Category Archives: education

The Silver Bullet We Always Had

In the first two blog posts in this series, I made the case that literacy is much more than a science to be executed and that nothing short of an avalanche of books for students to select freely from is enough to develop strong readers.

In a profession that seems obsessed with finding the answer, it seems ironic that the mechanism for igniting and nurturing the art of literacy has been so often forgotten, downplayed or outright abandoned.  No teacher can possibly handle the crushing weight and range of instructional duties assigned and allocate enough time to curate, acquire and manage a collection of books diverse and extensive enough to serve the individual needs of the students he/she serves.  Fortunately, just such a professional educator is available to serve the needs of students – the school librarian.  Most school librarians are exceptionally well qualified to serve as a school’s lead in nurturing the art of literacy. Many hold a degree in library science that provides specific training in skills particularly relevant to developing readers, many of which go well beyond what teacher preparation programs provide.  They can be counted on to celebrate reading, to serve individual students’ developmental needs, to collaborate closely with classroom teachers and to provide both innovative and research-based recommendations for improving reading in their school.

But somehow, far too often, they are not the strongest voice in the conversation about how to build strong readers.  Many times, they are not included in the decision-making process of the school at all.  Some schools do not even have a librarian.  As the spaces in which they work have become known as “library-media centers”, they have been expected to be tech “gurus” – a role which most have embraced enthusiastically, even as it has forced them to spend less time on what should be their essential function.  In some cases, the library has become a space in which students are encouraged to learn and collaborate and innovate – with technology.  While technical and digital literacy are particularly essential to the success of everyone entering the workforce now and in the future, to allow this focus to come at the expense of reading is exceptionally dangerous.  Many librarians have also been tapped to support the task of reading instruction – often in the form of “small group instruction”.  Again, direct and even individualized instruction in reading is an important part of becoming a strong reading.  Structures that prioritize that objective at the expense of equally important work are evidence of the imbalance we have been discussing.

The evidence is clear that public education and decision-makers in the public arena are willing to allow libraries a long, slow death by ignoring them.  While there are doubtlessly examples of this around the country, I will limit my examples to those in the environment where I work.  In my state, librarians are funded at the state level like teachers – with a formula based on student enrollment.  If a school’s enrollment is too low, they do not earn a “full” librarian.  School districts in such situations must either assign librarians to serve multiple schools or find money to pay the missing portion of the salaries required to have a full-time librarian in each school.  Students most likely not to have a full-time librarian in their school are naturally those who are in school systems with the least available resources – children who are almost all part of poor families.  On the other end of the spectrum, very large schools do not receive funding for an additional librarian.  Even elementary schools with more than 1,500 students receive state funds for one librarian.

Funding for the library itself comes from the state as well.  Under the current formula funding structure (a per-teacher allocation), a school can purchase about 1.5 books for every teacher in the school per year if the entire amount is spent on books and not on the other supplies that are necessary to keep a library running.  This amount is certainly not enough to maintain that avalanche we talked about earlier.  But it is more than the $0 libraries were allocated for eight of the last ten years.

It seems impossible to excuse this abysmal lack of funding as a function of “budget pressures”. At the same time that we have spent literally nothing on libraries, we have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into other educational priorities.  Educators and leaders everywhere spoke up and spoke out on lots of issues – as well they should; the voices calling for attention to this most basic resource in schools – books – were few and completely ignored.

To avoid misunderstanding, massive credit goes to the hundreds of librarians who have been speaking out all along and who have found increasingly creative ways to keep their libraries healthy.  Hats off to the school principals and system leaders who have made reading their core mission and who have found and invested funds to make their libraries strong.  As a rule, their schools are strong as well – along with their students’ literacy skills.

For most of us though, we are here in this quandary that we may not have created but that we have definitely exacerbated by foolishly focusing on just half of the equation.  To be clear, it would have been equally foolish to abandon reading instruction and focus all our efforts on independent reading.  In today’s educational climate, that course of action seems inconceivable.  The way forward, however, should be simple.

Restore the balance.  Make both sides of literacy the focus.  Continue to apply excellent, evidence-based practice to reading instruction.  Take steps to build a culture of reading by making truly independent reading a part of the school’s DNA.  

Here are five suggestions for getting started:

  • Accept that literacy is not one dimensional.  Control the things that are meant to be controlled.  Stop trying to control (or quantify or “track” or just ignore) the things that aren’t.  Recognize that the lopsided approach we have been taking just. does. not. work! Let the joy and the passion and the magic of reading be your best friend. Crazy little secret – when kids love to read, they do. A lot.  When kids read a lot, they get better at reading.  When kids get better at reading, they can prove it on a test.     
  • Invite your school librarian to be the school’s “culture of reading” director.  Trust her/him to lead the process of figuring out what your school needs to do to become a community of passionate, strong readers. Folks trained in the science of literacy can help with this work too.  They should not be leading/doing this work instead of the librarian though.
  • Evaluate your school’s library collection.  Organizations such as the American Association of School Librarians offer resources and recommendations. The key questions are “Do we have enough books” and “Is our collection young enough”.  If you have thousands of books so old students will not read them, they aren’t helping. As we pointed out last time, this is especially important with non-fiction books.  Be ready to hear that your library needs help.  My children’s elementary school has valued and support their library for decades.  Seriously, someone raises money for it literally every day of the year … and that library’s (amazing) collection still does not meet the national standard of an “exemplary” collection.
  • Find money for your library.  It’s that simple.  Ask the generous members of your community.  Sell concessions at the ball game.  Write grants.  Make the case to your board.  We are doing all this and more.  By the way, it’s working for us.  But that’s a story for another day. Figure out how to make this a priority and make it happen. The good news is that “we need books” is one of the statements your community members are most likely to understand and accept.
  • Recommit your classroom, school, district to a focus on literacy that makes actual results the goal.  Keep in mind that test scores are symbols; our goal should be to improve the reality those symbols signify.  Young people who are actually strong readers will display behaviors and provide evidence of their excellence in ways that go far beyond what a test can measure.  That outcome is one to be excited about and work towards.

 

  • Bonus: Get the adults in your school/district involved in modeling a culture of reading.  Share with others what you are reading, host book talks, make specific recommendations to students, show what an adult who reads looks like.  Give students an example of someone who reads when s/he does not have to.  If you are not on fire for reading, why should they be?

In the first two posts in this series, I tried to make the case for change like this.  Next time, I will wrap up the series by pointing out a few more positive effects this change is likely to have.

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The Missing Avalanche

In the first post in this series, I set out to make the case that public education has fallen into the trap of believing that it is possible to develop great readers (from the struggling readers we often serve) by focusing on reading instruction.  Even when that focus actively crowds out the other half of literacy: independent reading.

While the drive to fix our problem (vis-a-vis low test scores) is understandable, the problem is that we know better.  We know how growing into a strong reader works.

We have known for a long time that

  • in order to become a proficient reader, you have to read a lot. Emerging readers need to read every day. It takes hundreds of books to become a great reader, not dozens.
  • since being different from each other is a key part of being human, readers are interested in different books (from each other). Readers only get better when they read books that aren’t too easy or too hard. As reading ability develops, a reader is able to read increasingly difficult books comfortably. In order to provide students enough options to interest and challenge them, we need a lot of books.  
  • the best way to get a human to read that many books is to let her/him choose her/his own books because humans (particularly emerging readers) will only read lots of books if they find them interesting.

The facts are simple.  We have to let students choose what they read and to do so they need both autonomy and options.

Unfortunately, in far too many cases, our zeal for ensuring student success has allowed us to violate these principles.  We try to quantify and control the art of reading. By degrees, we strip the independence from independent reading. We find ways to put a rank and value on each book. We dictate how much and how often students read. We make reading into a pursuit of points.  For many students, these practices conspire with the honest difficulty of school to make reading a chore to be first dreaded, then avoided, then abandoned at the first opportunity.  Incidentally, it is worth considering the possibility that our fervor to stamp out illiteracy among the young is contributing directly to the precipitous rise of aliteracy in adults.

The reduction of literacy to a science has had another direct impact on our practice in public education.  It has given rise to a climate in which books themselves have become dispensable to the process of developing strong readers.  In an astonishing leap of logic, we have been perfectly content to abandon one of the cardinal rules of this process: ensuring students have access to enough books.  We (most public schools) have stopped buying books at anything near an appropriate rate.  Kelly Gallagher, noted speaker, advocate for effective literacy practice and author of several books including Readicide (a book that examines how schools are systematically killing the love of reading), suggests that students need not hundreds of books to chose from but thousands. He says that only an avalanche of books will do.  But instead of fighting to ensure funding to sustain a school environment that has that many books available to students, we have decided to spend our precious resources elsewhere.  

The problem with diverting funding away from book purchases is that the age of a school’s collection of books matters.  Consider two more things we know:

  • It is important for emerging readers to read both fiction and nonfiction. The recent conventional wisdom is that well more than half of reading should be nonfiction.
  • Nonfiction ages faster than fiction. For example, Magic School Bus and Dr. Seuss books still appeal to young readers just fine. Books with topics like “When We Get to the Moon” and “Today’s Hottest NBA Stars: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird” were probably written later but no longer appeal to young readers.

The science of literacy has starved the art of literacy for resources. When students do not benefit from the emaciated book collections that exist as a result, that fact is taken as further proof that “recreational” reading is not essential to the process of developing as a reader but is a luxury in which those who are already proficient readers may indulge.

So the question is this: how is the balance in your school?

  • Do students get to pick their own books for independent reading?
  • If students are allowed to pick, do they have to follow certain rules (point/level restrictions)?
  • Is your reading system really about scoring points or about reading?
  • How many years in the last five has your school spent more money on books for independent reading than on either a reading program or a reading teacher?
  • What’s the average age of the books your students have access to?

Do your students have an avalanche of books available to them and it is used to nurture a passion for reading?  If we produce students who can read perfectly well but chose not to, we will have failed.  Sadly, the statistics on adult aliteracy suggest that we have already made this mistake.  Even more alarming is the fact that our strategy has done little to reduce the problem it was designed to solve.  We have sacrificed a deep passion for reading in favor of reading “achievement” and have not accomplished even that.

Let’s find the balance that has been missing by tapping into an amazing resource we have always had.

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Not Rocket Science

Let’s start by conceding that teachers are not among the most respected professions in American society. Perhaps they used to be. Perhaps they are in other cultures. They are not in ours. In case you are tempted to disagree, stop to consider the following: teacher award programs (and there are many) get light press coverage and are not broadcast live in primetime to massive television audiences. Movie and television awards shows are covered in that way. Speaking of, how many television shows do you watch about lawyers or detectives or singing or cooking or real estate improvement/sales? How many shows about teaching?  And how many of those few shows about school portray teachers as the admirable protagonists? Instead of pointing out more evidence let me trust that you already know that teachers are not respected throughout our society in the way that professions and the professionals in them that require similar training and skills are.

We say teaching “is not rocket science!” When we are frustrated that our kid’s teacher hasn’t responded to our request for a conference. Or when we hear that local teachers are asking for a raise. Or when the teacher across the hall does not make it to the team meeting. Or when (as administrators) we discover a mistake a teacher has made. For most teachers, this attitude comes at you from all around – from parents, from colleagues, from administrators.

Setting aside the rhetoric for a moment, that attitude is demoralizing. The attitude that says “quit messing around and get it right” and “if there’s a problem, it’s either because you aren’t good enough or aren’t trying hard enough”. The problem with treating an entire profession this way – from the outside and from the inside – is that that is the perfect way to destroy the profession. Highly talented, bright, passionate young people don’t have to become teachers. More and more of the great ones are deciding not to. Enrollment in the college of education in the town where I live is down 50% since 2010. What’s not rocket science is what will happen when all the teachers who have been teaching more than fifteen or twenty years retire. The capacity of us all to ignore or simply not care about this issue is astonishing. Education is not a luxury commodity. It is not, for example, collegiate or professional sports. But we venerate our athletes and care enough about what they have to say to debate whether or not they should say it. The voices of teachers generally do not matter at all.

The great irony is that teaching is, in fact, more cognitively and emotionally demanding and more complex work that rocket science or brain surgery.  I mean this literally.  Consider for a moment a partial list of what is expected of every teacher every day:

  • Create a written plan for teaching and learning for that day (subject to review and approval by administrators and others).
  • “Build relationships” with students: use their names (pronounced correctly), interact with them about things that matter to them, learn and keep in mind any factor that might impact how they learn – learning styles, cultural background, physical or cognitive disability, etc.
  • Conduct lessons that provide students multiple opportunities to apply what they learn, problem-solving, critical thinking, and collaboration. The lessons must also be engaging, hands-on, developmentally appropriate, and technology-rich.
  • Have a plan that is “differentiated”. Plan to teach a group of students whose readiness to learn the skill, concept, or content varies widely. “Individualizing” instruction to meet the very different learning needs of each student is the responsibility of the teacher.
  • Maintain a positive and safe learning environment. Take a room full of children, young adolescents or teenagers and set conditions wherein they ignore all the distractions that are part of being alive, focus on the learning activities, and interact only in productive and positive ways with each other. Keep all social and emotional burdens the students are carrying from interfering with learning.
  • Keep up on your recordkeeping. Record grades in a timely manner. Document progress on a huge range of data points for a variety of purposes. Provide students descriptive feedback on their work.
  • Attend one or more meeting. Faculty meetings. Team meetings. Data meetings. Committee meetings. Planning meetings. Professional development. Etc
  • Supervise students in a non-instructional setting. Lunch duty. Bus duty. Hall duty. Etc.
  • Communicate clearly and frequently with everybody: students, parents, administrators, colleagues, etc.

If you are not an educator, you probably think this list is exaggerated or does not represent a set of daily responsibilities that is particularly demanding. If you are an educator, you will doubtlessly point out that the list is missing more than it includes.

Here’s my whole point: we should all start acting like teaching is a profession that sets insanely unreasonable expectations. This is not even to argue that teaching should be less complex; merely to argue that our actions should demonstrate that we recognize and respect the complexity. To that end, I have a handful of recommendations.

Teachers
1. Treat your colleagues with the respect they deserve. The greenest, strugglingest teacher is great at some part of teaching. Approach each encounter with your peers as if they have something to teach you – because they do. That type of respect rubs off. Worse case scenario, you will create a culture inside your school in which every member of the team goes through the day knowing they are held in esteem by their peers.

2. Find ways to make your work visible.  When someone is upset with you, it is pointless to complain about your workload – that comes across as deflection or whining. Consider a more proactive approach such as using a class social media account to highlight the learning (and range of activity) that goes on in your class every day.

Parents
1. Take time to consider your interactions with teachers. You write them thank you notes. You give them gifts. But do you treat them with the honor you afford your child’s doctor? When your child gets a bad grade or into trouble at school what assumptions do you make – that you need to know how to help your child correct a mistake or that you need to find and fix the school’s mistake? Please don’t tolerate inappropriate behavior from educators; just give them the same benefit of the doubt you give other professionals you trust.

2. Watch how you talk about school. Life is messy. Life is frustrating. Your child is not perfect. Don’t let your frustration shade the way you talk about your child’s teachers. What we say influences what we think. What we think becomes what we believe. What we collectively believe about teachers matters.

Administrators
1. Act like teachers are the most important adults in your building. They are. Please, I beg you, stop treating teachers like minions and worker bees. This is a problem not merely because it is hurtful to them, it’s a problem because it doesn’t work. If you are getting indignant right now with thoughts like “I would never treat a teacher that way”, I am probably talking to you. Let me ask a few questions. Do you work for “buy-in” from teachers when you are implementing something new or do your school’s best ideas and plans come from teachers in response to problems you identified together? How often do you use the words “to fidelity”? Which list is longer, the teachers who have left your school in the last three years or the list of teachers waiting for a spot to open up so they can join your team? Yes, you are legally responsible for everything that goes on in the school. I’m clear on the respect I have for principals. But telling people what to do – even when it is disguised as “training” and “consensus building” and “creating consistency” – never works. It might get you a bump in standardized test scores for a couple of years but it does not create success that is sustainable. And it stifles the potential even of the teachers who support you most loyally.

2. Hold the complexity of the job in your mind when you interact with teachers. When you “support” a teacher (or reprimand or put her/him on an action plan), you are probably not wrong about the facts. They probably didn’t post their lesson plans or objectives. They probably did handle the student behavior issue awkwardly. But was your response in proportion to the complexity of the job? If teaching really is vastly complex, how is it productive to treat single issues (or even multiple issues) as grounds for a “get better quick” plan. Approaches like this imply that this issue at hand is so important that it outweighs all the strengths the teacher has. Saying “You are doing a lot of things well but … [action plan]” is the same as saying “Nothing matters except/as much as the thing you aren’t great at yet”.

We are all conspiring together to threaten the future of public education in the way we think about, talk about and treat teachers. But it does not have to be this way. You are only responsible for you. So be different. Begin (or renew your commitment) to treat teachers like they deserve more than platitudes. Treat them like they have earned your deepest respect and admiration. Your great-grandchildren deserve it.

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Why Middle School?

After spending the first twelve years of my professional career working at the high school level, I finally found my way home six years ago. It turns out I should have been a middle school teacher all along.  Allow me a Lorax moment here.

Thought experiment: when you read the words “middle school” in the last paragraph and the title, did your heart leap or lurch? Does thinking about middle school fill you with dread or dreams? If you are like most people, there is no middle ground (puns always intended): your reaction to anything to do with middle school is probably extreme. Without knowing who you are, I feel perfectly safe to bet that your reaction was laced through with negativity. That reaction is part of the body of evidence that public education must turn its attention to the middle level.  Allow me to make the case.

For decades, middle school (and middle schoolers) has been greatly misunderstood. As former young adolescents, we adults do not look back fondly on those years. We remember best the personal discomfort and awkwardness of that time. Our attitudes now are at best patronizingly sympathetic, at worst (and far more commonly) irritably impatient with the young humans struggling through this period of their life. Middle school is cast as a hopeless, mindless seething vat of uncontrollable bodies and emotions that can not be understood, merely contained and survived. The attitude of our society seems to be “keep them from killing each other in middle school and we’ll get them fixed in high school”. Too often, this misunderstanding results in nearly hostile attitudes, postures, and even policies towards middle schools and the students they serve. Students very easily read between the lines of the way they are treated in school as a result: you can’t think for yourself (condescension) but we will have to punish you for your mistakes (injustice).

Perhaps worse than being misunderstood and probably as a direct result of some of the factors listed above, middle school is often simply forgotten. School “reform” efforts are almost always focused on early education and/or college & career readiness. We pump resources into elementary schools for the former and high schools for the later; we work hard to understand the developmental nature of students at those ages and what works for education in those settings. And we ignore middle schools – when we are not fussing at them about their discipline rates, test scores, and attendance rates. In many states, including my own, the middle grades receive the lowest rates of funding for teachers. For every middle-grades specific program, initiative, and grant opportunity, there are twenty or more designated specifically for elementary or high school.

I propose three reasons to buck this trend and make middle school a significant priority.

  1. Evidence of the need is clear. Student performance on most standardized tests does drop sharply in the middle grades. Students do tend to face disciplinary action at a much higher rate than in elementary school and upper high school grades. Depending on how your district/state defines “middle school”, these are the last institutions to which education is compulsory throughout. Most high schoolers are legally permitted to quit in their second year. Research has determined that certain factors (such as being suspended from school) are predictive of future failure to complete high school when they occur as early as sixth grade. Where middle grades educational outcomes are weak, they are so specifically because the span has been neglected, misunderstood, and subjected to practices known to be most effective at different levels.
  2. Another reality research has demonstrated with absolute clarity is that young adolescence represents the greatest cognitive opportunity experienced at any age. Research in the last decade indicates the human brain develops more during adolescence than during any other time, surpassing the first year of life (as previously thought). This rate of change can be very frustrating for individuals not experiencing such change themselves. Great middle-level educators resist the temptation to confuse “forgets things easily” with “can’t think”.
  3.  Young adolescence provides the most promising blend of flexibility and capacity. Students’ brains are literally transformed during their time in middle school. Most middle schoolers begin to grapple with truly complex ideas – Who am I? What do I believe? How do others view and understand the world? Middle school provides an incredible opportunity for learning. Instead of railing against and trying to contain the variability and seeming chaos, we should embrace it. Call it flexibility, not ADD; call it resilience, not emotional instability; call it determination, not stubbornness.

As adults, we need to remember that we were young adolescents once too. We have been studying young adolescence for decades; to speak and act as if it were a mystery greater than so many others around us is deeply disrespectful to the amazing young women and men who are passing through this phase of their lives. We must make middle school a priority in public education. Doing so begins with a commitment to understanding young adolescence.

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