acheivement, being a teacher, Literacy, Reading, Reading Identity

But What Happens to Our Readers – On the Unintended Impacts Computerized Reading Programs Can Have on the Development of Readers

what does it matter if a child can Design

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.

acheivement, being a teacher, believe

What Happened to Our Dreams and Expectations?

Image from here

I am reading the local paper about the growing achievement gap between minorities and as my heart grows heavy, my mind starts to spin.  What happened to our expectations for all of our students?  What happened to having the same dream that ALL students can achieve, even those that face special disabilities, crippling poverty or lack of parental support?  We, as teachers, are supposed to be the last bastion, those that choose to believe in all of our students, no matter their race, their background, their belief in themselves.

I look inward and wonder when was the last time I asked for a file for a non-minority student that transferred in?  When did my own assumptions cloud my belief that all students can achieve and that I just have to set the bar high enough and then support, encourage and challenge?  That every year the slate should be wiped clean when they enter into my room, and yes, I may stare at those pages of past behaviors and troubles but that they should not be come my roadmap for the future?

I pledge again to believe in all of them.  To set the expectations high and to support them where they need it.  To look past color but not become colorblind.  To see the whole child and not the papers that follow them or the path they chose before.  To defend my students from academic prejudice and grow along with them.  One young man in the paper said that if perhaps he had just had someone believe in him, told him he could have done it, his path wouldn’t have lead to jail.  Perhaps he is right, the path cannot be changed, but at least I am willing to do just that; believe in all those children.  Will you believe with me?

acheivement, award, being a teacher, grades, students

What I Pass On to My Daughter

After reading an excellent article discussing the danger of praising children on their smarts, my husband and I ended up discussing our own method for raising our daughter, Thea.  After a while, I commented, that I hope I am not one of those teacher mom’s that is hard for her teachers to deal with.  The one that is too over-involved because they believe to the core that their child is smart, funny, articulate, and creative (not gifted, just normal smart).  My husband was kind enough to let me know that he would help me control myself but then posed an excellent question; what if our daughter is just like me?

Most people would jump for joy if their children turned out just like them.  And sure, there are many qualities that I wish I could just pass on to Thea.  I have a pretty good sense of sarcasm and humor, I love abundantly and loudly.  I am honest to a fault (surprise!) and I work very hard at my goals.  I am a nurturer, a believer in people, and a devoted friend, wife, sister, and daughter.  These are all fine qualities that I know Thea will have as well.  However, there are things that I hope she misses out on from me and instead takes after my husband.

You see, I am an overachiever.

Ever since grade school where my mother was told I needed to apply myself, I have had a very twisted view of education for myself.  Not only is it something to master, but it must be conquered, slayed, and nullified for me to be pleased.  I went through college working full-time and taking 18 or more credits every semester.  I was that student that always raised their hand, always had an answer, or even worse an opinion.  I was past the point of really caring whether others liked me or not, I was there to get a good grade – an A – and nothing else.  And I did.  I ended up graduating Summa Cum Laude with a 4.0 GPA.  No one was prouder than myself.  I thought I had done it, I was on top of the world with my diploma and my drive.  My family was just thrilled that this maniacal journey was over.  See no one really cares what your GPA is once you graduate. They had explained this to me before, but still I was relentless.  I pushed myself so hard that I had a panic attack before leaving for my honeymoon because of a science exam.  I worked and worked, always trying to get it just right, making it perfect, and for what?  A diploma?

So when I think of qualities for my daughter to inherit, being an overachiever is not something I wish for her.  In fact I don’t wish it on anyone.  Instead, I hope for her to have fun with learning, to realize that grades are not the end all, that the award is truly the learning journey and not the end result.  I carry this hope for my students as well.  I want them to experience school as a place to explore and gain knowledge, not to join a race to the top, always pushing for better grades and more rewards.  I want to stop the insanity before it becomes so infested in their soul that they end up like me; pushing themselves to perfection and forgetting to enjoy the journey.  What luxury it is to get an education, isn’t it about time we teach our students to enjoy the ride?

Which qualities do you wish your children or students get or do not get?  What would you change?

acheivement, alfie kohn, assumptions, being a teacher, believe, change, choices, communication, difference, elementary, get out of the way, grades, homework, learning, parents, promise, trust

How Homework Destroys

It finally happened; a parent decided to disagree with my new take on homework. They do not feel that I am providing enough and thus am doing a disservice to the students by lulling them into a fake sense of security in their skills. My response at first was indignation; how dare so and so question my fantastic educational shift in philosophy. Why are they not enlightened or believers as well? And then it dawned on me; I have not shown them the way.

I spend a lot of time speaking to students about what we are doing, why we are doing it, and what the goal is for their learning but not enough explaining that to the parents. And while I hope that parents have faith in me, I cannot take it for granted. I am, after all, messing with a system that has been set in place for many years and that these same parents are products of. So, of course, my system may come as a shock at first, and without the proper explanation it will continue to be so. After all, parents have been trained to think that for every grade level you figure out homework load by multiplying the grade level with 10 minutes. So by 4th grade, students should at the very least be doing 40 minutes of homework a night. And yet, my students don’t. They do most of their work in class, even staying in for recess so that I may help them, and I never willingly send home a piece of homework that I know they will struggle for hours with.

Homework should be practice, a showing of skills. It should not be a two hour time consumer where both mom, dad and the encyclopedia gets involved. I explain this to my students and the sense of relief is visible in them. They know that I will challenge them in class but at home they may pursue life instead. So if you work hard at school then the reward is rest, family time, and a pursuit of happiness. And it works. My students are still learning everything they should for the year, albeit in a more hands-on manner. I am shying away from worksheets and instead having conversations about learning. Our favorite tool is our dry-eraseboards that allows me a quick check in for understanding. And the students are noticing the difference. No longer dreading the afternoon because I will continue to haunt their day. No longer dreading school because it means so many extra hours of works. No longer dreading learning because they are realizing that learning is something you do at school and that it doesn’t come form worksheets.

When I recently welcomed 9 new students into my room, one “old” student told me that she was looking forward to seeing how the newbies would react since I “teach a little crazy.” And perhaps that is true. I am loud, obnoxiously so at times, and I have high standards. I push kids to learn, I push kids to understand, and then I back off. I let them think about it, let the learning resonate within them, and then I challenge them to dredge it out again the following day.

By no means, am I the perfect teacher. I have many years of learning to come, but I do know that I am on to something here and I stand at a fork in the road signaling a massive shift in my whole educational philosophy. I believe these students are learning, I believe I am preparing them as well as any other teacher, and most importantly I believe I am letting them be kids at the same time. My students know that if something is homework it is for the benefit of their learning and is important to do, not just another piece of paper that their teacher didn’t get to in class. They know that I only assign it if it is truly valuable, and not just something for me to use for grades. They know that we will meet and discuss their learning, always knowing what is missing, what is accomplished, what the direction should be. They know that if I assign something to them it is because they have the skills needed to do it. Do yours?