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A Teacher Asks: Are Readers Made Reluctant By Rigor?

Guest post by Sabrina Crowley.

I have worked as a teacher of English and a Reading Specialist for the past 14 years. In recent months, I have been confronted with the following question: Are we raising a society of potentially reluctant readers as a result of our current educational system and its constant focus on testing and its new panacea, the Common Core Curriculum?

Just yesterday, within the span of three hours, I had multiple conversations with parents who are at a loss for how their elementary school children are reacting to school and school work. Ironically, these parents are the ones who eagerly welcomed the Common Core with its focus on "rigor" at the start of the school year. This "rigor" is now being deemed as another failed attempt in education by these parents, who see their children stifled by another educational mandate.  
 
Currently, the student nearest to my heart is my talented niece, who is a bright, intelligent nine-year-old. She loves gardening, coloring, exploring, and ice-skating; she loves to climb trees, create fairy gardens, explore museums, and entertain her little cousins, my young children.  She has her own sense of style and is finding her own unique voice as the youngest of three intelligent, thoughtful children. Gabriella actively engages in discussion with her family and me about books she reads, all the while providing reasons (now labeled as "evidence") for her beliefs ("inferences" and "predictions").  She loved writing stories in journals and sharing them. So, when my sister called me yesterday saying that Gabriella hates doing homework and refuses to write or read for school, I was caught off guard to say the least. When she proceeded to tell me that Gabriella is having physical reactions to doing homework, my heart sank. That is not Gabriella.
 
Gabriella has always loved school, and this year she was ecstatic to start third grade despite the fact that she did not get the teacher she really wanted. She even told me "It's okay I didn't get her. I am sure that this other teacher will be even better for me." Gabriella's sunshine attitude radiates and her positive outlook in this particular situation was no different from her usual optimism. So, her current reaction to homework is unexpected and unprecedented, to say the least.
 
Now she is miserable. At the start of the year, she took me to her new desk in her room delighted that she would get to work just like her big brother and big sister. She had a gleam in her eyes as she showed me her new puppy dog notebooks and crisp new folders along with her sharpened pencils and colored pens, and  her personal white board eagerly reminding her when "SCHOOL STARTS!!!"  I told her that I could not wait to read the great stories she would create this year, and she was eager to begin.
 
Sadly, something has happened to her since then.  She does not want to do her homework--not the "I'm-in-third-grade-and-I-want-to-watch-T.V.-and-play-instead-of-working" syndrome--no, it is something much more than that. Failure. Constant failure at writing is holding a perfectly talented, creative little girl from wanting to do her assignments. Anticipated failure with homework assignments makes her apprehensive.
 
Let me make this clear: I am not of the mind-set that kids should be made to feel they are doing well when they are not. I am not an advocate of giving every kid a trophy for trying. But she is nine. And I know that she is not the only nine-year-old out there feeling like this because just yesterday I heard multiple accounts of children her age feeling like failures, getting so frustrated that they do not want to try anymore and actually lashing out. Three accounts in three hours. That is frightening.
 
But according the standards, "the goal is to better prepare Illinois students for success in college and the workforce in a competitive global economy," which sounds fabulous. After all, who does not want students to be successful in their careers so they will be able to compete with workers throughout the world? All in all, this does not sound all that different from No Child Left Behind, which called for "all students to reach high standards," and we know how that panned out. No one doubts our country's dedication to the youth and its desire to help students reach their full potential, but in our quest to "better prepare" these students, are we actually forgetting what is at the heart of education? The students themselves--not test scores and not new expectations that are actually just regurgitations of former policies.
 
This is unacceptable. I cannot have and will not have my niece, who is young, creative, and full of promise thinking that she is a failure.

I will not have her doubting herself and her self-worth based on a number of a test score. I will not have her be a human sacrifice to the whims of education.
 
She is too young to know numbers should not define her. She is too young to be able to stay strong and know that "other people cannot make you feel inferior without your consent" as Eleanor Roosevelt so confidently urged.
 
And I worry. I shudder at the thought of my three-year-old going to kindergarten in two years with this atmosphere in education. Will my daughter, who loves to identify sounds and letters, who loves to sit with me and read, detest books in the years to come because of the caprices of education? Will my seven-month-old son be another reluctant male reader, despite the culture of the family in which he is raised? Will these mandates that are written without contribution from developmental and health experts for young children undo all of the good that my husband and I are providing for our children? Will test scores determine children's self-worth? Is my niece destined to hate writing even though she is fortunate to have a family who values education and fosters reading and discussion?  What about the children who do not have the benefit of a warm, happy home? What is to become of them?

I have been part of the educational system for so long, and I have always tried to make the system work for all students. Now, this is not the educational system I envisioned for the young people of our country. I want young people to enjoy their youth--to play, to sing, to dance, to skate, to read, to write--just to be kids who are not being used as testing subjects. Most importantly, I want them to have faith in themselves and their abilities without the system contributing to the destruction of their sense of self-worth.
 
I, myself, do not wish to be part of such a system. We need a system that values children--childhood innocence, dreams, and inquiry. Let us foster a society where students can develop a strong sense of self-worth with curious minds--students who learn to become better writers and critical thinkers without developing a fear of school. I want to contribute to student growth. I want my niece, my daughter, and my son to be part of a just system that fosters learning--not one that stifles it.
 
What do you think? Is an emphasis on rigor eroding student confidence and motivation?
 
Sabrina Crowley holds a BS in English from Boston University, and a Masters in Education from DePaul, graduating with Distinction. She began her career teaching English at a smal Catholic school, then taught English at Thomas Kelly High in Chicago. Currently she is a Reading Specialist and Literacy Coach at Waubonsie High. She lives in Aurora, Illinois.
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