I teach 5th graders.
It is a lovely, messy age where students figure out how to organize themselves and their thoughts. They discover the world is much bigger than they realized and try to determine where and how they might fit into that space.
Military kids are used to a life of movement and change. However, much of the last year has now become a pendulum oscillating between remote, classroom, and virtual learning. As we’ve rocked back and forth, two deficiencies I’ve noticed are my students’ relationship with reading and their development of oral language.
The deficiencies cannot solely be attributed to pandemic remote learning. Equally responsible are the curriculum choices and standards/data driven push in our district. While the push was necessary to reset grade level expectations, it has resulted in a graphic organizer, worksheet-based, testing-driven classroom that undermines the “autonomous and collaborative work” (Futures of Education, UNESCO) in which teachers and students bring a classroom to life. A process which becomes near impossible when creative, critical thinking has been removed.
Another contributing factor to reading deficiency is the home environment. Unlike the lack of resources outlined by Robert Arnove (2020), my students have plentiful access to digital resources and readily discuss the best gameplay strategies for multiple, popular games, or the ins/outs and private lives of the best Youtubers. Yet my students struggle to comprehend and relate to text directly in front of them.
When I consider our conversations and note the areas of struggle and success, I begin to notice the following:
- My students have become isolated in a gameplay world, Ready, Player One style, and they lack background knowledge of the real world.
- My students are strong word readers. They are good at decoding, but have poor syntax and semantics, which is the equivalent of pushing buttons over and over to play a game that never ends.
- When my students write, they are drawn to making words look pretty by exploring different fonts and spacing, yet their sentences are lacking substance and thought.
The deficiencies translate into difficulties with text comprehension. To be more specific, my students struggle with visualization, asking questions, and synthesizing events to draw inferences. Without strong reading comprehension, the students cannot build on or retain what they’ve read.
My hope for an idyllic future isn’t one that abandons the past. With the current pandemic, my future changes on a day-to-day basis. For now, I believe a better fit would synthesize the past and the present in an old-school meets new wave style.
“The center of any educational process is the human relationship between a student and a teacher.” –Futures of Education, UNESCO
It might seem strange that a read aloud is a novelty to students. Yet most of my students profess that their parents didn’t read to them at home when they were younger. Even more admit having only a few books in their houses.
My students’ favorite part of the language arts block is when I read to them, and it is also the time I see the most engagement with reading. Maybe it’s the choice of book. Maybe it’s the way I read it. Maybe it’s because they are simply listening and there isn’t a prescribed graphic organizer to fill out. However, as I read, students ask deep-thinking questions, clarifying questions, make connections to what they’ve heard, and even become upset with characters for their character flaws. In short, my students become invested in what they are hearing.
It is the time of day when I’m able to develop that critical student and teacher relationship.
It is also when my students are building their imaginations.
If given the choice, I would wrap much of my instruction around a combination of storytelling mixed with informational text to develop student understanding and use of language. Yet to do so would be an exercise in futility, as the realities of a federal government directed education (i.e. which selects the standards/curriculum) doesn’t allow for that level of teacher autonomy.
In truth, my read aloud time mentioned above is a deviation from our curriculum. Yet it is the part I refuse to give up, because it is the moment of connection in our classroom.
It is creative time and space that is not game or digitally driven. One side to, yet another, pendulum swing.
So even though it’s old school, the connections we make are why we need to start with a story.
“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.” –Ray Bradbury
My students love to be on the computer. It is their comfort zone.
It is the place where images and space make sense to them, and they can more readily recognize how to fit in.
As a teacher in a 21st century school, it would be dismissive, neglectful even, to plan in a way that digital platforms are eliminated from the equation. Rather, the best fit for the current pandemic situation while building toward the future warrants a digital component to student learning.
Ideally, a platform provides for Resnick’s creative expression, project-based learning, and revision of student work. More specifically, once stories have been discussed and internalized (i.e. to target the language and comprehension difficulties) in an old school way, the final output is one that incorporates Resnick’s proposed components into one or more digital platforms.
For example, if conducting a video report, students could listen to their recording to determine if their word choice clearly expressed what they intended. In a video review, students might consider the recording environment to see how the background changes peoples’ impressions. Additionally, students might watch themselves to evaluate how a person’s movement and motion change when trying to communicate in a digital world.
The truth of today’s student is that much of their world will take place digitally. In order to understand it, they need to practice in a way where they can repeatedly make mistakes and still start over. Their world is a world of restarts. Which means my job is to present tasks that will draw students in and provide imagination workspace.
In this case, creative time that is digitally driven.
The other side to the pendulum swing.
But one that is built on a stronger foundation than the students started with, and, hopefully, keeps them reading.
Arnove, Robert F. Imagining what education can be post‑COVID‑19. 2June2020. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s11125-020-09474-1
Image: Pantheom Pendulum: https://www.amusingplanet.com/2018/10/foucault-pendulum-and-pantheon.html
Resnick, Mitchel. Lifelong Kindergarten: Cultivating Creativity through Projects, Passion, Peers, and Play. Excerpt from Chapter 1: Creative Learning. https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/education_in_a_post-covid_world-nine_ideas_for_public_action.pdf
UNESCO. Education in a post-COVID world: Nine ideas for public action. https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/education_in_a_post-covid_world-nine_ideas_for_public_action.pdf
I like that you read to your students. My sons both had teachers that read aloud through their sixth grade year (which is in our middle school). I am saddened by how many kids did have that read aloud time with their parents or another adult as young children. That was something I did with my children as soon as they could sit in my lap, prior to that it was singing and talking to them. In part for the language exposure, in part for bonding, but also because it was enjoyable. It is amazing how reading a story sparks so many different conversations some that might not happen otherwise.
The first phrase that jumped out to me that you wrote, “The deficiencies cannot solely be attributed to pandemic remote learning.” As a fellow community member who works with students (albeit not 5th graders), I wholeheartedly agree with this statement. My initial reaction was to write about how it, “is the responsibility of the parent/guardian to help aid in these deficiencies.” However, I would like to try to take the view of a parent/guardian (and my son’s name in this creative response is Connor). Unless my son has a video game that has words attached to it, he doesn’t want to read. He is isolated from his friends and can only find solace in sleeping in and playing video games. It seems odd that you’re suggesting that I actually read a loud to Connor. I’m not a bad parent. I just let him read to himself by giving him an iPad. I am glad to know that you read to him because there I do see the value in that and think it’s important for making connections as well as critical thinking, I just don’t have the time to invest in that way. In truth, I don’t think that you should give it up; I think it’s really important that someone reads to my student. I 100% agree that Connor loves to be involved with technology, it’s part of why I let him play his video games, and be on his phone so much! Do you think that maybe Connor could start turning in his assignments with video? He really likes creating those. I like that you are thinking about how to incorporate technology into my sons classroom.
Your response made me smile. It seems so interesting to me that the parent, knowing that their child feels isolated, would be surprised that I would suggest something that draws a parent/child connection.
I do have some video submissions, however, many of our 5th grade standards are writing analysis focused. It’s a very structured writing experience which, ironically enough, isn’t at all how I really learned to write.
Also, I’m sorry if this response was too out there. I would be more than happy to leave a response that is grounded more in professionalism. I just got joy out of thinking about my teaching internship year.
I think we all understand what you are trying to say in your response. My son is 17 and would rather be on his games with his friends than reading at this point, but I will say he spends 7 hours on his computer each day reading and writing. He has zero interaction with a teacher (except when they proctor is online tests) or classmates. So he is pretty much done with reading by the time 3:00 comes around. He and I instead discuss new articles and current events as a way to connect and have “robust” conversation.
Deni, I appreciate that you chose this “pendulum” metaphor, as you could easily have gone with a tug-of-war or something similar that focuses on tension rather than balance. I see the pendulum bringing a focus on balance between these many priorities — those of the curriculum, of your students and what they enjoy, and of you as a teacher building connections and deeper learning. I’m wondering whether the pendulum is trying to settle into equilibrium or stillness in a compromise between all these, or is the swinging between the point?
One idea I had as I read was that you and your students could build choose-your-own-adventure type stories off of what you read aloud to them. Students could identify a point in the story when it could have gone a different way — a character could have made a different decision. And then they could write alternate rabbit-trails or endings. This could become a digital story using Google slides (which makes hyperlinking for the decision points easy) or a tool like Twine that is designed for this.
As a parent who has been trying to homeschool this year, I can also appreciate leaving be the things that are working. Sounds like the read aloud time is pretty precious, and I can imagine that adding any form of assessment to it might impact students’ experiences of it. As you mentioned, it might be that freedom from the curriculum and assessment that makes this time so precious …
I like the interactive nature that you mentioned. I could do something like that via google slides. Anything that requires students to create a user account (even a free one) or a download to the computer (like Twine) is strictly prohibited for us.