The Dumbest Argument Against Independent Reading

I’m in my eighteenth year of teaching and I’ve set aside time for student self-selected reading every day for every one of those years. It is the most sacred item on my agenda. On one of those days where we have an assembly and a fire drill and a bee gets in the room and blows a ten-minute hole in my science lesson and I have to cut something, I never cut independent reading.

As a student teacher, I was fortunate enough to be placed with a mentor teacher who valued independent reading time as much as I do. But even back then, her principal looked at this 30 minutes as wasteful. When the administration adopted a new program and my mentor teacher was wondering where she would fit it in, the principal suggested she just get rid of that student reading time.

It’s been that way ever since. I have never had an administrator who offered a full-throated endorsement of independent reading. More often, it’s the opposite. I’ve sat in meetings where principals presented research showing independent reading wasn’t effective. (Not true, by the way. Read more here.) I’ve known teachers who were flat out told to end the practice. I’ve sat in meetings where an administrator’s minion (a “coach,” she was rather hilariously called) questioned its efficacy.

An aside: My sneaking suspicion is that administrators don’t like independent reading because teachers aren’t doing enough. This is where the criticism of Drop Everything And Read came from. Teachers, those valuable professionals who eat up the lion’s share of district budgets, shouldn’t be getting paid to sit around reading with their students when they could be teaching. It’s a belief that permeates the entire day. Although providing students feedback is a critical part of the learning process, most teachers I know wouldn’t be caught dead grading student work while students are in the room. Teachers are supposed to teach, every second of every day. And they’re supposed to do all that other teachery stuff during their prep time (good luck with that).

In fairness, some data does suggest that independent reading isn’t effective for our lowest readers. The reason independent reading doesn’t work for the lowest readers, the research has concluded, is because those students — wait for it — don’t use the time to read (or they attempt to read stuff that’s too hard, which is just another way of saying they don’t read). Those students, we are told, should be engaged with the teacher in direct instruction.

This is quite possibly the dumbest reason to stop doing something I have ever heard. I can think of no other thing we do inside the classroom or out of it where we would apply the same logic.

–Students who don’t pay attention to our lessons don’t learn as much, so we should stop teaching lessons.

— Students who don’t do their math assignments don’t learn as much math, so we should stop assigning math.

— Basketball players who refuse to try hard in practice don’t get any better, so we should pull them off to the side and coach them separately.

— Your daughter refuses to practice piano when you ask her to, so you should stop giving her time to practice.

Of course the kids who don’t read during independent reading time don’t get better at reading. That doesn’t mean we should stop doing it. It means we should figure out how to get kids to do it, just like we would for anything else we believe is beneficial.

–We don’t stop making our kids take baths because they don’t like them.

–We don’t tell our daughters, “Ah, the hell with it, just leave your room filthy,” because they don’t want to clean it.

–We don’t allow our sons to eat pancakes and pizza for dinner every night because they don’t like fruits and vegetables.

And we shouldn’t just shrug our shoulders when students don’t want to read. Nor should we pull them back and make them read to us. Reading to oneself is a life skill that has the potential to change futures.

Yes, we should teach reading lessons. We should intervene with kids who struggle. But we should also provide the time for kids to read whatever they want to themselves. We shouldn’t give up just because a handful would rather not.

–My mom got me to eat celery by slathering it with peanut butter.

–My dad got me to clean my room by threatening consequences if I didn’t.

–My third grade teacher got me to turn in my homework by announcing to the class which kids didn’t turn theirs in.

Get creative. Pull out all the stops. Get kids to read to themselves.

For some, that might mean helping them find books they’re interested in or guiding them toward books they can actually read. It might mean establishing a culture where kids don’t feel self-conscious about reading books at a lower level than their peers. It could even mean —gasp — consequences for not reading, just as there would be for kids who refuse to do their math, try hard at basketball practice, or clean their rooms. Experiment. Get creative. But don’t just give up. Independent reading is too important.

 

 

 

In Defense of Public Consequences

My ten-year-old daughter played softball this past summer, and I could not believe how she was publicly humiliated. In one game, she hit the ball down the third base line. As she hustled to first base, the throw came in off line. The girl caught it in front of the bag and tried to tag my daughter, but my kid dodged out of the way! She was safe!

But the umpire called her out for leaving the baseline.

Right in front of everyone!

My daughter had to walk back to the dugout in shame because of that umpire’s call!

It’s not just softball. This public humiliating of kids happens in almost every sport. When a kid commits a foul on the basketball court, the referee blows a whistle — a whistle! — and everyone stops and waits. Then this awful excuse for a human being points right at the kid who broke the rule and announces to literally everyone in the gym that the kid screwed up.

But he doesn’t stop there!

Because then he goes over to the scoring table and signals the kid’s number and explains exactly what the kid did wrong. Then he takes the ball away –again, with everyone watching — and gives it to the other team.

In football, the referees throw a bright yellow flag on the ground. They then punish the ENTIRE TEAM for the infraction of just one kid. How is that fair? It’s like the referees are trying to destroy the team ‘s culture. How can anyone expect the guilty kid’s teammates to feel anything other than resentment toward him?

Hockey is even worse. The cruel adults in this sport blow their whistles, report the offenders, and then they actually make kids sit in a BOX! They don’t even try to sugarcoat what they’re doing. They don’t call it the Think Box or the Second Chance Box or the Stop and Reflect Box. They call it the Penalty Box! They lock them in a cage where everyone can see them!

It seems to me that if an athlete breaks a rule in any sport, the officials ought to be able to tell them without shaming them in front of everybody. These referees should find a way to quietly whisper to the players, encourage them to do the right thing, and stop embarrassing them!

What I can’t understand is why these kids keep playing these sports. Do they want to be publicly shamed? Do they like being embarrassed?

And why do parents allow this to happen? Where’s the outrage?

No, For Real

If the above sounds a bit ridiculous, then you will understand my feelings about those who criticize teachers for giving students public consequences when they break a rule in the classroom.

There is a large contingent of teachers and education thought leaders who say there is no place for public discipline in the classroom. These critics say that teachers who call out bad behavior are humiliating kids and robbing them of their dignity.

But public consequences exist for important reasons, and shaming kids isn’t one of them.

They Let Everyone Know What’s Actually Acceptable

I played high school basketball. I quickly learned that there were two types of referees: those who would “let you play,” and those who nailed you for even slight infractions. The written rules of the game were the same, of course. A rulebook existed that spelled out exactly what was allowed and what wasn’t on a basketball court.

But there was room for interpretation. Put a hand on a guy’s hip with one ref and get an automatic whistle, while other refs let the small stuff slide. If basketball isn’t your game, then the same can be said for the strike zone in baseball or pass interference in football.

The same is true in every classroom. Teachers have their posted rules and expectations. But until those rules are enforced, no one really knows what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Many classrooms have the rule, “Raise your hand to speak.” But teachers vary greatly in how strictly they enforce it. It’s through public consequences that the line is quickly understood by everyone in the room.

Words are just that. Words, whether gentle or firm, don’t always convey our seriousness. Asking a student to stop interrupting a lesson doesn’t always work. Asking them again is more of the same. Like referees in sports, teachers need to take action to show they actually mean it, and the whole class deserves to understand what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

They Allow for More Efficient Teaching

Critics of public discipline will say that the teacher should praise publicly and criticize privately. They should stop teaching their lesson (or allow it to be sabotaged and then talk to the saboteur afterward) in order to avoid embarrassing a student with a public reprimand. They should surreptitiously walk over and have a quiet word to redirect the wayward student.

Going over to a kid and telling them what you expect is fine, maybe even preferable, but it’s sometimes impractical.

The teacher and the students who are doing what’s expected shouldn’t be inconvenienced by those who aren’t.

Every kid in the room already knows what’s going on. They know who is breaking the rules and they want it stopped, just as any kid who plays in a basketball game wants the referees to do something about the kid who fouls his opponents every time down the court.

Those kids are messing up the game. They can’t be allowed to continue to do so. Public consequences keep the lesson moving so everyone else can do their job.

They Allow for Easier Parent Communication and Support

When I was in elementary school, my teachers used star charts. Many teachers in my school (including this one) use a clip chart to track daily behavior. Other teachers write names on the board and add check marks for each rule infraction. Technology allows teachers to keep track of behavior with apps like Class Dojo. But why keep track at all?

For the same reason they do in sports. Fouls and penalties are recorded (and often displayed on a huge scoreboard for everyone to see) because failing to learn from your mistakes is a problem. You can’t continue to go on messing up the game and keep playing. Eventually, the consequences get more severe. Players foul out. They’re red-carded. They’re removed from the field. Screwing up is fine. Continuing to screw up isn’t. This is a message all kids should learn early.

Tracking behavior also makes it easier to communicate. When a parent wants regular updates of her child’s behavior, it’s much easier to say “She had three strikes,” than it is to recall and report on each broken rule. “Dave committed five fouls in six minutes,” says plenty about how Dave played the game, just as, “Dante was on red before lunch” lets everyone know that Dante had a really bad day.

So why do public consequences like behavior charts receive so much scorn, when public consequences in sports go unremarked upon? I think it’s mostly out of fear and a lack of trust. There is the potential for abuse, and unlike in an arena or on a field, teachers work behind closed doors. Parents (and other teachers) have to trust that teachers won’t use public consequences to shame kids.

Like everything in the classroom, it’s not so much what you do but how you do it.

Lectures can be boring or illuminating. Group work can provide important collaboration time or can be a hot mess of conflict. And public consequences can be used to shame kids or to reinforce the rules and keep things moving efficiently, as they do in sports.

Note: My favorite article on how to enforce consequences was written by Michael Linsin. It shouldn’t surprise you that he recommends teachers act just like referees.

Maybe American Teachers Don’t Suck

Could it be? Is it even possible? Are American teachers actually good at what they do?

Education reformers would have you believe that they are not. Not by a long shot. Their evidence? Student test scores. After the results of the 2009 PISA test were released, Head Reformer Arne Duncan, sounded the alarm:

“The chief reason that U.S. students lag behind their peers in high-performing countries is not their diversity, or the fact that a significant number of public school students come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The problem, OECD concludes, is that “socioeconomic disadvantage leads more directly to poor educational performance in the United States than is the case in many other countries.”

Our schools, in other words, are not doing nearly as much as they could to close achievement gaps. As schoolchildren age in America, they “make less progress each year than children in the best-performing countries,” according to the OECD.”

He then pointed the finger squarely at our dumb teachers, writing:

“The United States has a lot to learn from South Korea, Singapore, and Finland about building the teaching profession and recruiting teachers from the ranks of top students.”

Reformers are convinced that if we just had better teachers, those middling test scores would skyrocket. In their minds, the two are conjoined, which means that since our scores aren’t very good, then our teachers must not be either. That belief explains why critics are up in arms at the end of every school year when the evaluation systems they were so sure would lead to legions of teachers being fired instead reveal that principals think almost all of their teachers are pretty good.

Their frustration and bafflement are palpable, with headlines like:

Schools Rate Almost No Teachers Ineffective

Michigan School Districts: We Have No Ineffective Teachers

Even After Colorado’s Teacher Evaluation ‘Revolution’ Fewer Than 1 in 1,000 Rated Ineffective 

Brookings was so discouraged that they claimed that “Teacher Observations Have Been a Waste of Time and Money.” (They’re right.)

There are only two possible explanations for why more teachers aren’t rated ineffective. Either principals are giving high marks to undeserving teachers, or principals know what they’re doing and teachers don’t, in fact, suck.

We know what the reformers believe.

While critics of American education base their opinions of teachers on test scores, there are other ways to evaluate people. I can study the statistics of my favorite baseball team, but I can also watch them play.

And of course, not everybody cares about test scores. As a parent, I don’t judge my child’s teacher on my kid’s test results. Evidently, I’m not alone. Because when we ask the American public what it thinks about teachers, we learn that:

–79% of parents are satisfied with the education their oldest child is receiving. (Source)

–The public believe that just 15% of teachers are unsatisfactory.  (Source)

–77% of Americans trust and have confidence in America’s teachers. (Source)

–Americans rank teachers behind only nurses and military officers on questions of ethics and honesty. (Source)

These numbers are remarkable. In spite of well-funded, incessant attacks, three in four Americans still have confidence in teachers, trailing only nurses as a profession. That’s pretty good company.

But you protest. What does the American public know? Half of them don’t even know where New York is.

What about teachers themselves? If anyone should be able to accurately assess teachers, it’s other teachers. So how do teachers rate others in their profession?

According to a 2017 EdNext Poll, teachers rate the performance of 11% of other teachers as unsatisfactory.

While that’s more than districts identify, it still means that teachers, who should know effective teaching when they see it, believe that 89% of their colleagues are getting the job done.

Recognizing that teachers might be the most honest evaluators, a few school districts have experimented with Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) programs, where mentor teachers work with and evaluate fellow staff members. A review of the Columbus, Ohio PAR program shows that of the 5,861 participating teachers, 9.5% either resigned or were let go. In Cincinnati, dismissal rates ranged from 2.9% to 7% between 1997 and 2001. Rochester terminated 8% to 12% of new teachers between 1998 and 2003. (Source)

So although teachers judge their colleagues more harshly than principals do, they still conclude that about 9 in 10 teachers ought to keep teaching.

Well fine. All these adults think a very small percentage of teachers should be removed from classrooms. But what about the kids? Surely, the kids ought to be the fairest judges. They’re the ones having to put up with teachers’ uncaring attitudes and ineptitude. They spend every day with them! It’s their opinion that should count the most!

The website Ratemyteachers.com has been collecting students’ opinions of their teachers for a number of years now. Students can hop on there, and, in seconds, rate their teachers on a 1-5 scale, with 5 being the highest. So what do American students think of their teachers?

The average rating for a teacher on the site is 4.45.

Millions of students have spoken out and they seem to think their teachers do not suck.

–Parents think the great majority of teachers do a good job.
–Principals think very few teachers are ineffective.
–Teachers conclude that about 90% of their colleagues are good at their jobs.
–Students rate most of their teachers highly.

Maybe the rest of us should believe what everybody except the people who base their evaluations on test scores and who have a poorly concealed agenda to dismantle public schools have to say.

Engagement and Relationships Aren’t Cure-Alls

The truth is more important in teaching than in most areas because we have a gaping chasm between what young people expect teaching to be and what it actually is. I believe the gulf between expectations and reality explains why so many quit before they’ve properly begun. Those of us who’ve been in the game for a while have a responsibility to tell the truth about our jobs. And some of us are doing of a poor job of it.

A quick scroll through my Twitter feed, which is almost entirely made of teachers and those pontificating about teaching, reveals the popular belief that nearly all classroom ills can be solved by doing two things:

  1. Build relationships with students.
  2. Teach engaging lessons.

Show the kids you genuinely care about them and they’ll treat you with respect. They’ll work harder for you. So spend five minutes chatting. Attend their soccer games. Sit next to them. Ask about their kitty cats. A student won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. You’ve heard it all before.

Plan more engaging activities and watch behavior problems disappear. Raise the bar and kids will meet it. Students misbehave because they’re bored, or they don’t see the relevance, or the work isn’t challenging enough.
This article on classroom management makes a bold claim:

“Effective educators say that the best classroom management plan is an engaging lesson plan. Once you have that, then you will not have to worry about any discipline problems in your classroom.”

You won’t have to worry about any disciplinary problems. The author is hardly the only one espousing such a rosy view.

Well, as Lee Corso likes to say:

Let’s take a step back from the pretty fluffy thoughts that make us feel good and actually think for a second.

Consider the Playground

Ask any elementary kid what his favorite part of the day is and there’s a good chance he will say recess. Recess, if done right, is largely unstructured play time. Kids can do damn near anything they want. They can choose who they do it with. Autonomy. Choice. Fun. All things a very engaging activity would have, right?

What could possibly go wrong?

Have these people who claim engagement will solve every behavior problem never had recess duty?

Because I can tell you from vast amounts of experience that engagement on the playground doesn’t lead to some rainbow-smeared utopia where children all get along, make responsible choices, and hold hands in song. In fact, many of the same students who struggle to behave in a classroom struggle to behave on the playground, which suggests there might be a few other factors that influence children’s behavior other than whether or not they feel engaged.

Share the following premise with any group of students:

“A pack of boys has to figure out how to survive on an island with no adults around.”

Watch their reaction.

Do they look terrified at the thought?

Hell, no! That’s a dream come true!

And could anything be more engaging than having to figure out how to SURVIVE? Talk about a STEAM project!

But, as anyone who has read Lord of the Flies knows, this sort of engagement doesn’t lead to everlasting peace. Quite the opposite. Jack becomes a lunatic. Piggie dies. The conch is broken. They set the island on fire. So much for engagement.

There Will Be Problems

As for relationships, consider your own family. I love my wife and daughter. They love me. There is a lot of mutual respect, built up over many years. That doesn’t mean we don’t screw up. I say hurtful things. My wife’s patience runs out. Our daughter gets lippy. Conflict is a part of being human. We’re emotional. We’re petty. We’re selfish. We get stressed out, hungry, and tired and we do and say stupid things. So does every kid in your class. There will be problems, no matter how good your relationships are.

Now let me be clear. Is it preferable to build relationships with students and engage them in meaningful activities? Of course it is. Your classroom will be a nicer place to be. Kids will behave better. They will learn more.

You should definitely build relationships and make your lessons interesting.

But will doing those two things put an end to all conflict, poor choices, and laziness?

No, it will not.

Let’s stop making teaching sound easier than it is. Quit offering magic solutions that do nothing except create unrealistic expectations that lead to frustration when the prescribed solutions don’t work the way they’re promised. Good relationships with students will help. Better lessons will, too. But neither are cure-alls. When you’re dealing with human beings, nothing is. And when we’re talking about teaching, there are no silver bullets. Can we quit pretending that there are?

Higher Education: Transitioning From a Teacher to a Professor

The following is a guest post by Dixie Somers. 

Many institutions of higher learning require that newly hired professors have some experience in K-12. After entering the field, however, those individuals often struggle to walk the thin line between remembering their grade level experiences and developing lessons for adult students. The advantage in having such a background, however, is that new professors understand what future teachers will face once in the classroom. An effective transition can be accomplished by keeping a few things in mind.

Many Jobs Come with New Professorship

Most new hires come in as assistant professors. In that capacity, you will be expected to teach, conduct research, and provide various services to the institution you work for. You’ll most likely be teamed with a tenured professor who will help you navigate your first few years. The teaching component is usually composed of between two to four courses per semester. However, it should be remembered that it takes an enormous amount of preparation for each class.

The second job is research.  Institutions of higher learning depend on exposure, status, and reputation to attract quality students. They get those accolades through publications. Additionally, professors become tenured through their publications file.

The third job is service to the institution. That can come in the form of serving on committees, organizing conferences and lectures, and advising students. That job serves a dual purpose. Not only are you providing a much-needed service to the organization, but it also provides you with the opportunity to network with other staff.

Get to Know Your Department Early

To move into a tenured position, you’ll need a strong endorsement from your department. As a result, networking is extremely important. Each department will have its own culture and patterns of behavior that you’ll have to learn and adapt to. It’s important to remember that a political pervasiveness, which is different than at grade level schools, will permeate the department. That factor will require you to learn the nuances of the people and structure of the department so you don’t get sucked into the middle of disputes. The best way to get to know your new department is to attend all functions, whether formal or informal. During such events you will want to ask uncontroversial questions about things you’ve heard, then listen to the stories that will provide enlightenment. Most importantly, you will want to find ways to relieve stress while learning about your co-workers in a less constrained setting, such as the gym.

Change Your Perspective on Being an Education Professional

Transitioning from your position as a teacher to a professor of a college like Stevens Henager College can be a challenge. One of the key things to remember is that faculty members treat each other and students differently than they do in grade level schools. Social distance needs to be established between you and your students and they need to understand that you are not their peer or friend. There are two ways to establish this.

The first is with your dress. If you wear professional clothing then you’ll be treated as a professional. Another way is to establish your position by using your title of “Dr.” or “Professor.” You don’t have to appear as if you know it all. In fact, you’ll gain more respect if you say “I don’t know, but I’ll look it up before we meet again.” In many cases, it can be a great learning opportunity for the students by asking everyone to seek the answer in order to share what they found during the next class. Feel confident in the fact that, in your field, you are an expert.

Your future as a professional in higher education will ultimately depend on several things. Included are your teaching record, evaluations, publications, outside letters reporting on your standing in the field, and the record of your service. The upside is that you’ll have more freedom in academia than you ever thought possible.

 

Dixie Somers is a freelance writer and blogger for business, home, and family niches. Dixie lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and is the proud mother of three beautiful girls and wife to a wonderful husband.