a swimmer, offering them the chance to know what it would feel like to glide through the water when they could put all of their learning together.

Now, many years later, I work with upper elementary teachers, supporting them as they develop their reading and writing workshops.  As a part of our work together, I recommend that teachers write their own pieces when teaching students a particular genre of writing.  I encourage them to share this writing with their students as mentor texts, as examples of the kind of writing they want students to do in the units being taught.  Reading John Hattie’s 2008 analysis of what factors maximize student achievement (Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement,  Routledge), we learn students need crystal clear examples of what we are asking them to do if they are to be successful at specific tasks.  Deliberately producing a piece of writing for them that illustrates the skills and strategies we are teaching so they can use our writing as a model to examine makes perfect sense.   

Another reason to think about writing teacher-generated mentor texts is because they clearly communicate to students that what they are being asked to write is important. So important, in fact, that the teacher – a member of the classroom writing community – is writing the same piece.  Students are perceptive and clearly understand the difference between being given an “assignment” and being included in a community that writes and confers and develops together.  When teachers write and discuss their own mentor texts, students are included in the writing process in a way that allows them to interact with the teacher as fellow writers.  They get to see – literally - what an experienced writer does as she writes in the same genre:  how she creates an engaging lead, or adds details, or uses paragraphs to organize her writing, or chooses language to make her writing more powerful, or creates a closing that sends readers away with something to think about.  What is the teacher doing in her writing that they might try, too, to lift the level of their own piece?

Teachers, too, benefit from composing mentor texts for writing units in several ways.  Most important, perhaps, is the opportunity to know what will be challenging about creating a particular kind of text.  How can a teacher truly know what components of a writing task students will find difficult if she has not attempted to write exactly what students are trying to write?  How will that teacher be able to predict what lessons might be necessary, or where students might need unusual support, if she has not written in that genre in the manner required by the unit students are exploring?  Or, as Donald Graves wrote in Writing: Teachers & Children at Work (Heinemann, 1983): “Teachers who have not wrestled with writing cannot effectively teach the writer’s craft.”

A frequent question from teachers in workshops concerns how they can be more comfortable and effective when conferring with their student writers.  One answer I offer is that when teachers write their own pieces in each unit students study, teachers are more likely to be able to talk fluently and successfully about what students are trying to do in their writing.  Why?  Because the teachers are writing the same pieces and encountering the same demands and challenges as their students.  They will know what it is like to consider choosing a thesis statement for a persuasive essay or finding the heart of the story in a personal narrative or deciding on a topic for a feature article.  They will need to make the same decisions about content, language, and format as each writer in the class is making, and so will be able to offer advice and share experiences when they confer with students.

It is not always easy to begin to write mentor texts for our students.  Most of us do not compose essays, narratives, or informational pieces on a regular basis, if at all.  It can be scary to compose these pieces following the guidelines of the units we are teaching, thinking about how our work will be received by our students.  I remember being afraid when I began teaching writing and producing mentor texts, worried my students would find out I was not a good writer, that I would make spelling or grammatical errors, and that my students might laugh at my writing.  What I found instead was that they valued my participation in the unit, that they could not wait to see what I would write, and that the bond that grew between us as writers far outweighed any thought about whether my writing was good (they thought it was) or whether it was perfect.  They used my writing over and over again in our units as a resource, as a guide to show them what a persuasive essay or personal narrative or feature article looked like, and trusted me to show them how they might use my example to help them move their own writing forward.

My guess is that I learned a lot about teaching writing many years ago when I was standing in three feet of water in a swimming pool, surrounded by ten or so eager, bouncing children who needed someone in the pool with them to teach them to swim.  I know I could not have had the same impact on them if I had been sitting on the side of the pool – can you imagine trying to teach swimming without being in the water with your students?  I think we probably know the same thing is true about teaching writing.  It isn’t always easy, but we know that the best way to teach writing is to be a writer, to understand how the writing process works, the attributes of a genre, and the probable challenges writers will face when writing a particular piece. 

It doesn’t matter if students are new to the writing process or if they have some experience as writers.  We can’t sit on the sidelines and give advice from afar. We need to jump in, demonstrate particular writing skills, and start writing.  We need to sit right next to our students and show them what writing is about.  We need to support them while they try each skill so they know what it feels like to be a writer, offering them the chance to know what it will feel like to compose with abandon and power when they put all of their learning together.  

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Independent Reading: A Research Based Defense

Independent Reading, sometimes called SSR, DEAR or SQUIRT, is an instructional strategy where students are given time in class to read self-selected books. An instructional strategy which has been around since the 1970s, it has two goals:

  1. Provide students with time to practice the reading strategies they have learned through classroom instruction in a real reading situation and, therefore, improve reading achievement.
  2. Promote positive attitudes towards reading in the hopes of making reading a life-long habit for children.

Recently, literacy guru, Tim Shanahan, has reiterated his opposition to Independent Reading (SSR, DEAR) as an in the classroom instructional strategy. You can read his two most recent blogs on the topic here and here. Shanahan's opposition is based on the following:

  1. A lack of empirical research to support the practice for improving reading achievement.
  2. Independent Reading violates what we know about motivational activities and, therefore, will not create lifelong readers.
It is important to note here that Shanahan's opposition to Independent Reading is not new. He was a prominent member of the National Reading Panel(NRP) study, the precursor of the Reading First initiative, that concluded that "even though encouraging students to read more is intuitively appealing, there is still not sufficient research evidence of high methodological quality to support the idea that such efforts reliably increase how much students read or that such programs result in improved reading skills" (NRP, 2000, pp. 12-13).

In truth there has always been a large amount of research evidence that Independent Reading does improve reading performance and motivation to read, including hundreds of correlational research studies, but the NRP study ignored this research because it did not meet their standards of "high methodological quality." Shanahan has explained that correlational studies cannot be used to determine if Independent Reading was the cause of improvement or if other factors were the cause. 

But there is much more to this story. As Garan and DeVoogd (2008) have pointed out, many areas of human endeavor do not lend themselves well to experimental research designs. Correlational studies have long been recognized as a viable and necessary form of human research. As Stanovich (2007) suggests, just because correlational studies have limited value in making causative conclusions does not mean they are not important to guiding understanding. Cunningham (2001) noted that without the evidence from correlational studies we would have not established the link between smoking and cancer. The NRP rejection of these studies skewed their findings on Independent Reading (Krashen, 2001, Cunningham, 2001, Garan and DeVoogd, 2008). 

Shanahan's second concern is that Independent Reading violates what we know about motivation because it is not truly independent. He says that if the teacher chooses the time for reading, guides the text selection and requires some sort of accountability (like writing after reading, reading aloud during a conference), that we cannot argue that we are encouraging lifelong reading, but simply employing another instructional strategy that is neither independent nor motivating.

Shanahan says, "What motivates someone? I’ve read a lot of that literature and being required to do something is rarely a powerful stimulator of lifelong desire."

I've read a lot of literature on the topic as well. I know, for instance that limiting choice does not necessarily limit motivation. In fact, helping a child find a book that is personally interesting and that that child is able to read may be more motivating than leaving kids to wander through the shelves with infinite choices in front of them. Having a teacher sit next to you to hold a conference about what you are reading may be an accountability measure, but it can also be motivational for children. Children need to know that someone is interested in what they are reading and what they think about what they are reading. One of the key jobs of the teacher is to set up an environment where kids desire to learn can be unleashed in a productive way. Providing a routine for Independent Reading is one way to unleash learning potential. 

So, in 2016 what can we say about the research support for Independent Reading? Unlike Shanahan, most literacy researchers would argue that Independent Reading is well supported by the research. Here is a sampling of research and conclusions from reviews of the research.

Yoon (2002) - Sustained Silent Reading facilitated the development of positive attitudes towards reading.

Samuels and Wu (2003) - Independent Reading is beneficial to all students. It is important to match books to student's reading ability.

Lewis & Samuels (2003) - SSR has a positive impact on student reading achievement.

Garan & DeVoogd (2008) - There is a convergence of research to support independent reading in schools.

Hiebert & Reutzel (2010) - The stamina of readers can be supported by effective, independent, silent reading practice conditions put in place by well-informed and vigilant teachers.

Guthrie (2004) - Simply having Independent Reading time does not ensure engagement. Engaged reading is key.

Topping, et al. (2007) - The quality of the Independent Reading time matters more than the quantity. 

McRea & Guthrie (2009) - Opportunities to engage in independent reading enhance both reading achievement and intrinsic motivation to read.

Gambrell, et al. (2011) - The research base supports the notion that the reading curriculum should incorporate time and opportunities for students to engage in independent reading.

Allington, Billen and McQuiston (2015) - There is sufficient research evidence to support the notion that reading volume is very important to the reading development of students.

The verdict seems clear. A well-planned, well-executed program of Independent Reading is an important part of sound literacy instruction. To be most successful teachers should follow a few guidelines from the research.

  1. Make every effort to ensure student engagement in reading during Independent Reading time. This includes making sure that students are in a book that they can read successfully on their own and monitoring the class during reading time.
  2. Guide student book choice for appropriateness and interest level by working beside them as they make selections.
  3. Confer with individual students regularly. Rather than quizzing their comprehension, start a conversation about the book. What stood out for you? is a good conversation starter.
  4. Provide regular opportunities for students to talk about their reading with other students in partnerships or small groups.
  5. Assist students in making goals for their reading and have them keep track of their progress toward the goals.
  6. Through modeling, teach students how to respond to their reading through a variety of written and oral formats including a response journal,in text post-it notes, letters to the teacher, quick writes, etc.
  7. Rather than set an arbitrary amount of time for Independent Reading from the start, work to build student stamina. Early on in establishing the routine for Independent Reading, stop the reading as soon as students begin to fidget, whether that is in 3 minutes or 15. The next day set a goal for Independent Reading that is a few minutes more than the previous day, until you have built the time spent engaged in reading to your desired length - 20, 30, 40 minutes depending on age and grade.
Shanahan says one of the reasons that Independent Reading fails is that "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him take a bath." That may be true, but I think you can lead a child to reading and set up conditions where she is most likely to engage in reading. And if we can get kids reading good books, the research would indicate they will improve their reading and be motivated to continue the reading habit. The best reading motivator is getting lost in a good book that speaks to you in some deeply personal way.

Works Cited

Allington, R. Billen, M, & McCuiston, K. (2015) The potential impact of Common Core State Standards on reading volume. In Pearson, P. D. & Hiebert, E. Research-Based Practices for Teaching Common Core Literacy. NY: Teachers College Press

Cunningham, J. W. (2001). The National Reading Panel Report. Reading Research Quarterly., 30(3), 326-335.

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Thursday, October 13, 2016

Fostering Curiosity in an Age of Accountability

In my capacity as Coordinator of College Reading at Rider University in New Jersey, I have the opportunity to teach many students who are, like I was 50 years ago, the first in their family to attend college. Because of this, their SAT scores and a number of other factors, these students are viewed, correctly, by the college administration as "at-risk" of not completing their college education. As all institutions of higher learning should be, Rider is concerned about retaining these students. And so last week I found myself seated in the tutoring center on campus with a consultant the university had hired to help them address the retention issue.

The consultant asked me a straightforward question."What is the one thing you would say these at-risk students need more than any other to be academically successful here?"

The one word answer came out of me quickly and without reflection like I was playing a game of free association. "Curiosity," I said.

I am not sure why I said this. I just blurted it out from the recesses of my brain. I had just come from a class with my students and I was aware of the effort I seemed to be putting in to spark student interest in the vocabulary lesson I was presenting. I remember trying to engage the students and pulling out all my veteran teacher moves (humor, turn and talk, relevant examples, interesting anecdotes, write and reflect, small group discussions) to limited effect. Was this experience where my knee jerk answer came from?

Ever since I gave that answer, I have been reflecting on and reading about curiosity. Where does curiosity come from? What actions foster curiosity? What actions kill curiosity? Why is curiosity important?

I was a curious kid. After toddler years of driving my parents crazy with questions, I marched off to school where I had free rein to drive my teachers crazy as well. Mine was not always a welcome figure in the classroom. My questions bubbled out of me before I could remember to raise my hand. Other students looked at me askance as I bullied my way into one group discussion after another. In high school I was on a first name basis with the entire office staff because I was frequently "excused" from class because of ill-timed outbursts.

I didn't grow out of it either. In my sixties and working as a school district administrator, a good friend and fellow administrator pointed out to me that I tended to dominate conversations in meetings by asking lots of questions and then bursting forth with some insight, relevant or not. He said to me one of the truest things I had ever heard about myself, "These conversations are the way you learn." And there it is. My curiosity and my audacity combined to help make me a successful learner. But how was this fostered in me and how can I foster this in my students?

In pursuit of an answer to my question, I found a terrific article by Erik Shonstrom in Education Week. Shonstrom defines curiosity as "seeking and exploring." Shonstrom says, curiosity does not sit very well in the traditional classroom because it is intense, transient, and propulsive. Curiosity is messy. Shonstrom cites Carnegie Mellon professor of economics and  psychology, George Lowenstein, who says,

Curiosity tends to be associated with impulsive behavior. People who are curious not only desire information intensely, but desire it immediately and seek it out even against their better judgment.

How can we foster curiosity in our students? Shonstrom says that "for students to be curious, they must feel worthy of seeking." Students must feel entitled to ask questions, to explore, to wonder, to speculate. We have all known students who we deem "naturally curious." I no longer think any kids are "naturally curious" at all. Like me, I believe their curiosity was nurtured, by indulgent parents and other adults perhaps, by inspiring and engaging teachers certainly, and by simply being given the time and the feelings of safety and security that allow for brain space to be given over to exploration.

Unfortunately, school often works against the development of curiosity. And, it seems to Shonstrom, schooling for "at-risk" children is the worst offender. He says that if we want to nurture curiosity we need to "disengage from standardized testing and common curricula." "Curiosity," he says, "does not hold up well to intense inspection." He advises that teachers be given the agency to slow down and allow time for kids time to wonder and be curious. I would add that we also need to provide children with a safe environment where exploration is rewarded and not punished and where impulsivity is recognized as an element of curiosity. For some children, school may be the only place where it is safe to let the mind wander and explore or to give in to an impulse.

As a language arts teacher, I think we can nurture curiosity by providing children some choice and voice in their reading and writing in an environment that supportive and safe. In reading this means providing guided, but genuine, choice in what kids read independently and the opportunity to give voice to what they have learned in their reading through conversations with their peers, their parents and their teacher. In writing this means real topic and audience choice for what they write for real purposes. A classroom is too much of a closed environment to nurture real curiosity. When children can get outside of the classroom hothouse either through their imagination or through actual explorations out of doors, we can feed their curiosity. So I think of kids writing about things that matter to them to the people who can do something about it, whether that be their parents, the principal, the local mayor, the Environmental Protection Agency or the President of the United States. Real audiences encourage genuine (and correct) writing and I hope, feed the curious mind.

I started this blog post with speculation on the importance of curiosity for my college freshman. I end it reflecting on the irony of 21st century education reform with its focus on developing "college and career ready" students through standardized test driven accountability and common standards. Could it be, as Shonstrom suggests, that this inspection driven movement, obsessed with data and accountability, is helping kill the curiosity that students need to be truly college and career and, for that matter, life ready?