Saturday, September 30, 2017

Are we killing them with nonfiction?

No, this post IS NOT about killing cats.  It's about learning.  But first let me introduce you to Hank, the cat who frequently visits my family and hangs out on our patio with us at our house. Hank's a funny, funny fellow. He's very curious and loves to nibble on bare toes...  Everybody say, HI HANK!

I love cats, not really when they try to nibble on my toes, but most of the rest of the time! But, I'm allergic. So, we can't have a cat of our own. As a result, my daughter and I really look forward to his random visits to our home. There's a funny long story of how we know his name is Hank, we didn't name him that, but I'll spare you that now, and get on with the topic at hand.

My daughter is always asking me about why his tail wags, and what does this mean or that mean. So she seems to be pretty curious about cat behavior.

So, we're at home one Saturday and I see this short  article from National Geographic come across my feed and I open it up and start reading it aloud.
I read, "Do you know what your cat is saying when it meows at you? Researchers in Sweden are trying to give us a better idea by identifying melodic patterns in cat meows: Is your cat hungry or really hungry?"

Hearing this, my daughter GROANs in protest.  She says, "Stop reading that. That sounds like another one of those Achieve 3000 articles we have to read.  Blah blah blah..."

I tried to tell her, "Yes, but this one is interesting to us! Don't you want to know what different cats' meows mean?" But the tone of the non-fiction piece has already completely repelled her.

This exchange got me wondering-

Are we killing our students with non-fiction?

Not literally killing them, but killing their interest in reading about the world?

For the past few years her school has been using this great program called Achieve 3000. It purports to be "the leader in differentiated instruction." I don't think that's an apt description of what it is, but I still think it's a great tool.  It's supposed to support student proficiency with academic texts and increase non-fiction reading.  I went to the parent meeting about it at the school where they described it. When I heard about it, I was excited.  Basically, it is a set of non-fiction texts available at differentiated levels. The titles were searchable by topic. Each title was offered at the student's reading level, adjusting the text, for the capability of the student!  Wow! I thought, "How wonderful!"  

Of course, in my mind, I am thinking of the best case scenario, students discovering their interest in Guided Inquiry and having access to articles that they can read about topics of their choice on a regular basis!  AWESOME!  

I'm thinking, as this is introduced to the parents that evening, that this will lift a huge barrier for teachers and librarians working over time to try to find resources for each student's level. (a question I frequently get from participants of my GID workshops) This program and programs like this are game changers for students interaction in inquiry based learning.

But, then I hear the down side, the way it is used.  Each child has to complete a certain number of readings from the program each week. Fine OK, AND answer the quiz questions at 80% or higher on each piece they read (proof that they read it and accountability).  I find out that there isn't much choice about what they read.  They just have to read a certain number (self paced?).  (Sound like the same structure as Accelerated Reader we've been doing that since the 90's... So the only thing that has changed is that they are reading it on the computer, and it adjusts to match their reading level.  Which is not a small thing.

My daughter used to love to read non-fiction.  It was a strength of hers. It seems like that has been beaten down by a lack of choice.  Maybe there is choice on what they can read, if so there has been a lack of guidance in how to use choice, if that choice was available to her.  The prescriptive measures  of X amount each week that are supposed to ensure proficiency, haven't helped her learn about her world.  Why do people read non-fiction? To learn something, not take a quiz. So schools are using the program to check reading more non-fiction off their long list of to do's.  I know the teachers are well intended.  I know that practice is good, but if we are generating these attitudes, the practice may become counter productive as a life skill.  

 I am disappointed to know that in this climate of seeking proficiency for the Common Core we just may be killing any desire to read for meaning.  Knowing that the potential for matching student with interest and appropriate level text is lost in this. The formulaic use of the tool is a misuse of this technology and the power of it to transform learning and provide students with choice in a meaningful context.

With some small changes in the program, the same objectives could be accomplished with much greater effect. But it's all a matter of priorities and perspective.  Hard to change a system where people say, we do great on the tests, why mess with "something that works."  

We've all got to push past the test score and think about how we can be doing even better for our students.
Leslie Maniotes, PhD


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