Thursday, October 30, 2014

Why Teacher and Learner Agency Matter: We Are Harming Kids

I. An EL Lesson

Last week I was observing an Expeditionary Learning lesson being taught to third graders and what I saw gave me pause.  I suspect it might have you pausing too.

There's a fair amount of rhetoric being voiced and revoiced by some state and district administrators, ed pundits and reformers, and some teachers too that says something to the effect that we do not need to worry about children reading texts too difficult for them.  These worries have been for naught.  All we need to do is give them "complex texts" and for those who struggle we should "chunk" the text and then all of the children will be able to read and comprehend.

So I was thinking about this line of talk as I interacted with a group of third graders who had been assigned to read a section from My Librarian is a Camel (Lexile Level 980). The children I interacted with were given two pages that discussed how children in Thailand receive library books.

Below is the two-page spread.

from here.
Second page, from here

I watched as the children attempted to complete their "first close read" in which their teacher had told them to circle unknown words. (In fairness to EL, this was not part of their lesson plan.) As the three children I was sitting near worked it became obvious that the text was significantly difficult for them. One child was trying to read the text softly to herself.  Another had her lips moving as she read.  I interrupted and asked how she was doing with the text and she told me she didn't know what she was reading cause she doesn't know a lot of the words. Nor did she know about Thailand (that it was a country) or where it was located.  She was unable to make meaning from most sentences, such as: "A number of these villages can only be reached by foot."  We worked together and I scaffolded her reading, apparently a faux pas on my part, as the struggle is supposed to be good for her.

She was the best reader of this text in the group.

Seated to her right was a boy who was copying letters from the text in his attempt to locate words he did not know.  For the entire time I had worked with the other two children, he was painstakingly copying. He did not copy whole words. Rather he was reduced to copying letter by letter. When I asked him how he was managing the text, he told me quietly that he could not read any of the words.

"I can't read anything. I have to pick some words and write them," he said, showing me a post it note where he had recorded two words: Onkoi (Omkoi), regon (region).

"How about I help you understand the text you've been assigned to read?"

He nods okay.

When I ask him to try the opening, he tells me the words he can read:  In, a, on for of, the and then stops.  I tell him a little bit about the text explaining that he will be learning how children in the mountainous region or area of northern Thailand and one of its cities, Bangkok get library books to read.  We talk about how he lives in the northern region of his city.  We make our way through the text, with me reading it aloud and the two of us discussing what I have read at the close of each paragraph. We make use of the photographs at key times and it becomes evident that although he had great difficulty reading, he thinks well.  He was surprised there were homeless kids in Bangkok. He had thought homelessness was something limited to his city.

This is a child who can learn to read.

Below is an example of a text he can mostly read, although words like, where and said, might still stop him. He might need some support (decode by analogy for example) to help him problem solve words such as nest and lost.  

Text level 7/8 from here.
Again, this is a boy I know can learn to read.

Unfortunately, this child attends school in a district where the teachers have been banned from conducting guided reading by the district leadership (not school administrators). This is the new edict making its way among the uninformed. There's that belief again that if the teachers would only teach well using the scripts they've been given, and adhering to the pacing guide the district created, then the children will all learn.

II. Guiding Learning

Guiding learning, in this case, comprehension is critical.  Walter Kintsch describes the importance of guided practice well when he writes:

Ericsson, Krampe, and Tesch-Römer (1993) have shown that practice requires proper guidance. To become an expert skier it is not sufficient just to ski a lot; you need someone to guide your practice, make you work on just the right things that will make possible long-term progress. We recently observed that just having 6th grade students write a lot of summaries of texts they had read does not make them better summary writers. Indeed, it may just ingrain bad habits. They need someone or something that tells them what about their writing was good and what was not good—only with such feedback to guide them does practice make perfect.  (From here)
Guided instruction is guided practice.  This child, like many of his peers, are placed in jeopardy unless that leadership reassesses its edicts that are not informed by any juried research. Dismiss guided practice and the children are banned from consistent high quality, reading instruction that is necessary on a daily basis. Rather, this boy and many of his peers spend their days, circling unknown words and copying letters onto post-its that they lose as quickly as it took you to finish this sentence.

After the children leave, the teacher and I discuss the children in the class who are severely struggling to read.  She confesses that if she deviates from the script and someone from "downtown" shows up (which has happened) she can be marked unsatisfactory for not being in the correct place on the pacing guide. She works in an atmosphere of fear given the tenuousness of tenure and the widespread closing of schools. Years ago, I had been invited by the Philadelphia school system to review their ELA program for K-5.  They too had a created a pacing chart for ELA that they were intending to mandate for all of the schools. Every minute of every school week for the entire school year was accounted.

Have you ever taught anywhere where unexpected interruptions did not occur?

My feedback was perhaps less diplomatic than it might have been.  Pacing charts given to 200 schools for teachers to enact without deviation will harm learners. Agency must matter for teachers and learners.

III. Scripts and Outcomes

Teaching scripts are shorthand for:
We do not trust teachers to teach yet we pay them to enact scripts that other people at other times who may or may not have ever taught, who may or may not have any actual experience or content knowledge, who do not and cannot know the actual children, but who did receive a ton of money which must mean that the work they produced has to be great, has to be the answer we've been seeking, our bit of manna straight from Heaven. 
This is insanity and it's our tax dollars footing the bill. (Did I mention that the finest teachers I've known are running for the exits?  They are seeking not other schools where they might work, but rather other careers, early retirement.)

There are no short cuts to high quality public education.
Repeat that.

There are no programs, no scripts, no technologies, no secret formulas, no better tomorrows on the horizon that can be used to educate your child or mine in the absence of the teacher.

Teachers are often the product of their workplace. The culture in which they work shapes them.

High quality public education requires that we privilege teachers--that their agency, like that of the learners, is ensured.

Anything less ensures servitude.

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