Because I'm hoping to get back into teaching soon, I've been reading a lot about education lately. It's been a long time since I was surrounded by teachers, and times, and methods, have evolved. Of course, all the new governmental regulation is changing the face of education yet again -- for better or worse. But those are conversations for another day. For now, I've been reading, marking up, and taking notes on about a dozen books, mostly about language arts. Specifically, I've recently read four books about teaching reading. Yesterday I read The Book Whisperer by Miller, and today I'm into The Art of Teaching Reading, by Calkins.
Miller is a woman after my own heart. Bring them into a classroom rich with wonderful books, and have them read, she says. Time spent reading makes readers better, and the best readers are the best writers, communicators, students, and test-takers. But Miller teaches 6th grade Language Arts and Social Studies, so students are coming to her with at least some rudimentary ability to read. She doesn't need to wrestle with phonemes or phonics, letter formation or spelling sight words. What would she do differently if she taught Kindergarten or First Grade, I wonder? Has she ever had a student who can't read or write? I'd like to know how she would deal with the need to provide appropriate books and support to a non-reader who had already been held back once or twice, or a foreign student with no English. Perhaps these situations haven't come before her. If they have, I wish she'd write about them. (I know she has a website, but I haven't visited it yet.)
Two of the books I purchased, (see below), are specifically about Reading Workshop, a method of organizing reading instruction with a large group lesson, small groups, mini/strategy lessons, book partnerships, book clubs, reading journals, individual conferences and independent reading. (As you can imagine, not a small part of these books is spent discussing planning and organization.) At the center of a Reading Workshop is supposed to be the child, reading a book of their own choosing, hopefully at their independent reading level. We know from many studies that when kids have plenty of time to read books they want, they become better readers. But looking at sample schedules, I see that of a 90 minute block, independent reading is often only 20-25 minutes, and kids are being pulled out of it for small groups and one-on-one conferences with the teacher. Also, while they're reading, they are often armed with sticky notes reminding them to stop and predict, question, or record their reactions to something they've read. So I wonder, how much time are these students actually spending inside their books? Are they able to get caught up in the story, knowing that at any moment they might be called for a meeting, interrupted to discuss theme or strategies to sound out words they don't know? Again, grade level matters here. Twenty five minutes focusing on books is quite a while for a five year old who may not have had any experience with books before coming to school, but perhaps not enough when you're eleven and desperate to finish Harry Potter. Miller's contrasting attitude, leave them alone and let them read, is appealing. She relies on a weekly response journal, and talking with her kids about books to gauge comprehension. They also do occasional book commercials and recommendations. I just wish I knew more about the level of the students who come into her room.
Calkins also advocates the workshop approach. "During independent reading, teachers confer with children individually and in partnerships. A teacher may also gather a cluster of children together for a strategy lesson around a shared text.... A teacher may also gather a small group for a guided reading session.” p73. I can’t help but wonder what message this sends our kids about reading -- that it’s something to do to stay busy till the teacher is ready for you? Yet I totally understand the fact that teachers are dealing with a limited amount of time to teach, a great number of demands on that time, and a wide range of abilities within one classroom. When I was in school, (back in the old days...) we had USSR or DEAR, Uninterrupted Sustained Silent Reading, or Drop Everything and Read, in which even the secretaries and janitors were encouraged to curl up with a book for 20-30 minutes every day. Now we seem to have Read Until Some Thing Interrupts, (RUSTI?)
Any decent teacher will tell you that instruction depends on grade level and the individual needs of the students. I know that. But I can’t help but wonder, as I read these books on reading instruction, how much of what we do to teach reading is still based on what we think kids need, as opposed to what will actually help them become better readers, writers, and thinkers. I wish I knew. I guess I’ll keep reading, in hopes of finding out.
Read Well, Friend
The Art of Teaching Reading, Lucy McCormick Calkins
Making the Most of Small Groups, Debbie Diller
The Book Whisperer, Donalyn Miller
Teaching Reading in Small Groups, Jennifer Serravallo