Sometimes the biggest act of courage is a small one.
Years ago I scooched my chair up to a kindergartner during writing workshop. He was writing line after line of scribbles across the page. I’d learned that no matter what young children wrote — whether it was strings of random letters or simple pictures of rainbows and stick figures – there was often a detailed story behind it. And if I just asked any five-year-old to “read” their writing to me, I’d see just how sophisticated their storytelling could be.
So I asked this boy, “Could you read your writing to me? I’d love to hear your story.”
He replied, “Nope. I just write ‘em. I don’t read ‘em.”
I couldn’t help it. I burst out laughing before I stifled myself. He gave me a quick glare, as if to say, “I’m doing important work here! Don’t interrupt me with your silliness!” And then he continued on — writing, writing, writing strings of letters and shapes across the page.
I’ve been thinking of that boy as I look at teachers struggling to implement new standards and policies in schools. Take, for instance, the Common Core State Standards. I’m not going to debate here the value of these standards. What’s not debatable for me as an editor is how poorly some of them are written. We link specific standards to instructional materials at different places on the Choice Literacy website. The copy editor and I sometimes scratch our heads at the poor grammar and awkward syntax in many of these verbatim excerpts from the documents given to teachers. It’s a dilemma for us. Should we correct an obvious grammatical error or add a needed comma within a run-on sentence when we are supposed to only be quoting, not editing?
These experiences are a reminder that this stuff is written by real people, who are sometimes really tired. I can forgive anyone’s mistakes since I make plenty of them myself. But I also think of all the time that is wasted in classrooms and schools when we try to implement policies or programs that were written or accepted at the last minute in a board meeting late at night, when people were tired and itching to get home. Or the many times teachers are forced to set aside a smart unit or activity that has worked for years, because someone well beyond their classroom had a misplaced inspiration to slap a new policy or program from a different place onto the district without taking time to think it through with teachers. They just write ‘em, yet we’ve gotta read ‘em . . .and somehow bring them to life in our classrooms.
When I see teachers spending hours trying to ferret out the different meanings of “argument” or “opinion” in a standards document, as if these words have come down on a stone tablet from Ultimate Perfect Learning Mountain, I think it’s time to remind ourselves that they haven’t. Maybe these documents will stand the test of time, and maybe they won’t. But we’ve got plenty of writing about literacy instruction that deserves to be revered, parsed, and reread, because hundreds of thousands of teachers have read this writing, used the methods in their classrooms for years, and seen with their own eyes that they work. Books by Nancie Atwell, Debbie Miller, Donald Graves, and Donald Murray (among many others) document the reading and writing growth of actual students, what quality teaching looks like, and the logical progression of acquiring reading and writing skills. Trust the teachers you’ve always trusted. In the meantime, I hope we have the courage sometimes to ask an administrator, “Can you read this new policy to me and tell me what it means? Because if you can’t tell me the story of how this will work in my classroom beyond a glib promise by a marketer for higher test scores, then maybe we need to rethink whether this is worth our time.”
This week we look at ways to help struggling learners. Plus more as always — enjoy!
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Katie DiCesare has wise advice for helping readers who are falling behind their peers but don’t qualify for additional services:
We’re continuing our classics series, in celebration of our tenth year. Franki Sibberson shares why Fitness Boot Camp Helps Me Understand Struggling Readers:
What’s a parbunkell? This is the fascinating story of what one obscure word can reveal about language, the web, and communities:
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Franki Sibberson explores the varied needs of young readers and writers in Beyond Explicit Instruction: What Do Struggling Learners Need?:
In this week’s video, Beth Lawson confers with Michael, a fourth-grade writer who struggles with focus and basic conventions:
Stella Villalba finds she needs new strategies for assisting a young autistic English language learner:
Andie Cunningham and one of her kindergarten students share something in common at the start of the school year — tears as they struggle to find their place in a new community:
In an encore video, Sean Moore confers with second grader Teague, masterfully demonstrating how to move between instruction and celebration when conferring with a child who struggles with reading:
That’s all for this week!