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Stress Reading

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A recent study reports that reading may be the best way to reduce stress. With as little as six minutes of reading, your heart rate slows and you relax, losing your everyday cares between the pages. But if reading reduces stress, you wouldn’t know it these days looking in classrooms across America. It is spring, and testing season is upon us. For students and their teachers, reading for test performance induces, rather than reduces stress. In a few days, Texas' students will take TAKS, the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, and the massive preparations for this test convey that reading is serious, reading is challenging, reading is an obstacle course of traps and pitfalls, but it is certainly not relaxing.

Even at my school, where teachers dedicate substantial time reinforcing to students that reading is pleasurable and engaging, test prep mania is in full swing. The copiers churn out endless reams of TAKS practice materials, our assistant principals direct state mandated training of test administration regulations, and students graph their individual mastery of test objectives onto charts. Spending most of the year using best practices methodology to improve learning, it seems we must dismantle every vestige of it to prove our methods succeed.

The halls are stripped of student work and teachers stand on chairs to cover every instructional aide on their classroom walls. My students helped me cover our walls this week, and complained about how dark and sad our room looks now. I took down my anchor charts, and covered our literary element posters and “Books We’ve Shared” chart with butcher paper. We even have to cover the clock and calendars so students cannot use them as number lines on the math test! To guarantee students across the state test under similar conditions, we must create a Gulag—a barren wasteland where no rescue is forthcoming.

I support accountability. Teachers and students should show evidence that learning takes place in the classroom. But I have to wonder what type of learning high-stakes testing really shows. Certainly, students who perform poorly on standardized reading tests are not strong readers, but is producing strong readers even the goal anymore? Countless hours spent drilling and practicing test-taking may increase students’ ability to take tests, but it doesn’t make them better readers of anything but tests. I have a responsibility to prepare my students for state testing, but I refuse to spend months and months of time my students could be reading marching through test practice.

I teach test reading as a genre like experts Stephanie Harvey and Lucy Calkins advise. Standardized tests contain specific text features, structure, and academic vocabulary just like poetry, expository text, or fiction does. We spend a few weeks before the test studying authentic passages released by the state, foregoing workbooks and test prep materials in favor of the real deal. Every day, I remind students that the hours and hours they spend reading each week does more to prepare them for state testing than any drill, and I continue to set aside the majority of my class time for reading, responding, and conferring, not test prep. Writer and philosopher, Albert Camus once said, “You cannot acquire experience by making experiments. You cannot create experience. You must undergo it.” The only path to reading improvement requires students to experience real reading—lots of it.

On test day, my students will prove to the outside world that they are great readers—proof I don’t need and neither do they. As each child finishes, I will collect their test booklets and forms and give them their independent books from the mountain stacked for safe-keeping behind my desk. My students will then prove all over again that they are readers, by opening their books. I only hope that it takes just six minutes of stress-free reading for them to fall in love with it again.

8 Comments

I just have to respond to your blog entry this week. I must say that you give me such wonderful ideas each week!

I certainly agree that our high stakes testing is taking the joy out of teaching. We are stressing the kids out to the point that if truth were told, I am sure we actually are creating MORE dropouts than in the past.

I recommend a great book on NCLB - Many Children Left Behind. After I read that book, I was appalled by what we have allowed our Congress to do with education.

Thank you for writing such a great blog each week. Thanks for the many great ideas!!

Another great post! I just found your blog and new book last week, and I am so glad to have found them.

I like everything about how you teach, and have used many of your techniques as a parent for a while now. I started my own blog (related to children's literature and lifelong learning) about 2 months ago, and today I recommended your book in my post. I hope you don't mind that I quoted you. I tried to email you via the "contact us" link, but it wouldn't go through.

Thank you so much for all that you do for children, and now for parents and teachers. You are a very unique and special teacher, and I wish you all the best.

Thank you for fearlessly saying this! You are absolutely right! Kudos.

I just finished your book in about 3 nights and absolutely loved it. I'm not even a teacher or a parent, but as an avid reader, it was so inspiring! Thank you! I am finishing up grad school and interested in working with literacy somehow. Your book gave me extra encouragement, as if to say that this is something worth pursuing. Thank you again! I'm so excited to follow your blog now! -Caitlin

I haven't been a "formal" classroom teacher for a while, but am in classrooms in other roles very often. One thing that I used when teaching was to encourage students to read everything that had words on it....while eating breakfast read the cereal box (amazing vocabulary builder); even though science may not have been their main love, read a one-page article on science from Newsweek or Time (they found out it wasn't as dry as textbooks!); if their child is a beginner, have parents can have them read the road signs and billboards as they go from place to place.....all kinds of experiences like this takes the stress out of reading. All subject matter uses reading....so (i.e.), why does science need to suffer when it can be another way to teach reading.

Having the entire class read a story (any story), chapters from books, etc. and then discussing them in class is a great way for students to learn implied ideas...and, also, learn how to present, orally, ideas, perceptions, inferences, etc. Independent reading should not be the preferred way to teach reading. If a student struggles, independent reading can be the exercise that discourages the love of reading. Not all of us have reading as an "avocation", but by using different avenues to encourage reading we can all arrive at the same destination...the ability to read and understand.

I finished the second read of your book last week and handed my marked copy off to one of the assistant principals on Friday. I am hoping to have support next year for teaching the kids to enjoy reading rather than teaching the TAKS. When I have been able to read books to the students and give them time to read themselves they have enjoyed reading. The rest of the time thanks to TAKS prep I feel as though I am squashing out their love of reading. I teach fifth grade, an SSI year, which requires students to pass the reading TAKs test to go on to the next grade and the pressure on the kids is incredible.

Thank you so much for the hope you provided in your book. Maybe I can teach a subject that means the world to me and pass on that love to my students.

I just finished your book and have been a fan of your blog for a long time! I am a Literacy Coach who coaches half time and will have a 5th grade Lang. Arts classroom the other half. I would like to know your opinion of having magazines and newspapers in your classroom library.
Thank you for all of your advice!

As a recent graduate, I have learned to enjoy reading again in the past 2 years. While I was in high school, I hated having to pick up a book to read. All reading was about in high school was assessment testing, and it was hard to read without associating it with those tests. I think it is a great idea to let students read books continuously instead of beating test preps on them. They'll be able to keep that stress-free reading and prepare for the tests at the same time. This is a great topic to discuss in a bigger online community, and I'm sure this has been discussed on many blogs in the online Teacher Community that I visit.

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