Reading is personal and must begin with the student’s background knowledge and then expand to the stars and beyond. Kids are not standardized therefore learning should not be standardized. To develop reading skills, first students must be able to read much of what is put in front of them, and it must mean something to them. And then we take kids step by step, one drip at a time until the light bulb goes off and reading is everyday business. The materials used must be high interest for them as well as at their level. As they develop confidence, reading levels move up and up.
To assure quality learning, there must be quality assessment. Information gathered must truly tell parents and students how much progress has been made throughout the year. A good way to determine progress in reading, for example, is with a one on one, small pre and post-test. These results then must be verified by the progress seen by the classroom teacher using a variety of assessments on a regular basis throughout the year. Remember, that any test is only a snap shot in time. It only “sees” the student one day a year while the teacher sees the student every day of the school year. Comparing this small test with a wide variety of information gathered by the teacher gives a clear and honest indicator of reading achievement.
Along with quality assessment for learning, there must be a plan that takes every child from where they are. At Village School we developed reading clubs designed for every child to learn at their best rate. Similar to the concept of stop everything and read, the entire school stops classes for 45 minutes on a regular basis. Every adult in the building became a reading teacher to assure small class sizes for the lower readers and higher class sizes for those with the best skills. No letter grades were given and there was no competition. Students were assigned to the levels of their assessment and adjusted by teachers who saw differences in the clubs. Here is how it happened in the Milwaukee Village School in 1996:
This innovative public school in Milwaukee Wisconsin was in its second year when a student we will call Johnny, entered as a seventh grader. He was placed in our reading clubs and given a one on one simple test to determine a jumping off point. He scored on the pre primer level. This was confirmed by his class room teacher and we moved forward. Our reading clubs were designed to bring out the joy of reading. We don’t brow beat kids, we didn’t tell them they were stupid with a letter grade and most of all, we didn’t have them compete in any way because we knew that the joy of learning would be knocked out of them. Students were in groups reading high interest articles but with words they could read. We had no interest in giving them a seventh grade text if they read at a third grade level. We had no interest in shaming them into learning.
We were told that students would be embarrassed and would act out if they were in low skill groups. But that didn’t happen. During the reading club (classes) you could hear a pin drop in the school. Why, because they could actually read the articles given. Secondly, class sizes were determined by reading levels. Low skill students had very small class sizes and as we got to those on level, the sizes increased somewhat. Those beyond their level had even larger sizes. You will simply never get low scoring children to read in a mob. Class size is essential. And finally, there was no competition. Competition bleeds the soul out of those who lose.
Now did Johnny miraculously jump up seven grade levels and read into the twilight? No, in fact for the first three months he wouldn’t even look at a book. Until one day, due to the individual attention and patience of his teacher, the light bulb went off. Hearing him in the hall constantly harassing his teacher as to when the next reading club would be was music to my ears. And the end result was that he gained four grade levels during the remainder of the school year. Remember, this is a young man who gained nothing in the previous six years. In this school there were no artificial letter grades, no brow beating, no continuous reminding him that he was stupid if he didn’t progress toward proficiency fast enough, and most important, no competition forcing him to compare himself to other students and no longer is the truth hidden behind letter grades, we simply tell the students and parents what they have learned.
This is an individual example of how a simple test, blended with classroom assessments with appropriate reading skills and individual attention where needed help a child develop reading skills. And it didn’t cost a penny more! We must give children the power to learn, to use their brains to discover and analyze rather than memorize. They must learn to find their way in life, as leaders down their pathway of success rather than followers like lemmings to the sea only to falter when they splash into the real world of work, community involvement and daily living.
Greater gains will happen, not necessarily in the next year but maybe the following year and sometimes later. If we stay with kids they will succeed. Today the pattern is to push them out of school before they have a chance to blossom. Pressure them into their own “suicide by street” and watch the cycle of poverty play out as the system continues as its purpose of maintaining the subclass.
The reality is that through the reading clubs described in this article, individual expectations are high and standards become guidelines for success rather than deadlines for failure. This of course would lead to individualized schools which are necessary for success. The main difference between this new system and the current one is that this one never gives up on kids. An individualized school with no false letter grades, no artificial grade levels, and a failure system that is part of the learning process will serve all kids well.
As schools are defined by their required outcomes, we must come to the realization that we cannot standardize kids and individualize them at the same time. Isn’t it time to at the very least allow individualized schools? Are we afraid that the last might very well become first when we allow real learning to drive a school? This is pretty scary to those who want to maintain the subclass. When it comes to achievement, a new direction must be taken, A direction that takes students, from where they are, on their pathway to success to their dreams.