Choice and Voice

Classroom bookshelfIn sev­er­al past arti­cles I’ve writ­ten about the frus­tra­tion I’ve felt con­cern­ing my district’s deci­sion to adopt a new read­ing cur­ricu­lum. In recent weeks I have had to reflect and dig deeply to under­stand my uneasi­ness and fear relat­ed to “an inno­v­a­tive and mod­ern way to teach the gamut of ele­men­tary lit­er­a­cy skills” (quote from dis­trict web­site post about the new read­ing cur­ricu­lum). I am some­one who has nev­er shied away from change or oppor­tu­ni­ties to grow as an edu­ca­tor. How­ev­er, this sig­nif­i­cant shift in the approach to lit­er­a­cy learn­ing and instruc­tion in my class­room (and approx­i­mate­ly 660 oth­er ele­men­tary class­rooms in the dis­trict) has con­tributed great­ly to my deci­sion to accept a posi­tion with a new school dis­trict for the com­ing school year.

What fol­lows is the let­ter I am send­ing to dis­trict lead­ers and school board mem­bers in my now for­mer dis­trict. My hope is that by shar­ing this with you, my Teach it For­ward read­ers, and dis­trict deci­sion mak­ers, I can respect­ful­ly offer some­thing for all of us to think about in hopes of mak­ing a pos­i­tive dif­fer­ence in the lives of our students.

Dear Dis­trict Admin­is­tra­tors and School Board Members,

I believe we have sev­er­al essen­tial things in com­mon. We care about kids and we want them to suc­ceed. I also believe we share a pas­sion for learn­ing. We aim to do what’s right by our stu­dents. We share a sense of urgency. We want to empow­er our future lead­ers with nec­es­sary skills, expe­ri­ences, and knowl­edge. We are intent on mak­ing informed deci­sions and allo­cat­ing resources wisely.

I applaud the dis­trict for its will­ing­ness to invest in its kids. A com­bined $5.3 mil­lion for the new read­ing cur­ricu­lum, train­ing, and tech­nol­o­gy is no small expen­di­ture. I know dis­trict lead­ers who sup­port­ed the cur­ricu­lum adop­tion worked count­less hours to coör­di­nate the review process, the pilot­ing of mate­ri­als, and the plan for imple­men­ta­tion. For teach­ers who are new to the pro­fes­sion and have lim­it­ed expe­ri­ence, this new pro­gram offers a detailed overview for each day of the six week units that cov­er les­son plans for the entire school year, includ­ing book selec­tions, align­ment to the stan­dards, week­ly tests, and inter­ven­tions. For more vet­er­an edu­ca­tors it deliv­ers a time-sav­ing pro­gram that fea­tures a ful­ly-inte­grat­ed cur­ricu­lum that embeds read­ing, writ­ing, spelling, and vocab­u­lary, along with a wide range of tech­nol­o­gy tools.

I’ve spent nine years, more than a third of my 25-year teach­ing career, in this dis­trict. I am a Nation­al Board Cer­ti­fied Teacher with a mas­ters degree in lit­er­a­cy and an Edu­ca­tion Spe­cial­ist degree in K‑12 Lead­er­ship. My desire to make a pos­i­tive dif­fer­ence in stu­dents’ lives runs deep. How­ev­er, this let­ter isn’t about me. It is about the 32 incred­i­ble kids from Room 123. It’s about kids who need an advo­cate who will speak up on their behalf when they are not in a posi­tion to do so them­selves. I am writ­ing to respect­ful­ly ask you to con­sid­er some of the insights I have about the district’s recent adop­tion of the new curriculum.

Here are three things I believe those 32 kids would tell you if they had the chance.

Book Wall

#1. Please let us pick books we want to read along with books we want our teach­ers to read to us. “One size fits all” does not always feel that great.

Read­ers thrive on hav­ing choice and voice. Kids come to us with a wide range of inter­ests, abil­i­ties, back­grounds, and expe­ri­ences. Pro­vid­ing them with plen­ti­ful oppor­tu­ni­ties to have some say in what they read is crit­i­cal. Imag­ine show­ing up at your pub­lic library or favorite book­store every week for the next six years only to be told that the sto­ries and books with which you will be spend­ing 60 – 90 min­utes a day have already been pre-select­ed for you … would that moti­vate you to read?

Nan­cy Atwell, renowned edu­ca­tor and author who is the first recip­i­ent of the $1 mil­lion Glob­al Teacher Prize, speaks to the impor­tance of offer­ing choice and hon­or­ing stu­dents’ voice when it comes to read­ing. She explains:

We now have a quar­ter cen­tu­ry of stud­ies that doc­u­ment three find­ings: lit­er­a­cy blooms wher­ev­er stu­dents have access to books they want to read, per­mis­sion to choose their own, and time to get lost in them. Entic­ing col­lec­tions of lit­er­a­ture — inter­est­ing books writ­ten at lev­els they can decode with accu­ra­cy and com­pre­hend with ease — are key to chil­dren becom­ing skilled, thought­ful, avid readers.”

I encour­age you to read what else this accom­plished and high­ly regard­ed edu­ca­tor has to say about kids, read­ing, and achieve­ment.

The new cur­ricu­lum has all the books pre-select­ed for the entire year. The read-aloud or shared-read­ing selec­tions are orga­nized by theme to con­nect with the titles that are shared in small group read­ing. Each week there are four titles offer­ing four dif­fer­ent read­ing lev­els to match four dif­fer­ent groups of read­ers. The dis­trict web­site post announc­ing the new cur­ricu­lum adop­tion states: “… they’re [stu­dents] read­ing the same con­tent no mat­ter their read­ing abil­i­ty. So stu­dents at dif­fer­ent abil­i­ty lev­els can par­tic­i­pate through col­lab­o­ra­tive con­ver­sa­tions and learn from each other.”

Those 32 incred­i­ble kids might want to know what hap­pens if one of those four books doesn’t fit (whether that be because of top­ic, genre, or level)…do they have a say?

Reflect bookcase#2. Please know that we don’t all have the same access to tech­nol­o­gy but that doesn’t mean our fam­i­lies don’t want us to do well or that we need more work­sheets to do.

While the new cur­ricu­lum offers dig­i­tal at-home access to texts and read­ing mate­ri­als, not all stu­dents have the same oppor­tu­ni­ty to use them out­side the class­room. Near­ly 80% of stu­dents at my for­mer school are eli­gi­ble for Free/Reduced Lunch and almost half are Eng­lish Lan­guage Learn­ers. Close to 90% are stu­dents of col­or. Yes, there is an achieve­ment gap between white and non-white stu­dents and yes it must be addressed. Acknowl­edg­ing that an “oppor­tu­ni­ty gap” also exists is a step in the right direction.

Those 32 incred­i­ble kids might not be able to artic­u­late their feel­ings about the notion of “equi­ty” but there is no doubt they have felt its absence. They might be won­der­ing how the dis­trict will address the issue of equi­ty for stu­dents who lack access to tech­nol­o­gy at home. Will get­ting a “hard copy” of texts and mate­ri­als instead of get­ting to use online tools be enough to pro­vide them with self-direct­ed learn­ing opportunities?

Relax bookshelf#3. Please ask and lis­ten to my teach­ers about how the new cur­ricu­lum is work­ing in my class­room, at my school (test results are only part of the answer).

 One fea­ture of the new pro­gram is week­ly assess­ments, which will pro­vide test-tak­ing prac­tice for stu­dents and data for teach­ers and admin­is­tra­tors. While this is one way to mea­sure growth and achieve­ment to aid in plan­ning for instruc­tion, it is not the only thing to con­sid­er. The teach­ers who pilot­ed the pro­gram pri­mar­i­ly rep­re­sent­ed non-Title schools in the dis­trict. In fact, of the 10 schools (out of 24) select­ed to par­tic­i­pate, only 3 were from the 14 Title schools in the district.

As stat­ed ear­li­er, advo­cat­ing for my incred­i­ble stu­dents is my ulti­mate respon­si­bil­i­ty and it is the rea­son I am shar­ing this let­ter. It is my hope that the under-rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Title stu­dents and class­rooms in the pilot­ing of the cur­ricu­lum does not sig­ni­fy an indif­fer­ence to stu­dents and teach­ers who deserve to be includ­ed in con­ver­sa­tions and deci­sions about the imple­men­ta­tion of the curriculum.

On behalf of those 32 incred­i­ble kids I keep talk­ing about, I am hap­py to report that they are some of the most cre­ative, intel­li­gent, kind and fun­ny kids with whom I have ever worked. Many are bilin­gual. They write poet­ry. They play musi­cal instru­ments. They are artists, ath­letes, and actors. Most of them believe in them­selves and their abil­i­ty to do and become what­ev­er they choose. Those 32 incred­i­ble kids have shared their unique tal­ents, pas­sions, and per­son­al­i­ties with me each and every day, some for the past two years. Their desire to read, talk, and write about their favorite char­ac­ters, authors’ mes­sages, and the things they won­der has been evi­dent, in part because they have been giv­en guid­ance and free­dom to select from the vast col­lec­tion of books avail­able to them in Room 123.

One final thing those 32 incred­i­ble kids might ask is that you nev­er lose sight of the fact that although they might not all be able to demon­strate just how much they know and are capa­ble of doing when it comes to read­ing and stan­dard­ized tests, they deal with chal­lenges on a dai­ly basis, chal­lenges that some of us nev­er encounter in our entire adult lives. Don’t let this new cur­ricu­lum become anoth­er chal­lenge. I sim­ply ask that you look beyond the new cur­ricu­lum to con­sid­er what the kids and teach­ers might need to address the issues of stu­dent choice, stu­dent voice, equi­ty, achieve­ment gaps, oppor­tu­ni­ty gaps, and, most impor­tant­ly, the idea that one size does not fit all when it comes to teach­ing and learning.


Mau­r­na Rome

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