Saturday, September 12, 2009

Malcolm X Was a Proficient Reader, What About My Students?

"At one-hour intervals the night guards paced past every room. Each time I heard the approaching footsteps, I jumped into bed and feigned sleep. And as soon as the guard passed, I got back out of bed onto the floor area of that light-glow, where I would read for another fifty-eight minutes --until the guard approached again. That went on until three or four every morning. Three or four hours of sleep a night was enough for me."
-Malcolm X, Autobiography of Malcolm X
My school's CSAP scores, including reading, dropped last year. As a result, the topics of literacy and proficient readers permeates every conversation, every thought, every footstep through the hall. How do we get our kids to score well on CSAP this year? However, this preoccupation with reading instruction has not lead the school to adopt a love-of-reading culture. Because the question being asked is the wrong one. We are not asking How do we share our love of reading with our students? Instead the conversation and the thinking is narrowly directed to a standardized test.

So no, our students as a whole do not love reading. Instead the school administration has done what Herbert Kohl eloquently wrote in an Open Letter to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan-
"In the panic over teaching students to perform well on reading tests, educators seem to have lost sight of the fact that reading is a tool, an instrument that is used for pleasure and for the acquisition of knowledge and information about the way the world works."
I think about the proficient readers I know or have read about. Malcolm X's story of reading whenever possible while in prison, even if he had to sneak it, exemplifies a simple mantra I've always carried with me "A proficient reader loves to read." And his story as to why he began reading, echoes Kohl's assertion-
"I knew right there in prison that reading had changed forever the course of my life. The ability to read awoke inside me some long dormant craving to be mentally alive."
Would he have reached this in my school, as a 5th grader? I seriously doubt it. If so, it would have been because his teacher had been intuitive, bucked the system and would have been in spite of the curriculum rather than because of it.

Because test scores have hijacked our building's ability to see reading for what it is - our students who are not proficient readers are treated as if they are diseased. My assistant principal, speaking of students scoring Unsatisfactory on their reading test, explained that "If they don't get it first in the classroom, then we can give them a second dose, and then a third dose with an SES, and then a fourth dose with intervention." The thinking here is that if they aren't reading on grade level then something is wrong with them, that they need reading skills drilled into their heads and if they don't get it the first time we'll do it again, and again, and again, and again.

Of course, the sick irony with this approach is that the more that we "intervene" the clearer it becomes in the student's mind that reading is not for them. That they are not good readers and that reading is not for enjoyment or the gateway to life-changing experiences, it's a test that they will take and which will most likely come back telling them that they are "Unsatisfactory."

And so, instead of following in the footsteps of Malcolm X by poring over a book with a flashlight at night, our children will return to their homes, grateful not to see a book. They will turn on the tv and escape to a place where they are not coerced to read a passage and then fill in a bubble about it, a place where history and science and art and PE are denied to them because they need to practice their reading instead.

Rather than a tool, they will see reading as a barrier to the things that they love. They will associate it with the time that they are pulled from Science to sound out words. We can take that mantra for proficient readers and invert it, "Non-proficient readers loathe reading."

And even within the confining goal of improving test scores, they most likely won't by making our kids hate to read. And if they do, it will come at a high price.

Of course, the scores are true to an extent. Many of our students do struggle at reading. However, instead of looking at the students as stupid or failures (thus prompting the question over how to cram more literacy instruction into the day) what if we took Kohl's quote as guidance? What if we reframed the question to say "How can we help students use reading as a tool to tap into their passions and transform their worlds?"

Mind you, Malcolm X was not a proficient reader. He quit school early. To learn to read at an academic level he read every single page out of the dictionary and then wrote down every single character onto paper. He did this twice.

Why would he go through such a laborious, boring process? Because he realized what reading could do for him. For him he knew that there were volumes of books and countless stories of his people that had been denied to him and he wanted to know them.

So even for our struggling readers who do in fact need phonics instruction or practice with fluency or other activities that are typically not the most engaging, that understanding of literature's potential for them is essential. If they do not see reading as the profound tool that it is, they will not empty their heart onto those pages like Malcolm X did. They will, no let me start over- They are being denied the joy and liberation of reading and they will continue to be robbed of this joy so as long as we treat them like they are deficient and as long as we take our guidance from standardized tests rather than from our students.

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