Sunday, June 17, 2018

Fostering a Love for Reading in Children

A recent article in Education Week Teacher caught my attention. The article "Four Steps to Building a Magnificent Classroom Library", by primary grades teacher, Justin Minkel, offers some solid advice for making sure your in-class library is an effective resource for your students. The first three steps are "Increase diversity", "Match books to student ability", and "Make time for reading." All good ideas, thoroughly explained.

The fourth step that Minkel identifies calls for the teacher to "Build a love of reading." This is critical, of course, but aside from acknowledging its importance, "our job isn't just to teach kids to read, but to do whatever we can to make sure they love to read", Minkel offers few recommendations for how to make this happen. Access to lots of books in a well-constructed classroom library is a good start, but what else can a teacher do to foster that love of reading?

1. Be a Reader

In order to foster young readers, teachers must model how much joy reading brings to them personally. I like to think of teachers as living a literate life that includes reading for personal pleasure, reading books that may be of interest to their own students (to know what to purchase for the classroom library), and reading professional journals and books for personal professional development. Teachers should also take some time to share with students, talking about what they are reading, so that students get a picture of the adult in the room as a literate person.

2. Read Aloud Daily

What better way to share the joy of reading with children than by reading a good book aloud to them every day. Read aloud must be a regularly scheduled part of reading instructional time, not just a special treat or as a cool down exercise after recess, but as a celebration of the rich rewards contained in a good book well-read. Teachers must prepare for read aloud by reading the book and practicing reading with proper fluency, expression. and intonation. I wrote about The Need to Read Aloud here.

3. Provide Lots of Time for Reading in Class

In his article, Minkel highlights time for reading, but it bears reiterating here. Time crunches, test pressure, and over-packed curricula have put the squeeze on instructional time in school, but it remains critical that children have time to read independently and extensively during the school day. You can read my thoughts on this topic in this blog post: Independent Reading: A Research-Based Defense.

4. Conduct Regular Book Talks

As classroom teachers, we have tremendous power in shaping our students' reading interests. One way to use this influence productively is through the book talk. In a book talk, the teacher shares a book that she has read and that she thinks may interest some of the students. The book talk shows the children the book, names the author, and tells the students just enough about the book to whet their appetite and help them know if it may be something they want to read. Book talks may also include a brief read aloud of an interesting passage from the book. Book talks are short and don't give away the endings of books. I recommend book talking several books a week. I set aside 10 or 15 minutes on Monday mornings for book talking. After talking about the book to the kids, I just let them know they are available to be borrowed and leave them on my desk to be perused. They usually disappear by the end of the day. Librarian Nancy Keane offers some tips for book talks here. 

5. Encourage Talk About Books

Kids should be encouraged to share what they have read through talk. Independent reading time might end with a turn and talk where students partner up to share what they are reading and "what stood out for them." Teachers can hold mini-conferences with students during independent reading and invite students to, "Tell me about what you are reading." When students finish a book they nay be invited to do their own book talk about the book for their classmates. Talking about our reading with others improves our comprehension and reinforces the social nature of reading and constructing meaning.

6. Help Kids Get Books in Their Homes

One of the most important reasons for having an excellent classroom library is because we know that access to reading material is critical to the development of lifelong readers. Just as important for creating these lifelong readers are books in the home. Teachers can foster reading in the home by making sure that children get regular trips to the school library to borrow books and by encouraging parents to use the resources of the local public libraries to borrow books. Some teachers set up their own classroom libraries as lending libraries, so that students can also take these books home.

Research by Richard Allington has shown that simply getting books in kids hands over the summer helps counteract the effects of summer loss. Many homes do not have rich literacy resources. School activities that would contribute to getting more books in the home would be extremely worthwhile. Profits from book fairs and other activities might be directed to making sure that vulnerable readers get a few books of their own to take home over the summer.

Teachers can do much to foster a love of reading in their children. Like all worthy learning goals, this instruction must be planned, intentional, explicit, and persistent. Most importantly, it must grow out of the joy the teacher herself gets out of leading the literate life.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Exploding the Canon: Do Students Really Need to Read "The Scarlet Letter"?

Raise your hand if you were assigned reading The Scarlet Letter in high school. Keep your hand up if you actually read it. Continue to keep your hand up if you enjoyed it. I'm betting the raised hands are dwindling.

The Scarlet Letter is one of those works, along with The Great Gatsby, Huckleberry Finn, Lord of the Flies, Hamlet, The Odyssey that make up the "literary canon", those classic texts we are all supposed to read. I was assigned it like everyone else. I didn't read it. Neither did most of my tenth grade classmates. Being a generally compliant student, I tried to read it, but I never got past the first couple of chapters. I suspect that The Scarlet Letter is the most assigned, most unread book in the American high school.

The book presented a great many challenges to my tenth grade mind. The greatest challenge was the archaic language and the drudgery involved in understanding what was going on. The sex, deception and community of nasty people were fine, but I just could not engage with this language and the descriptions.

My story has a happy ending. I passed the test on the book (I was really good at listening in class and was good friends with one kid who actually read it). To this day, while I still haven't read the book,  I can answer virtually any Jeopardy! style question on it. In fact, until this very public confession here, no one has ever brought this hole in my education up to me. My life, even my literary life, has not been severely impacted by my failure to read this book. Which brings me to the question, Why do we keep assigning this book to high school students?

The arguments for reading The Scarlet Letter, or any other classic, are many.
  • It's a classic. It has stood the test of time.
  • It has historical and cultural importance.
  • It has beautiful prose, timeless themes, and compelling characters.
  • If students aren't familiar with the classics, students won't understand allusions to them in every day discourse. You can hardly go a day without some reference to a classic text. If we don't study these works we are leaving kids out of participation in our cultural dialogue.
  • I had to read it, so you should, too.
I don't find any of these arguments to be compelling reasons for high school students to read The Scarlet Letter. I certainly think that college English majors and those studying to be English teachers should read the book - in college or as adults. I do think the idea that students need knowledge of the book in order to engage in everyday discourse that includes allusions to these classics is important, but do we really need to read the book to get this knowledge?

Since a classic book has historical and cultural significance, why not study it historically and culturally, as an artifact? After all, we do not need to refight the Battle of Gettysburg to understand its historical and cultural significance. We study about it. Why not study about The Scarlet Letter and read something more contemporary students might find engaging?

Here is what the culturally literate student needs to know about The Scarlet Letter.

Author: Nathaniel Hawthorne
Date of Publication: 1850
Genre: Romantic Novel
Setting: Massachusetts Bay Colony, mid-17th century, the Puritan era
Summary: Hester Prynne, imprisoned for adultery, is paraded through town carrying her child, Pearl, sporting a scarlet letter "A" on her dress marking her for her sin. She refuses to tell who the father of her child is, a child recently born, despite her husband being away for two full years. Hester is visited in prison by her husband, who disguises himself as Dr. Roger Chillingworth and orders Hester to remain silent while he ferrets out who the father is. It does not take long for Chillingworth to figure out that the father is the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale. Dimmesdale is too afraid to confess his sin, but feels great pangs of guilt, not to mention being unnerved by the machinations of Chillingworth. Hester tells Dimmesdale who Chillingworth really is and they plan to escape together to England, but Dimmesdale instead confesses his sins, rips open his shirt to show a scarlet wound on his chest and dies. A year later Chillingworth dies, leaving all his money to Pearl. Hester and Pearl escape to England to begin a new life. Hester eventually returns to Massachusetts proudly wearing her scarlet letter and is buried next to Dimmesdale below a gravestone marked with a scarlet "A."
Major Themes: Revenge, Hypocrisy, Guilt and Blame, Women and Femininity, Sin.

Armed with this knowledge, students should be well prepared to parse any Scarlet Letter allusions that come up in conversation. Instead of reading The Scarlet Letter, students could learn about it. We could also show them a movie version, or an adaptation like the movie, The Easy A, which is a lot of fun.

In the meantime, teachers might be more productively engaged in getting students to actually read books that will pique their interest and contribute more fully to their becoming life long readers. Hawthorne, after all, wrote his book for an audience of adults, not high school sophomores. On the other hand, a book like Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, has beautiful prose, timeless (and similar) themes, compelling characters and was written for young adult readers. All in all, if we are assigning reading to high schoolers, Speak seems like a better choice than The Scarlet Letter.

I won't argue that we should do away with the canonical literature in our classes entirely and only have kids read contemporary works, but I do think it would be wise to limit the assigning of classics to those that may have most resonance for a particular group of students and mix in plenty of high quality contemporary (and diverse) literature designed to engage readers in actually reading the book. I also think we would do a great service to our students by giving them more of a voice in what they actually read. Who knows, many of these contemporary books they do read may be part of the canon some day and they will have a head start.

For more arguments for and against teaching the classics see the article: “A Classic Debate” by Emily Chiariello in Literacy Today, May/June 2017 (Vol. 34, #6, p. 26-29),

Sunday, June 3, 2018

A Thank You to My Readers: 1 Million Strong Today

Today this blog attracted its one millionth reader according to the little counter that Blogger provides to users of their service. While this number is dwarfed by many of the great education bloggers out there, it still marks a big milestone for me. I started this blog in earnest five years ago after some fits and starts. It fulfills a promise I made to myself to write after my retirement, because I felt I still had some things to say about teaching literacy. Over time I also began to address teaching and the politics of public education from a broader perspective.

One million is a mind boggling number. I have been presenting workshops for teachers since the early 1980s and in all that time I have probably reached fewer than 5000 teachers. With this blog I reach that many every week. Amazing.

So thank you to all my readers. I appreciate every single person who has ever clicked on this blog and I hope you have found thoughtful and useful information here. A special thank you to some folks who have championed this blog throughout its run: Diane Ravitch, Dr. Mary Howard, Peter Greene, P.L. Thomas, Steven Singer, Stu Bloom, Jonathan Pelto, Julie  Larrea Borst, and Susan DuFresne. Thanks also to Denny Taylor and Garn Press for reposting my work on the Garn Press web site. Special thanks to friends Erica Spence-Umstead, Tom Barclay, Don Stoll, Darcie Cimarusti, and Carol Burris for continued encouragement. Finally thanks to my wife Cindy, my number one confidant, critic, and co-conspirator.

As a form of celebration, here are five posts, one from each of the five years of the blog's existence, that I think represent what the blog has been all about.

From 2013: Round Robin Reading Must Die - One person's effort to wipe out a ubiquitous, but failed, literacy practice.

From 2014: Fighting Back at Standardized Tests: A Teacher's Guide- What the classroom teacher can do to fight back at the proliferation and abuse of standardized tests.

From 2015: You've Got To Be Taught - One teacher's take on racism, how it is taught in this country, and how it can be untaught in our schools by knowledgeable, caring teachers.

From 2016: 10 Reading Instruction Non-Negotiables - What are the most essential elements of reading instruction?

From 2017: What Kind of Knowledge Does a Teacher Need? - While it is important for teachers to have broad and deep content knowledge, even more important is the knowledge of how to communicate that knowledge to students - pedagogical content knowledge.

Enjoy! And as Shakespeare would say, "Thanks and thanks; and ever thanks.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Folly of Test and Punish Education Reform

In April the NAEP Test scores were released and even the most ardent advocates of test-based education reform had to be disappointed. Scores were, at best, flat, failing to recover from the 2015 drop in scores. Mike Petrilli of the reform minded Fordham Foundation said, "There is no way to sugarcoat it, they [the scores] were extremely disappointing." Reformers scrambled to find explanations. Petrilli blamed the 2008 economic recession for draining schools of money. Funny, reformers have always told us money didn't matter.

The education reformers still don't get it. After twenty-years of attempting to improve public education through policies of testing children and punishing the teaching profession, the reform movement is, in the words of Carol Burris of the Network for Public Education, "a train wreck."

It should now be clear to these reformers that their mix of Common Core standards, test-based accountability, charter schools, vouchers, and vilifying teachers has failed to move the needle on educational improvement. Indeed the achievement gap has only widened. This was entirely predictable to anyone who has spent ten minutes trying to understand the issues related to schools and achievement. Public schools are reflections of the society as a whole. Trying to fix schools without an eye to all the factors that impact on the schools is a fool's errand.

American public education accurately reflects our society as a whole. In affluent suburban areas, children from comfortable homes attend well-appointed, well-staffed schools with a wide range of opportunities for extending their learning. These children largely are healthy, do well in school, on standardized tests, and in life.

In blighted urban areas children from homes where safety and food security are often not available, children with multiple health issues attend dilapidated, often under-staffed schools, with a much narrower band of opportunities, often made narrower by the obsession with test scores in a few subjects. These kids tend to not do well in school, on standardized tests, or in life (These are generalizations, of course. Many children heroically escape the cycle of poverty, but they are exceptions that prove the rule.).

Then there are buffer areas, between affluent suburb and poverty riddled city, where kids go to decent schools that are reasonably well-resourced, where families struggle to make ends meet, but mostly keep their heads above water. These kids do reasonably well in school, get decent standardized test scores, get some post high school education, and have a shot at a good life.

Education author and critic, Alfie Kohn, put it best. Standardized tests offer a "remarkably precise method for gauging the size of the houses near the school where the test was administered." Or as I would like to yell at the education reformers, "It's the poverty, stupid!"

Since public schools are a reflection of the society, any attempt at improving public schools and with narrowing the achievement gap, must focus first of all on that society. We need to understand, as reformers seemed to in the 1960s and 1970s that it is inequity, injustice, and segregation that is damaging our public schools, just as it is damaging every other aspect of society.

Education reformers seem to take the approach that poverty is too hard to fix, so we should focus on the schools, but as the last twenty years have demonstrated, that is absolute folly. The truth is that there is not , nor has there been, an educational crisis in this country. What there is, though, is a human crisis, and what is happening in our schools reflects that human crisis.

If the billionaire reformers would show one third the passion for attacking inequity that they have shown for attacking schools and educators, we might be able to start to repair a broken society and education achievement would follow along.

None of this is meant to say that schools themselves cannot get better or should not be aspiring to do better everyday. Schools and teachers can always do better. I have been teaching for 50 years and have not taught the perfect lesson yet. We can and must always work to do better. It would be easier to implement improvements, however, if non-educators would stop trying to tell us what to do and leave the school improvement to professionals.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Following the Child: What Does that Look Like?

Last week my post, Follow the Child, Not the Program,  discussed the importance of taking our cues from the children we are teaching and not sticking slavishly to a program. This week I got an object lesson in just exactly what this means from my 14-month-old grandson, David. I had the opportunity to babysit David while his mom and dad were working and, it being one of the first really nice days of the spring in these parts, I decided to take him to the playground.  So off we went, car seat, diaper bag, snacks, and water bottles in tow on our little adventure.

Being a life-long teacher and not one to leave things to chance, of course, I had a lesson plan. I had been to this playground before with David's big sister, Schuyler, and I knew that it had a small sliding board that I thought would be just right for David. My plan called for me to introduce David to the sliding board, show him how to safely climb up on it, there were only three small steps, show him how to sit at the top and then guide his practice by helping him down and catching him safely at the bottom. Assessment would be based on the squeals of delight he would surely emit at this great pleasure his grandfather had introduced him to.

My plan broke down when David would have none of it. He did not like sitting at the top of the slide and shook his head, "No!" when I eagerly encouraged him to slide down. No amount of encouragement, cajoling, or insistence would sway him. David rose from his seat at the top of the slide, walked down the steps, indicated something he found interesting he saw off in the distance and toddled off away from me.

I was left to literally "follow the child" off into the field. What had attracted David was a clump of dandelions growing, bright and yellow, in the warm May sunshine, about twenty yards beyond the wood chip pit of the playground equipment. David sat down in the middle of this floral display, pointed to the flowers and said something that sounded like, "See this?" Well, I did see this and our sliding board lesson morphed into a science lesson on the color, shape, smell, construction, taste, and life cycle of the dandelion.

As I sat with David, we talked of yellow flowers and green stems, He tasted the flower, determining he did not care for the taste. I showed David a cottony dandelion gone to seed and how a puff of air made the seeds fly off in all directions. David thought this was terrific and I heard the squeals of delight as he blew on one puff ball and scattered the seeds willy-nilly.

In the end, David had a pleasurable learning experience with dandelions and his grandfather learned again that following the child leads to the most meaningful instruction.

But the classroom teacher can't just follow every child across the dandelion field. Lessons need to be planned and kids need literacy instruction. What does following the child look like in literacy instruction?

Following the child in reading instruction means assessing where the child is in the literacy learning process and then providing the instruction, guidance, prompting, questioning or resources needed by the learner.

So when I worked with struggling first-grade reader, Ryan, who informal assessments had shown me could identify no letters and only knew how to write his own name, and the words mom and dad, I did not start by introducing a letter of the day. I started with the letters r, m, and d in words he already knew how to write and which had special significance for him. Soon we added "t" for his brother Tommy, and then used the first letters of names of his classmates to teach other letters.

One place to follow the child is when we listen to children read. While reading children tell us what they know and don't know about words. As we follow their reading, we learn where to help and where to let them do the work. When readers get stuck we can use prompts to help them use the information available to decode a word. In Reading Recovery we called this "prompting at the point of difficulty" and it is a powerful way to help readers grow more proficient in their decoding. I discussed prompting in this post earlier this year.

One time I had a lesson planned for a guided reading group on a nonfiction book about the Statue of Liberty. Since the school where I was teaching was about 10 miles from Liberty Island, the home of the statue, I assumed the kids had a good deal of background information about the statue. I planned a quick introduction, but as I was presenting this brief introduction, it become apparent that the children did not know what I was talking about. I thought my lesson would founder if the students had so little prior knowledge, so I stopped the lesson and found a brief video online that filled in many of the knowledge gaps I thought the kids would need to read the text successfully.

Sometimes following the child means finding the right resource for them. When I was teaching seventh-grade, I had a reluctant reader named PJ. PJ was all freckles, red-hair, and smiles, until it came time to read, when the smile turned to a scowl and his freckled arms were crossed on his chest in defiance. I spoke to PJ about this. "I really don't like to read," he said.

From my assessments, I knew that PJ read on about a fifth-grade level. I asked, "What do you like?"

"My dog."

"Tell me about your dog."

PJ launched into an enthusiastic exposition of all the great things about his dog, about the fun they had together, about how he had to walk him when he got home form school and how he was responsible for cleaning up after him and feeding him and giving him fresh water every morning.

I walked PJ back to our classroom library. I pulled a copy of Sinbad and Me, by Kin Platt, off the shelf, showed PJ the cover with a boy and his English bulldog, Sinbad. I told PJ a little about the story. Steve and Sinbad were best pals and Sinbad helped Steve solve a mystery, while they got into all sorts of mischief themselves. I said, "Why don't you try it? Let me know what you think?" A week or so later PJ came to me, held up the book and asked, "Do you have anymore like this, Mr. Walsh?" It so happens I did.

Following the child can take many forms. What a teacher needs to do is keep her eyes and ears open. Ask questions. Give kids opportunities to talk. Watch them work. Listen to them read. If we get too tied up in our lesson plans and programmed learning, we may be missing the teachable moments children present to us every day.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Follow the Child, Not the Program

I got into a bit of a twitter spat recently with a well-known literacy expert who reacted strongly to one of my posts. After a bit of back and forth, this person wanted to know about my credentials to discuss the topic asking, "Have you ever taught elementary school children to read?"

I responded that I had taught reading for many years as a reading specialist in grades K-4. Then came this question, "What program did you use?" A question I hear repeatedly and that I never know how to answer. I never used a program. To be sure, my work was influenced by a great many researchers and theorists: Marie Clay, Ken Goodman, P. David Pearson, S.J. Samuels, Patricia Cunningham, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Frank Smith, Lucy Calkins, Louise Rosenblatt. My work was also shaped by my professors: Susan Mandel Glazer, M. Jerry Weiss, Dorothy Strickland, John Clifford, Morton Botel, Susan Lytle, Brian Sutton-Smith, Marilyn Cochrane-Smith.

But I never followed a "program"; I followed the child. I worked primarily with vulnerable readers and writers. Kids for whom programs often had not worked very well. Applying a different program seemed futile. I got all the information I needed by talking with the child, observing the child in literacy and non-literacy situations, conducting interviews with the child, collecting samples of the child's writing, and listening to the child read aloud.

My knowledge of literacy research, theory, and instruction allowed me to make instructional decisions for children and then to try different approaches to help these vulnerable readers. Was the child able to use all the sources of information available to decode a word? Could the child track words on the page? Was the child gathering meaning while reading? Did the child carry a summary of the story forward when turning the page? This information allowed me to construct a picture of the reader and design an instructional approach.

School district administrators are often too quick to jump on (and off) the program bandwagon. If scores are low, it must be the program. Let's try another one. If an individual child is struggling, let's try a different program. Plenty of program publishers are out there ready to take school district money. All these programs have two things in common, 1) a slick presentation designed to convince you (and parents) this is the answer to all literacy learning problems, and 2) they don't work.*

Don't get me wrong, many programs have helped many children come to reading. Children are such skilled language learners, that almost any reasonably well-organized program that offers a balance between decoding instruction, comprehension instruction, actual time for reading of real texts, and teacher read aloud is successful for most.

In the 1950s, I, along with most of my classmates, learned to read using the "look-say" method found in the Our Friends and Neighbors Series (Oh! Look! See Spot run!). Later most students came to reading successfully through a more structured phonics (sound it out) approach such as that in the DISTAR program in the 1960s and 70s. The 1980s and 90s saw the growth of the constructivist approach, which emphasized making meaning and the reading of real literature with decoding instruction as needed. Again most kids learned to read. In the late 1990s and into the present, under the pressure of No Child Left Behind and Reading First, the emphasis returned to a focus on direct instruction focused on phonics. Again most children learned to read well enough.

Throughout all of these movements, however, one thing has persisted. Some children, about 15-20%, have struggled to learn to read well. No program has really been able to break through that number, despite the claims of Orton-Gillingham, Wilson Reading, Fundations, and other programs. Why? There are many reasons why children might struggle: learning disabilities, language differences, the impact of poverty, poor instruction, etc. Because the causes are complex, the answers to how to help these kids are also complex. Programs can't respond to this complexity (especially when they lack a balanced approach), but teachers can. If we want to bring a higher percentage of kids to literacy, we need to invest in our teachers, not in programs.

What would that investment look like? Most new teachers graduate from college with a limited understanding of literacy because they simply do not get enough instruction in how it works and how to teach it. This lack of knowledge leaves the novice vulnerable to every program that comes down the pike that promises results. So, one answer is more literacy instruction for prospective teachers.

Even more important, though, is more embedded professional development for teachers in their own school buildings and in the classroom as they are teaching. Recent moves toward having literacy coaches work with teachers in the classroom hold promise. Unfortunately, these coaching sessions have often focused on getting teachers to implement a program with fidelity, rather than with helping teachers meet student needs through better understanding of literacy instruction overall.

In the book, Research Based Practices for Teaching Common Core Literacy, Hoffman and Pearson argue that to improve literacy instruction schools need to invest in their teachers and not in programs. They suggest the following strategies are associated with improving teacher ability to meet the needs of students.
  • Concrete, teacher specific, and extended training
  • Classroom assistance from local staff
  • Teacher observation of other teachers using similar instructional strategies
  • Regular meetings of teachers focused on literacy instructional practice
  • Teacher participation in decision making related to literacy instruction
  • Local development of instructional materials
  • Principals' participation in training
Programs don't teach children literacy; teachers do. Wise administrators invest in their teachers, not in programs. Wise teachers follow the child, because the informed observation of a child's reading behaviors will always tell knowledgeable teachers what instruction is needed.

*I know stating that these programs don't work will upset many, but don't take my word for it. The US Department of Education has been unable to identify any "remedial" program that successfully improves reading ability except for Reading Recovery, which is not a program, but an instructional approach that is the foundation of balanced literacy. The Orton-Gillingham approach has been around since the 1930s and yet we still have students who struggle and no independent research that shows that Orton-Gillingham and its related programs (Wilson, Stevenson) works to improve reading. It may help some improve decoding ability, which is not actual reading improvement. Some folks will say that if teachers would only apply their program with fidelity, it would work. This is just another way of saying the program doesn't work. If the program can't be applied successfully, in practice it doesn't work. 

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Curiosity May Have Killed the Cat, But It Makes the Learner

Why, oh why, oh why, oh why?
Why, oh why, oh why?
Because, because, because, because
Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
(from Why, Oh Why, by Woody Guthrie)

This Woody Guthrie children's classic satirizes the young child's endless curiosity and the adult's impatience with it. Turns out, though, that this curiosity in children may be their greatest ally in becoming a skilled life-long learner. A new study from the journal Pediatric Research demonstrates that curiosity may be the most important characteristic a learner brings to the table. More important than grit. More important than persistence. More important than self-control. The study itself is behind a very expensive paywall, but you can find a helpful summary in this article from Business Insider. 

Here are the three key takeaways from the article.
  1. A study of 6,200 kindergartners found that kids rated as most curious and willing to try new things by their parents performed better on math and reading assessments at school.
  2. The curious kids did well regardless of socioeconomic background, suggesting curiosity helps everyone learn.
  3. Even curious kids who weren't as persistent or attentive did well, suggesting curiosity may be a more important trait to foster in children than self-control.
Traditionally, schools, being institutions for mass learning, have not been very good incubators for curiosity. Curious kids can be impulsive. They ask lots of questions. They are not always good at raising their hand before blurting something out. Teachers, in the name of their own sanity, try to contain the impulsivity of these children with classroom norms like raising your hand, waiting your turn, sitting still, etc. "No excuses" charter schools have doubled down on the self-control aspects of schooling, with such strategies as SLANT (Sit-up, Listen, Ask and Answer Questions, Nod your head, Track the teacher), enforced through a military style discipline based on shaming the rule breaker.

Efforts to standardize curriculum, require high stakes testing, install test-based accountability for teachers, and cut back on funding for the arts all also contribute to the devaluing of curiosity as a desirable trait for the learner. All these current trends lead to a narrowed curriculum, prescriptive learning targets, teachers who are afforded less opportunity to model their own curiosity, and a paucity of programs for creative and intellectually curious minds.

Knowing the importance of curiosity for learning, we need to ask what can schools do to foster curiosity. Knowing that curiosity is more important to the learner than even grit, how can we change what we are doing to make sure there is a culture in the school that is conducive to curiosity? Here are a few suggestions.
  1. Model curiosity - A curious teacher can foster curious students. Teachers need to model their own fascination with the world. Sharing an interesting discovery at the beginning of class, interrupting a lesson to explore a question raised by a student, conceiving of a new question while teaching and then taking the time to explore it with the students, are just a few of the ways teachers can model their own curiosity.
  2. Allow time - Curiosity demands time. Students need to be given time to reflect on ideas and to pursue information as new ideas and new questions arise.
  3. Hook them in - Great writers know that they can engage a reader in a story by leading with a provocative hook. The author Lois Duncan started her novel about students killing their English teacher called, Killing Mr. Griffin, with this sentence: "It was a wild, windy southwestern spring when the idea of killing Mr. Griffin occurred to them." As teachers, we can use similarly provocative statements to kick start a lesson. "Many historians have speculated that FDR goaded the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor in order to marshal support for the US entering WWII." A recent example might come from Kanye West. "Kanye says that 400 years of slavery sounds like a choice. What could he mean? Could he be right? What events would prove him right or wrong?"
  4. Create conceptual conflict - Questions that startle student expectations by creating conceptual conflicts encourage curiosity. A teacher might ask "Did you know that the lightning flashes we see during a storm actually start from the ground and rise up into the clouds? How does that square with your experience?"
  5. Recognize that our goals may not be the student's goals - As a young teacher I read a book called, The Geranium on the Windowsill Just Died, but Teacher You Just Went Right On, by Albert Cullum. As the title suggests, we teachers often get so tied up in our lesson plans that we forget to honor the things that are happening in the classroom around us that impact the learning. Curiosity is fostered when we take the time to inventory our classroom and our students and cultivate a culture where "going off task" might be just the right thing at any given moment.
  6. Choice - Give students choices of topics they wish to explore, things they want to write about, books they want to read. Choice builds engagement and encourages exploration driven by curiosity.
  7. Foster a classroom atmosphere open to questioning - A classroom where kids feel comfortable asking questions, have time to formulate questions, have those questions valued and have class time devoted to trying to find answers to those questions fosters curiosity.
  8. Add art to the mix - Adding music, theater, dance, drawing to any learning experience can foster both creativity and curiosity. Why was the 1920s called the jazz age? What are some visual ways to express the theme of the story? What kind of challenges does Shakespeare present for the actor? What would that descriptive paragraph look like in a painting?
It is clear from looking at this list that fostering curiosity in students demands time, openness to suggestion, and willingness to go off the plotted course for a while. Curiosity dies in the classroom focused on compliant acceptance of rules. Curiosity dies at the hands of a standard curriculum directed at achievement on standardized assessments. Curiosity dies when there is no time for reflection. Curiosity dies when there is no time for the arts in the school. 

If curiosity is the single most important tool available to the learner, and research would indicate it is, it would seem to be critical for schools to find a way to nurture its development. 

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Why Teachers Must Respect Non-Standard English

The single greatest ally young children bring to learning to read is their oral language. Oral language provides the foundation for learning to decode, comprehend, and create written language.  I have written about developing oral language in the classroom here.

But what if the oral language you bring to school is not valued and respected by the teacher in the classroom? What if your language, the language you grew up with, the language you learned at your mother's knee, is considered inferior and is constantly corrected? Robbed of your oral language in the classroom, you might well withdraw into yourself, refusing to take learning risks or ask a question or answer a question for fear of being corrected.

This is the issue addressed in an important article in the April issue of The Atlantic, Julie Washington's Quest to Get Schools to Respect African American English. Washington brings new attention to some things we have known for a long time. While I hope you will read the article, I will try to summarize the key points here.
  1. African American English (AAE) is a dialect of English, rich with its own rules of grammar and pronunciation. 
  2. Children who use AAE are at a disadvantage in literacy learning.
  3. This disadvantage is exacerbated by the lack of respect AAE receives from many classroom teachers.
  4. Children who use AAE when they enter school are similar to second language learners and benefit from similar instructional strategies used for second language learners.
  5. Children who use AAE need to learn to "code switch." That is they must learn an academic language for school based learning, while maintaining the ability to use AAE in appropriate (family, friends, neighborhood) environments. 
The article does not say, but I will add, that the only reason that Standard English is considered standard is because of money and power, not because it is inherently superior to other dialects. Those in power make the rules. This, I think, is important to understand if we are going to teach AAE speakers with the kind of respect their language deserves. That AAE is a dialect of English, with its own grammar, structure and rules has been well established since the work of the linguist William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania in his Language in the Inner City in 1972.

Of course, in order to move into the corridors of higher education, power, wealth, and influence AAE speakers must learn facility with Standard English, but this facility can be developed without destroying AAE. Indeed, we are more likely to be successful in helping all children achieve literacy, if we embrace the language they come to school with as the ally it is.

Right now, I am sure some of you are having flashbacks to the Ebonics era of the 1990's, when everything I have said above was recognized and some schools, particularly in Oakland, California, adopted programs that used AAE as a tool for instruction. Whatever you think of that movement, we now know that these folks were on to something. (In fact, we always knew it, but the implementation became the target of jokes on late night comedy shows, the sure death knell for any program.)

While we might want to stop short of Ebonics readers, there is nothing stopping us from treating AAE with respect in our classroom. What would that respect look like? First and foremost it would mean acceptance. Children do not need correction that shows a lack of respect for their oral language; they need to have their responses valued and standard structures modeled. 

The article tells the story of the author, Julie Washington, observing a retelling of P. D. Eastman's, Are You My Mother? by a 4-year-old in a pre-school class near Detroit. You will remember that the story has a structure like this.

                      "Are You My Mother?" asked the baby bird.
                      "How could I be your mother?" said the cow. "I am a cow."

The child recounted the story this way.  
                      Is you my mama?
                     I ain't none of your mama!

What is important here is not the non-standard dialect being used, but that the child clearly understood the story and was able to retell it. In fact, as Washington noted in the article, a close examination of the response shows that the child was able to understand a story read in standard dialect and then translate it into her own dialect and recreate the story orally in AAE. If anything this demands a higher level of linguistic functioning than a reader who already navigates the world in standard dialect. This is the cognitive load that all speakers of AAE carry in literacy learning, Washington suggests, and I would agree, this cognitive challenge is a contributing factor in the achievement gap. 

This story also demonstrates an important understanding for teachers. We do not need to speak in AAE to show respect for AAE; we just need to allow it and honor it as the child's language and help them negotiate the pitfalls that are sure to come. As an example, if a child who is an AAE speaker reads aloud the word "told" as "tol'", there is no need to correct the child, who has obviously both decoded and comprehended what word was needed. On the other hand, if "told" is a part of a spelling lesson, we can model the standard pronunciation, help the child sound out all the letters and see the "d" at the end as a way to help the child move toward standard usage. 

By the same token, if a child uses a construction like, "He be running in the hall.", we need to model the correct usage without pejorative judgment about correctness saying, "Oh, yes, he is always running in the hall." Note that the meaning of "He be running down the hall" as Labov has noted, is not a grammatically incorrect usage of the to be verb, but an entirely different grammatical construct meaning that "running in the hall" is something "he" always does.

Most children will learn to code switch, that is, toggle between AAE and Standard English naturally as a part of being in a classroom and hearing, reading, and writing in the standard dialect. Some will not. For those who do not, specific code switching instruction, along the lines of ESL instruction is necessary. These strategies include the introduction of new concepts and vocabulary by building on student background knowledge, guided oral interaction, explicit instruction in standard structures, contextualized instruction which takes something from students everyday lives and builds knowledge of standard dialect, and modeling that includes lots of use of visual aids, graphic organizers, and visuals.

We need to think of AAE as what it really is - an ally for us in bringing a child to literacy. Not something to be eradicated, but something of value to be used as a scaffold on which to build the ability to navigate Standard English. 

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Expanding "No Excuses" Models is a Bad Idea

An organization called The Future of Children came out recently with a report titled Charter Schools and the Achievement Gap by Sarah Cohodes, an assistant professor of education and public policy at Teachers College, Columbia University. The Future of Children is a collaboration of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and the Brookings Institution whose mission is "to translate the best social science research about children and youth into information that is useful to policymakers, practitioners, grant-makers, advocates, the media, and students of public policy."

Here is the key takeaway from the report: While charter schools as a whole have been shown to perform at about the same level as traditional public schools, some charter schools serving urban, low-income and minority students and employing a no excuses philosophy tend to produce the largest gains. We should, therefore, scale up the no excuses model into traditional public schools to narrow the achievement gap.

The National Education Policy Center has done a terrific analysis of this report and goes into detail into the report's failings. Chief among the weaknesses of the report is a failure to fully examine what "no excuses" schooling really means and just how advisable recommending a no excuses approach is.

I encourage all to read both reports, but in this post I want to address just how antithetical to a real education the no excuses approach is.

For the uninitiated, "no excuses" is a model employed by many charter schools, including those that get the most publicity like KIPP and Success Academy. It includes several facets including high expectations in academics and behavior, longer learning days and school years, extensive tutoring, frequent teacher observation and feedback and data-driven instruction using frequent assessments to inform teachers.

The no excuses approach is controversial primarily because of its harsh, military, style approach to discipline. I have experienced this personally in "no excuses" charter schools. Children are expected to sit up straight, maintain eye contact with the teacher, remain quiet in the hallways, walk to class and lunch single-file and comply unquestioningly to teacher directives. All this doesn't sound so bad, after all an orderly environment is necessary for learning to take place.

But when students do not comply with these rigidly enforced rules, discipline is harsh and focused on shaming. Students may be placed "on the bench", a designation that may require them to wear a garish colored shirt so that all know they have broken the rules, to be isolated from classmates in the classroom and at lunch and to write a letter of apology to the teacher and fellow students that must be read in front of the class.

The sight of privileged, mostly white, teachers and administrators meting out this punishment to mostly brown students is squirm inducing. And the shaming does not stop there. Data Walls in the hallways of many of these schools display student test scores for all to see. I have written about my observations of this discipline based on shame here and here.

I question whether a few points of improvement on a standardized test is worth this kind of treatment. Should we be attempting to narrow the achievement gap by widening the disciplinary gap? These harsh discipline policies often lead to high rates of suspension. Is this really the message we want to send to children and what impact does this kind of treatment have on the kinds of non-cognitive skills that are necessary for success, such things as self-efficacy, persistence, curiosity, assertion, cooperation, and empathy.

There may be some things we can all learn from the charter school innovations. Intensive tutoring, extended school days, effective use of data (actual actionable data, not standardized test scores) all seem to be good ideas for students at academic risk. But the harsh disciplinary practices should be unacceptable to teachers and parents alike. Indeed, the indications are that the "teachers" hired by these charters find these practices oppressive. Research indicates this is one impotant reason for high teacher turnover in these schools.

Slavery was an effective means for getting cotton harvested. That didn't make it right or desirable. Is raising a few kids test scores worth importing the plantation mentality to the classroom?

  proactive  skills  can  be  in  direct  tension  with  disci-
plinary methods found i no-excuses schools

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Building Vocabulary: Words in Context

When a mature reader encounters an unfamiliar word while reading, the first move is likely to be to try to determine the meaning of the word from the context. Because they are trying to communicate with the reader, author's typically leave clues to the meanings of the words they are using in the text (not intentionally, but as a natural part of the communication process). Perhaps because this strategy seems so natural to us as readers, we sometimes assume that students will use the strategy effectively, too. So when a child encounters a word she doesn't know in a text, our advice is often, "Skip it, read on, and see if you can figure it out from the context."

This is good advice, but not good instruction. As maturing, not yet mature readers, students need help in efficiently using the skip-and-read-on strategy. Authors leave clues in a variety of ways in texts. Knowledge about what kinds of clues authors leave and how to identify those clues can help students determine the meaning of unknown words in context. This is a critical skill, since it allows the reader to continue on in the reading without interruptions to look up words, so comprehension is enhanced. It is also critical because it means that readers are building their vocabulary through the act of reading.

The chart below shows six ways that authors leave clues in text. Readers need to be able to identify these clues in their reading. The chart is arranged from the most concrete (definition) to the most abstract (mood or tone) clues.

Instruction in the use of these strategies follows the same gradual release of responsibility model that I have discussed in previous posts. Here is how I would use this model for context clues. What the teacher might say to the students is in italics.
  • Introduce the strategy to the students and tell them why it is important and useful for them as readers. As we have discussed, good readers use the context of what they are reading to help them figure out the meaning of new words. This is important because it allows us to continue reading without interruption and because it helps us build our store of words while we are reading. Today we will continue our study of vocabulary in context, by looking at one type of clue that authors provide for us while reading: contrast
  • Model the strategy through a read aloud/think aloud demonstration. Let's say that we come across this sentence in our reading:  "Unlike her older brother Jerome, who stayed out all hours of the night, Kate obediently followed the curfew her parents set." In this sentence I am unsure of the meaning of the word obediently, to try and figure out the meaning I read the full sentence again including the words that come after the word I do not know. In this sentence, the context tells me that Kate is unlike her brother. I also know that Kate's brother stayed out all night and broke the curfew. So if Kate is not like her brother, is a contrast to her brother, she must be a person who follows the rules. So obediently must mean something like following the rules. Let me reread the sentence and see if that makes sense. If it does make sense I can read on. This modeling can take place over several examples.
  • Work collaboratively with students in using the strategy. Now that I have shown you several examples, let's look at this next sentence and see if we can work together to figure out its meaning using the contrast clue...
  • Give the students opportunities for guided practice of the strategy with partners or in small groups, while you monitor their use of the strategy. Let's now get into groups of three and I want you to work together on the next three sentences to use the contrast clues in these sentences to determine the meaning of the word...While the students work, the teacher moves around listening in, redirecting and coaching use of the strategy.
  • Give students the opportunity to practice the strategy independently. Now it is time  for independent reading. As you read today, see if you encounter any words that you do not know and see if the author has left a contrast clue to help you determine the meaning of the word. Checking in with students as they read, the teacher can monitor the use of context clue strategies.
This process can be used for each of the types of clues and eventually, the students can practice identifying the clues that they used and the meanings of the words they encounter in the text. Pearson and Gallagher, who developed the gradual release model, warn that teachers should not rush through the collaborative and guided stages of this lesson - this coaching art of the lesson has been shown to be critical for student success.

The use of context clues to determine word meaning is a critical skill in reading that not all students adopt automatically. The strategy can be taught, however, and arming students with the knowledge that clues to meaning are available and helping them identify what those clues are, not only aids reading comprehension, but also helps students build their vocabulary while they are reading independently.