Thursday, September 18, 2014

My Jerry McGuire Moment On Independent Reading

            Over the weekend, I was flipping through channels and inadvertently stumbled upon the movie Jerry McGuire where Tom Cruise has his famous epiphany:  less clients, more personal attention (much to the dismay of his company who immediately hears this message as less clients, less money).  A few minutes into the movie,  I had what I considered to be my Jerry McGuire moment in education.  
          Rewind to last spring whenI was fortunate enough to attend a professional development day in a neighboring school district where Dr. Tim Shanahan was the lead speaker.  Not only was I able to hang on his every word all morning, but the icing on the cake occurred when I also got eat lunch with him and a group of my colleagues during the break.  In the off-chance that you are not the huge literacy geek I am,  let me contextualize this event for you:  dining with Tim Shanahan would be like a Chicago Bears fan having the opportunity to catch a touchdown pass thrown by Jay Cutler (or so I am told by my building principal as I admittedly know close to nothing about football).  Close to nirvana.
             Listening to Dr. Shanahan that day describe techniques to help students meet the demands of the Common Core Standards was more than inspiring.  In fact, his discussion of the ACT research and how text complexity and not an isolated skill deficit is what causes the vast majority of students to struggle on these assessments actually led to a full blown "Think Tank" style discussion that week back in my school building analyzing how we should instruct and assess students on the Common Core targets.  It was because of Shanahan's poignant explanation of how the Common Core was organized purposefully that ultimately led us to restructure our pacing guides and revise our rubrics to ensure that best instructional practices could be implemented in the classrooms each day.  Needless to say, spending the day with Shanahan was an amazing experience.
             Fast forward a few months, I found myself watching Jerry McGuire late that night, replaying the lunchtime conversation with Dr. Shanahan  in my head, and having my own personal Jerry McGuire epiphany.  I recalled having asked Dr. Shanahan to share his views on independent reading,  a concept I have always regarded with passion and enthusiasm.  His response was clear: devoting classroom time to silent reading is not supported by the research.  What about all the research that demonstrates that simply more time in text leads to gains in student reading? I had fired back at him.  Shanahan's response was simple.  The research that the experts use to support their claim that independent reading causes gains in comprehension really isn't substantiated.  The effect size is so small, he said, that it is hard to justify instructional time being spent pleasure reading when an expert is available to instruct students.
           Well, then that's that.  Right?   I felt defeated.  After all, in a world where education in America wholeheartedly embraces data analysis to drive all instructional decisions,  Shanahan had laid it on the line for me.  How could I possibly advocate for independent reading without solid data supporting my beliefs?  But, on the flip side, how could a part of literacy that I felt so passionately about be perceived by leading literacy gurus as a waste of instructional time?   But then I started thinking.....not all data is quantitative.
             In these first few weeks of the new school alone, I have collected my own qualitative data to prove that fostering a love of reading in students is beneficial.   I've witnessed more times than I can recall students anxiously flying into the learning center first thing in the morning, wide-eyed, hoping to grab the sequel of Divergent that they had stayed up all night reading the night before.  And when I think about the students whose  expressionless faces become instantly animated when I informally ask them about he copy of the The Fault In Our Stars they have sitting on their desks, I have collected data.  And how about the students who bring their books to the lunchroom and read through chaos because they just have to know what happens next?  Isn't it important for us to continue to feed this passion for students who have already found a love for reading before their crazy, fast-paced reality of rushing from activity to activity makes the act of reading for pleasure something these students "used to do when they had the time."
            But, for me, the most important data I've collected comes from  the students who claim to hate reading, the ones who struggle to make it to school each day and have never finished a book in years.  It is when these students, who would rather eat mealworms than be forced to read anything suddenly find themselves reprimanded for reading in other classes because they have finally found a book that has hooked them that I want to remind all educators of the role motivation plays in our schools each day.   Would these once reluctant readers have found this perfect book if it hadn't been for the time devoted to book talks, independent reading, and the knowledgeable guidance of their teachers and learning center staff?  One only needs to collect some data on the percentage of students who read nothing outside of their school day (a very disheartening number) to determine the answer to this one.  It is especially for these reluctant readers and their friends that I will continue to be a solid advocate for independent reading in schools.
When I think of these stories and how they might not exist without independent reading,  I have to stand up to the educational world of today and in  true Jerry McGuire Fashion declare:   Let kids read in school!   Not every success story can be measured quantitatively on a standardized test.  Luckily, as teachers, we already know that (even if we don't stand on couches to be heard).
            In all honesty, this blog was probably one of the most difficult for me to write and the one whose final product I feel least satisfied with because even now as I am about to publish it, I don't feel the words truly encapsulate the passion I feel for cultivating a love of reading in all students we teach.   It is also the first blog I have written, rightfully so, that is not flooded with statistics and research to support my arguments.  Although I am definitely a proponent of using data to drive decisions and advocate for using solid logos and ethos when crafting a strong argument, I am also an advocate for helping students grow as life-long readers and -- most importantly--as people.  Providing students time to choose and read books they wouldn't have found on their own, discuss this quality literature with their peers, and reflect on how the texts affect them personally is crucial.  With these activities we are ultimately helping readers uncover the mark they wish to leave on our world:  a worthwhile endeavor for all of us, no matter how old we are.  Steven Layne, in Igniting a Passion for Reading, argues that our educational system has ignored reading motivation and attitude for too long simply because these areas are less measurable and that "if we continue to ignore [motivation] and teach only skills, without the desire to use those skills, where is the benefit?" (13)

     And if this blog entry wasn't corny enough for you, I leave you with a video that I found on you tube that lays out all the amazing ways teachers touch students lives each day.

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