As an OpEd writer I spend an inordinate amount of time reading what others say about education. This evening I previewed a book called Readicide by Kelly Gallagher. It features an interesting contention that I happen to agree with. He cites data to indicate that our current reliance on standardized tests is destroying the desire to read in our students:
. . . Kelly argues that American schools are actively (though unwittingly) furthering the decline of reading—specifically, he contends, through the standard instructional practices used in most schools. Kelly doesn’t settle for identifying only the problems. Readicide provides teachers, literacy coaches, and administrators with specific steps to reverse the downward spiral in reading — steps that will help prevent the loss of another generation of readers. 1)
It is not my intent to get you to go out and buy the book, though if you are an educator I think you would find it fascinating reading. Rather I am interested in furthering my own agenda: that we should return to teaching through developmentally recognized practices and relegate standardized testing to where it actually belongs; as one of many tools that are available in a teacher’s arsenal.
That’s right, you heard me, I am not against standized testing, I am against it being used to drive curriculum. To support my equally radical idea that there is considerable value in tests I cite another article by Ama Nyameke published in EdWeek “A Teacher Finds Good in Testing”:
When I “depoliticized” the test, I found a useful and flawed ally. The exam excelled where I struggled, offering comprehensive and standards-based assessments. I thrived where the test fell short, designing creative, performance-based projects. Together, we were strategic partners. 2)
Nyameke rightly asserts that like other good teaching practices there is a place for testing. Teachers must assess growth and check to see that their instruction is effective. I use a variety of tools to accomplish this; portfolios, pointed questioning during discussions, self evaluation (you’d be amazed how many second graders think they are GREAT students), written responses to lessons to check for understanding and yes, tests.
But I believe Gallagher is also correct in pointing out that we are making reading a tiresome procedure that is goal based rather than a pleasurable activity. I read to my class, I read in front of my class and given the opportunity I cite reading as one of my favorite hobbies whenever I can. Still children must find that spark that lights the fire of their own desire to become readers. Right now there are several books that have grabbed the popular imagination and are disappearing from library shelves more rapidly than free bagels in the teacher’s lounge. For example, with my second graders, Diary of Wimpy Kid offers entertaining pictures to go with an interesting story line so that even my emergent readers enjoy it.
Today we made our first visit to the school library. Like many schools we no longer have a real librarian but we have a staff member who works several hours a week to allow our students to check out books. As part of my regular curriculum I read to my students every day. I had just completed a book that I have read to my class every year that I have taught in the primary grades. The book is by Betty McDonald, who was also the author of The Egg and I, a rather famous piece of true experience literature that was made into a movie. I think the star was Claudette Colbert. But the book of hers that I read is called Mrs. Piggle -Wiggle. Often I make this the first book I read aloud to my class because it describes a bygone time in our country when people ate meals prepared at home and evening entertainment was everyone gathered around the radio. It is a sweet little book that all children seem to love.
When we arrived at the library one of my students asked where the “Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle” books were? I looked at the shelves and indicated the ones labeled “M” for McDonald. The stampede was on! Six Piggle-Wiggles, the entire collection contained in our school library were quickly snatched up and several children continued to scour the vicinity of the “M” shelves hoping to find one that had been mis-shelved.
I was encouraged by their gusto. It was a revelatory experience. True, my class had listened well while I read the book aloud to them over the last two weeks but to have it be so powerful that they would literally (and literately) ransack the shelves for copies was surprising. I warned our library helper that I was reading The Boxcar Children next and she might want to stock up on copies. Maybe there is still time to reverse the trend predicted by Gallagher and instill in a new generation a true love of reading, even if it is eventually on a Kindle.