If I kept a scrapbook of my teaching career and labeled each part with a title, the section for this last year would be called The Year of New Initiatives. This was the year that my colleagues and I tried to keep our heads above water while navigating the currents of new assessment demands, new report cards, new changes to our pacing guides, new online textbooks, and new teacher evaluation systems.
The changes hit like a wave that caused much of our energy to be spent simply staying afloat, although many of us knew we were also sorely in need of professional dialogue about effective instruction if we were to keep our teaching spark alive. We needed a way to feed the part of us that, despite the new initiatives, continued to question whether we were providing kids with the best possible reading instruction we could.
In January, a group of us turned to a Teachers as Readers group in an effort to take a step back and re-energize, reconnect, and remind ourselves of what is truly important when it comes to effective reading instruction. We focused our energy on reading and discussing the book What Really Matters for Struggling Readers (Allington, 2012), and the article Every Child, Every Day (Allington & Gabriel, 2012).
As a result of our meetings, a curious thing happened: we not only talked about the research on effective teaching, and “the six elements of instruction that every child should experience every day” (Allington & Gabriel, 2012), but we ended each session with a twist by compiling our thoughts about what we, as teachers, needed to experience every day in order for this effectiveness to happen. The following represents our own thinking and learning regarding what every teacher should experience every day in order to implement effective reading instruction for all readers, including those who are motivated, advanced, reluctant, or struggling.
Teachers need time to teach language arts
As we talked about our take-away points from the professional reading we were doing, the issue of time kept surfacing over and over again. Teachers need time for planning, time for collaborating, time for learning, time for reflecting, and of course time for teaching. But perhaps the most important point that surfaced with respect to this topic was that teachers need enough time in their language arts block to implement effective reading instruction, and they need it every day.
In many schools and districts, guidelines exist regarding the number of minutes children should spend in a language arts block. Usually, the required uninterrupted block is longest in the primary grades, and gets a bit shorter in the upper elementary grades with an added expectation that students will spend additional time receiving language arts instruction in the form of integrated lessons in the content areas. This is the guideline and the expectation, but is this really what always happens?
Consider this possible scenario in an upper elementary grade where students are assigned to a language arts teacher depending on what type of learners they are. If students are considered “advanced learners,” they are placed with a teacher who teaches language arts for advanced learners. If students have an identified learning issue and need a special reading program as part of the goals on an IEP, they are placed with a different teacher who has a group of students scheduled to work for part of the language arts block with a specialist. If students are “average learners,” they are placed with yet another teacher for instruction in language arts.
While the nature of such a set-up may sound as if all needs are being met, we are still left feeling the need for more time in the language arts block. In fact, we are actually left grappling with the following questions: Could it be that a schedule that was designed to provide special programs for all types of special learners (advanced to remedial) is taking time away from language arts instruction with some students? Why does our language arts block seem like it is constantly being whittled away? Why, after all the consideration for matching students to appropriate teachers and programs, do teachers still feel like they are constantly losing precious minutes?
In the conversations surrounding our professional reading, we realized several things. First, we realized that there is no way around the fact that transition time cuts into instructional time. When students move from a homeroom to a language arts class, precious minutes are lost. When students move in and out of a special program with a specialist, precious minutes are lost. And when students pack up to leave their language arts teacher at the end of the block, even if they are heading off to work with an intervention teacher, precious minutes are lost.
We also realized that many times, it is our students with identified learning needs that are being impacted the most with respect to the issue of time spent in language arts instruction. While we acknowledged the fact that those students may need specialized instruction from an expert, we also realized that in some cases we are still providing that instruction during their designated language arts time. This often translates to a transition out of the class, a transition back into the class, and a program being delivered as part of the language arts block rather than in addition to the language arts block. In essence, the students who need more uninterrupted time practicing reading are sometimes getting less, which is something we absolutely cannot continue if we are truly committed to providing effective reading instruction for all students.
Finally, we realized that in an ideal world, we would raise our voices and advocate for a two- hour uninterrupted language arts block, every day, from grades K – 6. Our reasoning stemmed from the simple fact that research has shown that the amount of reading has a positive impact on reading development, as does the amount of time students spend practicing (Allington, 2012, Fielding & Pearson, l994; Rasinski, Blachowicz, & Lems, 2006).
Yet in our upper elementary grades, even on a day without any outside interruptions, students who spend time transitioning from class to class can easily have a ninety-minute language arts block whittled down to eighty. Even the best teachers feel rushed trying to fit a demonstration, guided practice, independent practice and reflection into a reading and writing workshop in eighty minutes. It goes without saying; teachers need enough time in their language arts block in order to provide effective reading instruction.
Teachers need a yearly budget for classroom libraries
In December of 2012, a small group of us were fortunate enough to hear Donalyn Miller, author of The Book Whisperer (2009), speak at the Greater Washington Reading Council’s fall reading conference. We were captivated by her astounding yearly challenge to her students to read forty books, and her quest to create lifelong readers among her students. We identified with her passion for having students choose what they wanted to read in school and felt validated to learn that there is much research to support this practice. We were motivated to focus our energies on recommending books to students, and encouraging them to recommend books to each other, in an effort to create what she refers to as a “book frenzy” (Miller, 2009, p. 22). And we understood, clearly, that when students walked into her classroom, they were sure to exit at the end of the year as readers who chose to read for enjoyment. There is no doubt that, in addition to having a teacher who was passionate about reading, at the heart of this transformation lay the classroom library.
Classroom libraries are central to creating readers. They provide a launching pad for book recommendations, a relaxing spot for discovering new titles and genres, and an environment where books are instantly available during language arts. They are also an ever-changing entity, as new books are constantly being published, new titles and series are always being discovered, and old books are continuously being weeded or replaced.
Just this past year, upper grade elementary students I worked with waited anxiously for the sequel to Because of Mr. Terupt (Buyea, 2011), shared the classroom library’s two copies of Wonder (Palacio, 2012), and begged for more of Rick Riordan’s books to be added to the collection. This was just the tip of the iceberg, because once students started sharing what they were reading with each other, they were buzzing about what books they wanted to read next, which authors they were enjoying, and which genres they were exploring.
Teachers need a budget for classroom libraries so that they can continue to add fuel to the fire that starts to spread when students become part of a reading community. When students begin choosing books, reading books, hearing about books, discussing books, recommending books, and finding out about books soon to be published, it’s like seeing a spark ignite. The way to keep fanning the spark is to keep the excitement high by adding books during the school year, when kids want to get their hands on them.
Unfortunately, it seems that in too many instances teachers are given a sum of money to spend at the end of the year while they order their supplies for the following school year. I’ve often wondered if this is the most effective way to do this where reading is concerned, since classrooms are winding down for the end of the year, teachers are busy with end-of-year responsibilities, and perhaps most importantly, the books will arrive during the summer when classrooms are empty and students are gone.
What if teachers were given a sum of money at the beginning of the school year to spend on classroom libraries as the year went on? How would this impact a classroom of students anxiously awaiting the publication of the next Rick Riordan book? How would it impact a classroom of students who had just discovered a new series that was currently unavailable in the classroom library? How might such a decision impact a new teacher who has yet to establish a classroom library at all? And, most importantly, what would it do for students’ motivation by giving them a say in what was ordered for the library as the year progressed?
In the book Readicide, Gallagher (2009) shares an anecdote about being struck by the realization that competitive Olympic swimmers not only had hours and hours of practice, but before they even became Olympic swimmers they had “access to the pool” (p. 29). He notes the comparison with students’ reading, pointing out that if we are to put kids in a system that uses high stakes testing as a way to determine reading achievement, then we had better be giving them access to “the pool” so that they can practice. He then elaborates by stating that, “If we want our students to do a lot more reading than they are currently doing, they need to be immersed in a pool of high-interest reading material” (Gallagher, 2009, p. 30).
This is where a well-maintained and continuously updated classroom library is essential; it offers students the “pool” for diving in, getting hooked, and practicing. People who own pools need a budget to maintain them: they clean them, check that the chemicals are properly balanced, and add more water when necessary. Teachers who create readers need a budget for classroom libraries; they weed them, check that there is a balance of different genres and series, and add more books through the year. Teachers need designated funds in order to give their students access to a well- maintained pool of great literature, where they can practice the strokes needed to become proficient readers.
Teachers need to be evaluated fairly
Of all the new initiatives that landed on teachers’ plates this year, the new evaluation system was probably one of the most heated. Teachers began their school year with a new evaluation process that included a requirement of writing measurable goals that addressed student progress over the school year. It sounds fairly simple: the teacher would consider a group of students, administer and analyze baseline assessments, then write a specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, timely and rigorous (SMART-R) goal that would focus on raising the achievement level of the students.
On the surface, it sounded like a process that was designed to keep the focus on student learning, requiring teachers to analyze students’ initial strengths and instructional needs, and plan for their growth over the upcoming months. But in reality, the new system had many components that added another layer of stress, including the fact that forty percent of a teacher’s evaluation would be based on students’ demonstrated achievement of these goals.
Evaluation is obviously a critical component of any profession, and teaching is no exception. However, with the current emphasis on high stakes testing, many teachers worry that evaluation is becoming more about analyzing scores than receiving reflective feedback on their teaching. For example, in many school systems, teachers give baseline assessments in reading at the beginning of the year for the purpose of getting to know their students’ strengths and instructional needs. If they choose reading as the academic strand for evaluation purposes, they may also use the initial data when planning and writing their SMART-R goals. When a teacher considers that forty percent of the evaluation that determines worthiness of reappointment is based on meeting this goal at the end of the year, there is a risk that instruction will be then be focused on raising the scores rather than on creating lifelong readers. This seems a logical outcome, but what is best for the students?
In Readicide (Gallagher, 2009), the author contends that, “Unfortunately, testing pressure often trumps reason” (p.76). He is referring to the fact that we have volumes of research to show that students in schools today are often given a narrow lens through which to view reading, being taught to respond to books in the language of testing, and being taught to answer questions in a test-like format. This may raise the scores, but does it create students who will want to read recreationally in their lives? And, more importantly, is it fair to say that a teacher is worthy of reappointment by looking through the lens of whether or not the students all raised their test scores as reflected in the SMART-R goal?
Donalyn Miller (2009) advocates for the importance of using data such as student interest surveys, student reflections, and end-of-year student evaluations that ask students questions about how they have grown as readers. She sets goals for her students based on the number of books they read over the course of a year rather than the number of points they raise their fall assessment scores by. And she helps students meet these goals by spending her year recommending books to them, reading aloud to them, giving them choice in their reading, and giving them the time needed to increase their volume of reading. In essence, she spends the year devoting her time to creating readers, giving students a wonderfully wide lens through which to view the subject she is so passionate about.
Unfortunately, the culture of high-stakes testing is here to stay, along with the pressures it creates for administrators, teachers, and students. Likewise, there is no doubt that assessment remains an important part of teaching and learning. But when raising the numbers begins to seem more important in a teacher’s evaluation than having an ability to motivate students and foster a love of reading, instruction runs the risk of suffering, as does teacher morale.
In a welcoming message written by a former president of CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), Steven Peer (2011) stated, “So many teachers I know entered the profession out of a passion, a love of the children. And somewhere along the way, between the paperwork, politics, and testing-to-benchmarks, they slid (ever so slowly) into operating out of fear. It is debilitating” (p.2). Is it possible that an over-reliance on scores will result in a number of teachers who make decisions regarding what, and how, to teach based on fear of assessment results?
Fortunately, despite the fear that not all students will meet the SMART-R goal, there are still plenty of teachers out there who exhibit the characteristics needed to put kids on the path to becoming lifelong recreational readers. They share their enthusiasm for books, put great books in the hands of students, and create a classroom environment where kids are excited about reading. If our mission as teachers is to ensure that students will continue to read when they leave our system, then perhaps a fair teacher evaluation would consider these characteristics to be as important, if not more important, than simply raising the numbers on an assessment.
Teachers need assessment to guide instruction, not take away from it
As stated earlier, assessment is still an important part of teaching and learning. With respect to reading, teachers depend on the results of authentic assessments to help them identify strengths and needs, set goals, and measure progress. In other words, they depend on assessments to help them guide instruction. But with the additional onslaught of high stakes testing, is it ever possible to incorporate too much, to the point that the combination of yearly formative and summative assessments starts taking away the very instructional time students need? This topic came up at one of our Teachers as Readers discussions, and the results of the conversation were quite enlightening.
As we looked at a typical school year, we asked ourselves if it were possible to determine a ballpark figure of how much instructional time in language arts was actually taken up with assessment in the upper elementary grades. We started by mapping out the assessments given over the course of the school year that occur during the scheduled language arts block. We factored in beginning of the year reading assessments, county-wide assessments that measure progress within the curriculum and toward the state standards, mid-year assessments, end of year state tests, and the end of the year reading assessments. When we additionally factored in the minimal time devoted to test preparation lessons, we concluded that we were actually giving up close to a month of instructional time in language arts to assessing our students. A month of instructional time? Could this be possible?
An even more alarming thought occurred when we talked about our students with diagnosed reading disabilities, some of whom were working in specialized reading programs as part of the goals of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). It became evident that those students were often giving up even more time to assessment because they also had to take tests that were a part of the specialized reading program they were enrolled in. And since these students were typically the most struggling readers, it became apparent that we were putting our kids who had the most difficulty through even more rounds of assessment, taking up more of their instructional time, and fearfully impacting any joy they may have found in reading.
Formative and summative assessments are useful to teachers when the purpose is to guide instruction. But many teachers feel frustrated by what seems to be a tidal wave of assessment overload, compounded by the sad truth that many of the assessments don’t necessarily even correlate to what they measure. Add to this the fact that teachers’ evaluations are heavily weighted on the ability to show progress on assessments, and the result can be that teachers feel the need to constantly teach to the language of tests.
In a traditional reading workshop, one of the most powerful components is that of the “minilesson,” where the teacher spends roughly ten minutes explicitly teaching the students what they will need to learn before they are set off to practice in a guided or independent setting. The concept of the minilesson is based on the fact that students shouldn’t spend all their time listening to the teacher teach, but rather should only have the explicit instruction necessary for them to spend most of their valuable time applying what they learned.
I’ve often thought about how wonderful it would be if we could apply the same concept to assessment, allowing teachers the professional capacity to use a more “miniassessment” approach. The concept would be based on the fact that students shouldn’t spend an unnecessary amount of time taking tests, but rather should be required to take only those assessments that give teachers the explicit information necessary to guide instruction and measure progress. Testing would take up a smaller portion of the school year, so students would be able to spend more of their valuable time practicing and applying the skills they need to become successful readers.
Research has shown the need for students to be given time to read in order to become successful at it. When discussing the results of the 1998 NAEP Reading Report Card for the Nation (Donahue et al., 1999), Allington (2012) states that, “At every age level, reading more pages in school and at home each day was associated with higher reading scores” (p. 47). This requires that students be given enough time during the year to be reading in school; we cannot afford to give up a month of this time to assessment overload. When governments, states, school districts, schools, and departments work to make decisions regarding issues of testing, they need to look carefully at the amount of instructional time that gets impacted with every required test.
Assessments are necessary in order to guide instruction and measure progress, but when teachers lose weeks of instructional time due to testing requirements, then perhaps it’s time to consider whether the benefit of acquiring all the data outweighs the amount of time taken away from kids who could be reading.
Teachers need meaningful professional development
In March, as we were planning the last few sessions of our Teachers as Readers group, it struck me that the experience had provided something much deeper than just the reading and discussing of a book. It had morphed into something more meaningful, as teachers talked with each other, reflected on new learning with each other, connected with each other, and made changes in their practices based on what they were learning and a common goal of wanting to do what’s best for kids.
In a school year where so many new initiatives were stealing teachers’ time and energy, the format of the Teachers as Readers group not only ended up providing the professional development we needed, but it was also responsible for keeping many of us focused on what was truly important as we sifted through the flood of requirements brought on by new initiatives at the district, state, and even federal levels.
As teachers, we have long experienced professional development initiatives that consisted of bringing in an expert to talk with us for a day or two. But as I think about this, I am often left wondering: Is listening to an expert talk for a day the best way to create a more expert teacher? Does it provide the collegial support needed to try something new in a classroom? Does it lend itself to rich conversation among colleagues?
In many of our schools, teachers are now meeting on a weekly basis in an effort to closely monitor the achievement of their students and adjust their teaching as needed based on assessment data. Teachers have established what used to be known as PLCs (Professional Learning Communities), which have since evolved into the more current acronym of CLTs (Collaborative Learning Teams).
As a result of these weekly team meetings, teachers are keenly aware of which students are mastering material, which students are struggling, and which students are exceeding expectations. The concept not only allows teachers to identify students who need re-teaching, students who have grasped concepts, and students who need enrichment, but it also creates an environment where teachers work together to plan and take responsibility for the success of all students at a particular grade level. As I attend these meetings, I am always impressed by the focus on data, and how assessment results are being used to adjust instruction.
However, I am also left wondering how on earth a teacher takes the next step after identifying students who are struggling. How does the teacher become skilled at reaching the struggling learner? What “tools” are available to help the teacher become more of an expert in providing what is needed for a student to succeed? When do the teachers talk about what kinds of instructional components need to be in place in order for more students to be successful, and when do they learn how to implement these components?
As an outside observer, I sometimes wonder if the concept of the CLT runs the risk of becoming what might be called a CAT (Collaborative Analyzing Team) because, when teams need to invest so much of their time analyzing student assessment data, there is often little time left for discussing next steps for effective instruction. While the assessment data are important for identifying the strengths and needs of the students, isn’t it still worth asking how we continue to keep a focus on the “L,” so that our teams go beyond the analysis of the data and meet the end result of learning how to provide what their students need?
According to Allington (2012), “Professional development should be a personal professional responsibility as well as an organizational responsibility” (p. 161). In other words, as teachers we have a responsibility to find ways to fulfill the need for ongoing professional development, but as employees we depend on the organization we work for to support our efforts to do so. This is why it is crucial for school systems to continue supporting initiatives such as Teachers as Readers projects, and Teacher Inquiry projects; these projects keep the “L” at the forefront of collaborative learning, allowing teachers the opportunity to share new knowledge, question, implement, reflect, and collect data.
Compare the importance of these initiatives with those that take place in a teaching hospital. It may sound strange, but if a loved one needed an expert to perform a surgical procedure for a health condition, I would want that person to go to a teaching hospital. Why? According to Merriam-Webster, the medical definition of a teaching hospital is, “A hospital that is affiliated with a medical school and provides the means for medical education to students, interns, residents, and sometimes postgraduates” (Merriam- Webster, Incorporated, 2013). In other words, the staff and students at these hospitals have continuous access to cutting edge research, education and training while delivering top-notch patient care.
Wouldn’t it be great if more schools followed a similar model and became “teaching schools,” where they were affiliated with a university or staff development center that provided the means for continuous on-site education and training for teachers so that they could deliver expert teaching to their students? Teachers need meaningful professional development if they are to be part of collaborative learning teams that remain on the cutting edge of education, and provide top notch, expert instruction for the students in their care.
Teachers need student input
As our Teachers as Readers group was nearing the final session, we began talking about all we had learned about what students need, every day, in order to become successful readers, and what we as teachers need, every day, in order to provide it to them. We summarized the topics of time, budget, staff development, teacher evaluation, and student assessment, and then found ourselves turning to the topic of asking the students. After all, how often is it that we truly ask the students what would make reading instruction effective, or even fun, for them?
In The Book Whisperer, Donalyn Miller (2009) spends time explaining the various surveys, reflections, and student evaluations she uses with students in an effort to let them have input into what it is they need to further develop as readers. She creates an environment where students are candid with her as they share their interests, struggles, successes, and goals. With the spring season and its high stakes testing schedule looming right around the corner, we decided to at least carve out a moment to ask some of our own students what might make reading more enjoyable for them in school, and we discovered the results to be wonderfully insightful.
For example, when we recently asked a group of fourth graders what would make reading more fun for them in school, a surprising amount of conversation erupted as everyone seemed to want a voice. One particular class shared many responses, which were then compiled into a “top ten” list based on what the students said. The results looked like this:
Ten Things That Would Make Reading More Fun For Fourth Graders:
Instead of tests we should write a paragraph about what we are reading or learning.
- We could read books that were interesting even if they were too hard or too easy.
- More books…… WAY more!
- More comics.
- More time for reading, and more conferences.
- The teacher should read the read aloud book longer.
- Less “Sit at your desk, honey.”
- We need to share our books, like maybe having partners that we talk to every time so we can interact about our books.
- Act out more scenes from the book in reader’s theatre.
- A more comfortable place to sit! Bean bags or something…. at least something softer than these plastic chairs!!!
Looking over the list, we were reminded of how many of the items identified by students were also identified in the text we were reading in our Teachers as Readers group, as we saw the students speak to issues of time, choice, and opportunity for sharing. Even the last item that addressed having a comfortable place to sit brought a smile to our faces as we were reminded of how rarely it is that we, as teachers, race home at the end of the day to curl up in a stiff plastic chair to read.
What surprised us the most was that when we had opportunities to ask students what they thought would make reading more enjoyable for them in school, they almost always replied with responses that were research-based. Students want more choice, more access to a variety of books, more time to talk about their books, more opportunities to be read to, and more time for reading, all of which are proven components of effective reading instruction.
As teachers sift through the demands of content curriculum, pacing guides, reporting instruments, and assessments, they should also be encouraged to deviate from the agenda once in a while and simply ask the students what would make reading more fun for them. The input they receive will provide valuable insight into students’ perceptions of themselves as developing readers. Students often know what it is they need, and teachers will find it enlightening when they give them a voice and take their responses to heart.
This was the year of new initiatives, a year when teachers were asked to navigate many changes in the form of instruction, assessment, textbook formats, reporting systems, and teacher evaluation. But despite all the changes, many of us found ourselves wanting, even needing, a professional development opportunity such as the one we received from our Teachers as Readers group. It offered us a chance to step back and look at the research on what is truly important for all students when providing the best possible instruction in reading.
As I reflect on the highlights of leading the Teachers as Readers group this year, it occurs to me that we need to keep the conversation going. The research tells us what students need for effective reading instruction, we’ve identified what we as teachers need in order to provide it, and yet we still struggle to get to a point where our schedules, budgets, and assessment requirements are in line with the items we’ve identified.
Maybe next year will go down in my mental scrapbook as The Year That Change Made Sense, where we would find a way to put more uninterrupted time in our schedules, cut back on the number of assessments given, have access to funds for classroom libraries, and find a way to consider student motivation and a teacher’s passion for creating lifelong readers as important factors in an evaluation.
Maybe we would spend less time collecting, entering, and analyzing data and more time engaged in professional learning as we work toward becoming more expert teachers.
Maybe we would focus less on raising the numbers on our assessments and focus more on the joy we find in teaching and instilling that joy in our students.
I do believe that just as students seem to know what they need in order to learn, teachers seem to know what they need in order to teach. We just need to raise our voices, speak to what’s best for kids, and stay true to what really matters in effective reading instruction.