Step Up for Reading

stepup 5I’d like to share some observations I’ve made over the last several weeks, but before I do, I feel compelled to offer a disclaimer. These observations should in no way be interpreted as a criticism of my children’s teachers. Their skill and professionalism consistently impress me, and my children’s kindergarten teacher is living proof that a parent is not the only advocate for a child. I am more grateful for these hard working professionals then they will ever know. My observations are more about the culture we create and the potential adverse effects it can have on our children.

That said, last week one evening my first grade daughter proudly came to me and proclaimed, “Daddy I’m an L!” Apparently she’d been tested that day for the eleven hundredth time, and the results were that she was now reading at Level L. Previously, I’d been informed that she’d need to be at Level J by the end of first grade, so this was a pretty big deal. I slapped her five and gave her a big hug before I threw a wrench in the celebration.

“How does reading make you feel?” I asked her. She looked at me quizzically. “Does it make you feel happy? Excited? Inspired? Curious? What emotion does reading evoke inside you?” She continued to look at me confused and then responded, “You’re silly, Daddy. I’m an L!”

I don’t want to downplay the importance of her reading skills, but I had to tell her that her reading level wasn’t the most important thing to me. You see, I firmly believe that if you want to really get good at something, it’s necessary that you develop an emotional attachment to it. When was the last time you heard a professional football player say, “Well, it all started when I was a Level J at running in first grade”? Isn’t the narrative always “I just loved playing so much that I would go out and play all day until my parents called me into dinner, and then I’d dream about playing all night and do it again the next day.” Why should reading be different?

I went to a school of the arts with a guitar player who used to wake up in the morning and play guitar until he left for school. He’d come home from school and play until bedtime, breaking only for dinner. His story is not unique among accomplished musicians I know. The point is, they kept this kind of schedule not out of a desire to raise in level, but out of a true love for the activity and an understanding of what they could unlock by getting better. Why should literacy be different?

Part of the problem is that we’ve turned education into some kind of competitive endeavor. The last couple of years have seen the rise of the data wall in classrooms. These walls create an unofficial hierarchy in school rooms. Do you think my daughter is the only student in her class who knows what level she is on? I promise you, she has a good idea of the levels of all her classmates as well, and they of her. If you think this doesn’t have an effect on effort and performance, you are fooling yourself. This information shapes how kids feel about themselves and others.

Its funny we talk about children as if they are precious little creatures but the proof is they behave often like characters from Lord of the Flies. They will use any potential weakness to pick on a fellow child. My daughters 1st grade friends have discovered that being called “crybaby” has a debilitating effect on her, guess what she gets called everyday? Focusing on levels and not the intrinsic value of reading opens the door to creating future self esteem issues and becoming a self fulfilling prophecy.

Competition advocates have the crazy notion that children will take their level and strive to be on the same level as their peers, thus driving everybody upward. Ok, and  that might happen on occasion, but far too often its the opposite. As the renowned psychologist Robert Sternberg noted, “But in any case, I did poorly on the tests and so, in the first three years of school, I had teachers who thought I was stupid and when people think you’re stupid, they have low expectations for you.”

I read an article once that decried the turning of education into one big video game. Like Temple Run, we expect children to “clear” different levels until eventually they max out and that will equate to success. But what happens once they “max” out? It’s been my experience that the game is abandoned and is found to be of little use. It’s my fear that we are recreating this scenario with literacy. We will push children to move up levels but never instill in them the passion and comprehension needed to turn them into lifelong learners and eventually reading will become something you do just for necessity and not for the doors it can open.

The Nashville Chamber of Commerce recently released their education report card for 2015. They are concerned with the lack of progress in fourth grade. Apparently kids aren’t raising their progress levels enough to meet the Chambers metrics. Once again, though, the argument is misrepresented to suit an adult agenda. The evidence presented is that 60 percent of Metro Nashville Public School students are entering middle school unable to read above the most basic levels of proficiency, but this quote by the committee chair attempts to paint a different picture: “If you can’t read, it’s almost impossible to do anything in the other disciplines, even in STEM,” said Jewell Winn, report card committee co-chairman. “You have to have the comprehension skills to do the other disciplines. For me, it was the a-ha moment.”

I’m confused here. Are children unable to read or are they failing to read at a level above what is considered proficient? Those are two different things, that demand two different responses. If a child can not read at all by third grade then a drastic response may be called for, however we continue to push children to read at a younger age, while failing to note the possible negative side-effects. In that scenario, I consistently fail to grasp why it’s important for my 1st grader to be reading at a fourth grade level other than it gives me wonderful fodder at cocktail parties. Maybe it’s a desire to get them to a third grade level by the end of first grade, so we can feel better, check them off and move on. But does that truly serve the child?

It’s funny we wonder why students lose academic skills and motivation as they move from Kindergarten through 3rd grade, and we think the solution is more emphasis on early grade instruction. We demand that pre-K become even more high quality. But what does that mean? I’d be willing to bet that leads to more clearing of levels and then abandonment. As teacher and blogger Nancy Flanigan points out, “Substantial research shows that rewarding an intrinsically pleasant activity sends the message that the activity is not pleasant, and that nobody would do it without a bribe.”  We need to be very careful on the message we are sending to children and what we celebrate. The early years should be more about strengthening that internal pleasure, than just moving the assembly line along.

Recently we’ve been seeing more calls for children to engage in close reading or reading that is deep, thoughtful, purposeful. We are pushing this concept at a time when studies show that fewer and fewer adults are reading for pleasureWe want 5 and 6 year olds to now not just read a book, but to read it with purpose. But that’s all right because closed reading is going to improve kids performance on…wait for it…standardized tests.  Well, this is going to really muck up one of my 5 year old sons favorite night time reads, the 1977 Kiss Dynasty Tour Book. Again though, we are willing to ignore the potential negatives in order to push kids to a perceived higher level. Putting the adults needs for measuring and accountability above a child’s need for age appropriate development.

Who’s poised to especially suffer these consequences? Of course, our children of color and poverty. The argument I repeatedly hear from so-called education reformers is that children of color and kids in poverty don’t have time to slow down. Why? Are they going to master skills and get jobs within four years? Last I checked, everybody was going to be in school for 13 years, and I really wouldn’t have a problem if people took 14 years so long as they graduated.

Being a life long reader is a lot like running a marathon. When was the last time somebody told you that the best way to successfully complete a marathon was to run really really fast for the first three miles? One of the most important aspects of marathon running is to mentally accept that you are going to be at this for awhile. Reading is the same. We need to help prepare children for the realization that they will never run out of things to read and that all of it has value. You are not just trying to clear a level.

Furthermore, this focusing exclusively on clearing levels ratchets up the pressure on teachers. They are constantly driven to move children to perform at higher and higher levels. Levels that may or may not be appropriate. I would argue that just because a child can do it is not a reason for them to do it. Teachers are not given a chance to help children learn why literacy is important beyond the scope of performance evaluation because we are constantly driving them to push children higher. We must recognize that this push comes at a cost and right now that cost is taking shape in teacher job dissatisfaction and turnover, and a decrease in adults reading for pleasure.

Blogger Steven Singer makes the observation that in reading “we don’t care so much about how the astronaut puts on the spacesuit. We want to know why she put it on in the first place. We want to know where she’s going. We want to know what it’s like and if we’d want to do something like that ourselves.” We need to allow teachers the time and the means to fortify this desire in young children.  We need to encourage parents to celebrate how reading makes children feel and not just focus on their level. We as adults must not allow reading to fall to the level of being a chore. To paraphrase blogger Nancy Baily, all children deserve to receive a vibrant, rich literacy program.

Last night I couldn’t sleep so I ended up watching Step Up 14 or whatever number movie they are up to now. The premise of the story was that the male dancer was so focused on winning and competing that he lost sight of why he danced to begin with. The female star had to remind him that other things were more important to her than winning. Winning was just an added benefit, but it was the joy that dancing brought her that was most important to her. When the male dancer reconnected with his love of dancing, well, of course he won big and more than just the competition he was competing in.

Step Up is just a cheesy Hollywood movie but the message is anything but. It’s essential that we help children develop their passion and help them constantly reconnect to it. Develop the love and joy, and the rest will follow. Remember this is going to be a lifelong endeavor, not one we can just check off and move on from.


Categories: Uncategorized

6 replies

  1. In Michelle Rhee’s book, “Radical” she speaks to having been sent to South Korea for a time. There, the performance of every child is listed on the classroom door, ostensibly so they can all work harder.

    Intriguingly, Ms. Rhee recognized that that would not play well in American culture. We do not set out, as South Korea and Germany do, to decide by 4th grade who is going to be on the pedestal.

    And yet… we do. We have “L”s. We have the massive departure out of 4th grade for magnets in Nashville. And, in declaring a group “sub – J” or whatever, we turn off the gas with those kids – it is human nature.

    The very dream of integration (affluence/scores/race) was that, by having diverse population of kids together, that human nature to write off a large group for the benefit of the most vocal… and I find that integration, historically, has helped bring the society together.

    But fast forward to 2015, and you have a new economy where the perception is that few are going to reach a worthwhile pedestal in adult life. And, so there is this scrambling for the winning pedestals for the few be identified, landed on, and lauded as early as possible.

    All to say – this is a thoughtful post that you’ve written. Connecting the dots to the societal structure that is driving this is something we all need to keep thinking about.

  2. I certainly agree with you – reading should be for enjoyment and learning, which is often the best way to improve. I’m iffy (as a teacher myself) using the level system we have for early years reading in my state.

    That said… To play devil’s advocate for a moment, there are the
    Roles of the Reader to think about. Kids don’t innately know how to read from birth, and there is a science and an art to teaching how to decode a text. No child can get enjoyment from a book if they can’t decode it first. Ranking early readers by complexity of language and concepts could be seen as necessary up to a point, as a handy rule of thumb to make sure kids are challenged, not bored or overwhelmed.

    I guess the argument I’m failing to articulate is that your child seemed to be very proud of levelling up reading, which is a source of enjoyment (albeit not a joy of reading in itself). I wonder if, because she experiences success in reading and associates it with positivity from you and her teacher, she’ll grow to enjoy reading as she ages?

  3. Oh and on an unrelated matter, data walls give me the absolute creeps.

  4. “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. … That you are here – that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.” – I remember first hearing those words watching Dead Poets Society as a 13 year-old and feeling my heart crack open. It doesn’t matter what level you read at. It matters that what you read matters. It’s why I became a teacher. Because just maybe the sharing of ideas through reading will save us.

  5. Research has demonstrated over and over again that focusing someone’s attention on how well they do something takes their focus (and interest) off what they are doing – it substitutes external “motivation” (motivation to get recognition, prizes, etc.) for intrinsic motivation (the interest of the activity itself). Read pretty much anything by Alfie Kohn. The research on this is so clear I can’t help believing the rephormers know this and, at the risk of being told to adjust my tinfoil hat, I’m starting to think they impose these hair-brained “levels” intentionally to get kids – everyone else’s kids, that is – to lose interest in reading.

    Reminds me of the scene in BRAVE NEW WORLD when the infants of the lowest classes are being trained. There are bright, colorful displays with books that the infants are naturally drawn to. They crawl toward the books, but just as they reach them, a loud clanging sound breaks out which scares the babies and they abandon the books and start crying. The procedure is repeated until none of the babies will even crawl near the books anymore. If you can get the children of the plebes (which is pretty much all of us now) to reject learning in their early years, they will contently do menial work the rest of their lives.

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