Category: Uncategorized

A Casualty in the Reading War

It’s been a rough week for my righteously indignant self.  I won’t go too deeply into the disappointment of finding that the orange-haired devil wasn’t the only one who had classified documents end up on his private property.  I have rationalized and pointed out the significant distinctions in the two cases, but it’s no fun being on the defensive side.  

Today, I finally listened to “Sold a Story,” the podcast I’d been avoiding like a dentist visit.  It lived up to my dread.  I sat on my couch on a sunny but cold Monday.  I listened to five consecutive episodes, as the reporter pulled back the curtain on the reading and writing philosophy I’d lived with for my entire teaching career.  In my head, I talked back, I made excuses, I groped for rebuttals, looked for holes and evidence of bias.  I found plenty of fuel for all, but in the end, I had to admit a bottom line: I had bought into an approach that didn’t really have science behind it.

When it was over, my brain felt jumbled.  Images of kids flashed in my head.  Most had been really successful.  Whatever we were doing must have worked, right? But then some other faces floated into view, kids who struggled, who never grew to like reading.  Had I failed them?  I didn’t teach the grades where kids got their first opportunities to “crack the code,” but I certainly encountered some who hadn’t found that key yet.  What had I really done to help those kids?  I’d taught strategies that I thought made for a powerful reader:  accessing prior knowledge, asking questions, making predictions, forming images, inferring meaning.  Maybe, though, I had rejected a solution that just didn’t fit my own biases.  When George Bush backed “new” approaches to teaching reading, I dismissed them as that same “back to basics” mindset that tried to beat back any changes in our culture.  I was suspicious of anything that came from that sector of society or that end of the political spectrum.  He was backward on so many issues; he had to be backward on reading. 

Throughout the pandemic controversies and in every conversation about climate change, I’ve always said that I believe in science, evidence, data, and trusting the experts.  But in the early 2000s, when people were challenging the workshop approach to reading and suggesting that there was science to show that many students needed more phonics instruction, I was doubtful.   I thought they were trying to make us all into robotic teachers.  I thought they were taking all the art out of teaching.  I thought they were going to suck the life out of classrooms. Was I, in effect, a science denier?

Now I’m questioning my motives.  Did my ideology get in the way of my thinking?  Did I, as the reporter suggested of Lucy Calkins (and herself), come to the issue from a position of privilege?  One that put an idealized view of kids in love with literature and book club discussion above a more practical goal of universal literacy?  

I don’t know.

I have several colleagues who are listening to the same podcast.  Tomorrow I will seek them out.  We will talk.  I will listen.  I will try to figure out where I stand and how I should proceed. Today, I am at sea.

My Little Slice of Life

I sit at a small table with G.  I am supposed to be helping her with her literary essay, but she is more interested in the Dogman book that she has been reading.  G. is in fifth grade, but her emotional age is a bit below that.  When she’s not engrossed in Dogman, she spends a lot of time drawing My Little Pony characters.  

“So, G.,” I say,  pointing at her essay draft, “let’s take a look at your opening section.  Ms. D. wanted you to work on that in today’s workshop.”

“GET THE HECK OUT OF HERE!” G. shouts.  Now, G. can be a bit volatile, but this outburst seems a bit out of proportion considering what I have just said.

“Excuse me?  Why would you say that?” I ask.  I’m confused and bracing for a tantrum. G. doesn’t reply, but a smile spreads over her face.  She points to the page in the Dogman book. I look down at the page. “Oh, thank goodness.” I let out my breath. There, on the page is an enormous speech bubble with the ALLCAPS sentence G. has just shouted.  She was merely showing off her expressive reading.  She seems very pleased that it has also caused me some confusion and consternation.

“That was funny, G.  It reminds me of something that happened to me when I was a new teacher.”

“That must have been a long time ago,”

“You’re pretty funny, today, G.  But, yes, it was a long time ago.”

I proceed to tell her the story of a kid named Randy who said something pretty outrageous to me in front of the whole class.  I tell her I am thinking of writing a Slice of Life entry about it, but I’m not sure if I’ve already written it.  (It turns out I had.  Here’s the old story.)  G. isn’t impressed with the story about Randy, but her eyes light up when I say the words Slice of Life.  

“Slice of Life?!” she repeats.

“Yeah.  Do you write Slice of Life stories, too?” I ask, maybe a bit too hopefully.  

“NO! It’s a My Little Pony Friendship is Magic episode.”  She says this with the kind of impatience I probably deserve for not realizing the real meaning of Slice of Life.  How do I not know this most basic component of cultural literacy?  Doesn’t everyone know this?  

[For the record, when you Google “slice of life,” you do not automatically get My Little Pony hits.  You don’t get Two Writing Teachers either.  You get a bunch of pizza places.]

In this particular slice of my life, you also don’t get much revision done on G’s literary essay. 

We write for a bit, but then G. proclaims that she needs a break. She shows me how to draw several of the My Little Pony characters on the Smart board.  She is exasperated when she learns that I don’t know ANY of their names.  “And you call yourself a teacher?”  She doesn’t say this, but I can tell she’s thinking it.  She searches the web for the top ten most important (or foundational) ponies, pastes their images on the Smart board and proceeds to quiz me until I’ve learned them with some semblance of automaticity.  

I am pleased to report that after an intense and somewhat stressful session, I can now correctly identify Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Princess Luna, Princess Celestia, Spike, Applejack, Fluttershy (my personal favorite), Shining Armor, Twilight Sparkle, and Pinkie Pie.  I am still struggling with Cadence and Lyra Heartstrings.  

G. says we will continue to work on those trouble areas until I have achieved mastery.