Are we over-coaching developing readers?

2014-11-25-lincoln-024One of the texts I’ve reviewed for a course I’m leading this summer is Jan Burkins and Kim Yaris’ Who’s doing the work: How to say less so readers can do more

What do you, as teacher, do when a student is stuck in their reading? Do you go into wait-time mode or try to move things along with hints or suggestions of strategies? And if you do either of these, what is the student’s response or reaction?

Sometimes when we think we are moving responsibility for learning to our students, the shift is not as significant as we think. Case in point: when a student successfully uses a decoding strategy to uncover a challenging word, does the student look to you, the teacher, for affirmation.  Surely that’s something I was guilty of doing.

However, when students come to rely on that affirmation and teacher praise as an indication of whether or not the word was called correctly, that is scaffolding that has over-served its usefulness in steering students toward a gradual release of responsibility.  We set the students up for dependency, not independency.

In real reading – the kind that students engage in on their own either in school or later in life as adult readers – what happens when a decoding challenge the meaning of the print breaks down? Will a teacher always be there to nod a yes or to give hints?

The end game for reading instruction is to enable a reader to develop so that he or she knows that to do when confronted with reading challenges.  Instead of leading a student through the use of a specific strategy (get your mouth ready, think about what makes sense), what if the prompts from a teacher were more open-ended:

What do you notice?

What can you try?

There are undoubtedly times when explicitly teaching strategies for decoding and comprehension are not only appropriate, they are essential. How else would a reader learn about them? But once the strategy has been introduced, practiced and become part of a reader’s repertoire, shouldn’t we, as coaches, allow the reader to decide what to do?

Over coaching developing readers is something I became aware of as an active and as a retired teacher.  More open-ended questions and less controlled coaching not applies to reading. Think of the implications for problem-solving in math.

So I ask: are we empowering our students to truly be independent? Or, as Yaris and Burkins point out, are we creating learners who are dependent upon our affirmation and approval? Are we allowing students to be independent learners?

The promise of “yet”

2017-Jan-12_winter2017_birdyogaWords have lots of power.

How many times have you, as learners, encountered can’t statements? Can’t as in “I can’t do math” or “I can’t draw” or “I can’t” just about anything. I think it was my grandmother who used to say “can’t never did anything”.  And she was – and still is – right.

I was thinking about the power of “can’t” during yoga practice this week. It used to happen that when I was in a public class and a balance pose as simple as tree pose was called, my whole body would break into an anxiety sweat. I can’t balance on one leg, I would tell myself. I’m too clumsy, too old.

Then, one day, I switched the narrative to add in the word “yet”. I can’t do this… yet. Through those 3 letters, I could feel my attitude changing. “I may fall out of tree pose today, but some day I will nail it.” In fact in time, that’s exactly what happened.

When I was actively teaching, students often would say “I can’t” to everything from a writing topic to division. Adding the word yet to their statements – I can’t do this yet – often made a difference for them too.

Three letters. Those three letters can make all the difference for every student.

Meanwhile, back at the DOE

10012015FrenchStThis past Tuesday, June 6, 2017, Secretary Betsy DeVos gave testimony in front of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies. An overview of Secretary DeVos’ testimony can be found on mlive here.

The presidential version of the 2018 budget details a whopping $10.6 Billion in cuts to programs supporting students of all levels.  Last week, I posted what the effect of cuts to three Federal grant programs might be on Lowell Public Schools. Using a back-of-the-envelope estimate based on the FY2018 school budget proposal, Lowell Public Schools would be out close to $3 Million in funding for 21st Century Schools, Title II (Teacher Quality) and Title III (ELL support).

Layering on the devastation caused by a (state) Foundation Budget that is severely out of whack and underfunded, the fiscal future for urban districts such as Lowell does not look very bright. Several superintendents ago, the Lowell Schools had a Superintendent who told staff that “less is more”. Well, in this case, less is actually less, and our students are going to bear the brunt.

During her testimony in front of that Senate subcommittee, Ms. DeVos stated the need to cut Title funding (i.e., nearly everything funded through the Department of Education with the exception (so far) of Title I).  As usual, making up facts that fit a narrative for redirecting federal funding was evident:

“This budget does so by putting an emphasis on programs that are proven to help students while taking a hard look at those that are well-intended, but haven’t yielded meaningful results,” she continued.

Where are the reports and research that back this up, Ms. DeVos?  Are we to believe that providing students from higher poverty/economic need districts such as Lowell with after school and summer activities doesn’t yield anything “meaningful”? What exactly does constitutes meaningful for you? A higher test score?

I most vehemently disagree with that statement by Secretary DeVos.  In a Gateway City, such as Lowell or Brockton, or any number of cities across the US, there are many families living in poverty and struggling. And despite many challenges, sometimes overwhelming challenges resulting from poverty and trauma, our Gateway cities strive to provide a comprehensive, adequate and free education to every student.

Allowing students the opportunity to participate in and explore activities beyond the school day gives these children a safe and supervised environment and their parents the peace of mind knowing that their child(ren) is well cared for during the time between the end of school and suppertime. I would call THAT meaningful, yet apparently Ms. DeVos would not.

But back to the federal budget that was the overarching topic of discussion during Ms. DeVos’ testimony.  As Michigan billionaire and school privatization champion Ms. DeVos, is okay with cutting or eliminating funding of some of the more substantial federal grants. Using the theme of giving parents “choice” of school settings, the Secretary of Education intends to funnel the funds eliminated or cutback into a voucher program. funding religious and private schools. DeVos intends to implement a voucher program without guarantees that would protect vulnerable students’ rights or ethical oversight of for-profit education management firms even when federal funding is involved.  For more on that, read Valerie Strauss’ June 6 Answer Sheet analysis. 


In place of “less is more”, I am more inclined to agree with this assessment of the federal education budget proposals from Senator Leahy:

“The Department of Education budget can summed up very quickly in one word: ‘abysmal,'” said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

Abysmal it is. And abysmal it will be for our students.