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For the Love of Literacy

July 21, 2010

My brain hurts.  It is overloaded, but my heart?  My heart is full.  I have been marinated in best practice.  Drizzled with reverence for autonomy.  Braised in validation for my philosophy.  Last week was good.  It brought me back to where I need to be, I had strayed quite far.  Every day last week, I was challenged…kind of like a game of dare…to be the teacher that students need.  Not a technician, who reads from a script, but a teacher who looks at each child and figures out where they need to go next…where they are headed.

This year was the institute’s 20 year anniversary.  I began attending in 1993.  I did take quite a few years off when my kids were little, and then began going again to get my license back up to date.  This year, all of the keynote speakers touched upon the importance of Wonder in childrens’ learning.  Their questions lead them to where they learn the best in any given situation.  It also touched upon Play.  Playing with words.  Playing with learning.  It is really at the heart of everything isn’t it?  When you look at learning through the lens of Wonder and Play for learning, what comes back to me is following the child (or learner).  Beginning with that human being.  Knowing that person, listening to that person, sitting next to that person and taking baby steps with that person to deepen their understanding, to nudge that person further, to challenge that person to go where they haven’t been before.  I am also reminded of that fantastic TED talk that I posted back in May.  Viva La Revolution!

One of the most powerful points that kept circling around was in regards to standards.  I have no references to share, other than Stephanie Harvey telling the audience that all of what she was saying had been documented with numerous studies.  But what she was reporting wasn’t that surprising, except that it really shocked me.  She reported that the NAPE tests (that are given to students at certain grades across the country to get a sense of how the American students are doing nationally) have been “flat” or “depressed” (depending on the region) since the No Child Left Behind law has been in effect.  The NAPE is not given to every child across the country.  It is a sample that documents trends.  It has been given for a long time, before NCLB was a law.  So, for the past ten years, we have not seen an increase in achievement at all.  (Unlike the trends during the 1990’s where there was an increase in achievement.)  To me, this was no surprise.  Teachers have stopped teaching in order to test.  What shocked me was that when you look at state tests across the country, every state has increased achievement a lot.  Like from 30% passing the reading test to 86% passing.  So, how can the NAPE scores stay flat?  She gave this story as an illustration:  There were a group of migrant workers who worked in California whose employer moved across the border into Nevada.  Since taxes and benefits were better in Nevada anyway, they all moved across the border too.  California made the decision to track this small group’s achievement, so they pulled the test scores for these kids.  They were all passing the California state test.  Once they took the Nevada state test they compared the data.   NOT ONE of these students PASSED the test.  NOT ONE.  Why?  Because it was a different test.  Teachers have stopped teaching reading or math, for example, to teach test taking strategies so their students can do well on their own state’s standardized tests.  This shocked me.  I don’t even know how to stop teaching big concepts, but somehow teachers must have been required to do it a different way, and now we have students who cannot transfer information.  So, can they really read?  In more than one break out session I heard teachers say things like, “This is the way I used to teach before No Child Left Behind came around.”  I haven’t been teaching under this law.  I have been home with my kids.  Thank God.  Every one of our Keynote speakers gave tips on covering your ass in terms of standards, but closing your door to teach.  Wow.

I guess my own children are lucky.  They have a home where they read and write and paint and play.  Where people listen to their (sometimes ridiculously long) stories and try to answer their numerous (never-ending) questions.  Where they are allowed to be bored, so they can figure out how to entertain themselves.  My worry is about all of those kids that don’t have a home like ours.  Where kids don’t have books, or pencils, or paper.  What is going to happen to them?

This was NOT the main focus of the week, it was just an underlying current that presenters kept circling around.  The main focus was Wonder, and Play, and following the child in order to teach instead of reading a script.  To plan lessons based on student need instead of looking in a teacher’s manual to see what is supposed to be taught during Week Three, Wednesday Morning.  It was good for me, because I had been reading my Damn Textbook, and resigned myself to that for my curriculum.  I was willing to disregard all of the ideas that were exciting to me, in order to take the safe way through the semester.  Just teaching the Damn Textbook.  Now, I have numerous strategies to build interaction and higher level thinking skills into my curriculum.  It gave me permission to plan some engaging projects and expect conversation and written responses.  These were always in my head, but I was loosening my grasp.  This made me grip them all the tighter so they wouldn’t slip away.

My meeting with a fellow professor on Thursday fell through, and I am in the middle of setting up some others, I will let you know what happens when they happen.  I am starting to panic a bit about beginning this new job thing, so I am doing my best not to hyperventilate.  I just need to keep going, one step at a time.  Everything will come together, right?  I am just so glad I went to the Literacy Institute last week.  It was exactly what I needed.

  1. July 21, 2010 2:14 pm

    Thank goodness for teachers like you. If you haven’t read Outliers yet by Malcolm Gladwell, there is a VERY interesting chapter near the end of it about teaching methods and the issue of vacation. NCLB sounds really scary to me, I hope whoever makes decisions high up figures out how to turn things around for the better soon.

    • July 26, 2010 8:45 am

      I haven’t read Outliers. I will have to check it out, because I have nothing at all to read right now. (That sentence should be read with dripping sarcasm.) I love Gladwell, so I will add this one to my always growing list. I have had Watership Down, here, in my house all summer. Looking at me sidways, hoping to be picked up. All I want to do is pick it up and read it. *sigh* Too many things I HAVE to read first. I am so glad that I allowed myself a little vacation to read Laini’s books this summer!

  2. July 22, 2010 10:23 pm

    So glad you had such a good week. W-O-W is all I can say. I’ve assumed that kids are learning how to take tests these days, but I would have never imagined how detrimental it has become to their education.Very sad… That whole concept of “achievement”–and determining achievement through testing–has totally taken on a life of its own. Definitely a “feed the beast” situation. Your students are lucky! :)

    • July 26, 2010 8:47 am

      Hopefully, people will wake up soon. Although the people making all the big decisions are not really teachers. It is really sad, isn’t it?

  3. August 4, 2010 9:35 am

    I have a lot of college friends who went into teaching, and my mother-in-law is an elementary school teacher as well, and I have heard too many times to count that teaching the kids to take tests is a regrettably higher priority than teaching the kids. Back in the States, I worked with COLLEGE students who had zero reading comprehension; they had simply learned enough to pass tests… usually by guesswork. I love what you said about your kids having a home where their creativity and natural desire to learn can be nurtured. I know that’s not always the case, but it’s an incredible gift you’re giving them.

    • August 5, 2010 1:45 pm

      I guess that I will be working with the same population of college students that you worked with. My students have failed their placement exam in reading. The reason I got this job so easily is that they are having a hard time keeping up with the need. So many students are failing the placement exam, that they need more and more remedial teachers to bridge the gap. I guess we now know why…

      I know that the pendulum swings back and forth in education, I hope it is beginning to backtrack as we speak.


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