I started reading a great new teacher resource that has already presented me with a few solid ideas to not only improve my instruction but also help my colleagues expand the influence of meaningful literacy in their classrooms. In, “Do I really have to teach reading?” by Cris Tovani she introduces many elements from other books she has written. One is the Double Entry Diary. A great tool for students to log their thinking and assist in comprehension especially when dealing with larger pieces of text. One point I have always struggled with when students are learning to make connections is the depth of their connections and moving them from superficial to meaningful in their thinking and writing. Reading Hatchet for example a student will say, “I connect to Brian because I went camping once”…Ok, I guess that is a connection in the sense that you are both outdoors but does your experience help you understand Brian’s? In Tovani’s text, she puts forward a strategy to help with asking the students “So What?”, Two simple words that ask the students to think harder, to dig deeper.
Today as we were reading different whole class texts I started with mini-lessons reviewing Double Entry Diaries and introducing the So What prompt. We looked at Josh and his actions in Roland Smiths “Peak” and the relationship between Lieutenant Kotler and Bruno’s mother in John Boyne’s “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”. In both classes the addition of “So What?” led students to far richer discussions than we have had all year. Students that tend to struggle more with noticing the smaller things in the text, making connections that were not only meaningful but also utilized signposts that they had discovered previously in our reading. A simple little step with powerful results.
Tonight I capped off my days learning with a wonderful little Twitter chat with my wife, and a bunch of other friends moderated by the great Dr.Mary Howard. The topic was putting the “heart” back in RTI (Response to Intervention). RTI, in theory, operated perfectly or at the very least as intended should help all students to be successful by addressing what they need in a way that supports them as a member of the larger school or class community. But theory and practice are two very different things when it comes to the utilization of RTI in many school settings. In many schools RTI is “pull out”, it is taking students separated by what at times could be a single mistake on a computerized exam and giving them some small, meaningless, choice free readers (usually photocopied). Telling them they are a letter or a number or a Penguin and that one day if they work hard enough reading their photocopied books about a lost treasure that is found in 6 pages they might be a polar bear or a Z or even get to read the real books that the other kids get to read but first we need to get them through intervention.
I know this practice or malpractice as I see it now because I used it. I had files of clip art groups, I celebrated my ability to get students to move up the F&P alphabet and I proudly showed at my Data wall meeting the amount of green dots that had grown from yellow dots and that I only had two red dots left. Then I celebrated my record-setting provincial exam results and patted myself on the back and high fived my team members because we were awesome at getting students to read.
Then reality set in. I was getting kids to read but I was not helping them become readers. I was getting kids to move up a level chart but I was not getting them to move towards a bookshelf. Worst of all I was not hearing the students asking for books that were not photocopied. Using readers was the easiest way to help them and if we pulled them out or even better sent them out to work with an EA and their photocopied “book” the kids wouldn’t feel ashamed because the other kids didn’t see that they were not allowed to read real books yet. I know this sounds harsh but this is the reality in many cases, it was the reality for me. Misunderstanding the point to models that are there to help our students, twisting them to fit our needs as teachers instead of adjusting our needs to our students.
My students that received this instruction did not suffer academically like I said they all raised in reading levels every year. Where I failed them and now work to build their capacity is in building them as readers.
Readers and Thinkers need to be the goal. Not letters and numbers.
Taking us back to the beginning, The next time I am having a conversation with a fellow teacher discussing an incoming students information and they describe them as an H or a 5.6 or a Penguin or Polar Bear or Blackbird or whatever other worthless label we have come to depend on so much I am going to say “So What?”. I need more than a letter, what do they like to read? When was the last time they shared a great book with you? Who is their favorite character in a book they read this year? What specific skills are they struggling in? What interventions in the classroom have been successful? These are the questions that matter to me now. I can’t spend time looking at levels when there are so many students that we are losing as readers because they do not think they are worth anything more than a photocopied book about a sad girl that loses her umbrella or treasure island told in 6 pages with underlined verbs.
If we can’t answer the “So What?” we need to be looking deeper at our practice.