Reading Licenses

When I first began teaching elementary school, the only “independent” books kids had were the books they checked out of the library. And maybe a borrowed read-aloud left of the chalk (!) ledge. Can you imagine how boring that must have been?

newbasketsMorphing to Reading Workshops and Daily Five gave our students opportunities to self-select books for reading independently. And of course, that was a lot more engaging for students. Kids being kids though, were they always doing the right thing at self-selection time?

We teach kids explicitly how to find “just right” books that are neither frustrating nor so easy that kids don’t grow as readers. In my classroom, students received a readers’ license to help them remember where their proximal reading level was. (For information on how my classroom library was leveled, see The Leveled Library Project above.)

The license included a digitized photo of the student created on one of the first days of school, the student’s name, and a color code sticker as a reminder of what just-right-level should be the current target. Students were encouraged to choose 1 book from a level down and 1 book from a level up (the challenge) as well as 2 just-right books. I usually printed all this on a 4×6 plain index card or some heavy card stock paper.

At conferencing time, the student arrived with book box and license and we’d always spend a minute or two making sure selections were a match. New color code stickers were added throughout the year as the student progressed; we’d talk about a goal or next step to work on, record that idea in the student’s reading notebook and move on.

Did I have students who tried to fake their way into a level because a friend was there? Some did from time to time. But I also had students who wanted to prove that they could read more challenging books. How I loved when a student was so bent on proving that higher challenging level was really “just right” that the student doubled down on effort to move forward!

A “license” to read… just another way to track whether book choices match independent reading levels.

How do you plan for that?

A former colleague and new-to-grade teacher recently asked if I’d share my plan book with her. I was, of course, flattered by that request and, since hadn’t yet disabled my account (retirement = less out-of-pocket spending), I was happy to send her a PDF of my old book. With footnotes. Why?

Planbook in September

Planbook in September

Well, I realized as I looked at the attachment I was sending that throughout the year, my plan book changes in content and context. Quite drastically actually.

Like most everyone, at the beginning of the school year, I focus on routines. The required “I can” statements and goals and objectives reflect that. Then as I begin to know the students more, those statements become more language-based and focused.  Adjustments like this are natural to see. As a teacher learns more about what the students need, the focus shifts to the academics and meeting curricular goals.

As I flipped through the year I also noted when something that caught my attention during professional development was incorporated into planning. The structure of the day – the schedule of what happens when – morphs to fit what is more comfortable for my students and for me.

Yes there are immovables; Special Education schedules can rarely be changed once they are set at the beginning of a school year. Still tweaking and changing to accommodate what flow is best for students is an ongoing process.

Planbook in June

Planbook in June

My comment as I sent the attached plans off? Looks like by the end of the school year I finally got it right. Or at least close to something we all could live with.

How do you plan for that? I’m thinking, you don’t. You go with the flow.

Devalued + Demoralized = Teacher Shortage

The New York Times has a good read today stating what nearly every educator in the U.S. could have predicted: indications showing the beginnings of a teacher shortage in the U.S. Read the article here.

IMG_0008_2According to the author, because there aren’t enough teachers available to hire, urban districts across the U.S. – including Providence, RI right here in New England – are resorting to hiring teachers as “interns” who then are assigned a mentor (yeah!) and simultaneously complete a credentialing program at a university. Notice the word, simultaneously. That means the new teacher hired to be in a classroom has not been trained in nor exposed to such things as classroom management, child psychology, and pedagogy. Minor stuff, right?

Here’s something that doesn’t surprise anyone teaching today. Many educators in classrooms are demoralized. The public has been convinced that educators are lazy, shiftless leeches unable to make educational decisions without a scripted lesson. Teachers are told that our students don’t “achieve” as demonstrated by high-stakes, single shot testing created by a multi-national conglomerate with questionable motivation. And our worth as educators continues to be entangled with those scores quantifying whether or not we are effective teachers without regard to other factors. Factors over which educators have no control such as the poverty and eroding support for those with many hurdles to overcome. Demoralized? You bet.

Devalued? Well consider for a moment that the candidates who are featured in this article go through a year’s credentialing.  The amount of time spent in an induction (mentoring) program is not detailed, but anything less than three years is minimal. Personally, I feel that most of us would have benefited from five years of coaching and mentoring. So with minimal time spent learning how to become an educator and possibly minimal time being mentored to be an educator, what happens? The candidate is termed an “intern” – a technicality – so that person can fill the position while simultaneously learning to be a teacher. Does anyone see a problem here?

Given this atmosphere, is it any wonder that there is a teacher shortage? University and college students must be wondering why incur student loan debts for a career in education. Experienced teachers who are well-prepared and, despite arbitrary ratings based on students’ test scores, effective, are leaving the profession to retire early (as I did). And others are just plain tired of being trampled on by the press and corporate know-nothings and decide to move on.

Teacher shortage? Did anyone really expect a different outcome?

When Teacher Training is Not Valued

Like a lot of ideas, Teach For America sounds good, but in actuality? Well, that’s a decision you would have to come to on your own.  As a nonprofit, TFA’s stated slogan is “One day, all children in this nation will have the opportunity to attain an excellent education.” Who could argue with that? 2014-11-25-lincoln-024

Creating a Peace Corps type model to work in the most needy of schools is a lofty and worthy goal. As a recently retired teacher from a school with a poverty rate hovering around 90%, I can assure you that teaching students from such backgrounds burns out even the most experienced. It is grueling, and it is exhilarating. Urban districts and other high-poverty districts need enthusiastic educators to reach students.

What I object to is the attitude that seems to indicate if one is a stellar graduate or undergraduate in a chosen major, then one can teach without much attention paid to the art of pedagogy.  I will come right out with it – I vehemently disagree. It is insulting to assume that, the process, the science, the art of teaching seems so unvalued. A search of TFA’s website shows a “training schedule” in the range of 4-6 weeks. From the perspective of a person who spent 4 years undergraduate, 1 year graduate, countless house in pre-practicums and observations, the message seems clear: anyone can teach and we’ll show you how in 6 weeks or less.

So why do I care? Well, recently I read a post on a professional list that I subscribe to indicating that the legislative aides of many of our members of Congress are TFA alumni. If that is true – currently I’m researching that using Members’ staff lists and Linkedin profiles – then it will be no wonder that educators and education are under-valued and looked down upon.

Stay tuned for future posts.