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Friday, August 30, 2013

On your mark......get

            This summer I was in the midst of folding beach towels, cleaning up after children, and contemplating dinner plans when a news story that had been playing in the background caught my attention.  Chicago Bears player Martellus Bennett was discussing the fact that his teammates were shocked with the sheer volume of reading that he is able to accomplish in short periods of time.  His secret?  He revealed to reporters that he only reads the left side of the page and infers the rest.   Although I am by no means judging Bennett who feels that this strategy works well for him,  the story left me wondering how many of our students these days also perceive reading to be a race.
            As a nation, we are a people obsessed with immediate gratification.  We want things when we want them, and when we want them is now.   One needs only to examine the time-saving methods that pervade our culture.  The microwave oven.  Fast food restaurants and coffee drive-thrus that can morph into places of revolt when food isn't doled out the second we order it.   TIVO and DVRs that make it possible for us to fast forward commercials and the "boring parts," finishing our favorite programs at record speed.  And don't forget text messaging which has replaced email which has replaced snail mail as a means of communicating with people instantly.
           Although I will be the first to admit that these shortcuts have made life more convenient at times,  I think that we need to be careful not to instill in our children the idea that things done more quickly are automatically done better.  As educators and parents, we need to ensure that this societal fascination with speed should not ever replace good solid reading practices.  We need to remind students that it is okay, and even essential, to sometimes take it slowly.   As a reading teacher, I often remind students that how quickly I am reading will vary depending on what I read.  If I am reading a book for pleasure written on a topic with which I am very comfortable and possess a lot of background knowledge, I may read at a quicker rate than if I were to tackle an article in my science class that contains a lot of scientific vocabulary and jargon with which I am unfamiliar.  I will want to alter my reading rate to suit the text.  When the grand prize is comprehension, reading should never be a race.  These conversations are essential in classrooms.
          If we examine the work of Cris Tovani, who spends her career helping educators to teach students to actively engage in text, we realize that actively reading actually requires us to slow it down.  According to Tovani, good readers not only self-reflect on their comprehension while reading, but they also ask themselves questions, use "fix-up" strategies, and synthesize new information (Tovani, 2000).  All of these strategies, if applied during the reading of the text will ultimately lead students to understand the text on a deeper level.  Will doing these things take longer than simply reading the words?  Absolutely.  And they should.
        Of course, to students, it sometimes seems like we are sending mixed messages.   After all, they have all had the experience of taking timed tests at some point in their educational careers.   Additionally, one of the tests most schools are using today to help identify students who struggle with reading is by obtaining a "words-per-minute" rate.  In other words, students read aloud for a minute, and educators calculate the number of words they are able to read correctly.  The philosophy behind this assessment seems to make sense:  students who cannot read words fluently and struggle with decoding (sounding out of words) will have a lower rate than those who have achieved automaticity (an ability to be able to read so that the reading sounds fluid and conversation-like). 
          We as educators, however, have a responsibility to our students to explain that reading rate is only one part of reading fluency (hence why this test is not the sole measure used to identify students who may require additional literacy support).  In order to read fluently, a student must also be able to use appropriate expression,  adhere to proper phrasing (following punctuation marks), and read without skipping, omitting, or substituting words.   As teachers of reading, we know this.  We just need to make sure we are communicating this to students and modeling good reading for them as often as possible.  At least once a year, while I am obtaining a reading rate on students, I always encounter at least one student who sits down next to me and begins to read so quickly that he has practically reached the last line in the passage before my eyes have even had a chance to process the first word.  His face has turned red from lack of oxygen and the words stream out like a barrage of gunfire.  At this point, I usually stop the student, allow him to catch his breath, and remind him that reading is not a race.  A look of relief will usually wash over his face and his next reading will sound much more conversational and animated.  And I guarantee you:  if I were to ask the student questions about what he has read, he would undoubtedly be more likely to answer questions regarding the second passage  than the first.
             So when you or your children are feeling run-down and down-right exhausted from the everyday stress of our fast-paced society, I encourage you to take solace in the fact that reading will continue to remain that peaceful pastime and should never feel like a mad dash for the finish line.  Unless, of course, you just can't wait to see what happens next!
Works Cited
Tovani, C. (2000). I read it, but i don't get it.. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.

Friday, August 9, 2013

It Happened One Day At the Library....Cover Your Ears Richard Allington!

          While at an out-of-state library summer, I happened to overhear a conversation between a woman and a librarian.  The woman, having entered the library at the same time as I had with his tween-aged son, immediately headed to the help desk while I noticed the son disperse in the direction of the video games.   Dangling a yellow paper in front of the librarian as if it were a germ-infested Kleenex, the woman announced, "So my son's school is making him read a summer reading book.  Since the summer is pretty much over, I thought we'd come get the book."   The librarian briefly examined the paper and explained that the boy could read any book from the list of award-winning titles.  With that, she and the mother headed to section of the library that housed the books for tweens, selected the book, and checked out.  While scanning the book, the woman admitted something absolutely appalling to the librarian.  If you are a huge Richard Allington fan, I suggest you cover your ears now, as this will be worse than nails on a chalkboard.  Don't say I didn't warn you.  Picture it in slow motion.  My jaw dropping.  The words sounding warped and dangerous:   "I'll have to read the whole thing out loud to him.   He won't understand any of it otherwise."   The librarian smiled a knowing smile, and the woman walked away, book under her arm.  During the entire process, the young man remained in the video game section, shuffling his feet from side to side, looking bored.  When the pair departed a few minutes later,  the boy had no idea what book had been selected for him as he had not been even remotely involved in any part of the process. 
           This situation upset me for several reasons.  To begin, it was pretty evident that the mother was only taking her son to the library because the school was "making" him read something this summer, and time was dwindling.  The literacy geek in me wanted to follow her out in the parking lot, shouting out all of the statistics about the summer slide and what happens to kids' vocabulary and comprehension skills when they don't exercise their minds for three months.   Of course,  not knowing the history of this family, I could have been dead wrong.   For all I knew, the boy could have been a voracious reader who was just having an off day.  But my gut really said otherwise.  My non-reader radar was going all sorts of crazy, and I have yet to meet an avid reader who can actually enter a library and not, at the very least, run their hands along the pages of even one book.
         What bugged me even more about this situation, however, was the fact that two grown adults never even thought to ask the boy what he might enjoy reading.  The librarian could have given this young man a quick tour of some of the great books on the list, pointing out the exciting parts and sharing quick tidbits that might make the summer reading assignment a bit more exciting and a little less torturous.   This got me thinking about all the potential opportunities  we will have this fall in our classrooms to motivate a non-reader.  Maybe it will be when we take our students to the learning center for a formal book chat of the latest and greatest things in YA literature and nonfiction.  Maybe it will be the quick two minutes we spend sharing something we ourselves have just read that is really great.  Maybe it will be setting up a blog on edmodo or using goodreads as a tool where students can talk about the books they are reading with their peers.  Or maybe--and this is a really huge maybe-- it will happen when we give students the freedom of choice over what they can read.  I don't know about you, but any time I am required to read a book, even if it is the best book I've read in eons, I end up enjoying the reading experience a little less than if I had self-selected the book from a sea of other amazing possibilities of my own free will.  The power of choice in classrooms is huge.  I am a firm believer in it and truly think that if we let go and give up more of the freedom to our students, motivation will increase and behavioral issues will dissipate.  Which, of course,  translates to more learning.
        And finally, I cannot end this little tirade without addressing the mind-numbing comment made by the woman in the library:  "I'll have to read the whole thing out loud to him.  He won't understand any of it otherwise."  The one book that this young man was going to read this summer now will no longer be read by him.  It will be read to him.  In its entirety.   Now, I am a huge advocate of the read-aloud.  I think that if used correctly, read-alouds serve a very important role in a balanced-litearcy classroom.  But to read a book from cover to cover to an older reader?  As I mentioned earlier, this is the stuff that, rightfully so, makes Allington nuts.  Students, especially those who struggle, need to be able to spend time with text on their own, feeling their way through it,  self-monitoring along the way.  If we constantly do it all for them, are we helping or enabling them?  A dozen or so terrible cliches are floating through my brain right now, but I will spare you.  I do commend this woman for caring enough to complete the assignment with her son.  Truth be told, the kids who are worse off will not even be making that single trip to the library this summer and have never been read to as toddlers, let alone as tweens.   But when we start working with our new groups of students this fall, I hope we all take time to remember this story and never, ever work harder than our students.