It’s more than the score
Rodney E.* made me actually laugh out loud as I read his improvisational free writes. He continually showed creativity in his writing, had a wit to shock a horse, and a heart of gold. Why was he coming up short in his reading scores?
Emily A.* would write for hours spinning various stories and dreams of her future. She obtained good grades, loved school, had no visible signs of reading problems, but her scores were always teetering on the edge.
Oscar G.* always wanted to please. He acted cool as a cucumber, but he had deep insecurities when it came to reading or writing. His teachers never noticed because he was such a “pleaser.”
Julio D.*, never cracking a smile or raising an eyebrow, would always sit quietly, seemingly understanding the assignments and the discussions. His unapproachability caused one to feel that he was in no need of anything.
Are these kids at the risk of failure? I would argue, yes. I have seen too many students slide through the cracks, and when they arrived at junior high, the window of intervention was extremely minute. The child was not blatantly a typical “failing student” but definitely inching toward the bottom as high school neared.
The year 2009 was the first year our school tried in-school reading tutoring to help kids who were underperforming. This strategy would take the place of the underperforming student’s elective. For almost 7 years, I had taught 7th grade Language Arts to inner city youths, but in 2009 I asked to be a “certified tutor” because I wanted the challenge of bringing these kids up from their years of underperforming status. In the past, many of these so-called underperforming students would sit in my classes, seeming to “get” what I was saying. They rarely asked questions nor seemed lost. They had slipped by through their elementary years, but slowly they were falling short as the reading got more difficult.
Anderson Middle School* tests their students once a quarter with the same standardized test given five separate times. Students receive a baseline score and then take the same test each quarter to assess improvement. It’s a predictor of what the student will score on Arizona AIMS. There are four distinct categories based on the AIMS test: Falls Far Below, Approaches, Meets, and Exceeds. One of the school’s goals was to move the “Approaches” kids out of that category and into “Meets.” These four students mentioned above always performed at around a 50% in 7th grade reading, which was on the cusp of a “Meets” score and considered “underperforming.” In fact, their scores were consistently below this in their elementary years. They literally skidded by, never improving. In order to be considered “performing” or “Meets,” the score needed was at least a 56%.
Sadly, these four students were representative of the average student at Anderson Middle School*. At the beginning of the school year, roughly 50% of students operate in that gray area of below average (underperforming) or “Approaches.” For a school with 35-40 students in each class, these kids fall through the cracks and slowly disappear as they enter high school. Note that if a student was in the “Falls Far Below” category, they had little opportunity to achieve “Meets” status, so little was done to help these students except after-school tutoring. Therefore, for the purpose of in-school tutoring, the “Approaches” students were chosen. Like in the business world, the school focused on the product which would give the most bang for the buck. Hence, choosing the “Approaches” students seemed to produce more “Meets “ results by the end of the year.
As I picked students for my classes, I decided to include Rodney, Emily, Oscar, and Julio since they were typical of the “skidding by” student in my 7th grade language arts class. When I had them enter my 8th grade intervention class, their baseline again was 50%. My work was cut out for me. I believe challenging the status quo of standard classroom practices and creating a familial trusting environment altered the course of these students’ coming high school years
MEETING THE NEEDS
The forty-five minutes allotted had to be intense. I knew I had little time with these kids and since their elective was cut they were not amenable to coming in to see me. The key was to identify what was missing in their reading ability. The continued poor performance of these pupils called for me to re-examine my current classroom practices. I did realize that the need to achieve set goals and targets can drive the over reliance of prescribed materials and structure. Yes, I needed to establish the comfort of a routine and utilize research-based materials, but I realized it was more important in how I used them, not just in what I used. Daily, we did a “cold” read (which was a one-minute “first time” reading of short passage. Two warm reads followed the next two days.), a vocabulary lesson, a reading skill of the day, and then practice, practice, practice. The routine was set, but I needed to make the learning fun and interactive, constantly keeping students engaged in the learning.
At the start of each class, upon a bellwork activity, I decided to take a bit of a detour from the lessons I had prepared. I started with a good-old fashioned conversation. Why? I have noticed that this seems to be a lost art among the youth of today. Not only did I want to model this art, but I wanted to gain some knowledge from the informality. So I sat the students in a semi-circle, planted my stool in the center, and chatted with them by asking questions about themselves: What did they want out of life? What excited them? What frustrated them? Then I would get more specific about when they read: What made them get stuck? How did they handle this? We sat as a group and opened up. However, I usually modeled what I wanted from them. I shared that I used to fake read when I was younger. I became proficient at my faking because no one really checked on me. They laughed, but then admitted that they did the same. Authenticity, openness, and transparency on my part aided our conversation, as I needed them to feel understood and comfortable to share.
Valeria would always look forward to our class chats. As we would move into our read for the day, she often commented that “the ability to share helped us make better connections to the reading and the stories.” We would stop often in a story and connect to something personal, which helped her comprehension.
Before one sets out to do anything, he/she has to have a reason. What’s the point? Why bother? Students need a rationale for achieving or growing. They came to realize that it was not going to get easier as the years went on, and if they didn’t improve now, life would become more difficult. Every day, I made sure they had a concrete reason for doing what they did. I ensured the “so what” was answered in what I would teach. I put myself in their shoes because I knew when I was younger, I didn’t understand why the teacher would teach certain lessons. It was “just because” or it was “a rule.” Kids are naturally inquisitive and have to have reasons for actions. For example, I would model a read-aloud for them and get stuck on a word. I talked out what I would do and why I did it. I knew that it would inhibit the meaning of the piece for me if I didn’t try to figure it out. “If you were lost in your car, would you continue to drive down the wrong road only to be completely confused later?” They agreed it was best to figure things out as they went along and self-monitor. Continuing to answer “so what” enabled their abiliy to challenge themselves.
IT’S NOT ALL ABOUT FLUENCY
According to Thomas Newkirk, a University of New Hampshire professor, “There’s a big focus on fluency. Some people think because you can read quickly … that’s a judge of what a great reader they are. I think fluency is important, but I think we can err too much on that side.” (Ramer, 2010) When I was told I needed to check their fluency every day, I had a twinge of frustration. On one hand, reading with speed and accuracy is important, but I realized these kids felt so unsuccessful because they couldn’t read fast (Especially for an ELL student who is just grasping the language.) AMS uses the students’ fluency scores to place them in leveled reading groups. I stressed to the students to focus on what they read and comprehend as they read. However, I have always believed the goal shouldn’t be whipping through a certain number of sentences; the goal should be making sure they are obtaining some conceptual understanding. Therefore, I celebrated their speed, but I challenged their thinking by having them grasp the meaning as they read which is the whole point of reading.
BE A FAN
Are you rooting for your students? Each day, I made sure they knew I was the president of their fan club. Students need to feel that their teachers want them to learn—not just so they can perform well on standardized tests, but for their overall growth and to ensure they will have bright futures. This is where tying in their conversations and life goals can entice them to learn. Every day, I would say, “OK, you are going to knock this one out of the park!” They felt cared about and enthused. Before their plethora of tests, I would make sure that they knew I was in their pocket cheering them on. My students knew I sincerely cared about their well-being, and they always completed the work. My hope is that they will eventually find the love of learning, and the taking of tests will just be a side activity to measure their improvement, not the final destination.
One Thursday I probed, “Where’s Kevin?” He comes religiously every day to my class. Ralph mentioned he had seen him earlier and mentioned perhaps he was ditching. The next day, Kevin came up to me and shared that he won in the intramurals yesterday on the field trip. He then said, “Why would I ditch my favorite class?” He truly felt we had established a family environment.
The power of accountability, interdependence, collaboration, and a bit of competition came to life in time. Since our environment was becoming a familial setting, they spurred each other on. The embarrassment waned as time went on because they knew it was a comfortable setting where mistakes were welcome. They wanted to be teachable and learn. It became such a routine they tried to outdo each other daily. After the one minute of testing each other, they’d yell out, “Ms. K, she beat her time from yesterday and got the words!” You often would hear the encouraging words since I was modeling it to them. They would be asked to write down their missed words so they could practice and do better the next day. Atheena would often put her note cards on Erika’s desk and say, “See if I know these words.” They had a reason to do better since they were reading with their friends and wanted to perform better.
As time went on, the students began to identify words they did not know in their reading. They would highlight and utilize context clues to figure out the words. They learned to summarize paragraphs as they read and talk them out to their partners. Also, they loved challenging each other by writing words on the board and working together to figure them out. The class gelled as the risk levels went down and the trust levels went up. Even before each test, the students would make a goal for themselves. They began to take charge of their own learning and would enjoy setting achievable standards to reach. As a class we would set goals as well. This inspired the kids to really want to meet these tasks head on. Taking ownership of their learning meant that they could not longer just skid by. No one was holding their hands anymore and it was time to make the transition to becoming self-empowered persons. Confidence began to rise and making mistakes was acceptable, but only if something was learned from them.
Many teachers would read this and say, “Well, sure! If I had six to eight students in my class, it would be easy to make this happen.” It is no secret that having a smaller class allows more one-on-one teaching to take place. However, what I learned in working with these small groups I will take to my bigger classes next year.
- I will “get real” with the kids.
- I will give a “so what?” for all that I teach them.
- I will consistently spur them on and expect them to do this to each other.
- I will set a family like-comfortable/conversational atmosphere as to allow openness and authenticity.
Dr. James Blasingame, a professor at ASU, even notes that the atmosphere is key for kids to learn. “Establishing a classroom climate in which students feel good about themselves and about what they are doing is very important for students in grade six to eight. It is very important with preadolescents who are struggling with physical, emotional, and cognitive changes.” (Blasingame, p. 19)
Below it shows that by the end of the year they did excel from their 50% baseline status.
|Student||Baseline %||4th Qtr %|
All four eighth grade students’ scores rose and they achieved what was the original purpose. However, I think what they got was more than a score. They received the proper nurturing, modeling and ability to come out of hiding. What made these kids “break through” the underperforming score was not the what they learned but how they learned it. Intervention tutoring, being another superb idea, is only as good as its implementation. Educational trends continue to lend themselves to new and supposedly better programs every year. But without building the relationships and setting the proper atmosphere, the program will fall by the wayside.
*names have been changed
Blasingame, James (2004), Teaching Writing in Middle and Secondary Schools; Prentice Hall.
Ramer, Holly (2010). NH professor pushes for return to slow reading; Retrieved from http://ca.us.biz.yahoo.com/ap/100617/us_slow_reading.html?.v=2