The New Normal
Our school district has suffered massive budget cuts this year and we are already weary of hearing about our "new normal"—slashed programs, reduced staffing, and fewer resources. Changes large and small chip away at teachers' morale and parents' confidence. I know that many of you are in the same canoe without a paddle this year. New Normal is just another way of saying, "doing the same with less"—a challenging prospect when we must educate children with a wide range of instructional needs and goals.
Looking at my new students this year, though, I realize that a different "new normal" is at work at my school—and I like it. At our campus the expectations for reading are high, and many of my new 6th graders are invested, engaged readers. They have reading experience. They know authors and genres and series they like. Parents understand the importance of reading at home. Lockers around our campus sport "I am currently reading..." tags. Kids and teachers regularly visit our growing, well-curated library. Language arts classes dedicate daily time for reading. No one uses scripted reading management programs. Kids choose their own books. We spend our limited ELA department funds on magazines and books for the kids to read.
Reading is normal. It's just what we do.
The environment in my classroom isn't special. I am just another teacher in my school with a lot of books in my room. I recall the days when my classroom was such a novelty that kids brought their siblings by to see my bookcases. But I don't miss the days when my classroom was an oddity worthy of a stop on the school tour. I want reading to be so commonplace that children don't see anything special about it. I want parents to have high expectations for their children's reading. I want administrators to value read alouds and independent reading as powerful instructional practices.
Because of the intentional efforts of our teachers and administrators over the years, we have a reading culture at our school. We didn't build this environment over night. It took years of discussion and implementation and reflection about our practices. We still argue and question and struggle. It isn't magical or perfect. Our school isn't Hogwarts or even Lake Wobegon. We are teaching real kids with real issues in the real world.
"Books may well be the only true magic," Alice Hoffman said, and I agree. Books possess spellbinding power that transports and transforms readers. But the existence of books in a classroom, or the opportunity to read every day, or the ability to choose your own book should not been seen as remarkable or rare.
I know how lucky I am to teach at my school and in my district, where teacher autonomy and reflective practice are valued. On a regular basis, I talk with teachers who struggle to create a reading culture in their classrooms with little support from their administrators or their departments: teachers who must beg for books and creatively comply with mandates in order to assure that their students grow as readers. Can we accept a new normal where children don't read much and SAT Reading scores continue to decline?
Literacy expert Kelly Gallagher asks, "What do we mean when we say we honor reading at our school?" A provocative question. Every school honors reading, yes? We honor reading and cut librarians. We honor reading and implement scripted programs that remove all teacher and student choice. We honor reading and provide children little reading time at school. We honor reading and pass out test prep workbooks instead of real books.
Perhaps, the question we should ask is, "How do we honor readers at our school?"
Would our answers differ?
Scholastic has invited me to write a monthly column about creating a school-wide reading culture for their new Principal to Principal e-newsletter. I encourage you to visit this free resource and share it with your administrator.