Friday, June 29, 2012

To Kill a Mockingbird and Literacy

To Kill a Mockingbird has its problems.  An article last year about students who don't read the assigned texts was titled, "The 800-Pound Mockingbird in the Classroom".   It's too hard for many students, and many students don't read it.  I don't love the way it seems to solve the problem of racism by substituting classism, in which the elite White people of Maycomb are mainly good and enlightened, the country farmers are good at heart if not always fully enlightened, the obedient and/or crippled Black people are good, and the people who are bad include the powerful, uppity, separatist Black person (tall, strong Lula, who is a "troublemaker" with "fancy ideas and haughty ways") and the great villain of the novel, Bob Ewell, whose evilness is directly linked to his class status as poor white trash.  I also don't love the way the book glorifies the she-asked-for-it rape defense.

It's not my favorite book, and I wish I wasn't required to teach it, especially to my "Standard" level ninth grade classes.  Nevertheless, in the past couple of days I've found myself thinking a lot about what the book says about reading and school.  Like many of our culture's most beloved books, To Kill a Mockingbird gives a picture of reading and of school (and of explicit instruction in particular) that is as interesting as any broadside in the great education debates.

First, To Kill a Mockingbird shows us a group of young people with a deep culture of reading. When Dill first introduces himself to Jem and Scout, he states his identity in the following way: "I'm Charles Baker Harris.  I can read." Jem, Scout and Dill are left to their own devices most of the time, and many of their activities relate to the books they read.  They share adventure novels (Tarzan, Tom Swift and the like), they act out their plots, and when in the first chapter Dill wants to get Jem to run up and touch the spooky Radley house, he does it by offering to bet "The Gray Ghost against two Tom Swifts".

This culture of reading is independent of school.  As in a lot of other books (the autobiographies of Ben Franklin, Harriet Jacobs, Malcolm X, Richard Wright, Henry James, etc., and novels like Tom Sawyer and Ramona and Beezus), we see children whose reading is deep and sustaining in the absence of explicit instruction.  What has happened is that these children have been inducted into the society of readers (what a wonderful passage in Crevecoeur calls an "extensive intellectual consanguinity"); once in that society, they have not needed much extra guidance.

How are they initiated?  Not through explicit instruction.  Mockingbird is bitterly satirical about school--mocking the idea that reading can be taught at all.  As Scout tells it, when on the first day of school her teacher, Miss Caroline, "discovered I was literate, she looked at me with more than faint distaste.  She told me to tell my father not to teach me anymore, it would interfere with my reading."

The joke here is many-layered.  First, Miss Caroline sees "reading" as something that should be entirely within the purview of school.  Second, she imagines that reading must be "taught."  Third, her notion, that teaching will interfere with reading, is true, but not in the way Miss Caroline imagines.  It isn't Atticus, but Miss Caroline herself whose teaching will interfere with Scout's reading.

For, as Scout sees it, Atticus has never "taught" her.  He is too tired in the evenings, she tells her teacher, to do anything but sit in the livingroom and read.  But Miss Caroline can't believe it.  "You tell your father not to teach you anymore.  It's best to begin reading with a fresh mind.  You tell him I'll take over from here and undo the damage."  When Scout tries to protest, Miss Caroline cuts her off: "Your father does not know how to teach.  You can have a seat now."

So, either Miss Caroline does not know how to teach, or else "teaching" itself is suspect.  The novel implies the latter, but it's not a simple picture.  For in fact Miss Caroline is not just an old-fashioned teacher with a ruler.  She is also a representative of a new way of teaching that Jem identifies as the "Dewey Decimal System."  This too is a multi-layered joke.  On the one hand, Jem is confusing John Dewey, the philosopher and education theorist, with Melvil Dewey, the inventor of a strict and systematic library classification system, and Miss Caroline's teaching seems somewhat strict and systematic.

On the other hand--and this is where the joke gets complicated, this is where the book raises a challenge to us as teachers--Miss Caroline is really, to some extent, a teacher in the progressive tradition of John Dewey, who believed that learning was largely social and that the teacher should be a member of the community rather than a purveyor of facts in the mold of Dickens's Mr. Gradgrind--and yet her  attempts to guide and model rather than command and instruct are always falling short.  Harper Lee has us laughing at Miss Caroline's reading of The Wind in The Willows, which no one in her class understands or cares about.   She is trying to lead the kids to reading, but she's failing.  Her failure is contrasted with Atticus's success: at the end of the section on school, Atticus reads to Jem and Scout about a flagpole sitter, the kids are rapt, and Jem heads out to the yard to try it himself.

Our challenge as teachers, like Miss Caroline's challenge, is to try to initiate our students into the culture of reading--to get them to join that extensive intellectual consanguinity. Why does Atticus succeed and Miss Caroline fail?  How can we do what Atticus does?  Can school even work that way?

I was too tired to post anything yesterday or Wednesday

I am tired.  I sympathize with my students!  The course I am taking is kind of hard (I'm in class most of the day, and then I have homework at night), I have spent a lot of time with my kids in the evenings, and I spent a couple of hours on both Monday and Wednesday writing blog posts.  I'm thinking of doing a post tonight on what To Kill a Mockingbird says about literacy.  Even though I have mixed feelings about using  To Kill a Mockingbird in the classroom, I love the complex picture it gives of reading and school.  In brief, Harper Lee seems to be for the natural-reading, homeschooling-y understanding of literacy learning, and pretty much against explicit instruction.  More later.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Breast is Best; The Questionable Worth of Explicit Vocab Instruction, Redux

I've read some more studies, and it still is very far from clear to me that spending time on explicit vocab instruction in non-specialized lexicons is more valuable than "natural reading."  I'll try below to explain where the uncertainties lie, and why the studies I've read have not quelled my doubts. I apologize for getting into the boring weeds of these scholarly articles and their trails of footnotes, but looking for evidence that vocab instruction improves comprehension brings me back to 2003: it reminds me of looking for evidence of Saddam's nuclear arsenal.  Supporters of explicit vocab instruction insist that proof is there, and they have created endless daisy chains of references to others who insist that proof is there, but in the end I couldn't find it.

It is just amazing how often assertions about the value of vocabulary instruction are made without offering good evidence.  I talked about this problem in relation to the What Works document in my last post, but I see it over and over again. In one of our readings for today, Karen Bromley offers as one of her "Nine Things Every Teacher Should Know About Words and Vocabulary Instruction" the following remarkable statement in bold face print as her seventh essential truth we all should know:

"Direct instruction in vocabulary influences comprehension more than any other factor."

Taken at face value, this is just absurd.  We wonder: Is explicit vocab instruction a more important factor than how much a student reads? Is explicit vocab instruction a more important factor than the family a student comes from?  Of course not.  But then, not only does Bromley immediately backtrack from her statement ("Although wide reading can build word knowledge, students need thoughtful and systematic instruction in vocabulary as well"--and again, Jay Gatsby might appreciate that "as well"), she also cites research that does not seem to back up her claim.

Her first (and best) reference is Blachowitz and Fisher's 2004 article, which does contain a section on "The Research on Vocabulary Instruction."  This section, however, primarily offers evidence for home environment and wide reading as important factors, and then concludes that explicit instruction must be needed to fill in the gap for students who don't come from literate families or read a lot.

Why, we wonder, shouldn't we try to work on the wide reading part of it?  (And the socialists among us might suspect that reducing inequality and poverty might help too).  But that's not considered, so we are left only with explicit instruction, for which Blachowitz and Fisher offer only lukewarm support.  The closest the article comes to arguing that explicit instruction can fill the gap is when it says, "studies support the idea that good vocabulary instruction can teach students the words they need to know to learn to read (Beck, Perfetti, & McKeown, 1982; Biemiller, 2001)."  Blachowitz and Fisher's article eventually concludes with the underwhelming sentence: "Research indicates that effective vocabulary instruction can make a difference."

Nevertheless, the article did offer those two citations: Beck et al, 1982; Biemiller, 2001.  So I looked at those.

Biemiller's article is entirely armchair theorizing, with no data of its own, as far as I could tell. That left the Beck et al. article from 1982.  That article is, mirabile dictu, the same one that my workshop instructor gave me today after I questioned whether explicit vocab instruction could actually improve comprehension.  That this somewhat lame article (the "Curveball" of vocab instruction?) has been the mainstay of explicit vocab instruction promoters for 30 years is, again, just amazing.

The Beck et al. article, which contains data from a controlled trial of a 5 month long unit of in-depth vocab instruction in 104 words, has two large problems.  One problem is that control group in their experiment was only given "a traditional textbook curriculum."  It seems very possible that this traditional textbook curriculum was totally worthless.  I would like to know more about what that curriculum was, and I'd prefer to see explicit vocab instruction competing against a well-implemented free-choice reading program.

The second problem is that the Beck et al. experiment only taught 104 words, and only tested the students on passages that contained those very words.  This may perhaps be relevant for other disciplines, but it does not seem very impressive for English.  Of course if you teach kids words that occur in a passage, they will be able to understand the passage better; the question is whether teaching kids words (or roots, or morphemic awareness or whatever) will help them read passages that are not hand-selected to contain those words.

In a follow-up paper the next year, Beck et al. refined their experiment, and trumpeted it as a real breakthrough.  According to their introduction, "studies that have attempted to improve comprehension through vocabulary training have brought equivocal results"; but their study had finally proved a link.  That Beck et al. were evidently so proud of proving that five months of instruction on 104 words could improve students' comprehension of passages containing those very 104 words is just mind-boggling to me.

What all this leaves me with is a feeling of befuddlement.  I am pretty sure that wide reading over many years will improve both vocabulary and comprehension, and to support that claim there is abundant empirical and anecdotal evidence which even the explicit instruction promoters acknowledge.  Wide reading over many years: is that impossible?  Schools have near-total control over students for six hours a day over many years.  Then why in the world can we not make sure that our students are reading for at least an hour a day, every day, in every grade?  Why are we going to such enormous lengths to try to prove that a mechanical process is as good as an organic one?  Explicit vocab instruction, like so many things in our curriculum, is like a vitamin pill, a nutritional supplement.  Why would we want to give our students endless vitamin pills, rather than just feeding them wholesome real food?  Why would we spend decades and decades trying to formulate nutritional supplements?  Or, for another analogy, explicit vocab and skills instruction looks to me like infant formula.  OK, we can get better at making infant formula, but it's still probably never going to be quite as good as the real thing. I want a slogan.  What's the educational equivalent of "Breast is Best"?

Monday, June 25, 2012

Is Explicit Vocabulary instruction Worth It?

I've been thinking about vocabulary a lot recently.  I've tried to teach vocabulary in a "robust" way in recent years (offering friendly definitions, using the words in context, playing fun games, etc.), but I haven't had much success.  Some kids knew the words already, some didn't; some studied, some didn't; most forgot the words by the end of the year.  I was dispirited.  Then, while following the common core debate, I noticed that in a recent letter in Education Week Linda Diamond defended the National Reading Panel Report and its emphasis on skills, "explicit instruction," and vocabulary instruction ("Common-core standards in reading not 'flawed,'" March 28). I was most interested in the question of vocabulary instruction, and I decided to try to figure out who was right, the Common Core Standards, the National Reading Panel, and the "What Works" Clearinghouse, or those who argue that explicit vocabulary instruction is probably less valuable than other activities, like reading itself.

My first step was to look up the government's "What Works" publication on adolescent literacy (  I found that this apparently authoritative, evidence-based publication said there was "strong" empirical evidence for explicit vocabulary instruction. When I followed up on their evidence, however, I was surprised to find that there was almost nothing there--and that some of what their strongest evidence seemed rather to question the value of explicit vocabulary instruction.

The strongest evidence cited by the What Works report seemed to be in the following passage: "Children often learn new words from context. However, according to a meta-analysis of the literature, the probability that they will learn new words while reading is relatively low--about 15 percent. Therefore, although incidental learning helps students develop their vocabulary, additional explicit instructional support needs to be provided as part of the curriculum to ensure that all students acquire the necessary print vocabulary for academic success.

This sounded interesting, but a little obscure. If the probability of learning new words while reading is "relatively low--about 15 percent," what exactly does that mean? 15 percent of what? Does that mean that 15 percent of my students learn NO words at all in the course of their reading? That would be terrible. Or does it mean that for any occurrence of a word they don't know, there is a 15 percent chance of their learning it? That doesn't sound so bad.

Curious, I followed the citation to a 1999 paper by a couple of researchers in Amsterdam, researchers who wrote in perfect English, of course. (An aside: how did they acquire their excellent English vocabulary? Not, I imagine, from much explicit instruction in vocabulary, but I could be wrong). These Dutch academics, Swanborn and De Glopper, had reviewed a number of studies of vocabulary acquisition from what they charmingly called "natural reading." They noted that some uncertainties remained, because there seemed to be great variability among students in how many words could be learned incidentally, and it was unclear also how many unknown words students encountered in their "natural reading," but the researchers concluded on a positive note: "What we do know, however, from our meta-analysis, is that students have a fair chance of learning unknown words from reading. Natural reading has the potential to make a contribution to vocabulary growth." This is, strikingly, at odds with the way the government publication interpreted their article. So I decided to look more closely, at the 15 percent that the What Works article had claimed was too low a number.

According to Swanborn and de Glopper, students encounter unknown words at a rate of at least one percent. That is, in a thousand words of text, ten of them will be unknown to a student who is reading a book that's comfortable for him to read. Of those unknown words, 15 percent will be learned without any conscious effort. The What Works authors deemed this too low a number. But how many words would a student learn at this rate? Say a student read ten pages a day, hardly impossible, and say each page had three hundred words, also a low estimate. Then in a week the student would have read 7x10x300 words, or 21,000 words. Of those words, at least one percent, or 210, would be unknown. Of those 210 unknown words, the student might be expected to learn 15 percent, or 31 words. So, according to the meta-analysis that the What Works authors cited to show the inadequacy of natural reading as a way of improving one's vocabulary, students who are reading at the relatively slow pace of 70 pages a week could be expected to learn 31 new words a week. At my school, we have had a big push in recent years to teach more vocabulary, and many teachers are spending as much as 10 or 15 percent of their class time to explicit vocabulary instruction. But even with this extraordinary expenditure of time and energy, no teacher is teaching her students more than 10 words a week, at the most, and few students are actually learning all ten of those words. With the hour a week that we are spending on vocab, our students could be reading another thirty pages, thereby learning another 13 words, and also accruing all the other benefits that reading brings.

It seems that having a 15% chance of learning new words is far from "too low"; instead, it is wonderful and promising. So the main evidence cited by the What Works authors does not support their argument that explicit vocabulary instruction is needed.

Natural reading may work to improve vocabulary.  But what about explicit vocabulary instruction?  Maybe research shows that explicit instruction is very effective--even more effective than natural reading, despite my own poor results.  So I looked at some of the research the report cited and I looked at some papers I found elsewhere, and NOWHERE could I find clear empirical evidence that explicit instruction in vocabulary would lead to more word acquisition than just plain reading, nor that the word acquisition that was achieved in any of the studies had actually increased comprehension.  As Baumann et al. say in their 2003 paper, "causality regarding vocabulary-to-comprehension relationships [...] remain [sic] murky."

This is typical of my experience with educational research.  The claims people make about what is supported by the data are often strikingly at odds with what the data actually support.  There is no doubt that good readers usually have good vocabularies, and there is no doubt that they acquired their good vocabularies somehow, but it is very far from clear how they did, and it is very far from clear what teachers can do to help.  In the absence of much clearer evidence that explicit instruction is significantly better than just reading, I think we should mostly stick with just reading.  That said, I am still going to do some vocabulary stuff in my classes next year.

This year, after I had my students learn vocabulary words drawn from the books we read as a class, they didn't make much progress.  Next year I am going to have them pay attention to words in the books they read on their own and make their own vocab tests from those words.  I also hope to be very intentional about using a lot of higher-order words in class myself.  A few weeks ago I used the word "behoove" a few times, and many of my weakest students loved it.  I'm skeptical about whole-class word lists, but I hope that modeling and encouraging word-love (and upping the reading volume) can make a difference.  We'll see.

I'm taking a literacy workshop!

This week I'm doing a workshop at my school, the beginning of a pretty big initiative aimed at increasing literacy and reading skills across the disciplines.  The workshop is being taught by a couple of local education professors who are consultants at AdLit PD and Consulting, a company that focuses on adolescent literacy.  It's pretty interesting, so I'm going to write something every day here, rather than every week.

The first day was full of interesting discussions about what literacy is, what reading skills kids need in the different disciplines (in the room there are social studies teachers, foreign language teachers, english teachers, science teachers, librarians and special ed teachers).  We talked about our own reading, about problems our students have, we talked about the common core, we talked about habits of mind, and we talked about skills and strategies.  One thing we didn't talk much about (though I did my best to annoyingly inject the subject at every opportunity) was how much kids actually read.  As usual, the focus is on strategies and skills and explicit instruction, and the fundamental question of how much kids are actually reading is an afterthought, if it is mentioned at all.  When I talked about it with one of our very intelligent and competent instructors, he said something like, "Oh, I agree with you completely.  That's so important.  You must like Dick Allington.  When I ran an eighth grade intervention, all I did with those kids was read, and they made the most improvement of any kids in the city. But we have to not only have kids read, we also have to teach them these habits of mind.  Reading by itself is not enough."  I agreed with him, and said that I only focused so much on reading volume because it was what practice (our school) and theory (most discussions, courses, texts, reports, etc.) completely ignored.  He agreed, but then he talked about habits of mind for the rest of the time.

I'll keep trying, but in the meantime I'll do my homework.  One part of the homework was my favorite kind: to pick a text (they had brought a lot of books) and read it.  I picked out a Kylene Beers book with a catchy title (When Kids Can't Read--What Teachers Can Do).  I skimmed it, and I found that she although she goes into great detail about strategies, graphic organizers, and so on, she spends almost no time on how to increase the amount that kids read.  What I want is a book with the title, When Kids Don't Read--What Teachers Can Do; but I don't think I'll be seeing that book anytime soon.

Our second assignment was my second favorite kind of homework: to write a blog post.  The post is supposed to be about vocabulary, something I've been thinking about.  I'll post that separately.

Friday, June 22, 2012

How many books did our students read this year?

I'm going away for a few days on a camping trip, but I'm going to try to schedule this to be posted on Friday.  Miraculous technology!  (I feel like Willy Loman's boss, Howard, who tells Willy about his amazing new tape recorder, which allows him to listen to Jack Benny at any hour he wishes, as long as the maid remembers to record the show for him when it's aired.  I suppose if this doesn't work I could always have my maid do it--if I had a maid...)

"How many books did our students read this year?" is a question that we should all be asking.  A couple of weeks ago I asked it of the students in the "Tutorial" class I work in once a week.  Not how many books they were supposed to read, but how many they actually read.  The answers I got were interesting.  The students read, on average, about six books each over the course of the year.

These are kids who are in a very well-run academic support program.  More than half of them are in honors English classes.  They have been in school for eight and a half months.

If we assume that kids are truthful in their reporting, and even if we pretend that kids are reading every page of the books they claim they are reading, and if we assume that a book is, on average, 300 pages long, that would mean that each kid is reading fewer than ten pages a day.  And if you look only at the lower half of the distribution (mostly kids who are not in "Honors" classes), each kid is reading only 150 pages a month, which works out to 5 pages a day.  For the kids in the lower quarter of the distribution, each kid is reporting reading reading 2 to 3 pages a day.

I think it's safe to say that this is not enough.  Children should be reading closer to two books a month, at the least. 

What were the averages for kids in my own standard-level classes?  8.5 books per kid.  Better--but again, not nearly enough.

There are a number of reasons it's hard for schools to get kids to read more:

  • If we ask kids to read at home, it is very hard to make sure they really do it, and the weakest readers will tend to read least
  • If we have kids read in English class, the teacher then feels that she herself isn’t doing enough.
  • If we have an academic support program, that program will support the work that is being directly checked and graded that day or week, and that usually means producing or processing a piece of paper (because that's checkable), not reading a book.
  • If we have a remediation program, we tend to want to remediate the particular areas in which we see the kids are weak (fluency, comprehension, vocabulary, etc,) so we tend to teach “strategies” or vocabulary aimed at these specific areas.
  • Remediation teachers have the same desire to feel personally useful, and just having the kids read doesn’t seem like “teaching”
  • Also, remediation programs have very little time (typically an hour a week), and we know the kids need more reading than that, so spending the time having them read seems inadequate.
These are major obstacles in every school: my own son just finished sixth grade at a wonderful school, and he reports that most of his “Reader’s Workshop” time is spent with the (excellent) teacher giving direct instruction.  Less than half of the time, according to his report, is spent reading.  I have trouble believing this, since I admire his teacher so much, but it may well be true.  In his case, it doesn’t matter much, since he reads a lot at home, but I am sure there are number of kids in his class who do not read at home and who, because they have little time to read in school, read very little overall.  My son will get better and better at reading, and they won’t—not because he is gifted and they aren’t, but because he actually reads. (He also told me yesterday that the vocabulary lists he is made to memorize are completely pointless, that it would be much better to just read a book, because that's the way he actually learns words--and, he said, it's more enjoyable.)

So how can we make kids read more?  The answer is simple: provide them with a large number of good books at their independent reading level to choose from; and make them read; and watch them do it.  Our school has kids under its control for over six hours a day.  There is no good reason we can't have them sitting and silently reading books for at least an hour each day.  Nothing else we do with them is as important; nothing else would be as efficient, productive, and individualized.

Friday, June 15, 2012

End of Year Assessment

I end the year feeling relatively happy with what I accomplished in my "Honors" Junior classes.  There we have a more or less coherent curriculum ("American Literature"), and I know that most of my students can do things now (recognize and speak intelligently about the most famous works of American literature) that they couldn't before.  Some of my students fell in love with Henry James and Edith Wharton, reading Portrait of a Lady and The Age of Innocence on their own; others loved Vonnegut, Morrison, or Junot Diaz.  They all have a pretty good idea who Whitman, Dickinson and Wheatley are.  They can talk familiarly about modernism, post-modernism, and the Transcendentalists.  They've been to Walden Pond!

I feel much less happy--not to say completely dispirited--about my Ninth grade "Standard" classes.  In those classes I tried many things, and none of them worked very well.  I tried to split the class time between whole-class texts and independent reading.  For some kids, the independent reading was great.  Other kids did everything they could do to avoid actually reading.  The best I can say is that the in-class independent reading worked, like nothing else I've ever done, to reveal the real problems that are often, in a more conventional curriculum, hidden from view.  I now know that some students really, really, really struggle with and dislike reading--at least most books, at least so far.

With a conventional curriculum, it's easier to pretend that you are reading a little bit even if in fact you're not reading at all.  You can use Sparknotes, you can fake the reading homework, you can glean something from what the teacher or other students say, and often you can participate in class discussions and activities.  Failing any of those, you can always claim, or the teacher can imagine, that it is just the assigned book that is failing to fire your interest.  You are a reader, but not of this book--or so you claim.  With in-class independent reading, the non-reader is terrifyingly exposed.  Sitting there with his book is for him a form of torture--and what's worse, public torture.

If actually reading is important to improving literacy, and I can't see how it couldn't be important, then I have to figure out how to get these kids to read.  One thing I might try next year is starting the year with children's books, trying to have everybody in the class remembering--or (for those who struggled terribly in the very early grades, discovering--that reading is really fun.  In the first two weeks maybe we can move from Dr. Seuss to Jack and Annie to Matt Christopher to Roald Dahl to Harry Potter, and some students can stay at the level at which reading is actually fun and not feel bad about reading Matt Christopher instead of Dennis Lehane.

I really, really want my students to learn how enjoyable reading can be.  I asked my freshmen to write about a book they liked this year, and a number of them wrote some variation of: I usually don't like to read, but there's one book I truly loved.  Usually this book was either a Sonya Sones title or The Hunger Games, but I think it's really important to try to help them find more than one book or author that they love.  Some literacy researcher, I forget which, talks about "home run books," books that turn non-readers into readers; my experience this year says that one home run book is not enough. How can I get them to go beyond Sonya Sones?  I need more books, we need to spend a lot of time trying to find books that they like, and some of the kids are going to have to read easier books...

Over the summer I'll think all this through more, but for now I just want to note down four goals I have for next year:

1) I want my students to read more.  To that end I plan to buy a lot more books, including easier ones, take them to the library more regularly, and do more reading in class in a more structured way.  (I will also cut out the non-fiction independent reading unit that I tried this year and that largely failed--the kids did a good job of writing non-fiction, but because the books were just not appealing enough, most of them didn't read much of it.  David Coleman can come in as a long-term sub and do that unit if he wants to.)

2) I want my students to learn more vocabulary.  This year I had them learn vocabulary words drawn from the books we read as a class, and yet they made, as a class, less than a year's progress in their vocabulary level (I gave them a vocab assessment in September and in June).  Next year I am going to have them pay attention to words in the books they read on their own and make their own vocab tests from those words.  I also hope to be very intentional about using a lot of higher-order words in class myself.  Last week I used the word "behoove" a few times, and many of my weakest students loved it.  I'm skeptical about whole-class word lists, but I hope that modeling and encouraging word-love (and upping the reading volume) can make a difference

3) I want my students to do more close reading--in the form of mark-ups, socratic seminars and passage essays.  I need to find difficult, high-interest texts or excerpts.

4) I want my students' writing to be more polished.  They have to get tough with themselves about the mechanics of their writing.  Too many of them produce work that is embarrassingly sloppy, and they just keep on making the same mistakes over and over again.

I still think independent work and independent reading should be a big part of English class, and I want to do even more of it next year, but I now see even more clearly that you have to not only lead a student to books, but create a social system in the classroom that helps him pick out good ones and encourages him to read them.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Field Trip: an interlude

This week I was going to write about giving kids time in school to read, but I'll save that for another Friday.  Last night I chaperoned an overnight field trip with my son's sixth grade class, and it gave me a couple of new perspectives on my own job.

My first thought was that while I had thought that my ninth graders were at peak kookiness, now I am convinced that peak kookiness occurs in sixth grade.  I don't know how my son's teacher does it.  I learned a lot about dealing with the middle-school set from her equanimity, her patience, and her good humor.

My second thought was that teacher-dominated explicit instruction can, despite my reservations about it, sometimes actually be better than independent work.  The field trip was an overnight at the science museum in Boston. I hadn't been to the museum for years, but I remembered lots of hands-on exhibits, lots of DIY learning where you do things like experiment with gear ratios and gyroscopic effects, wire up primitive circuits and climb inside Apollo landing craft.  Most of the museum was indeed as I remembered it--but most of the students I was with seemed to get very little out of those exhibits.

There was a table with blocks that was designed to help students explore the way volume changes as length changes.  The students played with the blocks, but then they started throwing them at each other.  There was a playground with swings, spinning circles, seesaws and huge scales with 500 lb. weights on one side and ropes hung at different points on the other side of the fulcrum.  The sign said: Do not climb on the ropes.  Naturally, my students immediately started climbing, and I heard no students talking about leverage, torque, rotational momentum or any of the other mechanical concepts they were supposed to be exploring.  There was a shadow theater which was designed to help students explore the connection between how close the shadow puppet is held to the light and how large its image becomes.  The kids had a great time making up a shadow play, but as far as I could tell they didn't give a thought to the concepts the exhibit was intended to make them think about.  A light sensitive wall on which you could take shadow images of yourself was an opportunity, for the kids I was with, to create pornographic tableaux in silhouette.  A display that allowed you to change the group behavior of fish was played with for about forty seconds, far too short a time to notice what changed with the different settings.

The self-directed exhibits were fun for the students to explore, but without help from an adult--and usually the kids were more interested in each other than in me;  it was a field trip, after all--I noticed very, very little thinking about the ostensible subjects of the exhibits.  Maybe having so many children in the group creates a social buzz that can't help but swamp any interest in the topic at hand.  I remember a passage in Rousseau's Emile that suggests that the best form of education would be to take the child on walks in the countryside, and help the child to point out interesting phenomena for the child to puzzle over--for example, to notice that the sun is rising in a different place in the sky than it had been a few months before.  This method might work with one kid, but if you had a larger group it seems likely that nobody would be paying much attention to the sun.  But I remember the same kind of impatience with the exhibits from my own visits to the museum as a kid.  Maybe Rousseau's method would work better because the natural setting would be richer than any preplanned lesson or exhibit could be.  Or maybe I was wrong, and my son and his classmates were actually getting much more out of the exhibits than I realized.

Whatever the case, my visit made me question my usual bias in favor of student-directed exploration.  Summerhill is my usual ur-text, but on this visit I kept thinking about Lord of the Flies.  Not that the kids were necessarily so out of control--and in any case Lord of the Flies is less a counter to Rousseau than his complement, since it seems to me that Roger and Jack have been made sick by the horrifying adult world whose war they were fleeing when they crashed and whose supposedly civilizing influences are represented as tragically inescapable in the bitterly ironic last page, with its clueless naval officer and his "trim cruiser" representing the machinery of civilization that has left the boys so traumatized.  I thought of the book last night for two reasons: the fact that on their own, or at least as a small group, most of the kids didn't seem able to learn; and the contradictory fact that they were, nevertheless, surprisingly willing to be civilized by somebody who was authoritative and commanding enough.  The boys seemed to want someone to take charge, and they were happy when someone did.

For while the self-directed exhibit halls  didn't work very well for my group, the lecture-like lessons in the lecture halls and cinemas worked amazingly well.  First we had an introductory lecture (or "show) on sound; the students were engaged and entertained throughout.  Later we saw the demonstration in the "Theater of Electricity" (lightning coming from huge Van der Graaff generators and Tesla coils, etc.), and the kids loved it.  The planetarium show too was amazing; the wildest kids were rapt throughout.  And of course the film about migrations in the Omni Theater was a huge hit.

I know that hands-on learning is supposed to be messy, and that neat, entertaining lectures may be less effective than they seem, no matter how quiet they keep the kids, but still, the contrast was remarkable, and made me wonder if I should try to be more entertaining, if I should try to get more comfortable with being on stage.  Is being a charismatic, engaging teacher necessarily mind control?  Is it okay to indoctrinate kids, if its in the service of The Good? Is it possible that explicit instruction really works?

Friday, June 1, 2012

How can we get kids to read more?

Many parents have asked me how they can get their children to read more, and I think that's the question we all should be asking.  Getting students to read is the most important academic work schools should be doing.  I'll talk about how to support reading below, but first a quick note on why we should be trying.

I saw a little table in a Richard Allington book (the data was from Anderson, Wilson and Fielding's excellent 1988 study) that showed how much time students spent reading outside of school:

Reading Volume of Fifth Grade Students at Different Levels of Achievement

Achievement                         Minutes of                                       Words per
Percentile                            Reading per day                                     year

90th                                           40.4                                             2, 357, 000

50th                                           12.9                                                601, 000

10th                                             1.6                                                  51, 000

This data fits with my sense that below-average students read very, very little outside of school--less than ten minutes a day--and something like an order of magnitude less than their high-achieving peers.  Of course cause and effect are intertwined here--the good readers read more partly because it's more fun for them--but it is easy to imagine that the lower-skilled students are not going to improve that much if they're only reading for a minute every day.

My own observations have convinced me that not much reading happens in school, but that for the reading that does happen, the same disparities exist; good readers are spending much, much more time reading in school than poor readers, and the gap just widens.

Imagine a kid who practices the piano for 40 minutes a day, and another who practices for 1.6 minutes a day.  No matter how high quality the instruction the two kids are offered, the kid who plays 1.6 minutes a day is not going to get much better.  And even if the instruction is not great, the kid who plays for 40 minutes will get better.

So, since reading is the most important academic skill, I believe the single most important thing schools should be doing is figuring out how to  get our weaker students to read more.  How?  I think there are two main things we should be doing: providing kids with books they will enjoy reading; and giving them uninterrupted quiet time to just sit and read.  These two things may seem obvious, but they are not easy, and my own school is not very good at either one.

First, we have to provide students with books.  This is much less simple than it sounds.  In providing books, as with so many other things, school offers a farcically stingy, shoddy, and burdensome imitation of what happens in upper-middle-class families.  Many parents bring their kids to the library, buy them books, suggest books they themselves liked, get recommendations from friends, and so on.

My daughter goes with her elementary-school class to the library every week.  Her mother or I take her to the library once a week or so as well.  She has been read to every night since she was an infant.  She sees her parents and brother reading every day. We don't have television or video games in our house.  There are hundreds of books--her own books--in her room.  When her brother turned twelve a few weeks ago, she got some little sister presents from her parents and grandparents, including at least nine new books, books that were chosen specifically to appeal to her individual tastes.

Even so, she didn't learn to read until she was seven.  She is now a great reader, loves reading, and reads every day, and but I wonder where she would be if she weren't growing up in such a text-rich household.  It is very important that our classrooms--even in high schools!--be places where books are plentiful and appealing.

For  it is not enough that we have books around; we need to make sure that the books are appropriately leveled and appealing, and we need to make individual recommendations.  Again, I think of my own children.  Last fall, my son was bored.  His computer time was up, and he didn't want to go out and play basketball.  I said, "Why don't you read something."

He said, "I don't have anything to read."

I said, "Hm."  We were in our living room, which has a wall like this (and an alcove with two more such walls):

My son's room, twenty feet away, has a wall like this:

And there are several more bookshelves upstairs. We have thousands of books in our house that my son has not read.  We even have hundreds of books at the right level.  And he loves to read.  When he said, "I don't have anything to read," he meant, "I don't have a book in my hands right now to read."

So I went over to our bookshelf and got down one of my own favorite books, about a guy who, with the help of resourceful villagers, survives in the winter in Norway while being chased by Nazis (We Die Alone, by David Howarth).  "Here," I said.  "Try this."

He read it in a day.

Lots of kids seem like reluctant readers, as my son was that afternoon.  But I think most kids would really love to read more, if they were only provided with the books and the time.  We just have to have the books available in the classroom--not only in the library (to which we often don't even bring our classes, and where the books are hardly the main focus).  And we have to have books that they CAN read (not Shakespeare, not To Kill a Mockingbird).  And we have to actually put the books into their hands.

I'm not sure I have ever actually handed a child one of Sonya Sones's books and not had the kid end up reading all of it.  We should be taking our students to the library once a month, at least, and handing them books to take out.  We should have large classroom libraries full of appealing and readable books.  We should have book swaps in our classes every month or so.  We should be distributing books left and right--often actually giving them away.  How much do we spend per child on the photocopying I do?  On air-conditioning?  On computers?  Too much!  We should use that money and give the kids vouchers to bookstores, vouchers that can only be spent by them on real books.  We should give the kids books at the end of the year, to read over the summer.

So do I do all these things?  Not yet, not fully.  Almost none of us high school teachers do.  Why not?  If kids don't read, they will not get better at reading.  But if kids are provided with books and with time, they will read.  And then maybe schools won't have to help kids cheat on their reading tests!