Monday, July 10, 2017


I have a confession to make.

I've been teaching for over thirty years. And for at least half of my career, I have built my teaching around the idea that teachers need to look at reading instruction in terms of three strands- attitudes, strategies, and fluency. Kids need to view reading as worthwhile, do-able, and enjoyable. They need to learn and internalize strategies to approach all different kids of texts. And they need to use those strategies quickly, accurately, and appropriately. All of this needs to occur within the context of a community that is safe, warm, caring, and joyful.

Despite what I think is a strong philosophical and theoretical framework, I don't feel very good about my last couple of years of teaching. I feel like, in many ways, I have really caved to the pressure of standards and high stakes tests.

I think I have "spoonfed" kids texts that were way too hard, just because other people have told me that those "complex" texts are what kids should be reading. And because I knew those were the kinds of texts that they would find on the high stakes tests they took each spring.

I think I'm guilty of asking kids to extract meaning from text, rather than transact with texts (Newkirk, as quoted in Vinton, p. 17).

I think I am doing too much of the work for the kids. I think I am asking way too many text based questions, rather than helping kids learn to ask their own questions.

I think I have focused way too much on isolated skills, or what Vinton describes as "skillification."

Yes, I continually buy books and read them  and bring them to school, and pass them off to kids, and ask kids what they are reading. Yes, I regularly read aloud to kids from ages 4 to 14. And yes, I try to make my own authentic practices as a reader form the basis of my reading instruction, ad talk to teachers about strategy instruction. I even have cool high top book tennis shoes that my students, even the middle schoolers, love.

And yet, I think I'm failing teachers and kids.

I know what I want for my students. Vicki Vinton defines it beautifully on page 18 of DYNAMIC TEACHING.
Readers bring their minds and their hearts to a text,
and as a teacher of reading,
that means I want students to be able to
analyze and interpret,reason and imagine,
critique texts objectively and  respond to them personally.
And I want them to do this with
real independence
and a strong sense of agency and identity as readers,
in ways that support
academic success and a love of reading. 
I want kids to understand that "Reading is an education of the heart (that) enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world (Susan Sontag, 1995, as quoted in Vinton, p. 17). Or as Paul Kalinithi said so eloquently in his memoir, WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR, "Books became my closest confidants, finely ground lenses providing new views of the world" (27).

And I love what Barack Obama says about how novels have informed his life. "When I think about how I understand my role as citizen, setting aside being president, the most important set of understandings that I bring to that position of citizen, the most important stuff I've learned, I think I've learned from novels. It has to do with empathy. It has to do with being comfortable with the notion that the world is complicated and full of grays, but there's still truth there to be found, and you have to strive for that and work for that. And the notion that it's possible to connect with someone else even though they're very different from you" Barack Obama (as quoted in Vinton, 17-18)

As a teacher, I want my ultimate goal for my readers to be "depth of thinking, text understanding, independence, and a love of reading" (p. 39).

I want my students to read "at the literal, inferential, figurative, and thematic levels" (p. 37.)

I want them to be constantly asking themselves:
  • What is this text really about?
  • What might the author be trying to show us about what it means to be human in this complex world of ours? (p. 12)
I want students to be creative thinkers "people who imagine, explore, synthesize, connect, discover, invent and adapt" (Sternberg and Williams, 1996, p. 3, as quoted in Vinton, p. 33)

And I want to be a teacher who provides students with "texts that are relatively accessible at the word and knowledge levels, but offer readers lots of problems to solve at the meaning levels."

I want to enter conferences with these three questions in mind:

  • What kind of problems is this reader facing
  • What kind of text does thie reader need?
  • How can we help this reader develop a more complex vision of reading  (25)
I know, as Vinton suggests, that "Students build their identify and sense of agency as readers when they're the ones doing the work, and as students have more positive and agentive reading experiences, they become more competent and confident" (23).

I just haven't been doing a very good job living it the last couple of years. I'm looking forward to reading Part Two of DYNAMIC TEACHING FOR DEEPER READING, with hopes that it will give me some ideas for making significant changes in my practices this year.


Mary Lee said...

Thank you for your vulnerability and honesty. Apart from changing my practices with the students who sit in my classroom, I wish I knew how to help more young teachers closely examine their own practice and strive each year to get closer to getting it "right."

Tamara said...

I admire that you were able to hold your own practice up next to what Vicki describes in Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading and see with clarity the adjustments you'd like to make to better serve readers. When I read your reflection and Mary Lee's comment I was reminded of page 68 & 47 where Vicki quotes Atul Gawande on the moves learners make from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence to unconscious competency in pursuit of mastery. I don't know if this applies to you, but it made me ask, "How many iterations of this process have I experienced in this career as a teacher?" Where I'm going about my business, joyously unconsciously incompetent until some brilliant person comes along and shines a light, then I'm back on the path working toward unconscious competence yet again. Not that I always love the light, especially initially, but without that challenge, I doubt I'd be as fulfilled as I am as a teacher.

Ramona said...

Reading posts like this and Mary Lee's comment are what feed the retired teacher in me. I'm happy that teachers like you and Mary Lee are in the classroom working at making change in the way you teach and making a difference for students. I love the ultimate goal for readers that you shared: "I want my ultimate goal for my readers to be depth of thinking, text understanding, independence, and a love of reading.'" I look forward to your reflection for Part Two.

Kyle said...

I too am struggling. My school does AR, and since my kids didn't take enough quizzes I was dinged at the end of the year for not looking at reading data to drive my instruction. I am at a lost on how to keep my job and and truly turn my kids in to readers. How do we survive in this district?