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Killing Mockingbird

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I belong to a book club of women who are all moms like me. Once a year we pick a classic to read (or reread). This year’s pick was To Kill a Mockingbird, for which Lee won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize and on Monday received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I had read Harper Lee’s classic in high school and I remembered the plot, but what I did not remember was how magical Lee’s prose was, how connected I felt to Scout Finch, the narrator, and the rhythms of her life in that small Southern town. I wonder now if I forgot all of this or if I never got the chance to feel this connection when I read Mockingbird in English class.

I was an avid reader even back then, but I often felt disconnected from the books that we read in school. I was reading James Michener’s historical tomes and Robert Heinlein’s fantasy by the time I was in high school (OK, not classic literature, but so fun to read!). The books we were assigned were so boring! It took forever to read one, stopping after every chapter to “do something” with the book: memorize vocabulary lists, hunt for examples of figurative language, and write lengthy essays from teacher prompts. These assignments killed any momentum that might have pulled me through a book, and killed my appreciation for the book, too.

Many colleagues have insisted to me that students cannot read books that are complex and rich with literary detail without a teacher’s guidance because students are not sophisticated readers. The irony of these opinions is apparent when To Kill a Mockingbird is trotted out as an example of a book that students cannot read without a teacher. As a teacher and a reader, Scout’s views towards school and reading haunt me long after I finished the book. On the first day of school, Scout is chastised by her new teacher because she learned to read before she received formal training in school. The teacher tells Scout, “Now you tell your father not to teach you anymore. It’s best to begin reading with a fresh mind. You tell him that I will take over from here and try to undo the damage.” Scout is crushed because she is told that she cannot read at home and tells us, “Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.”

As Mockingbird continues, Scout’s views show that she has become increasingly disconnected from the learning she must do at school. She says, “…as I inched sluggishly along the treadmill of the Maycomb County school system, I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what, I knew not, yet I did not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me.” To Kill a Mockingbird was written in 1960 (set in the ‘30s), I was in high school in 1984, and as teachers and parents, we are still bemoaning the lack of engagement that students seem to have in school and with reading. Much research into reading has taken place since 1960, so what has not changed for students?

I think the mistrust is still there. Teachers do not trust students to take control of their own literacy development or their own learning. We still teach books instead of teaching readers. Students are given very little control of what they read, when they read, and how they are allowed to respond. School reading still seems to be about what teachers think students should be getting out of a book. The opportunity to fall in love with a story is denied to students who have come to view school reading as an obstacle course of comprehension assignments. Teachers are the gatekeepers of knowledge instead of the guides. Should knowledge have a gatekeeper? Until we release some of this control back to our students, they will never become independent thinkers or readers. As for students like Scout and me, who walk into classrooms already readers, we will continue to wonder why our love of reading has no place in school.

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Oh, yes. I knew better than Scout. I didn't let on that I could read already in first grade. But I have a vivid memory of my first in-school reading group (and how disappointed I was that there was no reading involved), where the teacher held up a picture of ALICE in a red dress and asked us about how we would know it was ALICE if we saw her on another day, in another dress. I knew I wasn't supposed to notice that ALICE was printed in big letters under her feet.

I hated sitting in reading group, waiting as one after another had a turn at reading the same page over and over. It did teach me how to "read ahead" on the sly--a skill that carried me through many boring classes throughout the years.

As a child who read "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" independently at the age of 4 years and 9 months the summer before entering kindergarten, I felt exactly the same way in "reading" class. We didn't even have reading groups: the entire class read together. The first person in the first row read the first sentence, then the second person in the first row read the second sentence, and so on to the end of the story. I would read ahead, count up to my sentence, then read something else on the sly until it was my turn. Same for the worksheet -- finish it in about 20 seconds, then read a real book under the desk. I always thought that the other kids, who struggled over decoding their assigned sentences, were BETTER "students" than I was, because they were able to play dumb more successfully than I could! That was the lesson I learned by the end of first grade -- school was a gigantic charade, where you were supposed to pretend to learn things you already knew, for some unfathomable grown-ups' reason that kids weren't supposed to understand or question.

My mother went to open house when I was in first grade and was surprised to hear my teacher say, "We have lots of students ALMOST reading!" My mom told the teacher I really could read already. The teacher suggested that I might have memorized a few books at home, but that I wasn't reading in class. My mom came home asked me why I wasn't reading at school, and I explained that since I knew it was the teacher's job to teach me how, I didn't want to hurt her feelings. My mother told the teacher what I said; I was taken to some little room and given a reading test; I was sent to another classroom for reading every day after that, which made me pretty sure that I'd made the teacher mad--she was sending me away!

Years later, I was in a staff development session across the table from my first grade teacher. She introduced me to the others as "so brilliant we had to send her to second grade for reading from the start of the year!" I never knew the other classroom was a second grade room or that it was a good thing to be sent out.

I continually wonder what it is we do to children to make them dislike school so much. Analyzing the heck out of a novel, drill and kill with grammar, memorize this and that....No wonder kids are taking mind trips left and right to escape the boredom that surrounds them in school. I hope that more teachers read your blogs and reflect on their own teaching practices thinking how to best engage/invite children into learning again. Children begin school with such excitement. Where does it go?

Like Kerri, I remember being puzzled by the capstone project for my kindergarten class--a series of prereading exercises bound in a large format book called "I Am Learning How to Read!" I'd been reading for quite some time at that point but the teacher was very excited about it, so I went along with her. Luckily, my first grade teacher was excellent at differentiation, even back in the early 70s. I got what I needed from her.

Donalyn and others like her, from high school reading remediation teachers--Thank you for the love of reading you instill in your students and for helping others to achieve the same with students. When I taught high school remediation classes to help students pass the graduation exams, I had students who had been "properly schooled" but did not learn to read for the love of it. When you love it, you comprehend it--that's what I told my students. They couldn't understand why we spent 90% of our time just plain reading books and talking about what we read and only 10% actually practicing test questions. I read with them. We read to each other. They read to me--not round robin reading but the whole class period from a book they loved and wanted to share. It was glorious! Not one of my students failed the reading grad exam after a semester of breaking the "rules" and reading without a test or worksheet to assess comprehension! Too many of my senior level students had never read a book even though their classes were assigned books to read and they were tested on what they read. Students too often said they didn't need to read because the teacher spent too much time analyzing the book in class--they just took good notes during that analysis of what the teacher thought they needed to remember. They could pass the test without reading the book. So, thank you Donalyn for what you do with students and for how you have agreed to inspire others to be teachers like you!

I just found your blog, and loved this entry. I grew up in a small town in Western PA, and remember reading my sister's textbooks when I was in first grade and she was in third--it was glorious then, but third grade was an awful bore.
It went on being boring for several years, but then in 6th grade the entire reading class involved just sitting there every day, reading whatever we wanted. Once a week we were to take a break from reading and write a letter in our journals telling the teacher about what we were reading and what was exciting about it. She would write back, too, which made me feel really special.
Future classes were never as fun, as we had to stay back to the pace of the slowest reader. I was a vocal kid, and eventually the 7th grade reading teacher finally acknowledged that I had read all of the books on his list of appropriate books...so he had me read War and Peace instead. Writing a book report on that one was hard! After I finally finished it, I talked to my gifted class teacher and talked her and the principal into letting me skip 8th grade reading and go take an extra history class at the high school.
I ended up transferring to a private school where the other kids had read Shakespeare in 6th grade and I was grateful for my reading speed in attempting to catch up to all that I had missed in my semi-rural public school.

I am referring to the National Endowment of the Arts report that pleasure reading has dropped significanlty among young adults. As a member of the National Reading Panel we tangentially addressed this issue when we looked at independent reading, and could not find suitable experimental research either for or against its use in promoting reading achievement. I was upset by the Panel's report and subsequently did an experimetal study where we had students either have fifteen or forty minutes of independent reading daily. I found that the students who read more did better, as any teacher might have predicted. The importance of the Endowment's report is the fear that if as a nation we read less, we will lose our ability to read critically. The adage "Use it or lose it" is well taken. One reason our youn adults read less is that in today's college classroom, there is so much reading demanded, that at the end of the day the student just wants to relax with watching TV. If the goal is to relax and enjoy, the principle of least effort applies here. The easiest route to the goal is taken, and in this case switching on the TV tube seems to be the route of our young adults. Jay Samuels, Dept of Educational Psychology, University of Minnesota

I'm glad to see so many others who were bored to tears with school. The best thing that ever happened to me in school was in seventh grade. I went to a tiny (60 students) private school. Someone had donated hundreds of books to the school and the headmaster asked me if I'd like to spend a few hours a day sorting them. I never sorted a single book, but I spent hours every day sitting in that "library" reading to my heart's content -- biography, history, fiction. That good lady headmaster never said a word about it.

I honestly do not know how I became a reader. Well maybe I do. But by all accounts I should have been illiterate. I never read growing up. I used to play outside all of the time. Then around 12 years old, my parent's subscription of Newsweek became my weekly read. I would look for it each week and read it from cover to cover. I do not know what prompted me to read and think about everything I read. I needed a lot of mental stimulation - or to think about things, anything, It was kind of odd and I do not understand what that was all about. I then started reading books and I became so immersed in my thoughts about what I would read. I was also too impressionable. At around that same age I read Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World, and became a cynic about life. Then I read Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier (sp?). I discovered my view on that book was completely different than anyone else's understanding of it. I just felt Rebecca was not liberated enough and dysfunctional as was those in her life. Too, later I felt that the book was too single faceted. But I find many authors are that way. I guess I just accept it now and add my own spin to it to make it more interesting.

What is my point???? Darn I lost track. I have a child with dyslexia. Of all things. And boy have I learned a lot about the other side of the reading experience. My question, what can I do? Everything that has ever been said to help these children is ridiculous such as "they need to practice reading". Correction: They need to practice ACCURATE reading, not just reading. You cannot give a student with dyslexia a book and tell them to read it over and over so that they get better because all they end up learning is how to read inaccurately. It reinforces multiple mis pronunciations or multiple incorrect decoding of the same word, it becomes an exercise in mind torture and turns them off to reading. These kids need to learn how to accurately decode words. I picked up on the pattern for decoding and it became reliable for ME. Not so for my child. She will need a few more explicit trips to such letter combinations like the trigraph "que" and the digraph "sc" before she gets it and can do this automatically so it does not interfere with the meaning and therefore pleasure or reinforcement we get in order to have the incentive to read.

What I use and it kind of works are:
1. Coercion - you want to make that box of brownies? Read the box
2. Lots of love and nurturing - I stand next to her and respectfully correct the mistakes she makes reading the brownie directions.
3. Pray - hopefully one of you will send me an idea
4. I ask the Neuhaus school (school in Texas for teachers who teach dyslexics) folks a lot of questions then try to do it myself
5. Lots and lots of humor- let's face it these kids need to be able forgive themselves for making so many reading mistakes. Humor re energizes and takes away the anxiety that results from all the issues related to not having the most foundational skill needed to feel competent in school.

So what may have worked for me -interest and a lot of curiosity, plus the opportunity to pursue reading what I wanted to read, may or not work for these special kids who are often very bright, who are in desperate need for the same intellectual stimulation that we get from reading. The same motivation to learn is there but we need different approaches.

Parent who needs a very special teacher: You are exactly right. Kids with dyslexia need explicit instruction in decoding just like you said. Practice reading incorrectly will only cause frustration. You need to find a teacher trained in multi-sensory direct instruction - Orton-Gillingham. You also need to go to the International Dyslexia Association website- www.interdys.org . They provide a great deal of support and can also refer you to a properly trained instructor in your area. The research has proven what kind of teaching works and the help is out there.

I'm certainly glad I wasn't part of some of the classrooms described above. I always was allowed to read my own choices; and I abhor stories I hear where children are told they can't read a book because it's not on the list. Ms. Miller and I are of one mind when it comes to getting students to love reading.

All is seems to take in my classroom to get students reading is to help them find what they like. I do booktalks on new books all the time, and we have to have a lottery to see who will get to be first to read each one. If we take the time to be interested in students' individual choices and talk to them about their reading, it isn't too difficult to have a reading community in the classroom.

If you share your love of books with kids, they will respond, especially when you offer a menu with choices that connect to their own lives. Start with their comfort zone and then nudge them towards more sophisticated, challenging books as the year progresses. I'm amazed at times at what a child will delve into when they're motivated to read something on a topic they love.

I read all of your articles listed here and I'm so happy to see there are teachers in the upper grades who feel and teach as you do. It's one of the things other teachers in my building just don't get.

They cannot resist stuffing their 3 and 4 year olds with information, rather than letting them learn from a rich environment with an experienced guide (the teachers). I don't understand it, and they don't understand me. They say I don't teach. They feel the children will be more ready to succeed if they're drilled in academics, I feel like they are training the majority of the children to hate school.

Luckily my administrators are more understanding and supportive of my teaching style. What do you say to the teachers though, who like my co workers say, oh you don't teach, you're letting the kids down? Especially when they've had the same training and workshops as I have?

In 1962, I moved to a small, rural school where I was so advanced in reading that the teacher said, " Honey, you can read those books while I have reading groups and the others do their work." The shelf was beside my desk. There were plenty of books, like Tom Sawyer, Huckaberry Finn, and others. I read them all and loved it. Keep up the good work.

This is what I love about finding a group of really smart people. I can find the answers to questions I need help with. Can one of you wonderfully bright minded individuals please help me?

Is que a trigraph in the words queen queer query quercetin question or am I dealing with a quadraph with queer and queen?

I am working on listing letter groupings that represent specific sounds and matching the words to them.

However it looks as though que makes over four sounds such as in unique, quell, queen, quercetin.

Thanks for any help.

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