I have never worked through so many changes in my educational model as I have for the past year. COVID teaching has pushed us all to the max, not just with what we are expected to do but also in how we are supposed to adapt to whatever ideas, programs, and decisions that come our way. It has been thrilling some days to invent and re-think at such a rapid pace, but many other days it has been exhausting. I have felt like a fraud on more days than I can count, a terrible teacher too. And yet, a year into this COVID teaching, I can also start to look back and ponder what the long-term effects are going to be on our instructional model. What will stick around from all of our innovations and what will disappear?
One of the components I worry about is the increase in the use of computerized programs to teach children especially in teaching reading. I have seen these programs play out in our kids’ lives as our 7- and 8-year-olds all spend more than an hour and a half a day in a variety of computer programs; Lexia, Dreambox, Smarty Ants, Raz Kids all expected to be done every day. The programs are woven in throughout their curricular day, used as a way for their teachers to do small group lessons and other supported work, and yet despite our best explanations, our own kids don’t care. They beg us to let them skip the programs, asking us if they can please just read a book instead, do a math workbook. “I will do whatever you say, mom, just please not that… ” is an often heard refrain in our house.
My kids are not alone in the change of their programming, in many districts around the US at least, teachers have been asked to implement new self-paced computerized teaching programs in order to close the opportunity gap, to stop “learning loss,” and to continue to engage all learners no matter our proximity. I can see the appeal of these programs easily; it allows us to place kids at their prescribed level and the computer does all the work as far as which lessons they should be invested in. It provides us with more data and hopefully allows our students to develop further skills that they may otherwise not have mastered yet. It is one more tool as we work on the opportunity gap for all of our kids. It is one more way to engage kids and to keep them learning, even when a global pandemic stopped us from sitting right next to them, stopped us from so many educational opportunities.
And yet, as always, I wonder about the unintended consequences of our new implementation of so many programs, many of them focused on developing reading skills. How will these computer programs affect the reading identities that we are so carefully developing with our kids? How will a computer care for them as human beings and not just participants in a program, (hint; it often won’t)? Because I see it play out in my own house, as well as with my own students. I hear it from teachers who wish they would have funding for books but are told there is none and yet are asked to use these programs which we know all come with a hefty price tag. I see it when my own kids would rather lie to me about whether or not they have done their Lexia minutes, knowing I will get a report from their teachers when they haven’t, than actually do it.
And so I wonder if we are checking in with the children who are asked to use these programs and how these programs are affecting their already tenuous relationship to reading and to being a reader. I cannot speak about any other kids than the ones I teach and the ones I raise but the impact of reading-focused computerized programs have been deeply felt by many of them; they often hate them, they fight every step of the way when asked to do them, they see no purpose for the programs other than to punish them. To remind them that they are lesser readers than their peers. They are exhausted by the screen and by the questions so much so that when I ask them to please find a book, they don’t want to. That they would rather put their head down, leave the room, or argue than actually invest into the work we do with reading outside of the computer. So these curricular choices are making the work that we are trying to do with them as far as wanting to pick up a book on their own, wanting to invest into an emotionally fraught reading journey and change their relationship to reading to something more positive, even harder. And that cannot be dismissed as a trivial side effect.
If we look at the research that surrounds reading enjoyment and motivation, we see a direct correlation between the effects of reading intervention programs and how kids feel about themselves as readers. They can do so much good but they can also do a lot of damage. Richard Allington and others remind us of the incredible impact the reading curriculum decisions have on our most vulnerable readers. That “the design of reading lessons differs for good and poor readers in that poor readers get more work on skills in isolation, whereas good readers get assigned more reading activity.” That our most vulnerable readers are “often placed into computer programs or taught by paras rather than placed in front of reading specialists. That their experience is fundamentally shaped around their perceived gaps rather than their full person. So how does that play out year after year when a child is not placed in front of a trained and caring reading specialist but instead of a computer that cares nothing about their reading identity or how hard they are working? How will it play out when kids only see their reading value in the points they get, the levels they pass, and the scores they receive? Not books read, not experiences created, not background knowledge developed, or small accomplishments celebrated.
These pandemic choices will have long-term impacts, and not always positive ones, on the kids affected, especially if we don’t revisit the choices we made in the past year. What may have worked while deep in pandemic teaching may no longer work when we are back with students and again able to hand them books, teach them in small groups, and center our reading work not just on the skills they need to develop, but also who they are as readers. We must make space for both explorations within our curriculum.
I am not saying for these programs to never be used, at least not some of them, but I believe that we need to include the voices of the children who are being asked to use the program and to consider the unintended consequences that this program may be having for some of them. And also ask their families, if the school of my children school asked us, we would have plenty to say. As it stands, they haven’t, but we may just be speaking up anyway.
So what are the conversations we need to have? We need to move past the data and ask our students how our chosen programs affect them, whether they see them helping or hurting them, how we can make their experience better? How could we use a program without doing harm? How much time would they be willing to invest into a program if needed, what else we should do in our reading experiences. And we should ask the home adults and the teachers the impact they see the program having, negative or positive. And then we should listen, and then we should do something with what we are told.
All this to say, that as always, we need to speak up and make space for the voices we may have excluded. That it is easy to roll our eyes and vent behind closed doors, but that we must also find the courage to question the programs and decisions being made within our districts and within the lives of our own children. That while computerized reading programs may seem like the solution so many of us have been looking for when it comes to filling in knowledge gaps, that they may actually move us further from our goal of bolstering children who see themselves as readers outside of what school makes them do. We must remember that what may be viewed as a short-term gain may have unintentional long-lasting negative effects on the very kids we are supposed to be nurturing. After all, what does it matter if a child can read better but chooses to never read again due to their hatred of the tools we used to get them there? As Kamil reminds us, “Motivation and engagement are critical for adolescent readers. If students are not motivated to read, research shows that they will simply not benefit from reading instruction.” So how are we protecting and caring for their motivation and engagement? Because I don’t see many computerized reading programs doing that.
I am excited to be heading out on the road again to be with other educators in-district or at conferences, while continuing my virtual consulting and speaking as well. If you would like me to be a part of your professional development, please reach out. I am here to help.