Thank you!

Many thanks to anyone who has been following my blog this semester. I have been keeping up with my posts as part of a college course I am taking, but I may not be able to continue my writing over the summer. This is a post to let you know that my entries will likely come to a halt now that the semester is ending, but I encourage you to keep reading about topics like that one I’ve been covering as well as (of course) reading! Thank you for engaging with my work this semester.

“Functionally Illiterate” College Students

Something you may remember from the news a while back is that a woman at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill exposed some serious information about athletes, their academic rigor at the university, and—what’s shocking to me—their illiteracy.

According to CNN, it turns out that Mary Willingham, the woman who exposed this information, is now resigning from her position at UNC. After trying to fix the broken system, it appears as though she has been met with a hostile environment and little to no change.

She revealed what have been called “paper classes”—courses student athletes are encouraged to take that require very little work and sometimes do not even require attendance in a classroom. She also conducted tests on about 180 of the students she has worked with by having them take the 25-question reading vocabulary test on the Scholastic Abilities Test for Adults. The results? Some athletes were performing at elementary-school levels, and some were “functionally illiterate.”Image

I’ve known with dismay, of course, that many student athletes nationwide are often discouraged from reaching their full academic potential. What I hadn’t been fully aware of, though, was the severity of the problem. Illiteracy? At a renowned university? These athletes have been set up to fail by being dragged along through school systems and told that their performance on the field outweighs their performance in the classroom. Even if some of these students wanted to engage more rigorously in their classes, they can’t—they can barely read most of the material college professors assign. And they’ve been assured that it’s okay.

Many of my posts (like my last one of a TED talk) have concerned the “reading crisis” among both children and adults and their lack of interest in reading. This presents a whole new crisis—not one in which individuals are choosing not to read, but one in which they’re being told outright that it doesn’t matter.

The above photo has been retrieved from this website.

Bring Back “Slow Reading”

Have you ever been reading a news article on the Internet, read about two paragraphs, then clicked on a different one and read the same amount before moving on again? Have you had trouble remembering the content of text you’ve read online?

I know I have. Of course, it’s been pretty clear to all of us that reading things online is a distracting environment. That’s why I’ve clung to physical copies of books whenever possible. But what’s a little more frightening is that, according to this Washington Post article, the fragmented way we read digital content has begun seeping into the way we read print. Despite holding on to a physical book, our eyes have been trained to skim, skip, and only grasp content at a mere surface level. This is slightly terrifying in its implications for how much people will actually learn from what they’re reading. If we already face a problem with not enough people reading in the first place, are we losing an even larger audience than we thought if some of those who do read aren’t even comprehending it?

Read the article and be aware of “slow reading”!

A Good or Bad New Way to Read?

I found this interesting TED Talk recently that explains a new technology invented to encourage reading. I was intrigued because, of course, I believe that the act of reading is truly experiencing a crisis. But, after watching the video all the way through I’m not so sure that I am a huge fan of the product.

Essentially, readers would read text on an iPad or similar device, and there would be what’s called a “booktrack” (book + soundtrack = booktrack) playing in the background. It would enhance the reading atmosphere and make it more of an entertainment experience for users. The technology would track the pace of the reader to make sure that the music and the text are always coinciding.

However, one of the beauties of reading (and one of its crucial benefits) is that it forces us to creatively invent the world that we’re reading about. Cognitively, it takes a lot of work to read—but that’s why it’s so important. Personally, I feel as though the booktrack is somewhat of a lazy route to reading and might actually do readers a disservice by not allowing us to envision the story in the surrounding we’ve created. On the flip side, is it better to use this technology and get more people to read?

Watch the video and feel free to let me know your thoughts!

Reflection: Reading with First Graders

As I wrote in my previous post, I visited a first grade classroom last week to facilitate a reading activity. I was nervous about how it would go over with the students, but it ended up turning out even better than I’d expected. When we first arrived, the volunteers and I introduced ourselves and asked the students to tell us their name and their favorite thing to read. The responses we got were varied and enthusiastic. The students told us that they loved to read already! That was great news to hear.

Going into the activity, I knew that the students in the class were at the beginning stages of reading, so I chose a book with a lot of illustrations. This helped them to engage with the story and visualize what was happening. During the first part of the activity, I read the first two chapters or so to the class, and was excited to discover that the students were very interested in what was happening. They asked questions, identified what was going on in the pictures, and provided some commentary of their own (if you’ve interacted with first graders at length, you understand how much they like to chime in and say what’s on their mind!).

Next, we broke out into our three groups with two volunteers leading each. We read two chapters each with the students and encouraged them to participate in the exercise. We asked them questions about the plot, things that related to history, and some experiences of their own that related to the book. The first graders followed the content well along with our guidance, and they seemed to enjoy sharing with their classmates what they’d learned at the end of the activity.

Overall, I think the kids and the volunteers all enjoyed this experience. I, of course, don’t know whether or not the activity had an impact on these students’ overall desire to read, but the idea was to get them engaged with books in a fun way. If anything, I hope we inspired them to pick up a book sometime soon and get the same enjoyment out of it that they seemed to get with Friday’s event. When we left, the students gave us hugs and urged us to come back again soon. That was at least one good sign of a successful advocacy event!

Reading as Advocacy

I’m very excited to be leading an advocacy event at an elementary school near my university tomorrow. This activity will hopefully take many of the ideas I’ve discussed in this blog directly into a classroom for a fun activity with first graders. Here is what me and a small group of volunteers will be doing.

One of my favorite books when I was young reader was an adapted version of “Hitty: Her First Hundred Years” that contains more pictures and is a bit more simplified. It follows the life of a doll through one hundred years of history, traveling from family to family and through countless historical events. The small group of volunteers and I are going to split the class into groups and have certain teams read and discuss certain spots on Hitty’s “timeline.” Then, when we come together as a class, each team will describe where Hitty had been in their given time period, and they could share with the rest of the class what they learned.

From my research, it looks like the book is geared for readers 7 and up, which might be slightly above the level of some of the readers in the class. Therefore, we will be the ones guiding the kids through the reading, but we will also be giving them opportunities to follow along and sound out words and sentences as well.

At the beginning of the event, I’ll give the students an introduction of who we are and a little taste of why we are there. I thought we might also be able to go around the classroom and have all of the students introduce themselves and share an example of their favorite thing to read (this would simply be an exercise to break the ice). Then, I will read the first two chapters of the book to the class as a whole so that they all have a common frame of reference about the story before splitting in to groups. After, we will break in to those groups, and each group will read two chapters from the book. Once everyone is done reading their sections, we will come together as a class and have students from each team share what they learned about “Hitty” in her first 100 years of existence.

Given the potential difficulty of the book, we will be “leading” the kids through the readings, but also engaging them as much as possible. At different points throughout the activity, we will pause to ask them questions like, “Does anyone know why people didn’t get along during the American Civil War?” (There is a chapter on the Civil War, for example). Or, “Does anyone know who this president is?” (Hitty falls into the hands of both President Lincoln and President Teddy Roosevelt in two separate chapters). They may not know the answers, but the idea is that through reading, they’re learning pieces of history as well. There are also pictures, so we will encourage them to look at the images to help them understand the content. If we just read to them straight through, the activity will go by very quickly and they won’t get much out of it, so we will be giving them opportunities to ask questions, answer our own questions, read sentences on their own, etc.

I’m really looking forward to this activity, and I will be posting an update about how it went sometime soon!

Creating Life-Long Readers and Success

A few days ago, the Financial Times published an article on “How to get British kids reading.” Given the choice to engage with a wide range of electronic toys and entertainment, the UK education secretary fears that young British students aren’t reading nearly enough.

According to the article, a study that tracked 6,000 young people born in April 1970 found that “children’s test scores correlated more with how often they read than with how educated their parents were.” This is great news for avid readers whose parents may not have pursued higher education, but worrisome for the rising number of students who just aren’t drawn to books anymore.

This starts in the classroom. “If you’re going to engage a reader for life, you need to engage them before they become an adult,” said Louisa Livingston, who is the head of consumer insight at Hachette UK. One method is to make children feel comfortable and at home with books, with “soft-furnished areas in classrooms and personalised guidance so that each child can be directed to the books he or she might enjoy.” Librarians should be seen as experts on helping kids discover their passions through books, and teachers should be allowed to make time for children to feel relaxed around books. We can never force a love for reading, but we can certainly change environmental factors that are more conducive to reading for pleasure.

What do you think? What else can we do to ensure that more students are reading regularly, and are, therefore, more successful in other areas of academics?

A teacher’s view: “I did not feel I was leaving my job. I felt then and feel now that my job left me.”

I was extremely saddened to stumble upon this article recently. How skewed has education become when teachers who love children and their job feel pressured to resign? While some teachers get by amid frustration and doubt, some of them—like Susan Sluyter of Cambridge Public Schools—can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.

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The Washington Post contacted Ms. Sluyter, who explained her disgust for the current system of public education. When she began teaching over 25 years ago, “hands-on exploration, investigation, joy and love of learning characterized the early childhood classroom,” she said. “I’d describe our current period as a time of testing, data collection, competition and punishment. One would be hard put these days to find joy present in classrooms.”

What drew my attention was Ms. Sluyter’s description of the literacy initiative that taught students “prescribed skills” on how to read, even as early as kindergarten and PreK. “We found ourselves in professional development work being challenged to teach kindergarteners to form persuasive arguments, and to find evidence in story texts to justify or back up a response they had to a story,” she said. “What about teaching children to write and read through the joy of experiencing a story together, or writing about their lives and what is most important to them?”

Of course, children should learn to form coherent, evidence-based arguments to back up their analysis or persuasion. But, Ms. Sluyter is referring to 4, 5, and 6 year olds. At that point in kids’ development, they should be focused on learning to read and understand text in general, let alone being able to form arguments about what they’ve read (comprehension comes before analysis, doesn’t it?). And if they can’t perform well on this task, they’ll tune out quickly enough that any potential for a love of reading would disintegrate.

When I read Ms. Sluyter’s resignation letter published in the Washington Post, I was completely disheartened. Teachers are the heroes that shape future generations. What does it say about our system when they feel prevented from doing what they love most? Yes, a certain amount of testing is necessary to gauge student learning. But we also need to find a balance where children are learning what they need to, and yet we trust our teachers to make that happen through more enjoyable means (that are more beneficial in the long-term, anyway).

The above cartoon was retrieved from this webpage.