Saturday, December 18, 2010

Ke$ha in the Classroom? Maybe Not, But...

This morning I was singing in the shower. I do that every morning. Some people say they do their best thinking in the shower, but I think my tuneless-but-joyful singing voice drowns out any thoughts.

Not today! I began with a lusty sing-a-long to Don McLean's American Pie. The next song on the playlist was Ke$ha with Tik Tok. It's probably a bit funny that a 40-year-old woman likes Ke$ha. But, hey, I have two daughters (13 and 10) and I teach middle school. I think it is important to stay current with kids' fads. Liking them as well is a plus!

So as I'm singing along with Ke$ha I find it amusing that there are certain lyrics I won't sing out loud. Even all alone in the shower. Kind of funny. That got me thinking about appropriateness of popular music, and that some people are too uptight about it. It is not thinking that is unique to 2010. People have been lamenting the state of popular music since the first song hit the airwaves. From Elvis's hip thrusts to George Michael wanting our sex, there have been people who want to shelter kids from negative effects of pop music.

I am not one of those people. In March I am taking my daughters to see Lady Gaga in concert. I am pretty geeked about it. I know there are parents who think the concert is not an appropriate place for me to take the girls, though nobody has criticized this decision to my face.

In deciding whether or not to take them to see Lady Gaga, I began to think about all the songs I have loved over the years. Songs that came under scrutiny by censors or parents (not mine thankfully.) Songs like George Michael's I Want Your Sex (which, during my senior year, my best friends and I blared on the car radio every morning before school as we drove to the nearest gas station to buy Robo-Pops, until Def Leppard's Pour Some Sugar on Me took its place) and Salt-N-Pepper's Push It.

These songs did not turn me into a deviant. They were simply the sound track of my life. I can attach a song to almost every memory I have. Many people feel this way, and kids at the middle and high school levels are no different.

I read recently--I wish I could remember where--scathing indictments of universities offering courses such as The History of Rock and Roll. What makes people think these courses can't be challenging and full of learning? Do they think if students are really interested, it can't really teach them anything? Music mirrors society. Why wouldn't students be interested in taking a course that can really teach them history through the lens of one of their biggest loves: music?

And that is one of the problems with education, in a nutshell. Too many people, mostly those on the outside--politicians, critics, some parents--think in order to be a challenge, education has to be drudgery. What our students need is to find relevancy in their education. If music makes history relevant, why wouldn't we offer The History of Rock and Roll? If Katy Perry's Firework can help students understand metaphor, play it loud!

If history and society are mirrored in the popular culture of the time, I say, show the movie clips and play the songs and teach students the higher order thinking skills to analyze what was happening at that time in history and how those events led to what came next. Because something is interesting is a reason to use it in education, not a reason to criticize it as frivolous.

In a past blog post, I shared some songs that could be used in the curriculum. Take a peek and find something you can use after the holidays to help your content area come alive for students: Music as Motivation.

By the way, just to be clear--I do believe that the parent has the ultimate say in what their children listen to. When I use music in the classroom, I am cognizant of that, and I do not use songs that may be offensive. I do like Ke$ha, I don't care if my daughters listen to her, but I wouldn't play most of her songs in a middle school classroom.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Building Tier 2 but on a Foundation of Sand?

C. S. Lewis once said, "We read to know we are not alone." Unfortunately, our struggling readers in middle school often feel very much alone. They are left on the perimeter of understanding in every class they attend. For many of them, we have turned our focus from learning to read to reading to learn and we've made the switch before they were ready for it.

I moved into the position of middle literacy coach after 10 years of teaching 8th grade language arts. During those 10 years, the administration went back and forth between listing my class as a reading class and a literature class. My focus changed with the name, but even when I was attempting to teach my students to be better readers, I was not doing the best job. I knew they needed help, I tried to give it to them through instruction in reading strategies but I didn't understand nor did I know how to adequately address the lack of fluency that many of them came to me with.

I've learned much in the last six and a half years that I have been a literacy coach, but that fluency piece has still been slow to come for me. After looking at some longitudinal data, it was apparent that our struggling readers are not making the gains necessary to close the gap. Something had to change. And in January, those changes will begin. Intervention groups that are all currently working on comprehension will be restructured to deliver an intervention that suits their needs better. I have set up an intervention using REWARDS authored by Anita Archer to address the 5th and 6th graders who are still struggling with phonics and decoding. Another set of students will be using the Read Naturally program to help increase their oral reading fluency. And the students who are not struggling with phonics or oral reading fluency will continue to get direct instruction in comprehension strategies. But I worry that even these additional interventions are not going to be enough to close the gap.

My district, beginning in the two elementary buildings is using the Response to Intervention (RtI) model. Our two feeder elementary schools each have a literacy coach who is addressing the needs of students in their buildings. But the three of us still feel frustration at building an intervention system on a foundation of sand. In the middle school, I know I am doing what needs to be done for Tier 2 of interventions.

But Tier 1, the classroom, is not strong. In our district, we don't have a set reading curriculum. The basals that exist are old and falling apart. And while I do not think a basal reading set is the way to go, we haven't had any money to buy any books AT ALL in the last three years, not even trade books. Content areas like science and social studies should be supplementing their curriculum with material accessible to struggling readers. But although most text books in science and social studies are up to date, those content areas haven't had money for supplemental books either. And when struggling readers are presented a text book written above the level at which they can read, it is no wonder that they fall behind and feel alone.

So, while I am excited about starting our new programs in January, I am still worried about these struggling readers. They need interventions that begin in the classroom, with teachers who have to walk the tight-rope of meeting every child where they are and moving them forward in the way that is best for them. They also have to do this in a way that does not become drill and kill, as it often does for the strugglers. As we help them to become more literate, we have to try not to create aliterate readers. It is not an easy task we take on.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Practical Homework Tips for Parents

Last month, I blogged about the purpose of homework. This post was written mainly for teachers to hopefully reflect on their homework-giving practice. This morning, I came across a post on homework tips for parents written by Scott Guditus, a middle school principal in Massachusetts. His blog is a good one. His homework tips for parents make sense. But there are a couple I would add:

1. If your child is legitimately struggling with a homework assignment because he does not understand the concept, do not push him to finish the assignment. It is the teacher's job to teach that concept and it does no good to try and practice a concept the child does not understand.

2. If the homework seems like pointless busy work, don't be afraid to respectfully ask the teacher for a rationale for the assignment. Assignments like spelling packets, time-consuming workbook pages of drill and kill practice skills, and copying words and definitions from a book have little research to back up their effectiveness. And if the teacher mentions teaching responsibility, pass along the name Alfie Kohn for their reading pleasure or let them know that the chores you assign at home do a good job of teaching responsibility. Here's a great resource to share.

3. If the homework is turning your kids off learning, respectfully ask the teacher for other options. If taking low-level comprehension based computer tests over books or building dioramas is making reading a chore rather than a joy for your child, take a stand against them.

Parents and teachers must be partners in a child's learning. In order for this partnership to be valuable and valid, parents shouldn't be afraid to have open, honest, respectful dialog with teachers about the homework being assigned.

Friday, December 3, 2010

To Catch a Cold

"You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them."
— Ray Bradbury

It is the goal of reading teachers to foster a love of reading. They employ many strategies to try and win young hearts over to the beauty of undiscovered lands, unrequited loves, and adventures that are daring and sometimes deadly. For some students, this one teacher holds the entire world and she does it with zeal and enthusiasm. But is it enough.

"When you sell a man a book you don't sell just twelve ounces of paper and the ink and glue - you sell him a whole new life. Love and friendship and humour and ships at sea by night - there's all heaven and earth in a good book."
—Christopher Morley

Alliteracy is a concern in today's world. Parents who choose not to read risk raising children who also choose not to. But non-reading parents are not the only concern. The one place where students should be surrounded by reading role-models, school, they often are not. Surveys conducted of teachers show that they do not read any more often that adults in the general population. What can be done?

"Reading early in life gives a youngster a multitude of 'friends' to guide intellectual and emotional growth."
— Carroll D. Gray

Can the reading teacher alone turn every student into a person who finds the joy of reading? They try! They band together. They share their reading lists. They make recommendations to help each other when they have a student who doesn't seem interested in anything. They book talk, they display books, and they read, read, read. But would more kids be bitten by the reading bug if all teachers shared a love of reading with students? If the science teacher shared science fiction titles. If the social studies teacher book-talked historical fiction. If all classes made time in the day to show that reading is a priority, how much of a difference would it make?

You can't catch a cold or the love of reading from someone who has
neither. -Jim Trelease