Sunday, September 14, 2014

"...I contain multitudes."

On the best days, teaching is all about hearing children sing their own songs. Some may need a little tune up, but all of the songs are reflections of who they are. I'm not talking about those kids who cling to the five-paragraph essays until they sweat the structure to the point of echoing an educator or text, stifling their voices in the details.

But maybe I am talking about those kids. Maybe on the field, in first chair, with a brush, writing code, tending gardens, pulling crab pots. Maybe at some point in the day their authentic selves shine through with confidence. Maybe.

How do we bring that same confidence to sharpening their literacy skills when they are so, so far behind? We don't play the blame game. Who knows where those children were functioning when last year's teacher met them? They may have already fought hard to gain the ground that we are see as shaky at best. Let's assume that their parents may be doing the best they can. Blame wastes your mental energy and precious time. Teachers know those are resources we must protect.

Meet kids where they are. There will be times in class when they just have to tackle a text that is out of their ZPDs, or reading comfort zone. As teachers, it's important that we know when that happens, so we can offer support. Read-alouds, modeling, think-alouds, active reading strategies, fix-up strategies...the list is long. Get comfortable with techniques that work for you as you help your students engage with the text. Engagement is key, and engaged students are far more fun to teach. Right?

Sometimes a story may be so far out of their independent reading ability that all of the strategies in the world won't build that scaffold strong and high enough. So is it important that they read that selection, or is it important that they get the story? 

If it's about story, is there another way to get it? Would clips of a film with subtitles turned on make the story more accessible? If the story is a classic, chances are that it has been illustrated by now. I'm not talking about the random art that can show up in the literature book. I'm talking about an illustrator who has read the text. Has it been turned into a graphic novel? Would reading this be a springboard for attacking the original story? Is there a Reader's Theater version of the tale? Scope magazine publishes a script in each edition of their magazine. (I have "The Tell-Tale Heart" ready to go for my collaborative class tomorrow.) And after you have given them this story, can you find a comparable tale that they can read with confidence that allows them to sharpen their independent reading skills?

Is there time set aside for kids to have some choice over their reading within their ZPD? If we were struggling readers, what would it feel like to sit through a double block class with materials that were three or more reading levels beyond our comfort zone? How will they be able to use literature to gain skills that rest on understanding the subtleties of authors' craft when all of the material is out of their mental grasp? And what if their reading class is at the end of the day? For a "third grade reader" in eighth grade, I'm just thankful that they didn't run home screaming before they got to me. (Luckily, I work with great people who do their best to make their curriculum accessible to all learners; I hope you do too.)

No matter how low children are, they can grow. It's never okay for us to tell ourselves that a child cannot. It's also not okay for us to be thankful the troublemakers have their heads down today. And we cannot say to ourselves that a child just is not a reader and take comfort in the fact that they excel in another field in order to quiet our conscience.

Reading is a pathway to community. It's not the only way, but it's a way marked with richness and diversity. 

Libraries are for everyone. Tell a friend. Tell your students. Some will not believe you. You will have to show them the truth.

Some books in the library aren't for everyone, but faced with seemingly infinite possibilities-- there just has to be something in there that fits. We have to help struggling readers use the library. We can still provide choices, but libraries are overwhelming to fledgling readers of all ages. What if we decoded language at such a painful pace, just browsing the shelves caused us to break into a sweat? Teachers and librarians who know the collection can guide the student and provide a few options based on student interest and independent reading level. So many books are out there these days designed to look "on level" while containing vocabulary and style for a "below level" reader. 

And thank goodness for the boom in graphic literature. Bless those writers and artists with swift fingers and fluid lines. Keep at it. One characteristic of some struggling readers is that they do not picture what they read, which is what good readers do. Graphic literature can bridge that gap. If you know an educator who still turns his/her nose up to this style, there is lots of research out there to support your love of these illustrated texts.

So back to Uncle Walt, Mr. Humanity, who contains multitudes. So do we. So do our kids. Walt was talking about all of us. Children aren't one-dimensional beings, although sometimes they like to think they are. 

"I don't need to read. I'm going to work on my dad's boat."

"I don't need to read. I'm an athlete."

"I don't need to read. I'm a musician."

"I don't need to read. I'm going to work on cars."

Students may actually say these words to us. I know. It hurts. We are the adults. Do not expect a child to have the foresight and understanding of the ways that literacy opens and closes doors in the blink of an eye. We can try to explain that, but only some of our message will not land. 

Often in education we have to carry the dreams we have for our students when they can't dream for themselves. That's okay. 

We can flash forward to the miles of forms that it takes to be an adult, the speed that it takes to find the answer to a question on the internet and choose the most accurate response, the times they may have to shuttle children and grandchildren to the library and read to them at night, the dinner table studying sessions when their children may need help, the employment they may seek that requires the ability to communicate through e-mail in a timely manner, the scanning of the newspaper for coupons in order to stretch their family's budget. 

We see all of this. We live it. No one has to remind us.

Every child is a reader. If we can help them believe this between September and June, we have given them a gift that they will not even begin to understand until they are adults. (So don't hold your breath for a thank you!)

This post sounds a little like a Sunday sermon, and maybe it is. This week there were two specific moments that fired me up all over again. 

First, the talented artist and teacher, Clayton Singleton, spoke at Norfolk Public Schools' convocation. Mr. Singleton made a lot of salient points, but something he said at 28:34 spoke to me. Watch the entire presentation, if you want to get lifted. Just perk up at 28:34 and pay close attention when he talks about "the black dude." I want you to hear it for yourself. Again, that child also contains multitudes. Let's not forget it!

Second, CBS Sunday Morning made me cry. They let me see that struggling reader take control of his reading life and find joy, community, pride and self-respect through literacy

Teachers, keep on teaching! 
We'll never get to see the true impact of the time we spend with children, but keep moving forward anyway. 

Here's to your best year yet!