“But I Can’t Read”

I have been teaching for eleven years now, which I think is long enough to have a deep understanding of teaching practice but not quite long enough to avoid the charming giggles of my veteran colleagues who will probably say to this, “Eleven years? You’re still a baby!”

Either way, I had a moment today that I have not yet had in those eleven years, so even though I feel like a veteran at times, the universe reminded me today that, in some areas, I’m still soberingly inexperienced.

This morning, my students and I were reading more personal narratives. Feeling like they were ready for some independence, I provided a new narrative for them to read and then subsequently write about. That’s when it happened.

One of my students, a gregarious JV football player looked at me and said, “But, Mrs. Kukral, I can’t read.”

At first, I thought he was kidding. Unfortunately, he wasn’t.

I went into problem-solving mode, trying to determine whether it was a comprehension issue or a true-to-life decoding one. As I reflect on the day, I think it’s probably a bit of both.

I wanted him to read aloud to me, but understandably, he didn’t want to do that with the other students around, so I selected a small chunk of text, and asked him to read it to himself and underline words he couldn’t figure out. Some of his selections were words like surroundings, belongings, anxieties, samurai, and ethereal.

As we worked together, I offered him some decoding tricks, and then we also tried some comprehension strategies. When he had success decoding and comprehending a chunk of text, I asked him about his thought process so that we could determine other strategies that worked. Over the course of the morning, I noticed that he was starting to use some of the processes independently. But this lively, energetic boy (who admits he got kicked out of class last year–a lot) still has a long road ahead of him, and I have very little time to make a difference.

Thinking about this turn of events for most of the morning, I started to reflect on some really relevant issues in the Common Core, and the one that surfaced most quickly for me is also one of the most controversial: Text complexity.

Of course, we know that the Common Core State Standards advocate that all students should be reading grade-level text and that our kids need to be able march up a perfect little staircase of complexity as they advance through the grades.

Teachers of reading know this isn’t quite so neat and tidy. On the other hand, if students are going to be successful in the world outside our classroom walls, they are going to need to have strategies to comprehend (and decode) complex text from all different disciplines.

That’s where the teaching comes in.

Because another expectation of the Common Core is that we are all literacy teachers. This is a paradigm shift of colossal proportions–even, I would argue, for many English/Language Arts teachers. This is because while biology teachers have genetics, evolution, and ecology, English teachers have Shakespeare, Faulkner, and the persuasive essay.

I think that this needs to change.

In order for us to be able to help our students learn how to read (because this isn’t just a problem unique to elementary school, as it turns out), we need to know how to do that.

I was faced with that reality today. I had this student in front of me who vulnerably said, “I can’t do it.” And I pulled out every tool I had in my shed, including immediate formative assessments I could try in that moment in order to “diagnose” his particular issue.

  • I questioned him in order learn what his mind was doing when he read.
  • I showed him how to deconstruct words and look for word parts that he recognized.
  • I showed him how to read small chunks of text at a time and paraphrase.
  • I showed him how to use his understanding of the previous paragraph to build an understanding of the one below it.
  • I asked him what we was doing to understand the text when he finally did start to figure it out.
Most importantly, I drew on my own experience and reflections as a reader to provide the support that he needed in that moment.

Are these all the answers? No. But they’re what I felt were appropriate at the time given the circumstances. Will I continue to investigate interventions and supports that will work for this student? Absolutely. But my reality is that I have seven more days to help, and he has a very frustrating lifetime ahead of him if we can’t start to solve this problem.

So what do we do about the Common Core? We teach teachers–all teachers–how to be teachers of reading and writing, how to explicitly draw on their own experiences as readers and writers in order to understand how these complex and intricate processes work. Because at the end of the day, not all students are going to fit the straight-edged text complexity mold, and we need to know what to do about it.

We will not always recognize these students, and they will not always bravely tell us what mine did today. In fact, he shared with me that, “I misbehave in class because I don’t know how to do the work. It’s just easier that way.” This is also the student who, on the first day, asked me to do grammar worksheets instead of read and write.

Now it all makes sense.

So no, sometimes our students don’t tell us what they need–not directly anyway–but they somehow still figure out a way to let us know.

We just need to be able to hear them.

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Real Talk

My Area 3 Writing Project colleague, Joe, challenged me to share some of my bumps in the road as I experiment with the Common Core in my summer school class. He (very rightfully) said that the bumps are what people want to hear about–because they want to know how other people are navigating them. While I wasn’t in a place to do that yesterday, I am feeling much more up to the task today.

Because I’m not gonna lie. Yesterday sucked.

As I’ve been structuring my summer school class, I have decided to focus on building two major areas of my students’ skills: reading and writing (with perhaps a bit more emphasis on the writing).  Over the next three weeks, my plan is to focus on two major text types: narrative and argument. All of the reading we do is also in those types so that students can start to see the link between what we read and what we write.

For students that say they hate writing, they are surprisingly enthusiastic about it (more about that on a different day). However, yesterday, when it came to reading, I had a huge problem on my hands. We were reading a narrative and working through some tasks to help students collaboratively analyze its structure. This was after we read the piece to understand the gist of it and to extract significant moments from it. I thought the kids would be okay. They definitely were not, and they rebelled.

After what felt like an hour (but wasn’t) of not accomplishing anything, I finally hit the reset button. I stopped all of them, named the fact that something clearly wasn’t working, and then asked for their feedback. Their responses were not surprising, given what I had learned from them the previous day: “We don’t like to read.” “Why do we have to think so hard about this?” “Can’t we do grammar worksheets?” That last question sealed the deal for me. Because when I discover that a fifteen-year-old boy would rather do grammar worksheets than what I’m asking him to do, I know I’m in deep trouble. Very deep.

I managed to survive the rest of the day and left school feeling pretty discouraged and beat up. I needed to figure out exactly what went wrong so that I could fix it. In a hurry.

As I thought about my failings last night (over two glasses of Cupcake Red Velvet), I started to develop a theory. What if I didn’t include enough scaffolding? What if my release wasn’t gradual enough? Could that have been the cause of the rebellion? Had I gone too fast?

So I did what we do as teachers: I re-vamped all of our reading work for the next two days. I shifted our reading block to the morning when the kids (and I) are fresher. Then I thought about the way the Common Core Standards are organized. One thing that is so elegant about them is the way that they are horizontally aligned (in the document) so that one grade level builds on the next.

But what we don’t always talk about is how they are so intentionally vertically aligned on paper so that each standard sort of builds on the next one. The first person who made me realize this was Lucy Calkins in her book Pathways to the Common Core, co-authored by Mary Ehrenworth and Chris Lehman. It made so much sense that I couldn’t believe I had never noticed it before (that’s probably why she’s Lucy Calkins, and I’m not).

Take the reading standards, for example. This is the general progression of the first section, “Key Ideas and Details” (in my words):

  • RI.9-10.1: Pull out details/evidence from a text; articulate explicit and implicit points in a text
  • RI.9-10.2: Gather those details and inferences and determine how they equate to a central idea in the text; write about this central idea
  • RI.9-10.3: Analyze the order of points and details in the text and how they are introduced, developed, and connected to each other.

As students progress through these standards, their understanding of a text can really become more sophisticated. That’s where my problem was.

I didn’t spend enough time with the first two and jumped right to the third one. My kids didn’t know what to do, and it was totally my fault.

When I started thinking about how I would change things for today, I realized that I needed to spend way more time on numbers 1 and 2 and not worry so much about number 3, not yet anyway. After all, what I am trying to do is make sure that my students have some really concrete tools to take with them into next year so that they don’t end up in summer school again.

So that’s exactly what we did. And I scaffolded the heck out of it too. We read the piece in small chunks and wrote paraphrases of each paragraph, including what the narrator was learning about herself. And then, when I finally did release them for independent work, I gave them small, manageable chunks to complete in a very short amount of time (10 minutes or so) and constantly had them share their thinking. For my students, who have demonstrated that they don’t have a whole lot of stamina, this worked.

And when they transitioned to writing about the central idea in the text (after I modeled very explicitly how I take my notes about something and transfer it to a written piece), they were successful.

And as I conferenced with them about their writing, they were listening to the feedback, trying on the suggestions, and sitting up a little taller each time I complemented something they were doing well. Even the kid who hated my guts yesterday and Monday was totally on my side after I recognized how good he is at making inferences about the narrator’s feelings.

So yeah.

It was a good day.