In preparation for our upcoming conversation with Kelly Gallagher about the state of reading instruction in our schools, I’ve taken some time to review his new book Readicide: How Schools are Killing Reading. 

Here are my thoughts:

I’m going to admit something to you that I probably ought to keep to myself:  I’m ashamed of who I am, both as a reading teacher and an outspoken member of the Teacher Leaders Network.  You see, over the past five years, I’ve changed my instruction in an attempt to see my students score better on standardized reading tests despite a strong belief that what I’m doing is bad for kids.

Now, don’t get me wrong:  I’m not doing anything illegal—This isn’t Houston, after all!

(Sorry for dragging you into this, Rod.)

It’s just that reading isn’t ever a pleasure activity in my room.  Instead, it’s an opportunity for intense, skill-based instruction and multiple choice questions.  Even the teaching innovation that I’m proudest of—a daily current event lesson integrating language arts and social studies that gives my students a broad understanding of the world that many adults would envy—has morphed into just another opportunity to show my kids how to eliminate wrong answer choices.

Everything I do seems to be overtaught. 

In fact, I can’t remember the last time that I DIDN’T stop my students in the middle of a passage that we were tackling together to ask a few random question about tone, author’s purpose, bias, main idea, fact/opinion—-or any of the other 47 reading skills that my kids are expected to master by May.  We take prepackaged assessments every three weeks, dissect the results of each exam, deliver remediation and enrichment worksheets mini-lessons, and then start preparing for the next assessment.

That’s reading instruction in my room.

While I haven’t asked, I’d bet that my kids can’t stand reading.  To them, reading can’t be fun.  It’s just another pressure-packed opportunity to be assessed.  There’s always a wrong answer when it comes to reading—and wrong answers never feel good.

Things haven’t always been this way.  Early in my career, students would have nearly an hour every day to curl up with good books in the corners of my classroom.  We’d write short reviews and post them on the bulletin board, creating a collection of high-interest reads for one another.  Paper stars were awarded to students each time a new book was finished–and they covered our classroom walls as a visual reminder of exactly how much we loved to read.

Socratic Seminars on issues connected to justice and injustice—a strategy that I perfected with the help of my colleagues—provided my students with opportunities to wrestle with ideas and to imagine how they’d react in challenging situations.  Studying text became a forum for studying life—and studying life was interesting.  The energy that rippled through my students whenever they knew a Seminar was coming left everyone excited.

The reason that I’ve changed the way that I teach is simple:  My end of grade test scores are almost always the lowest on the hallway—-and it seems like those numbers are the only thing that I have to answer for every year.  Our district generates an “effectiveness index” for reading teachers to help identify top performers.  What’s more, reading scores draw tons of attention—from parents, from the press and from our principals.  When we reach our targets, everyone celebrates.  When we miss them, we panic.

No one seems to care about whether or not our students become “lifelong readers.”  Instead, it seems like all that we care about is creating kids who score well on the end of grade test—and that pressure has finally gotten to me.  Instead of being  a giant pain in the behind the semi-stubborn guy willing to do what’s right regardless of the consequence, I’ve thrown in the towel and started teaching to the test.

That’s kind of sad, isn’t it?

But as Kelly Gallagher documents in his new book Readicide:  How schools are killing reading and what you can do about it, my actions have become the uncomfortable reality in reading classrooms across our country—and the consequences of these instructional decisions are nothing short of catastrophic.

Consider these statistics, which Gallagher culled from the NCTE’s Principles of Adolescent Literacy Reform:

  • The National Assessment of Educational Progress shows that secondary school students are reading significantly below expected levels.
  • The National Assessment of Adult Literacy finds that literacy scores of high school graduates dropped between 1992 and 2003.
  • The Alliance for Excellent Education points to 8.7 million secondary students–that’s one in four—who are unable to read and comprehend the material in textbooks.
  • The National Center for Education Statistics reports a continuous and significant reading gap between racial/ethnic/economic groups.
  • Three thousand students with limited literacy skills drop out of school every day in this country
  • The 2005 ACT College Readiness Benchmark for Reading found that only about half the students tested were ready for college-level reading, and the 2005 scores were the lowest in the decade.
  • The American Institutes for Research reports that only 13 percent of American adults are capable of performing complex literacy tasks.

(Gallagher, In Publication, p. 3)

Do these numbers scare anyone besides me?

If not, then consider these statistics that Gallagher draws from Reading Next: A vision for action and research in middle and high school literacy—a publication of the Alliance for Excellent Education:

  • Between 1996 and 2006, the average literacy required for all occupations rose by 14 percent.
  • The twenty-five fastest-growing professions have far greater literacy demands, while the twenty-five fastest-declining professions have lower than average literacy demands.
  • Both dropouts and high school graduates “are demonstrating significantly worse reading skills than they did ten years ago.”

(Gallagher, In Publication, p. 115)

Essentially, we’re preparing a nation of non-readers in a world where reading is the key to continued success.

Gallagher goes on to fill Readicide with examples of specific actions that teachers take to kill reading in their classrooms—-from the 122-page unit guide that his district requires that teachers work through when reading To Kill a Mockingbird to the teacher that gave his second book—Deeper Reading—a five-star rating on Amazon after it provided her with enough activities to spend six months on ONE NOVEL!

Gallagher argues that this tendency to overteach novels in an attempt to ensure that every child is “on grade level” by 2014—an impossible political reality that would take nothing short of 166 years to reach—prevents students from finding the flow that defines our best readers.  He writes:

“The flow I want my students to experience in their reading lives was first described by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1990) in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.  Csikszentmihalyi describes the flow as ‘the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for th sheer sake of doing it.’ (1990, 4).  The flow is where we want all our students to be when they read, the place Nancie Atwell, in The Reading Zone, describes as the place where young readers have to ‘come up for air’ (2007, 12).”

(Gallagher, in publication, p. 61)

Does this sound anything like your students while reading?

Mine either.  They might need to come up for air while playing video games, listening to music, or watching a movie but there’s not a whole lot of mental exhaustion happening when I pass out new novels.  Kids groan when I do that because they know we’re about to trudge through a textual dissection filled with interruption and tedium.  Gallagher describes this dissection more graphically, comparing it to being flogged by a rubber hose:

Arming students with “rubber hoses” so they can flog literature might help them pass exams, but will this approach make our students avid readers?  Will it prepare them for life beyond exams?  Should our students be spending all their time chopping up the novel?  Or would their time be better spent developing reading flow, the kind of reading behavior we want them to adopt after graduation?  Should they focus solely on the book, or use it as a springboard to understanding the world they are about to inherit?  Do we really want to spend the bulk of our time, resources, and energy producing good test-takers who leave school not only ignorant but also hating reading?”

(Gallagher, in publication, pp. 70-71)

Powerful images, huh? 

But surprisingly true.  We ARE teaching students to flog literature rather than to enjoy it.  The pressure to perform—when performance is solely defined by measurable scores on end of grade exams—has ruined reading for many kids, and that is a reality that Gallagher argues we can no longer accept.  Classroom teachers—armed with evidence and an intimate understanding of the nature of adolescent learners must take action to rescue readers.

That action begins with responsible instructional practices balancing the need for guided teaching with extensive opportunities for individual exploration.  Students, asserts Gallagher, should spend at least 50 percent of their school-based language arts time engaging with self-selected texts.  The remaining 50 percent of the time should be filled with carefully selected and structured learning experiences.  In each chapter, Gallagher provides a wide range of activities to support teachers interested in reshaping their reading instruction.

Action continues, however, by becoming unyielding advocates for reading.  “When the decisions upstairs play a role in permanently damaging the literacy development of our children, ” Gallagher writes, “it is time for us to take a stand…Make a stink.  Make it happen.  Of all the battles we face, this is the one worth falling on your sword for.  If none of the above steps [to providing students with access to books] work, go teach somewhere else.  No one should consciously be a part of a system that ensures that kids fail.  That’s unconscionable.”  (Gallagher, p. 46)

In the end, Readicide is a provocative title that will change the way that I work.  Not only does it provide me with a collection of strategies polished by a classroom teacher that I trust and respect, it provides me with a collection of reasons to stand up for responsible instruction—-something that I’ve drifted away from.

Gallagher pointed out my flaws—-and then gave me the tools and motivation to change.

For that, my students should thank him.

Remember, you’ll be able to access a link to a full copy of Readicide here on the Radical on January 14th, and then be able to interact with Kelly on—or around—January 22nd.  Spread the word.  This is a conversation that is too important for us to overlook.

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