Monday, January 28, 2013

Our kids need Harry Potter

Last weekend, we drove nine hours to go camping at Disney World. We drove nine hours back yesterday, and, for much of this time, poor Sam had to listen to me read articles about the Common Core on his iphone.

Finally, at one point, he looked at me and said, "You're finding a lot of articles criticizing the core. Perhaps you should find articles for the other side. To balance things out a little."

Well, I didn't look for these articles, because I've already read many of them, but what I did instead, was turn to the core itself. We read over the standards (I've done this many times already), and really, essentially, the standards say, "We want your child to be able to read something, comprehend it, make use of it in his brain, and retell that information to others in a clear, useful format."

The language is so garbled and full of jargon, it is difficult to wade your way through the mire, but truly, that's really all it says. Again and again and again.

Nothing wrong with that, right?


But is this idea new? School districts and states are scrambling to buy new curriculums, new software, new tests to meet these "new" standards. Because there must be a silver bullet, right? There has to be some program out there that will finally help us meet this new, elevated standards that are so good and new. There has to be a program out there that will teach our kids to read.

Let me pause in my sarcasm (sorry, I'm trying not to be cynical), to explain why I pulled my third grader out of school this year.

This is the year they began implementing the Common Core for language arts in our district. In the process, they bought two new programs: Daily CAFE, an organizational program to help the teachers organize reading time, and, The Daily Five.

I went to the third grade Open House. I watched my son's teacher roll her eyes about the new programs. I watched her explain that they didn't really understand how this was going to work, but they were going to do it anyway. I watched her list the steps in the writing process. Prewrite. Write. Rewrite. Peer Edit. Revise. Publish. As if there is a checklist writers of all types go through as we write. "Ah, let's see, prewriting done—check! Writing done—check! Now I will rewrite. Now I will share with my peers. Now I will revise. Now I will publish. Check!" I'm not even sure what the difference is between revising and rewriting. I've never distinguished between the two—and I never heard anyone do so during my two years in a master's program on writing. I listened to her use terms about the learning process I'm not convinced she understood herself because they were vague and a little meaningless.

Our district (and yours too, most likely) is rewriting the rules, rewriting the curriculum, rewriting teaching, rewriting our children's lives.

(Read this article for a great example of the impact this is having on our schools:  )

I was concerned after this open house, so I paid close attention to Calvin. He came home from school very unhappy each day. He was irritable, and he is my never-irritable child. He didn't have enough time to read about animals, to go outside, he complained. He didn't have enough time to fill his mind with information, which is what Calvin loves to do. Because at school, they weren't filling his mind with information. They were doing Daily CAFE. They were doing The Daily Five. They were giving him the skills he needs to meet this demand:
"We want your child to be able to read something, comprehend it, make use of it in his brain, and retell that information to others in a clear, useful format."

In this search for the silver bullet to meet these new standards, we are forgetting a fundamental part of education. You don't read something, comprehend it, make use of it and then retell it just to do it. It's the information you gain in the process that is important. Reading is a tool. Writing is a tool. These things are used in order to acquire specific information, and, for school children, that information better be interesting and important.

Calvin wants to learn about science. He loves science. So why not give him science with a focus, with a purpose, and in the process fulfill those requirements for the Common Core? I'm not sure, but that's not what is happening.

My darling friend posted a comment on my last post. She told the story of how reading Harry Potter with her third grader turned him into a reader and raised his reading scores in just two months. He is trudging his way through those books not because he wants to become a great reader, but because he wants to find out what is going to happen. He is captivated.

Imagine if he'd only read the part where Harry fights Voldemort at the end because the reading program was trying to teach cause and effect? What if he only read the part where Harry goes to Diagon Alley for the first time because the reading program is trying to teach him how to use adjectives? Would he have fallen in love with Harry Potter if Harry's story were abbreviated, short-changed, stolen from him altogether? Harry Potter is above his level, but he is a boy pushing his way through a difficult reading snowstorm because the destination is so enticing, not because someone is telling him he'd better do it or his test scores will plummet.

In Saffy's Angel, by Hilary McKay, Indigo does not like to read. He's a poor reader until he develops an intense love for polar exploration. He forces himself to read adult books about polar exploration because they are all he can get on the subject, and he cannot quench his thirst. He uses dictionaries and encyclopedias to make sense of what he is reading. He rereads those books again and again until he understands every word, because he loves the subject. Not because he wants to be a great reader. Because he wants to be a polar explorer one day, and books are the best way for him to learn about it.

If your child is struggling with reading in any way, or even if they are supposedly on grade level—who knows what that really means—find them a book they can fall in love with. I promise you, that book exists. You may not think it does, but it does. There are books on every subject you can imagine, old and new. I will help you find them or there are other great blogs that recommend books. One of my favorite books on reading is this:

Product Details
How to Get Your Child to Love Reading by Esme Codell. The lists in there are awesome. Her ideas are awesome.

It doesn't really matter if the Common Core is good or bad. But it does matter, very desperately, how it is implemented. Schools are taking books away from children in order to fulfill these demands. School libraries are struggling, librarians are being fired and replaced by aides who have no training, but computer programs and Ipads aimed at helping the kids master the core are being bought up indiscriminately.

My friend's son did not need his school district's amazing new reading textbook to improve his scores. He needed Harry Potter.

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