Let Me Tell You What Your Problem Is…

The fall reading assessment window is closing this  week in my district.  My students have been weighed, they have been measured…and as I sit surrounded by data points, crafting individual goals for each of them…they have been found wanting.  Or have they?  There are of course many lenses to look at assessment data through.  It is certainly considered a more promising practice to pay as much attention to strengths as weaknesses.  And when I confer with my students, I most certainly start with a strength, because I need them to recognize themselves as capable.  They must be capable, because I then need to turn their attention to goals for improvement in fluency, comprehension, sometimes even habits and attitudes associated with their reading lives at school and at home.  My experience has (so far) shown me that readers who believe they are capable of improvement tend to improve, and readers who do not believe they can become better readers…well, there aren’t enough mini-lessons or strategy groups in the world for those poor souls.

For many of my students, I will be the first teacher who sits side by side with them to talk about their specific skill sets as readers, their choices and habits, strengths and weaknesses.  I will hand them a piece of paper with a photo of them reading at the top, and a bullet point list of 3-5 goals to focus on over the next few months.  We’ll talk about each goal, why it matters, and students will sometimes add a goal or two of their own choosing.  The “advanced” readers tend to be shocked that they would have goals for reading improvement–I always enjoy these conversations (in an evil way that I keep well hidden).  The readers who have a history of struggling usually like the goals–it gives them something more concrete to consider, instead of just embracing an identity as a “bad” reader.   I explain to all that having goals helps us focus–this is not all we need to learn, but with a little focus we may all move forward more quickly and make the most of our learning time and effort.

If only having goals were enough!  I have a degree in political science, so I learned long ago that identifying problems is laughably easy–addressing problems is where things get messy, weird, occasionally wonderful, but more often painfully frustrating.  Sometimes teaching readers feels less like science to me, and more like alchemy.  There’s a bit of science and a good chunk of magic in turning lead to gold, and it takes time.  So much time!  But when I know the specific needs of my students, and they each know their own needs, we can share the work–and that’s a pretty big deal.

So as I finish conferring with kids about reading goals, I look ahead.  I help organize interventions for students with serious issues, and I plan out strategy groups with focus points like improving out-loud phrasing and expression, or asking thoughtful questions and making predictions, or learning to vary the genres they read (“No, you can’t just keep reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid books til Christmas…sorry.”).  I consider the most widespread issues and plan units of study that will address them.  I think about who would benefit most from book clubs.

And I try to teach my students to be accountable for how they spend their reading time in class.  They have to examine their goals daily, make choices (read to self, read to someone, write in response to reading, etc.) that directly support their goals, and I teach them to articulate those choices and to track their choices so they can evaluate whether they are choosing wisely.  This is still a work in progress, because most of my students want to practice what they are already proficient at rather than push against a bit of cognitive dissonance doing something that doesn’t come as easily.  I don’t blame them–I often feel the same way.


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