When Sky and her mom walked into my classroom four years ago for Open House night to launch the 2017-2018 school year, I was taken aback when Sky (a brand new 6th grade student whom I was meeting for the first time) looked right at me, stomped her foot, and said, “I hate reading.” The thought that went through my head? “Game On!” I was bound and determined to change Sky’s mindset. I introduced Sky to audio books and encouraged the reading of graphic novels as a means to induce a love of reading. I can’t say that I won “the game,” but I gave it my best shot with the knowledge I had at that time.
Four years later, I would still promote listening to audio books and reading graphic novels (among many, many other genres), but I would also dig deeper into the root of Sky’s distaste of reading. Was she lacking foundational reading skills that contributed to her hatred of reading? My guess is a resounding “Yes!” I’m quite certain that I would not have been able to fill in all of those foundational gaps, but I would give it a hell of a try, and I wouldn’t do it alone. I would reach out for support from my colleagues and from my virtual Professional Learning Networks. Our job is not intended to be done in isolation, but rather with heaps of collaboration.
There has been a recent uptick in the debate around effective literacy instruction. This debate is an important one, and fuels my gratitude for the decision our district made, two-and-a-half years ago to adopt the EL Education curriculum. It is one of a handful of knowledge-building curriculums that aligns with the science of reading, and is a proponent of structured literacy. However, as I’ve said many times, adoption of a high quality curriculum does not guarantee high quality teaching and learning. Teacher training and building of knowledge is a critical component to effective curriculum implementation.
Pressure & Support and a Sense of Urgency
I continue to wrestle with striking the perfect balance of pressure and support with that much-needed teacher training. When it comes to effective literacy instruction, there is much that teachers are still learning. Time to learn, process, and adjust instruction takes time. We often hear (and I believe), “You must go slow to go fast.” In the meantime, we have students that continue to leave our schools without being functionally literate. How can we justify waiting for teachers to “catch up” because we don’t want to “do Professional Development ‘to‘ them” when we have students who are not fully literate? We are hovering around 35% of our nation’s students being proficient in reading, according to NAEP, while 95% of our students can be fully literate, according to many sources: Reading Rockets, REAP, and LETRS vis Voyager Sopris.
On November 9, 2021, Sarah Schwartz, staff writer for EdWeek, released an article summarizing reviews of two popular reading programs designed by Lucy Calkins (Units of Study) and Fountas and Pinnell (Fountas and Pinnell Classroom): New Curriculum Review Gives Failing Marks to Two Popular Reading Programs. The article points to recent reviews released by EdReports, a nonprofit group that reviews educational materials: summary of Lucy Calkin’s Units of Study and summary of Fountas and Pinnell Classroom.
Emily Hanford, APM journalist (and my hero 🙂 ) and a warrior in the fight to bring effective literacy instruction to all) released an article on November 19, 2021: Influential Authors Fountas and Pinnell Stand Behind Disproven Reading Theory. Both Schwartz’s and Hanford’s articles highlight a very recent development in the continuing controversy over balanced literacy, which focuses on leveled reading, versus structured literacy, which focuses on systematic and explicit phonics instruction. It is disappointing, to say the least, that Fountas and Pinnell, two highly influential women in the world of reading instruction, are rooted in their ways. Wiley Blevins, quoted in Hanford’s article, states, “They’re [Fountas and Pinnell] really fighting to stay cemented in what they’ve been doing for decades and ignoring new information that we have. And that’s dangerous.” Far more than disappointing, it is indeed dangerous.
On November, 20, 2021, Mark Seidenberg, in his article, Clarity About Fountas and Pinnell, weighed in with this, “Thus: Fountas and Pinnell’s approach to reading creates learning difficulties for which their curriculum then offers solutions. The rationale for the approach collapses if children are given sufficient opportunities to gain basic skills.” When you read his entire post, it’s tough to disagree that Fountas and Pinnell’s approach actually creates reading problems, rather than solving them. Yikes.
On November 14, 2021, Natalie Wexler weighed in on the debate in her Forbes article, Never Heard of Lucy Calkins? Here’s Why You Should Have. As always, Wexler highlights the need for knowledge building through reading of complex text, which is one of the three instructional ELA shifts outlined by the Common Core.
I can’t find the quote, but its sentiment goes something like this: The best researchers are the ones who continue to learn and adjust methods based on the most current findings. This is where my own personal disappointment lies with Lucy Calkins and Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell. Side note: there is some evidence that suggests Lucy Calkins is beginning to make changes to her curriculum. These women are smart – MUCH smarter than I am. I am puzzled by what keeps them from adjusting their approach. The evidence to adjust reading instruction is far too compelling; we can’t afford to have such influential people in the field of reading dig their heals in to the sands of disproven reading instruction practices.
Looking to Indiana
The state of Indiana is a state to look to when it comes to improving literacy instruction. Indiana is rising to the front of the battle with it’s “Indiana’s Priorities for Early Literacy” plan, still in draft form. On the first page of the document describing the plan, “Indiana will support the implementation of research-based practices aligned to the Science of Reading. The Science of Reading is not a program or curriculum in itself but offers a research-based and multi-faceted approach to reading instruction.”
The Reading League Indiana’s December Newsletter featured a reflection from Christina Lear, one of Indiana’s Reading League members and the principal of Indianapolis Metropolitan High School: “So many students who have trusted our school systems have been failed by inadequate literacy instruction, even in the hands of loving and dedicated teachers. Many of us were never exposed to the right tools and continued to do the best we could. But, in the words of Maya Angelou: ‘Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.'”
My heart is aching for my niece, Sarah, who is experiencing a bumpy ride in her first year of teaching. Sarah landed a job as a kindergarten teacher, the one grade she knew she did NOT want to teach. She has two students who are particularly challenging; her energy is spent trying to meet their needs, which leaves her drained and feeling like she is not meeting the needs of the other students in her classroom. She is finding zero time for herself – even her “30 minute” lunch has quickly dissolved. Sarah is not being able to fill her tanks – neither her basic needs tank (food!) nor her emotional needs tank. This is all too common for all teachers, and is only compounded for first year teachers, whose “toolbelts” aren’t as full as the “toolbelts” of veteran teachers.
I have many questions for Sarah, including: Do you have a mentor or coach? Do you have colleague(s) that you can share your struggles with? Do you feel comfortable approaching colleagues with questions? Sarah is no stranger to hard work, but the job of teaching brings hard work to a whole other level. Teachers’ jobs go far above and beyond teaching: we are teachers, nurses, counselors, parents, mediators, mentors, and decision makers – teachers make hundreds of decisions every day, which is exhausting in and of itself.
I have many pieces of advice for Sarah, including: allow yourself to feel every emotion that you’re feeling – all of them are real and you have every right to feel them, reach out to your colleagues and administration, and establish practices around gratitude (this is when Sarah might just throat punch me!).
When I get the opportunity to talk with Sarah, I want to be able to listen, to validate her feelings, and to have the “just right” words of advice. But I know that my advice won’t be “just right,” I know that I’ll run the risk of saying too much, or not landing on the words that she needs right now. If nothing else, I hope I’ll be able to validate her concerns (the struggle is oh-so-real!), and inspire her to consider staying in the very, very tough field of education. I’ll inevitably fall back on George Couros, as I so often do, and offer what he shared in this week’s email:
“There was one year in my career where I thought it would be my last in education. I was frustrated and wasn’t sure if teaching was for me anymore. I went away for the summer and just got away from education, and I will tell you, it was the best thing that I had ever done. Not only did I come back refreshed, but I also had changed my attitude significantly. There were things that I was frustrated with and what I realized is that there were some elements that I could not change because they were out of my control, but I could change how I looked at things. That break saved my career and changed my perspective from wanting to leave education to loving it more than ever.”
Taking a Break
Speaking of George Couros, he is the reason I’ve decided that this will be my last blogpost for 2021. In yesterday’s weekly email from George, he wrote that he won’t be submitting anymore weekly emails for the year: “Here’s the thing, though…I do not feel like I absolutely need a break. I just know it is way better to take one BEFORE you feel forced to do so.” I love that sentiment! I don’t necessarily feel like I need a break, but I know how busy this time of year is, and I know that taking a break from something is often the best way to get better at it.
To date, I have completed 43 posts, starting with my very first one that was released on January 3, 2021. Writing each week has been one of the best commitments I have ever made. This “forced reflection” in the form of committing to writing each week, has allowed me to process so much of what I am learning, especially around the science of reading, instructional coaching, and social emotional learning. It has helped me refine my thinking around these topics and others, and has resulted in many endorphin rushes upon the completion and posting of each entry. Despite my feeling of never having the perfect post, I forge ahead because of the afore mentioned learning and reflection.