Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Rethinking Teaching Choices

I have recently returned to the 21st Century after being on vacation – meaning I have semi-reliable Internet access again. One of the first places I visited when returning to the Internet was, of course, Twitter. I scanned some tweets from friends, read through the recent stream from all folks I follow, and then caught up on a few education chats I had missed. One thread in particular jumped out at me. The topic? Accelerated Reader or AR.

Some teachers had become upset when other teacher dismissed AR as not necessary, lacking research, etc. I read the exchange with interest. Folks obviously felt passionately one way or another, but unwilling to bend to the other line of thinking. In full disclosure, I’m friends with several who were tweeting from the anti-AR stance, and I know they’ve done their research. They love to read research in a way that I don’t quite comprehend. On this topic, however, I’ve read my fair share.

In regard to AR, my district used to use it too. I was never a big fan – the questions seemed like they focused on trivial points and really didn’t show if they child understood the bigger picture – but I wasn’t “anti” AR until I reflected on the program.

AR is expensive; someone on Twitter quoted $4 a student in the chat. That seems a bit low to me. I don’t have exact numbers because it has been years since my district eliminated the program, but there is a fee from Renaissance Learning and then you also need to purchase each test. When new books come out, the tests must be purchased, yet sometimes schools get behind. Kids can’t read a book because there isn’t a test, which is ridiculous. That being said, the cost wasn’t even what made me really take a second look at AR.

AR is praised for getting kids to enjoy independent reading and being an easy way to track that they’ve read. I have a few issues here. One, I abhor the rule in some schools that kids can only “count” a book if it is at their “level”. What if they want to read below for fun? What if they want to read above because they’re interested in a book? What if they are high level readers, but the higher books are not appropriate for their age? In some schools, there are considerations given to these questions. In others – and unfortunately I’ve seen the bad side here – there is a hard and fast line.

As for getting kids to love to read, I think most, no all, teachers can do that without a computer program. Talk to kids about your reading life. Recommend books to them. Show book trailers. Give time for them to talk to each other about what they’re reading. Have new books in the classroom available to them. Let them read what they want. The love of reading will come forth without the program.

And finally, the ease of tracking. This I just don’t get. It’s easier, I supposed to print out a list of who has passed what test, but is there joy in that? When I confer with kids, I can easily track what their reading. I find joy in sitting with kids and discussing their books. I also build relationships. I get to know my students – their likes and dislikes. I also get to know them. I can track books easily, so can a computer program. Only one, however, helps strengthen the bond between teacher and student which pays across subjects, in behavior, everything.

So why all of the defensive tweets defending AR as the end all, be all, of independent reading programs? I think it is likely simple. When you are questioned on a practice that is part of your classroom, it is human nature to get defensive. I get that. I’ve done that. See, in 2009 I read a book by a new author and teacher, Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer. While I agreed with 75% of the book, on the topic of whole class novels, I was adamant that Donalyn was wrong. Maybe they didn’t work in her room, but in mine they were terrific. I was known for being an excellent reading teacher, she was wrong. If I had been tweeting, my tweets would have reflected my passion and irritation at the idea of moving to a classroom of choice.

I am a reflective teacher and tend to mull over ideas. Once this seed had been planted, I kept returning to it, each time with a shake of my head and a reminder that I was right. And then, the kids came, and everything changed.

That year I was teaching my reading class with all special education students pushed in. It took me one week to see that one novel would never meet the needs of all students. I had kids reading from a first grade level to a ninth, all in my fourth grade classroom. I was able to step back, look at the evidence, and realize I needed to make a change.

Yes, I do believe every classroom in our country would be better off without the AR program – I think teachers are effectively putting a computer program between the students and themselves when they could simply sit side-by-side and do the same thing. I think relationships with our kids should be the top priority, not the ease of printing off scores. More than that, I hope that teachers everywhere take the summer to reflect on their teaching practice. Are you like me? Is there something you’ve been contemplating changing? Take the summer to research, reach out, think it through. Anger is our natural reaction at times, but action is better. If you believe in your practice – awesome! I usually find at least one area I want to tinker with, and use the summer to attack it. This year? Combining Writing, Reading, Word Study, Grammar into one class, Reading/Writing Workshop. I’m nervous, I’m going to mess up, but it is going to be fun. I wish you the best as you rethink your classrooms too.