29 November 2015

Rethinking Literacy Instruction

As parents, educators, and community members, we must collaborate to change literacy instruction in many of our nation's public schools. Over Thanksgiving weekend, a friend and high school English teacher sent me a piece she wrote to express her frustration with Accelerated Reader. I, too, am not a fan of AR because I think it contributes to what Kelly Ghallager calls "readicide." I asked Summer if I could post a portion of what she shared with me on this blog because I think you, readers, will appreciate Summer's sentiments and will offer your own ideas about how we can move forward and keep from feeling powerless. I remain committed to my idea that if we read up, team up, and speak up, we can and will change public education for the better.

Guest Blog Post by Summer Garris

“Mama, if I get finished reading my AR book, can I please have a little time to read Ungifted tonight?”

“We’ll see if we have time,” I say making myself concentrate on the peppers and mushrooms I’m chopping.  The truth is, inside of me I’m seething.

Sage and I have struggled to acclimate to the AR reading program and processes they use in his school.  It took us a full nine weeks to figure out that he had weekly reading AR point goals that were calculated, we’re told, based on his reading level.  Although one notice said that his reading independently for 30 minutes a night should allow him to meet these goals (which makes sense), this has not been the case.  He reads for his 30 minutes independently, and inevitably, I read to him for 30 minutes to an hour every night, so that he can take his multiple choice book test by Thursday to meet his requirements. 

We had an incident the week of Valentine’s Day.  Despite our nightly binge reading of this horribly trite novel, we had not finished the book.  Since missing his point goal for the week meant missing the Valentine’s party, he took the test on a Wednesday even though he had not finished reading the book.  He failed the test, and then realized that there would be no way to gain his required points in time to ensure he could attend his party. He was devastated, and I could not fathom that this mistake could actually keep him from exchanging paper Valentines and candy with his friends.  I decided to talk to his teachers.

I asked the teachers questions like, “If he finds a book that he really loves that is longer and takes him more than 30 minutes of independent reading each night, can he wait until he finishes the book in order to take his test?” 

His teacher replied, “If the book is too long for him to finish in the allotted time, he should choose shorter books, so he can earn his weekly point goals.”

I thought she misunderstood my question.  “No, I mean, if he picks out a longer book, one that he wants to read, one that takes him more time to read, and he is reading each night, he can wait until he finishes it before he takes his test, right? “

“No,” she replied, “he has to meet those point goals.”

It’s not the reading that upsets me, it is what and how we read.  This business with the book, Ungifted, kind of sums it up.  He picked out this book at the book fair. It is about a boy who invents robots and, according to the back of the book, conducts some kind of experiment on his sister that goes awry.  If you know Sage, you know why this book excites him. 

We started the book a few nights ago, taking turn reading a page.  In the few pages we’ve read together, he’s learned the words “cope,” “justify,” and “inevitably.”  He looked up and read about Atlas, so he could know what the statue looked like that the character accidentally destroyed.  We read together one passage from the point of view of main character Donovan:.  . . when a think is right there in front of me, and I can kick it, grab it, shout it out, jump into it, paint it, launch it, or light it on fire, it’s like I’m a puppet on a string, powerless to resist.  He and I both started to giggle.  He didn’t have to tell me that he deeply identified with this character.  “What’s a puppet on a string mean?” he asked.  Before I could answer, he answered for himself, “Oh, wait – I get it, like the horse puppet GG got me at Derby, right? It’s a simile!”  I glowed inside, the educator inside of me checking of literacy skills as we continued to read.  This is what “engaging in a text” looks like!

This isn’t the only engaging literacy experience I’ve watched my son experience.  From five years old to seven, he was obsessed with the Encyclopedia of Snakes.   When I allowed the kids to pick out a book before bed (for fun – not points), he would ask me to read about some species.  Though snakes are certainly not my favorite subject, it was exciting to watch him make connections with the information.  At the sport hunting store, he checked out the 3D camouflaged shirts.  “Look, this shirt is like keeled scales on a rattle snake.  The different surfaces make it easier to blend in.” 

When he heard about Nikoli Tesla, he spent hours reading (and taking notes) on his new hero.  Twenty four hours later, he asked me if he could build a Teslacoil, and showed me his diagrams where he had calculated how many volts of battery power he would need to create the necessary charge.  I later realized he neglected to take an AR test on his teacher read class book that day.  I guess the idea of a Telacoil was just more exciting than those 10 multiple choice questions.  (We binge read an AR book just in time to allow him to get his banana split on Friday anyway).
Seeing him engage in literacy delights me.  But, this Ungifted book poses a logistical problem in our house.  The book is above his reading level, and so, he can’t read it for points toward his AR goal. 

With the hustle and bustle of weeknights, if he is to meet his AR point goal, we won’t have time to read it most evenings. There’s so little time to read all the wonderful books available anyway; it saddens me that pumping out AR points keeps him from such experiences.  While visiting his school one day, I sat waiting in the library.  I happened to notice a book titled Incredible Plants.  I remembered his fascination with the corpse flower when he read about it in a Weird Facts almanac (another book he loves, but isn’t worth “points.”)  He would love this book, I mused remembering him asking, “Mama, do you think we could grow a corpse flower in the green house?”  I picked up the book to read the back.  The book featured all kind of gross and weird plants.  I flipped it over and looked inside the cover; it wasn’t AR.  I put the book back on the shelf.    

This AR mania apparently doesn’t just supersede our “at home” literary experiences.   If I ask my son what he did in his classes, he tells me the same story nearly every day.  He reads AR books, takes AR tests, and his teacher reads AR books to him for him to take tests.  Rewards day at his school, holiday parties in class, banana splits in class, the photographs in the hallways of the high achievers, the end of the year sleep over celebration are all for what?  Gaining AR points. 

My child’s elementary literacy instruction has become a race to choke down random books to gain AR points.  And these points are gained by taking multiple choice tests that ask trite knowledge level questions that in no way engage readers in critical thinking.  How can this be?

The new Common Core standards emphasize needs for students to engage in texts, to evaluate texts, to write about texts, to access their schema, to make inferences, and to engage in conversations about the text.  As the state department rolled out these standards, they provided us resources in order to change our teaching practices in order to meet these standards.   

The Literacy Design Collaborative (LDC) provides modules designed to help teachers acclimate to the required coherent approach to teaching literacy.  It provides templates for teachers to design lessons that allow students to read and analyze texts and to use and synthesize the knowledge they gain from this thinking to solve problems.

Then, there are reading and literature circles.  There are so many amazing resources that lay out units that allow students to discuss and engage in texts.    Models have them illustrating favorite scenes, asking characters questions, finding new words to discover, and asking their peers questions.  In such a context they are thinking about what they are reading, making connections to their schema, and all the while, improving their literary competence. 

Why are these initiatives not happening at my child’s school?  Why am I going to tell him that by the time we eat our pizza, take showers, and read another installment of this AR book, we won’t be able to find out if Donovan gets in trouble for the Atlas statue incident?  And, why do I feel so powerless to change it?