Be the change, being a teacher

Unintended Consequences

“But I don’t have to read, Mom, it’s Friday.”

Our daughter looks at us with fire in her eyes, refusing the graphic novel I am holding toward her.

“What do you mean, it’s Friday, what does this have to do with anything?  Of course, you are going to read, we always read.”

“Not on Friday’s…”

“Why not?”

“Because my teacher tells me I don’t have to do any homework…”

And so my daughter, the reader, refused to read when I asked.  Every weekend, every time.  All because in her mind, reading was homework and if her teacher said they did not have to do any homework, then they did not have to do any reading.  Have I ever shared that my daughter is as stubborn as me?

Now the funny thing is, I know that her teacher did not mean to not read.  She had, instead, declared to the students that she did not want to give them homework for the weekend.  A policy we loved.  Our daughter just took it a step further, and no reading over the weekend became an unintended consequence of an otherwise marvelous policy.

And so the thing is, I find myself wondering about unintended consequences and how often do they play out in our classrooms and we just don’t see them? Or worse, we refuse to see them wrecking real havoc under the surface.  We refuse to see how these little decisions we have made with the best of intentions, actually end up doing more harm than good and then hope that maybe our experiences are simply wrong and at some point, students will, surely, be fine?

Take reading logs for examples.  I used to have students do reading logs with parent signatures, because I thought that’s what you did for reading homework.  The reading logs gave me a quick way to see who read at home.  To see their practice, or so I thought.  I used them as a way to reward, to praise, to even separate those who did from those who did not.  My intentions were noble; reading logs meant accountability and accountability meant more time spent reading.  This had to surely be a good thing, and yet, what I had failed to notice was how reading logs meant reading for some was now something they measured in minutes,  eager to shut the book once they got to the 20 minutes.  Eager to fulfill their duty and not read until the next night required it.  Reading logs now meant that if they didn’t have a signature then they surely must not have read, that perhaps parents were not as invested as I had first assumed they were.  Reading logs meant I had “good” kids who followed the requirements and “bad” kids who bucked the system.  Reading logs meant that our conversations changed; it wasn’t about loving reading, it was about why the reading log was not filled out or why they didn’t read more at home.  It was about how I couldn’t just take their word for it, I had to have the proof, even if I thought some of those signatures didn’t really mean what they were supposed to mean.

I had never intended for this to happen, but it did.  Unfrotunately, it took me several years of using them to understand the damage they were doing for some kids.

And that’s it.  

How many other systems and procedures do  we put in place without really examining the unintended consequences of these procedures?  How often do we follow the system rather than question it simply because we are not sure where to even start with our questions?  How often do we not pilot something but instead implement it as law, never to look back and examine whether it actually did more good than harm?

How often do we leave systems and procedures in place because they are not inherently, or glaringly, that bad, and so we may as well just leave them in place?

Our kids deserve more than this.  They deserve for us to ponder.  To question the very foundations that we put in place for our classrooms to function, for our schools to operate.  They deserve for us to start questioning everything, even if it takes time.  They deserve for us to realize that we are, indeed, just human and that as humans we sometimes make flawed decisions where we fail to see what we really have decided.

A constant factor of education is change, so why not initiate it ourselves?  Why not start the line of questioning with the very practices we implement ourselves so that we may uncover the truth about how they really work?  Why not examine our unintended consequences and do something about the things we already have in place, rather than always searching for the new?

If you like what you read here, consider reading my newest book, Passionate Readers – The Art of Reaching and Engaging Every Child, out August 2017.  This book focuses on the five keys we can implement into any reading community to strengthen student reading experiences, even within the 45 minute English block.  If you are looking for solutions and ideas for how to re-engage all of your students consider reading my very first book  Passionate Learners – How to Engage and Empower Your Students.      Also, if you are wondering where I will be in the coming year or would like to have me speak, please see this page.

3 thoughts on “Unintended Consequences”

  1. Brilliant and thoughtful as usual, Pernille. Did you see Tom Newkirk’s father Maurice’s article from around 1940, “A Venture into Reading”? Excellent. You can find it on Mary C. Howard’s FB page from about a week ago.” I have read so many wise words from teacher bloggers and leaders ie Donalyn Miller and Nancie Atwell on this. We need to ask for truth from our kids. Random check-ins, chats about books, watching them read in class, talking earnestly about why reading matters, helps, varies,etc. and striving never to embarrass any child about his/her current attitude or level or likes about reading. These things make a difference. It’s not a game. If we get kids to have a true growth mindset and intrinsic motivation, we can foster lifelong readers. I know because I did it both before and after I “met” Nancie Atwell and Donald Graves. He was such a wise and brilliant. She is truly a global literacy leader.

  2. Thank you for this. I am a teacher/librarian and when raising my children we did not comply with the reading logs. I would just sign it all at once, told my girls to fill it in to meet the requirements and then we proceeded to read organically; for many hours one day and none the next! We read book by book, not minute by minute.

  3. Reading logs taught me an important life lesson when I was a 3rd grader: How to forge my parents’ signatures. It would serve me well when I ditched classes in high school, or forgot to return all the first day packet papers! All kidding aside, you are right that we need to take a critical look at the systems, structures, and beliefs we keep in place just because … if they aren’t actively contributing to learning and positive culture, get rid of them!

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