Following the #ReadingWars on social media? If you are, you may feel like me—lost and confused. Although I teach middle school English, reading instruction is near and dear to my heart because I teach in a school where many of our readers are considered striving readers. (Please note the phrase “striving readers.” It is intentional: focus on student assets rather than deficits.) In fact, last year, just 29% of our students in grades 6-7 met proficiency on our state standardized reading test. (On a side note, I am not a fan of standardized tests and don’t believe they represent our students’ true capabilities and brilliance.)
According to our Department of Education, my middle school looks like this:
- 69.1% of our students attend school on a regular basis
- 44.9% are Black or African-American
- 23.5% are Asian
- 18.0% are Hispanic or Latino
- 6.5% are Two or More Races
- 6.2% are White
- 1% are American Indian or Alaska Native
- 78.9% receive Free/Reduced-Price Lunch
- 4.8% are Homeless
- 18.6% receive English Learner Services
- 18.0% receive Special Education Services
Take another middle school, farther out of the cities, with 86.4% White students and 11.4% receiving free/reduced-price lunch. Can you guess what their reading proficiency rate is? I bet you already know the ballpark figure. Yes, it’s 75.7%. As experienced teachers, we know that standardized test proficiency rates can be determined from zip codes.
Like I mentioned before, I am not a strong believer in standardized tests. In fact, we have opted our children out of them for many years. But our district knows, our administrators know, and our teachers know that our kids have not and are not receiving the proper education in reading even without including the scores of the standardized tests. This is maddening. We all know this, yet nothing much changes in K-12 reading instruction for my students.
Reading is an integral part of society—academic, social, economic, and civil. Knowing this, my students are at a severe and lifelong disadvantage compared to the students in that outer-ring suburban middle school.
Now take into consideration the #ReadingWars. If you are on social media, especially Twitter, the #ReadingWar brings out two opposing sides. On one side, there are people like Emily Hanford, an education correspondent with APM Reports whose reporting on the science of reading has brought out, in full force, the army of phonics-only proponents. On the other side of this debate are the reading workshop advocates like Lucy Calkins, who are more of a hybrid than true only-reading workshop. Instead of taking one side or the other, the majority of the teachers find themselves somewhere in the middle. Yet teachers are forced to take sides because, ya know, you can’t think having a balanced approach is best for students, right? You must take a side. While I know that people on both sides (that phrase is making me cringe, if you know what I’m talking about) have students’ best interests at heart, teachers are caught in the middle. There is research to back both sides. (Let’s be honest. Data can be manipulated to prove any point.) This leaves teachers wondering what to do in their classrooms, which leads many teachers to stick to what they know because that is what has “worked” for them, the research is confusing, and time is precious.
I believe a balanced approach is necessary—both phonics and reading workshop (in grades K-8, with more focus on phonics in grades K-2). It can be done if we truly believe that all of our students matter, especially our Black and Brown students who, historically, have been left behind by those with power. For this to happen, though, it is imperative we commit to “reducing the predictability of who succeeds and who fails, interrupting reproductive practices that negatively impact students, and cultivating the gifts and talents of every student” (A Conversation About Instructional Equity with Zaretta Hammond, Part 1).
I have some ideas about what changes would help us better meet the needs of students who have not received the education they need.
- Honest conversations about scheduling – We have 50 minutes for our English classes. I know this is the case for many schools around the country, but it’s not enough, especially when we have a majority of students who need more intensive help with reading and the testing scores fall on our shoulders in which we are deemed worthy or not worthy. Students need more than 50 minutes of English class to become better speakers, readers, writers, and thinkers. In my ideal world, we would have 90 minute class periods for English. At our school, this would mean thinking creatively about our current schedule, but it can be done. There are many effective scheduling models out there. We need to interrupt our current system.
- Honest conversations about curriculum – Currently our middle school English curriculum consists of materials created by us. That labor consumes a majority of our time and the results don’t always hit the target. We need a guiding curriculum—hear me say: not scripted—for our scope and sequence and to best help our striving readers. Without a guiding curriculum, we are not aligned in our teaching; more often than not, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. While this might be unpopular with some educators, I purchased two Lucy Calkins/TCRWP middle school reading units: “A Deep Study of Character” and “Tapping the Power of Nonfiction.” The kids are showing great growth in their reading abilities, are actively engaged in the scaffolded learning, and are able to read and think at a higher level once the scaffolds are removed. Some educators believe Calkins’s units are scripted. They are if you want them to be; I focus on the mini-lessons and use my own wording. Some also believe Calkins’s units do not meet the needs of developing readers. I disagree with that. With these units, I have a better understanding of where my students’ strengths and areas for improvement are. I do a much better job of meeting my students’ needs with the middle school reading units. While I won’t know if this curriculum helps my students with our state test until this spring, I can say that my students are improving based on my own formative and summative assessments, and I truly believe I am reducing the predictability of those who succeed and who fail.
- Honest conversations about resources/intervention time for our most-striving readers – Finally, we do not have resources to help all of our striving readers with phonics. About December of every school year, I begin fixating on my 8th grade students who cannot decode well and who we are sending on to high school next year. I worry, and I worry, and I worry. Then I scramble to help all of those students with decoding. I own the first four levels of Barton Reading and Spelling (purchased on my own), so this year, I’m working with a student before school and running an after-school program to help them as much as I can before they leave me in the beginning of June. We don’t have anything in place that truly works, and that needs to change. We cannot accept that we are sending some of our students with the most severe decoding issues on to high school where they will likely not receive the help they need.
- Having honest conversations about and dismantling racist policies – This is where the most work is needed, but it is ignored over and over again. We need to talk about redlining, school district boundaries, rates of suspension and disciplinary referrals, and the fact that the majority of our students live in poverty. There truly is no reason for our Black and Brown students to be struggling in reading, but access to opportunities is lacking. Our school boundaries encompass one of Minnesota’s Racially/Ethnically Concentrated Areas of Poverty. This is unacceptable for our students and their families. The school district and city need to figure out how to dismantle the racist policies that cause this opportunity gap. Talking about it is not enough; action is needed.
In the end, it’s not about choosing between only-phonics or only-reading-workshop approaches. It is about creating a learning environment and school community (inside and outside of the school) where we are, once again, “reducing the predictability of who succeeds and who fails, interrupting reproductive practices that negatively impact students, and cultivating the gifts and talents of every student.”
Learn more about Allison Sirovy on our Contributors page