“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.

But This is Summer School!

I’m a huge believer in mutual respect in the classroom. Coming from a Title I school where I spent the first ten years of my career, I learned pretty quickly that students don’t grant respect simply because you’re the only adult in the room. Respect must be earned, and I chose to do this in my high school classroom by getting to know my kids.

So of course, as I thought about how I would begin my summer school class, I knew that I would need to start by listening to my students.

As teachers, I think we spend so much time telling students what we expect from them that we may forget at times to ask them what they expect from us. So that’s what I did.

Not surprisingly, one of my students, a lively fifteen-year-old boy with flashing mischievous eyes, said instantly, “Fun assignments!”

When I pressed him for more information–what exactly did he mean by fun?–he said, “Oh you know, like word searches and crossword puzzles!”

Huh?

After I gently explained that my plan was to engage them differently–with interesting reading and writing assignments that challenged them to think–a chorus of voices simultaneously responded, “But this is summer school! We’re here because we couldn’t do all that stuff!”

In that moment, I was deflated–not because I was upset with the kids for wanting this type of work, but because I was unbelievably disappointed that it seemed to be a symptom of a larger issue–years and years of low expectations placed on those kids. The ones who don’t play school. The ones who are engaged differently. The ones who don’t want or need the threat of a bad grade hanging over them to comply with the system’s demands.

Then, when I think about the demands of the Common Core, I worry even more. I worry because these standards are so much more ambitious than what we have. They expect all students to have access to tasks that push them to think, that respect them as intellectual human beings, that develop their academic identities.

As I learn about what it will take to transition to these standards well and to truly embrace the spirit of what they represent, I think that, first and foremost, we have to honestly face the students we have in front of us–all of them–and, as challenging as this is, relentlessly push each and every one of them forward from where they are now, not where they should be and not where we wish they would be.

Our kids deserve nothing less.