Forced to drink the sand

I have always wanted to use this quote

Please bear with me as I use one of my favourite movie moments to set the scene for this post. I loved the movie The American President as a kid. A scene has always stuck out to me between President Shepard and one of his advisors. A particularly tense moment when the advisor played the amazing Michael J. Fox speaks out about the Presidents lack of aggression in getting his message out there:

Lewis: People want leadership. And in the absence of genuine leadership, they will listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership, Mr. President. They’re so thirsty for it, they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.
Sheperd: Lewis, we’ve had Presidents who were beloved, who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty, Lewis. They drink it because they don’t know the difference.

I look at this quote often when discussing teaching practice and trying to answer the question of why teachers continue to use and defend online reading programs and activity booklets from Teachers Pay Teachers. I am going to take a bit of liberty here in making the connection but It should be a fun little ride.

First, let’s apply this scenario of being forced to drink sand to two different groups. Students and Teachers.

When we take out leadership from the quote and replace it with authentic engaging literacy work the same applies. Students crave to have work that engages them, they will dive into books that catch their imagination that light that creative flame that fills the room. When they are presented instead with only drills in isolation, program readers and books that are outdated but the teachers have taught for years and are comfortable they will still do the work but the enjoyment will not be there. They are trusting us to give them that promised water as they work through the desert and instead we give them cups and cups of sand. They choke it down but they will know better for next time. They are less likely to be lead through the desert with the promise of something better at the end. We must be prepared with all that amazing life-giving water at the end.

That brings us to the teachers. I am not here to condemn all teachers, not by any means. I think many of us (myself included for a time) are being tricked by the mirage of easy literacy instruction and when we get to it and realize it is sand we don’t know any better. The promises of a quick assessment on a computer that will level your students for easy grading, the novel studies and units that you can download at the click of a mouse for the low price of 5.99, but the high price of deep meaningful instruction purposefully tailored to your unique class.

In both of these scenarios, we can easily correct our path we just need to make a commitment to do it.

Steps to Replace Sand with Water

Sand -Accelerated Reader as Assessment or Accountability tool: The common argument that I hear often is that AR is a good quick assessment or accountability tool. How else can we know our students are reading and understanding a text?

Water– Conferencing: In minutes I can tell if a student is truly reading a text when I am talking to them. We can set goals for book completion and I can get a handle on their comprehension. The best part is it takes moments and you get a more complete picture over time than any “point and click” test with low-level knowledge questions will ever provide. I have never had a student request to do AR tests, I have never had a student come and talk to me about why AR being removed from their life has made their reading journey less enjoyable. Never.

Sand – Class Novels with little to no choice. I think this is a tricky one because some will argue against full class novels completely, others embrace them fully and there is a large group in between that use them in different ways. I will completely show my cards on this and say that I am in the third camp, I use them but with options. The sand of the full class novel tends to come with text choice. Students with no connection to a book, books chosen because “we have a set” or unfortunately the “well I read it when I was a kid”. All of these reasons come up and none of them has to do with the students.

Water- Whole class novels can be a great tool to build a community of conversation around a shared text. The text and how we use it is the difference maker from sand to water. A text that students play a role in selecting, a text that is relevant and a text that provides opportunities to be a mirror, window or door are the kid of whole class novels that students really “thirst” for. Classics are great, my students loved the Outsiders last year. I loved reading Lord of the Flies in 9th grade. I didn’t love The Grapes of Wrath. Sand vs Water.

Sand– Trading Cute for Content with Teachers Pay Teachers and buying into programs to simplify the process. I see the comments made a lot, “I love this unit I bought on Teachers Pay Teachers it made teaching (insert book) so easy, the kids just read through and do the workbook” There is so much that qualifies as sand in this statement I don’t know where to begin. How about “this is so cute and fun I want to make it my room theme” and it takes up the space that student work should have in the room. The Instagram classrooms selling out our students for some flexible seating sponsorships, this IS the mirage, the distraction that pulls us all in and in the end all we have is sand.

Water- Beautiful books and meaningful strategies to make text accessible. First, let me just repeat the words of a great educator, Kylene Beers said: “Books aren’t written to be taught, they are written to be loved”. This statement alone has been water in the desert for me but beyond that, it helps to shift the focus away from teaching tools and towards books. We should be making the text accessible through strategies, talking about them celebrating them having conversations that deepen our understanding. Maybe it is Signposts and the discussions that come from them, maybe it is TQE and magical moments it has already lead to in my classroom. I know for certain it is not fill in the blank questions and vocabulary tests.

When faced with nothing else students will drink the sand. We have to make sure that we are providing meaningful literacy work that makes the mirage a reality. The provides students with wonderful books and the means to enjoy them, think about them, talk about them and understand them without jeopardizing their reading futures.

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