It’s the first day of school here in lovely St. Johns, Florida. You’ve already been back for a week, participating in professional learning, attending staff meetings, setting up your classrooms, getting ready. Today is the reason you’ve worked so hard to ensure all is right when the bell rings this morning.
You and your teaching peers are serving so many students across the Sunshine State. Of the 3,138,030 statewide total PK-12 student enrollment in the 2015-16 school year, 345,796 (11.0%) were private school students, and 2,792,234 (89.0%) were public school students1. (Homeschoolers add another 90,000 students based on the most recent estimates.) What do all those numbers mean on a Thursday morning, the first day of school? Simply put, dear public school teachers, YOU are facilitating the learning growth of almost 90% of Florida’s future leaders. You. What an honor. What a responsibility.
As you take up this monumental task, there will be so many things vying for your time . . . new progress monitoring programs to learn . . . last year’s test data to analyze . . . new legislation resulting in new scheduling concerns, forcing you to examine class time down to each precious minute. There will be the unknowns that eat up time but never make it into the lesson plans . . . children arriving late through no fault of their own . . . technology that might fail at the precise moment needed . . . students who come to school fidgety or sad or hungry or sick . . . parents and guardians who also have needs and questions and concerns. Your job is not for the faint of heart.
There are many answers to the question of how to best assist students in growing towards their full potential. Teach like a champion, teach like a maniac, teach like your hair is on fire, or teach like a Zen master–each view has unique merits that provide insightful advice on how to be better at the teaching craft or delivery; each is useful in different ways to different people. My quest for simplicity, however, leads me to offer a modest suggestion as you embrace this new year.
In these times of overflowing schedules I sadly hear teachers too often lament, “I know independent reading is important. If only there were time.” Somehow, public school teachers at every level, you must figure out how to make time.
The American Association of School Librarians (and Thomas Jefferson) makes the case for independent, voluntary (choice) reading as the key to school achievement:
Voluntary reading involves personal choice, reading widely from a variety of sources, and choosing what one reads. Alliterates, people who have the ability to read but choose not to, miss just as much as those who cannot read at all. Individuals read to live life to its fullest, to earn a living, to understand what is going on in the world, and to benefit from the accumulated knowledge of civilization. Even the benefits of democracy and the capacity to govern ourselves successfully depend on reading. Thomas Jefferson believed that informed citizens are the best safeguard against tyranny. He believed that every citizen must know how to read, that it is the public’s responsibility to support the teaching of reading, and that children should be taught to read during the earliest years of schooling. In a letter to Colonel Edward Carrington, Jefferson (1787) wrote: “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
So much of what is done in the name of education is compiled of what teachers do to students rather than what students are doing on their own. Students are given test prep, cold reads, non-fiction articles, novel studies (of which perhaps only half the students are interested in reading), all of which have their place at certain times, but those things must be balanced by the practice of reading at one’s independent level. How relevant and timely to teach a lesson on determining the theme of a piece of text, for example, then actually allowing time for the students to practice that skill in the context of their own reading level. When that happens on a consistent basis, literacy takes root.
An example I’ve used of late is that of learning to play the piano. A child goes to his first piano lesson, eager to learn. The instructor places Chopin’s Minute Waltz in front of the child, saying, “This is what good piano players play.” The child glances at his copy of The Itsy Bitsy Spider , a song he learned to sing with his mom. He really wanted to learn to play that piece. The well-meaning teacher, however, presses him to use the more difficult (impossible piece), even though his piano skills are light-years behind Chopin. After a few sincere attempts—he wants to please his teacher—he finally gives up. He decides he must be too stupid to ever play the piano. (And to all the amazing piano teachers out there, this is purely hypothetical. Thank you for starting with Itsy Bitsy Spider.)
Unfortunately that is what too often takes place in the classroom. In an attempt to prepare students for high-stakes assessment, teachers (myself included) have too often forgotten the importance of authentic practice at an independent and joyful level. Students are too often asked to read at a level that is out-of-reach based on the idea that, “Well, that’s the level they’ll get on the test so they better start now.” The reality is they can’t start there and will eventually come to believe they’re simply too stupid to read at all.
Students need to experience success in reading every single day in order to counter the lie that they are stupid or unteachable. They need to experience the pure joy of reading through an interesting text with ease and confidence. As daily reading practice is reinforced and encouraged and conferenced, reading time during which teachers observe and get to know the reading lives of each child and provide guidance and instruction as needed, students will move on to the next level, and the next, and the next.
Okay, I realize I make this sound easy. “Read. Just read.” Easy? It is not. In the midst of evaluations and VAM and computer testing and prank bomb threats and hurricane days and the lack of time and exhaustion, the reality is that every choice you make as an educator is weighted. I urge you, however, to give it a try. Work with your administration on creative scheduling. Do your own research on the impact of independent daily reading. (A current favorite of mine is Who’s Doing the Work? How to say less so readers can do more by Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris. It’s user-friendly and based on best practice research.) Spend time getting to know the interests of your students. Ask friends to donate magazines—Field and Stream, Popular Mechanics, National Geographic—for those students who prefer non-fiction. Become best friends with your school’s media specialist. Do whatever it takes.
Kylene Beers, educator, author, and researcher, recently tweeted:
If we raise test scores but fail to raise readers, we have failed the child.
You, dear teachers, are some of the hardest workers and generous souls in the world, working countless unpaid hours and spending precious dollars to provide classroom environments that are conducive to learning. You do all in your power to prevent students from failing or feeling like failures. As you do the hard work, make sure your carefully designed and inviting reading nooks are not just for show but are filled with students doing the work, the work of reading. Embrace independent reading as a key strategy that allows students to practice and grow. As you jump into a new school year, eyes wide open, know that authentic reading will be one of the most positive choices you’ll ever make.
P.S. – Many of you reading this post are masters at what I’ve just described. Please share and comment below on ways you guard your students’ independent reading time. The more you share, the more we all learn.
One of the masters of independent reading, Catie Grimes, 6th grade reading teacher extraordinaire, creates inviting places in her classroom to support independent reading.
1 Public Education in Florida (2016). Ballotpedia: The Encyclopedia of American Politics. https://ballotpedia.org/Public_education_in_Florida