The Reader and the Task: More Questions about Packaged Programs

One Size Does Mot Fit All

Last month I bemoaned New York City’s decision to encourage schools to adopt highly scripted reading programs in the lower and middle school grades in order to meet the Standards. And in addition to the various reasons I cited then—texts that seem inappropriate for students’ grade level, questions and prompts that seem too much like test-prep—there’s another reason I’m wary. Potential problems are bound to arise anytime we ask a group of diverse readers to all read the same text, and every program the City is recommending requires students to read common texts that often seem beyond even the high end of a given grade’s complexity band.

The question then is how do we help so-called struggling readers, whether they’re English language learners, children with special needs, or just students who, for a whole host of reasons, may not be where someone thinks they should be. The programs’ answer to this question seems to be that teachers should just keep guiding and prompting until the students somehow get it, falling back when needed on think alouds which, in the guise of modeling how to think, too often tell students what to think.

funny-in-farsiTo get a feel for the level of prompting, let’s look at a sample from one of the programs recommended for middle school students, Scholastic’s Codex, which is being adapted from their Read 180 program. One of the whole class texts for their 6th grade unit on “Coming to America” is a chapter from Firoozeh Dumas‘s memoir Funny in FarsiLike the 3rd grade text I shared last month from Pearson’s ReadyGenFunny in Farsi is an interesting text that’s actually intended for an older audience. School Library Journal lists it as being for high school students and adults, but someone, in their obsession with complexity, has now decided to make it 6th grade fare.

What makes the book challenging is its tone, which can veer toward irony and sarcasm, and the background knowledge needed to get the humor, as can be seen below:

Funny in Farsi Excerpt

In recognition of these challenges, the Read 180 Teacher’s Packet provides teachers not only with the by now expected string of text-dependent questions but a script to use with small groups of students who might need more support. Here, for instance, is what they tell teachers to say in order to help students answer two questions on the third paragraph above:

Read Aloud Teacher Packet

I know these supports are meant to be scaffolds, but at some point all this guiding, assisting and ensuring that students get what the script says they should can inevitably lead teachers facing blank stares to just tell them what they ‘ought’ to know. And where’s the critical thinking in that? Where’s the independence? And how does this level of scaffolding jive with how forcefully David Coleman, the chief architect of the Standards, has come down on practices that allow students to access the text without actually reading it?

Male Sunbird feeding his newborn chicks in nestOf course, students are supposed to be reading along silently as the teacher reads the passage out loud. And with struggling students, the teacher is encouraged to use an oral cloze routine, whereby students call out words the teacher doesn’t read aloud to see if they’re following. But all this scaffolding sounds suspiciously like spoon-feeding to me, with teachers overly directing students to a pre-ordained answer. It will, however, increase students’ ability to address the writing task for this text, where they’re given two choices: They can either write an “explanatory paragraph” explaining how people were kind or welcoming to the author’s family or an “opinion paragraph,” in which they state whether they think the author’s response to some of the Americans’ misguided ideas was clever or mean.

At this point pretty much all they have to do is plug in the details from the answers to the questions they’ve been guided, assisted and helped in finding. There’s really no synthesis required here, no need to consider the author’s message or theme, which might entail wrestling with the seeming contradiction between the author’s affection for Americans and her annoyance with their ignorance. Digging deeper isn’t on the agenda, though that’s precisely the kind of thinking college students have to do with none of the scaffolding, prompting and sentence starters that they’re given here. And all of this brings up an additional problem.

Like the New York State ELA exam, this Scholastic example seems based on an incredibly narrow interpretation of the Standards, where more emphasis is placed on the skill of citing textual evidence to support an idea expressed in a prompt than on developing an idea about the text in the first place. Additionally the questions are either straightforward comprehension questions (like Q1 above), which don’t ask for higher order thinking, or they focus on small matters of craft (like Q2) that have been divorced from the greater meaning of the piece or the unit’s theme.

One Green AppleWhat makes more sense to me—and addresses both these problems—is letting struggling students engage with the unit’s theme through a text that’s easier to access, like Eve Bunting‘s wonderful One Green AppleThe book tells the story of an immigrant girl from Pakistan named Farah, who’s struggling to find a place for herself in a new and not always welcoming country—and with a Lexile level of 450, it puts far fewer word and sentence demands on a reader than Funny in Farsi does. But it conveys its ideas about the unit’s theme in subtle and complex ways, with the green apple acting as a symbol for the main character’s journey from isolation to belonging, and with many details exploring the ways in which people are different and the same.

If we invite students to simply wonder, rather than march them through a series of questions, they’re inevitably curious about the apple from the title and the cover. And because they’re curious, they pay close attention to the page where the green apple finally appears, with many students able to infer why she chose that particular one by making the connection between Farah and the apple.

Inviting students to also notice patterns helps put those other details about differences on their radar in a way that positions them to also pay attention when the focus shifts from what’s different to what’s similar. And all this noticing opens the door for students to consider what Eve Bunting might be trying to show them about coming to America through the story of Farah—or in the language of the 6th grade reading standards “to determine a theme or central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details.”

Home of the BraveI like to call this the “Simple Text, Complex Task” approach, which invites students to engage in complex thinking with a text that’s relatively accessible. If we felt compelled to, we could afterwards step students up to a text like Funny in Farsi, where, with One Green Apple under their belt, they’d be better positioned to compare Firoozeh’s experience to Farah’s. Or better yet, we could take a smaller step with something like the first half-dozen poems from Katherine Applegate‘s marvelous Home of the Bravewhich, at a fourth grade reading level and without picture supports, tells the story of an African refugee transplanted to Minnesota in beautiful and complex ways.

This would mean, though, putting meaning ahead of skills and students ahead of complexity bands. It would also mean putting teachers ahead of programs, which is where the decision-making belongs for all the obvious reasons.

From You Can't Scare Me, I'm a Teacher on facebook

From You Can’t Scare Me, I’m a Teacher on facebook

22 thoughts on “The Reader and the Task: More Questions about Packaged Programs

  1. I really like your idea of “simple text, complex ideas” as an opening for deeper thinking. Far better that learners create the background they need for more complex texts through gathering and wondering than through listening and absorbing a teacher’s thinking.

    Also, think of how deadly-dull reading would be if it were filled with text dependent questions and quick writes like that. Imagine the collateral damage!

    Finally, I really appreciate the way you’ve taken on these developments by looking closely at the curricula that are emerging rather than just saying you don’t like it and leaving it at that. The emperor’s clothes are missing. You’re saying it, and describing the scene marvelously! 🙂

    • I agree with “simple text, complex ideas.” I use The Timbertoes from Highlights Magazine with ELLs and other low readers to do the same kind of thinking the others do from on-grade level texts!

    • It’s really scary, isn’t it? And there’s more scary stuff to come–such as the Pearson Teacher Performance Assessments, which I just learned about. For my own mental health, though, I’m feeling a need to step back from the battlefield and write about more positive and authentic classroom experiences for a while (where I’d love to also link back to your post on your Blue Ghost readers, which I hope would be okay). But all these developments have made me question what the Standards writers were really looking for in terms of independence–students who can independently answer a teacher’s or a test’s question or students who can actually enter a text knowing nothing and emerge pages later with their own supportable, meaningful and independent ideas. Increasingly–and sadly–I’ve feel like it’s the former because if we were truly interested in the latter we’d be offering students a different kind of staircase to access complex texts. But it’s also been interesting and heartening to see how many NYC schools are refusing the city’s recommendations and holding on to their right to make the kind of independent and meaningful curricular decisions teachers like you & Mary Lee Hahn make each day–except, of course, on test days, when as you so movingly wrote, we’re all put in awful, compromising position.

      • Absolutely link, Vicki, if it seems useful. And, yes, I understand the “mental health” aspect of this, too. While Iowa isn’t as far down the rabbit hole as NY, I can report that where ever we are in the journey, I can see that it’s getting darker and narrower up ahead. Crazy. As much as I love your clear-sighted critique of the current situation, I also really learn a lot from your posts about what you’ve done and learned while in the classroom. I’m looking forward to them. As always, thanks so much for sharing your thinking so generously!

  2. Wonderful point that this is placing citing text evidence above developing an idea–crazy! Citing evidence is a skill that is supports the ability to support an argument or idea. It seems fairly useless to cite evidence just to show you remember a line from the book!

    • Thanks, Elizabeth, for the affirmation. I do wonder whether we sometimes put more emphasis on that citing-evidence skill than on developing an original idea because it’s easier to teach–or if there’s something more insidious at work, like a corporate culture that values standardization and compliance over questioning and innovation. Either way, you might be interested in this article that crossed my desk last week: It circles some of the same ideas and offers teachers a simple way of assessing what they’re actually asking student readers to do.

  3. This is scary. It’s reminiscent of what TfA does with its teachers: scripts, scripts, scripts that water down and disrespect learning, students and teachers. I think teachers need to fight back and refuse to do this kind of teaching. Right now teachers who are supporting the Common Core are doing so because they think (thought) they were going to get a respite from standardized testing. Well, the respite was short-lived. It is time to go back to effective teaching and learning practices before it is really too late.

    • You are very lucky, indeed, Mary Lee. I wish that more districts could be like Dublin’s and give teachers enough room and support to make purposeful and meaningful decisions for their students. I loved so many of the ideas you shared at IRA–the brackets, the 15-word poems from visuals, introducing denotative vs. connotative meaning to your students–and I’m sharing them with the teachers I work with, who are gobbling them up. And as for ‘Simple Text, Complex Ideas,’ I like to think it’s a case of like minds thinking alike and realizing that there’s a better way of helping kids climb up that complexity staircase then by throwing them (to mix metaphors) into the deep end of the pool.

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  5. A little off topic…. But along the lines of one size does not fit all…..our school always does a summer reading and math challenge. The debate is # of chapter books vs time spent reading? Any thoughts?

    • Oh, summer reading! We all know how summer reading helps students not lose ground, but ten books in nine weeks is absurd. And it’s even worse if those ten books have to come from someone’s list. Plus setting a challenge based on a number–how many books, how many hours–sends the message out to kids that quantity is more important than quality. What feels ideal to me is for teachers to take kids to the library the very last week of school and help them find one book that want to read over the summer and then ask them to find one or two more, with the goal of finding a book you love and/or that gave you some kind of insight. But in this numbers driven world I’m aware that that’s probably wishful thinking.

  6. When I contacted a major publisher to get some American materials sent to Australia, the publisher took the opportunity to introduce me to a number of packaged products that would teach directly to the Australian Curriculum standards (our version of the Common Core).

    The experience was terribly frustrating. Packaged materials don’t allow teachers to do the hard work of unit design with authentic assessment tasks. There must be a market for the packaged stuff tho, or they’d stop selling it.

    • What’s so sad is that there’s going to be a whole generation of teachers here in the States that think reading from a script is what teaching is about. And a generation of children who think that reading is about answering someone else’s questions. The only one who wins are the publishers–which I fear is the point. They aim their marketing at making our life easier when, in fact, it robs us of our professionalism and makes us dependent on someone else’s thinking.

  7. I had an interesting conversation with a principal new to international schools from the US. I asked him about the pressures of NCLB (I left the country before it was implemented) about my observations of schools adopting ‘teacher-proof’, scripted programs.

    He believed the problem stemmed from administrators who are afraid of the sanctions and don’t understand how truly good instruction aimed at standards will result in better overall outcomes. He felt there was a crisis in educational leadership as well as a crisis in teacher professional development.

    I recently spent a weekend with half the faculty at a Jay McTighe conference discussing unit planning using the Understanding by Design Model (starting with essential questions and authentic, task assessments before planning lessons). When I asked the teachers what they took from the conference, they said that unit planning involves more thinking than they had previously done – so much so that it really needs to happen in teams and shared with other teachers.

    Thanks for helping teachers through that thinking by sharing your stuff online!

    • I’ve spent a fair amount of time these last few weeks helping teachers who are opting out of NYC’s recommended scripted programs look at UBD-style unit planning, and I get the same response from teachers: that it requires a lot of time and thinking–or as one teacher said, it made his brain hurt. Fortunately many find it exhilarating and rewarding, especially when they start internalizing the thinking and it gets a little easier. But we’re all aware that budgets and expectations don’t always allow for the time it deserves. And there’s much anxiety about whether the Quality Reviewer who will be grading the schools will see the value of all that hard thinking–especially because the pay-off isn’t always seen in a single lesson–let alone in a ten-minute classroom snapshot–but in the understanding that accrues across the unit. I’ll be sharing some of the thinking we did in an upcoming post, but it’s good to know it’s finding a useful home!

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