Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Learning To Read

This may sound a bit peculiar, but I can actually remember learning to read. Not so much the entire reading process mind you, but the mechanics of how letters fit together to form words. I was in first grade, which would have been about 1978. I know what many of you may be thinking--don't we teach kids to read in kindergarten? Yes, but you have to remember in 1978 kindergarten was to first grade what preschool now is to kindergarten. Now that I think about it, I am not even sure I attended kindergarten? It wasn't that widespread, and most of the programs were half days or some other part time configuration. In fact, kindergarten was only every other day at the first school I worked at as a teacher (that was the mid 1990s) and the big debate at the time was whether or not they should begin offering an all day every day program. Anyway, I digress...

It's 1978, I'm in first grade at Sacred Heart School in Boone and we have spent the entire school year learning all the different sounds that the letters make (you know the drill--long 'e', short 'e', 'a', 'ah', 'ch', can I please buy a vowel?). Obviously I didn't realize it at the time but there was a pretty heavy emphasis on phonics in my young elementary school curriculum. I can say that I didn't really see the point in all of this and would have much rather being doing other things, but maybe that is a story for another day. Finally one day the Good Sister writes the letter 'w' and the letter 'e' on the chalkboard (no whiteboards, remember this is 1978). She tells us to think about the sound the 'w' makes and the sound the 'e' makes, and put them together (wwuheeeeeee). Of course, I am just kind of sitting there squirming around in my seat like most six or seven year olds thinking about recess, or lunch, or something not related to what the Good Sister is explaining on the chalkboard when all of a sudden the pieces start falling into place--click---click----click-----BOOM! Now I get it! I can read!

Of course it wasn't really that simple, but there is no doubt that was a watershed moment in my journey  of learning how to read. There were certainly more phonics, context clues, comprehension, site words, and a plethora of other reading instruction that I can't even remember. The fact is in school I wasn't all that good of a reader and always dreamed of the day that I would be 'promoted' to the top reading group. (Didn't they call them the Goldfinches or something like that?) Anyway, I never reached that mountaintop, but I eventually became a pretty good reader. I don't remember much more about my early educational experiences (except being an occasional 'client' of the principal--again a story for another day), but I think the fact that this is something that I can remember so vividly is indicative of the importance of reading in our society and the amount of time we invest making sure our young people are able to read.

If I had to rank by importance the 'things' that we have to teach in elementary school, reading would be at the very top. If you were to look at the amount of time a typical elementary classroom instructional schedule spends on reading you would see clearly the value that we place on reading. An inability to read puts students at a disadvantage as they progress in school, and will  have life long implications. Not only will it impact life time earning potential, but it will impact quality of life.

Around the third grade a transformation begins to take place in a student's learning. It is somewhere at that point where the student switches form learning how to read to reading to learn. It certainly doesn't happen all at once, but the student learning  materials begin to have more text and content that the students actually read to learn the material. 

That is one of the primary reasons for a little known change in law that was included in the education reform legislation passed during the 2013 General Assembly. The law states that by 2016-2017 all student must be proficient readers by the time they complete the third grade. If they are not, then the student is to be retained. There are some exceptions to this law, for example students that are receiving services under special education may be exempt, or students who show adequate progress in a district sponsored summer school program might be exempt.

As we discovered with the No Child Left Behind law, setting arbitrary deadlines for proficiency levels has not been all that successful. Recall the goal of "All children proficient in math, science, and reading by 2014"? Another law that has been implemented with disastrous consequences. The 'so-called' list continues to become increasingly lengthy year after year with 869 of 1,361 schools being designated as Schools in Need of Assistance (SINA) this year alone. I predict the list to be even larger next year.

We agree that all children should be proficient readers at the conclusion of third grade. However, an arbitrary deadline fails to consider that not all children progress at the same time, in the same fashion, and need the same type of instruction. Some children may be proficient readers by the time they finish second grade, while it may take others until they finish 4th grade (or even longer). Plus, there is plenty of scholarly research that suggests retaining students is just not a very good option!

Schools are not widget factories. Each of the children that we work with daily is a unique individual with needs that may not be the same as every 5 year old!

Next week I will share with you how I believe Hudson is well positioned to meet the needs of a variety of young and emerging readers! I want to make sure that every kid that comes through our school can say, Now I get it! I can read!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Selection of a New English and Language Arts Curriculum

I think it is well established that the schools you and I went to are very different from those our own children attend. The infusion of connected learning, high stakes testing, Iowa Core Standards, and punitive accountability measures are proof of that! Every once in a while someone will share with me that we should present material in a certain way because, "When I was in school, we didn't do it like that, and I turned out just fine!" Believe me, I get it-and may even agree with you (the part about you and I turning out alright, that is). There are many things that we did a certain way when I was in school that we just simply don't anymore because times have changed. I have already shared with you my early experiences with computers, and that we had one computer in the school and it was viewed as a novelty item. I never would have guessed (and my teachers from that time period probably wouldn't have either) that we would see the day where the ratio of computers was measured not by School:Computer, but Student:Computer, and that it would lead to an environment where every student had their own computer!

We are also much more data driven now. Prior to 2001, the data that we collected on student achievement was summative in nature, and typically not used to form instruction. These days, we are constantly measuring student outcomes and designing instruction to address those areas where we see deficits. When implementing new programs or initiatives in our district we frequently ask how the strategy will impact student learning. Student achievement has become the super-ordinate of everything we do in our system--and student achievement is defined by how much our students are growing in their learning and meeting the standards that are part of the Iowa Core (of which the Common Core is a part). Our instructional program requires that teachers be responsible for taking the Iowa Core and boiling it down to what is referred to as Essential Learning Outcomes. Why do we do this? The main reason is that these documents simply articulate too much content! A study conducted by researchers at Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning (McRel), found that schools and teachers would need 71% more instructional time to address all of this content. 

This year the elementary faculty has been completing research on curriculum material for the English/Language Arts (ELA) suite of content. Obviously, we have a paramount desire to ensure material is based in a sound research methodology, it is aligned to the Iowa Core Curriculum, and that it provides resources that enable our teachers to meet the range of a diverse population of student learners. Additionally, since we know that this is such a deep content area, the curriculum must be a good fit for our school. After all, we still have to teach math, social studies, science, art, music, and PE. At this time, we have narrowed it down to two options. That comes after months of study that included testing and piloting different lessons and curriculum, visiting with companies that have developed the material we are testing, and finally visiting other schools that have implemented the material that we are considering.