Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Read and Weep #3 - Special Program #2 

As mentioned in the first Read and Weep post, the third school in which I taught crossed most of the social and economic spectrum in the United states.

We purchased a unique reading system (Scott Foresman if I recall correctly). What was special about this system was that each grade had nine skill levels of books. Each text within grade level focused on the skills and codes the kids needed to learn in order to advance in their reading. For those who were below grade level, that meant that they had a 5th grade book with fifth grade interests but skills covered could be as low as first grade. As they learned the specific skills, they advanced to the next level. It was a system designed to focus on what the student needed to know.

Three of us taught fifth grade. We tested the kids and identified five starting levels which allowed us to group by ability. I kept the advanced readers and implemented the research program for them (the program I described in Read and Weep #2). Then I took two other groups, the lowest and a small, slightly below grade level group. The other two teachers took the larger groups that were on or very close to grade level.

The lowest group was reading at a first/second grade level. The following is a recollection of my conversation with them.
Me: "You are about three years behind. You have a choice: you can stay behind, goof off, not do your work, "forget" your pencils, homework, and make excuses or you can decide to learn to read. I promise you this, if you decide to learn to read and really work at it, you will gain at least two years. You h ave exactly 10 minutes to decide as a group what you want to do." Then we looked at the clock and agreed that I would come back for their answer in 10 minutes. I proceeded to go to the other small group and get them started. Exactly 10 minutes later, I returned to the first group.
Me: "What is your decision?"
Students (begrudgingly): "We want to learn to read."
Me: "Congratulations. We will do it."

I worked with both groups every day - each needed oral and written and silent work. The beauty of this text system was you could see results, the kids and I. Students came prepared: books, homework, pencils, assignments, etc. Remember, often the poor readers are the ones with shoddy work habits, too. They experienced legitimate pride when they did well on a test. They'd go to the principal and tell him, "I got a 90% on my reading test!"

My concern is for those students who are not raised in the middle-upper-middle class environment. We had every combination of student background you could imagine but we out performed (read out scored on standardized tests) over half the schools in this large, wealthy school system (Fairfax County)even though we were one of the bottom five (and possibly lower) socio-economic schools in the district.

We established a safe school, one where students were allowed and encouraged to learn; one where putdowns were not tolerated. What we got from these kids, despite all the environmental issues was simply fantastic.

It worked. I still get grins thinking about this - I mean, it worked! These bottom readers tested on a 4th grade level at the end of the year. A minimum of a two year gain in one year! The other group got up to grade level. By the time both groups went to 7th grade, they were at grade level.

I honestly believe that over 90% of students can learn to read at least at a 7th grade level. It's not a case of just telling them, we need to give them the tools to learn the codes to do it. This silly whole language stuff is just garbage. Every skill, discipline and function in life has its own jargon, rules and patterns. To deny children the access to these tools is just wrong.