Monday, August 11, 2008

IRD Term II Week V: Endings...


Yesterday, I finished my summer job with a spirited discussion of a William Sayoran short story, My Cousin Dikran, the Orator from the book My Name is Aram. The discussion was the last of my adult classes. Yesterday, I also did a final discussion of Banner in the Sky for young adults (mostly middle schoolers) and read The Cat in the Hat with 4-5 year-olds. The lessons were similar to ones that I have been teaching all summer, but I had those flashes of "teacher" moments; those times when a teacher realizes that the students have progressed about as far as each one can at that level and that they really don't need the instruction from me anymore. In other words, those moments that a teacher knows that the time has come to move on.

The season is subtly changing here in Sedillo, and in the cool morning mists, one can read fall in the offing. It is time to move on. New adventures and challenges await for me, for Los Pecos Homeschool, and for the family. But more on that later. Now is the time to wrap-up the summer's work, take stock and do the necessary chores of closing down the summer's employment.

Today, as I am puttering about--filling out the exit evaluation for IRD, getting ready to ship books and materials back, thinking about the upcoming year of study--I have also been thinking about what I have learned and accomplished this summer. Although there are many areas where I might have done better at reaching the children and adults that I taught, I do think I have helped almost every student make progress in learning to read and in developing the skills at the right level to read with absorption for pleasure, and to use active reading skills to accomplish reading goals. I do think my summer has been fulfilling in the work I had chosen to do.

I also think I have learned a tremendous amount about teaching reading skills at every level, and I have seen that reading skills need to be taught at every level from beginner to adult, and I have learned how curriculum to teach these skills ought to be developed. I have also learned that many skills can be meaningfully acquired and enhanced in only five weeks (or approximately 10 hours) of direct instruction, with four to five hours of guided practice and independent practice to supplement. I believe that the skills acquired can be sustained and enhanced by continuing practice on the part of the student over the next year. That, of course, is up to the student.

All of what I learned only makes me wonder further at the resistance of government schools to providing such skills instruction at every level. As I have said before, American public education does bring almost every child through the skills instruction up to about the third grade level, which means successful decoding skills. After that, reading instruction as a skill shifts to the use of reading for acquiring content in the various subjects, as if the higher-order skills cannot be taught through direct instruction. But they can be taught, and in the talks I have had with my adult students, the students expressed quite clearly the need for such instruction so that reading becomes a critical skill for thinking, as well as a vehicle of absorption and pleasure.

When I taught high school science, I noticed when I attempted to discuss assigned textbook readings with my students, that although they can successfully decode the words, many of them did not appear to comprehend what they read. I used to say that what they read appeared to "go in one eye and out the other." My experience this summer has not only helped me to learn why this is so, but what to do about it.

I also have learned why certain popular remedies, such as summer reading lists, are not by themselves helpful to the problem. Certainly, a summer reading list seems to address the issue that students are not doing enough reading in school. Well, then, the logic goes, we must make them read in the summer. However, in the schools I have taught at, the summer reading assignment was followed up by a very short discussion and a quiz. There were no extensive book discussions, and no guidance was provided to enhance the reading skills of the students in order to make the summer reading productive. In the eyes of the students, it was simply another hoop to jump through in order to get points towards their grades. It had no other value. How could it be anything else to students who are not fundamentally "readers" in the rich sense?
And to be fair, none of the teachers involved had every really learned how to teach reading in our content fields--despite having paid for courses by that name in order to be certified. So we had no idea how to make the experience more than a hoop to jump through.

If I ever teach high school science again, I would not assign summer reading unless I was willing to gather students over the course of a summer month for skills instruction and book discussions. There I could model for them, and they could model for each other, the type of thinking needed to truly delve into the assigned book. Instead, I think I would assign a book to be read over the course of a semester, and devote one class period each week to reading instruction and discussion so that the assignment would have some meaning for the students.

Most likely, though, I will not be teaching high school science again. Instead I will be likely go on to do research and perhaps teach at the university level. Still, what I have learned this summer will enrich my thinking about the research I am planning. It will also alter how I would teach both undergraduate and graduate classes using the primary literature of the field.

This summer's work has indeed been fruitful on multiple levels for me. And it has provided me with more questions to consider, and more ways to think about my future as a teacher.

Oh! And I am so not from California! I forgot this goal! I did have a lot of fun teaching--especially during the second term, when the specifics of curriculum delivery became more natural to me, and I could focus on more of the meta-aspects of teaching.

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