Monday, February 13, 2012

Can Writing About our Reading be Authentic?

I believe it can be; however, it has not always been, nor is it typically. Given all that the New Hampshire (or fill in the blank) reading and writing curriculum frameworks mandate, it is difficult for me to constantly teach my students to read and write with true purpose.  When I force my students to "do" all that the curriculum commands, I stifle their enjoyment of literacy. I argue that improving as a reader and writer, and finding pleasure while doing so, run parallel to one another and that a lot must change in education for teaching and learning to be truly authentic.  

Authentic learning to me, in regard to literacy, is obtaining a passion for reading and writing, as well as learning how to implement the strategies that real readers and writers utilize for genuine purposes. Not only do I think students should choose the material they read at school and home, they should also read like writers and learn how to write self selected topics and genres well, in order to become be more successful in the world beyond school.  All pieces of writing should be written for an actual audience; this way, students will have a reason to write well because people beyond their teachers and parents will read their work.  With the massive and growing availability of Web 2.0 tools, students will always have access to an audience.  People across the world can view students creations and push their thinking forward through commenting.  This truly excites me and gives me hope that education can and will improve.

Since my students have been "allowed" to blog these past few years, they have been demonstrating deeper thinking than ever before through the art of writing and commenting on posts.  Before blogging came along, my students mostly read fiction and wrote about their thinking of their reading solely on fictional books, which did not seem very natural. (I have to take the blame since that is all I modeled; therefore, that is all they knew, so that was all they produced.)

I have been trying to figure out how make it meaningful for my students to write about their fictional reading.  I have "covered" most curriculum on writing about nonfiction reading via blogging; nonetheless, the state curriculum dictates that my students must do so with fiction too; I am bound because my students are tested on that "skill."

I think the current educational system is detrimental to student success because we, as teachers, are forced to expose students to a breadth of curriculum rather than to teach for depth.  I believe it would behoove us to force less curriculum upon our students and allow them to learn self selected (thus meaningful) concepts and teach them how to think more critically to help prepare them for their lives outside the confines of "school."  I don't think teachers should be expected to "cover" all of the curriculum because when one needs to know something, one can immediately find the answer from anyplace by properly utilizing the Internet.  I will elaborate on this in a later post.

This is my tenth year of teaching.  Every year (except for this one) my students have written a response to their reading about twice a month.  For my first eight years, my students were assessed with a rubric that was created by a team of teachers, whom I deeply respect.  My team and I revised the rubric every year in attempt to enhance our students' learning.  There came a point, for me, where even that was not good enough.

I started to question the validity of the reading response rubric after various encounters.  The first being that one high achieving student of mine mastered composing pieces that met all of the “A” requirements although he never came close to demonstrating the deep thinking of which I knew he was capable.  I believe the rubric prevented him from writing brilliant responses because had no reason to as he constantly received the highest grade possible.  I compassionately called him out on this and he laughed.  We laughed.  How could I blame him!?!

Alternatively, I had an uncomfortable parent/teacher conference with parents whom I love and respect.  They were concerned that the reading response assignments were consuming their daughter because the rubric made it too difficult for her to receive an "A."  They were right.  Torturing her with these reading responses was not making her a better reader and writer and thinker; in fact, they were harming her self confidence and making her detest literacy.  That was the opposite of my intention.

Last year I got rid of the rubric.  I had my students write blog posts on their thinking about their reading.  At the time, it seemed perfect!  Instead of assessing each reading response with a rubric, I gave one specific positive comment as well as a suggestion that was intended to push each student to improve on his/her next response.  Not only were my comments visible for all students and parents to read, my students now had access to great models to help them improve their own responses.  This was working fairly well, although I had a parent imply that her child was not working as "hard" as she should because she was not receiving a grade on each response.  I explained that I want my students to passionately grow as readers and writers rather than write a response solely to get a good grade. (I constantly fight this battle and it is becoming more difficult for me to stifle my voice...yet another post to write about.)   

At the end of the year, my students and I reflected on the reading response blog posts; the students did not enjoy writing them and I did not enjoy reading them...  The responses, even without the grades, remained meaningless.

I have thought a lot about this dilemma.  I am an avid reader and writer; however, I NEVER write a response about my reading of fictional books. I do talk about my deep thinking of fictional reading with my book club girlfriends (for about fifteen minutes a month).  I model my deep thinking of my reading to my students during lessons and conferences; nonetheless, I NEVER write about my thinking of my fictional reading just for the heck of it.  More importantly though, what do students learn from writing about their reading that they can not learn from talking about their comprehension?  Nothing!  I do not think writing about their reading makes them better readers or writers.

This year I stopped assigning the reading responses altogether.  It no longer felt right and it is extremely difficult for me to do something in which I do not believe.  I have been respectfully questioned again, whether I am preparing my current students as well as my previous students.  Some parents truly miss my reading responses.  I clarify that my current students are more prepared than before because they truly comprehend what they are reading through asking questions, making connections, creating multi-sensory mind pictures, making inferences, and finding the author's message.  My students are successfully able to write any message clearly, and with great voice, regardless of the topic and genre.  My students love to read and write because they choose their own topics and they read and write often.  They are constantly reflecting on their literacy goals and creating new ones, thus becoming excellent readers and writers as well as passionate ones who trust the learning process.  All of this is so much more meaningful than making them write about their reading which creates resentment.  (Read a little more about this idea here.)

All of these thoughts had me torn because much of the state curriculum dictates that my students write about both their fictional and nonfictional reading.  I would be neglecting my job if I didn't encourage my kids to write about their fictional reading; still, I could no longer make my kids do it until I found a way to create a genuine purpose.  

Recently Amy Cantone, a fellow PLPeep and good friend of mine, solved part of this problem for me.  She asked me to combine our fifth grade classes for virtual book clubs.  Our students selected a book they wanted to read, Amy and I created various groups based upon student choices and each group selected the pace at which they were going to read their book.  We are both modeling this process to our class during reading lessons.  Currently our students are posting their thinking about their fictional reading on Edmodo, a secure social network made for education.  Book club members read and push each other's thinking deeper through their replies as well as during Skype sessions.  Such powerful documentation!

This is what I think learning should be all about.  I do not want to ask my kids to do anything that would not truly benefit them in their "real" world.  It is only fair.  It is the only way I can help foster passionate life long learners who think deeply through collaboration (myself included).


  1. VERY well said, Rachel! I love how honest and reflective you are about your teaching. It is so refreshing! What bothers me so about preparing students for "the test" is that the test is outdated and saying that they will need certain skills that I believe are more 1995ish than 2012 or even more...2020. I have a hard time putting it in words, but the bottom line is that it's backwards.
    I hope the virtual literature groups go well for you both this year. You are inspiring me to get my act together with the same kind of thing for my 4th graders. Thanks for sharing!!

    1. Thanks, Lorie! You are SO right, it is "backwards!" We are being forced to teach tools that are no longer useful (perhaps never were) when we should be spending time preparing our kids for the skills necessary to be successful now and in the future. Thank you for helping make PLP so special for me- your dedication and leadership helped empower me to write this post. You are really missed in SAU 16; we need to gain more teachers like you rather than lose you.

  2. Ms. Small,

    Do you have a former post that expands on your ideas and use of the word "authentic"? And specifically what authentic reading and writing is in the context of a grade school classroom? A deeper insight into what you are trying to achieve will help me understand your struggle to teach or incubate this in the classroom. If not, perhaps a topic for a future post.. in which case I challenge you not to use the word authentic outside of the title and introduction.

    Yours always,

    1. Hi Chris,

      I very much appreciate that you're pushing my thinking deeper. I'm struggling to teach the way I believe to be best while incorporating all of the state standards I am mandated to teach. I question the true validity of all state standards. I think my students can learn more and learn better if I were able to ignore SOME of the standards and focus on finding out where each child is as a learner and helping each student grow. I want students to "do" and "create" things that are relevant to enhancing their lives in the real world, not just in their K-12+ lives.

      I will write a future topic to convey more clearly what I mean by authentic reading and writing in an elementary classroom. I need time to figure out how to articulate what I believe.

      Thank you,