The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

One Way to Teach Reading

In a piece I posted a few days ago I promised to write something about the teaching of reading in the schools where we didn’t use any commercial materials.  I have tried to do that below without too much self-aggrandizement, but I’m afraid it leaked through.  What I don’t mention here is that I had taught elementary and middle school grades for several years before I taught high school English or became a principal, and what I learned through those experiences are now my beliefs about the teaching of reading.

In 1966 I left my job as a middle school teacher in Wisconsin to become the English Department Chair at a new high school in the same school district. During my first year on the job the school district administration selected new high school English textbooks and authorized schools to order them for their students. However, it was not a mandate.  A school could decide not to purchase the designated texts and continue to use older texts or buy “supplementary materials” of their own choosing.

Given that opportunity for freedom, I told my teachers to choose works of fiction and non-fiction that they believed would be right for their students, and we would spend our money allotment on them rather than textbooks.  We could always use our old texts for classic poetry and short stories and to find information about famous authors of the past to supplement our chosen materials.

Eight years later I changed jobs again, this time to become an elementary school principal. But I did not change my policy of spending the allotted funds on modern fiction and non-fiction. Like the high school teachers, our elementary grade teachers bought paperback copies of modern works of fiction and non-fiction that they believed were appropriate for their students’ ages, interests, and abilities.  This time, however, we bought more titles in smaller numbers because reading instruction was done in small groups.

Teachers made their own choices of books they thought most appropriate for their grade levels, plus a few others for students who were advanced or behind in their reading competence.  After the first year of purchasing books, we had such a large variety of titles that teachers felt completely free to go beyond their original choices as long as they did not select books that were designated for other grades.

Over the 12 years that I was principal at that school we amassed a book collection that filled an entire storage room. We repaired worn book covers with masking tape, gave away a few books that had proved unpopular, and bought some new titles each year.

In 1988 I moved to Oregon and found a job as the superintendent/principal in a rural district with only one elementary school and one middle school. Teachers in both schools were tired of the commercial materials recommended by the state, and again, we had the freedom to spend our funds as we saw fit. The path teachers chose was the same as the one in Wisconsin. The only difference was that as often as possible teachers chose some books aligned with other subjects they taught besides reading. They easily found works of fiction that were based on American history and a few about life in other parts of the world or ones about famous scientists and their work.

As the official observer and evaluator of teaching and student learning at all my schools, I was pleased by what I saw in classrooms, and even more so as time passed. It was clear to me that students liked the books assigned and were learning about history, geography, and human behavior through their reading.  Because we gathered so many different titles and types of books over time, teachers were able to offer students choices of books to read and to abandon the few books that did not work well in their classes.

If readers are wondering how we taught phonics, vocabulary, spelling, fluency, and close reading without textbooks, worksheets, or tests, the truth is that we didn’t teach any of those things as separate skills.  They were all integrated–and only when needed– into the reading and discussions of the books we had. One thing that several teachers chose to include when teaching fiction was asking students to keep a diary for a character of their choice. In that way they used and improved their abilities in text analysis and writing. More important, however, was their ability to understand the complexities of the world and the behavior of human beings–and, sometimes–animals–through reading.


Should the School Year Be Shortened?

Readers may have noticed that I’ve cut back on the number of pieces I post each week. The problem is not that I am lazy or over-worked, but that there is very little happening in education at this time of year. Policy makers, teachers, and students all seem to be taking a breather after another hard year, and I don’t blame them. So I am following their lead. However, today’s story seemed interesting to me and I have some thoughts about changing the situation described.

 An article in yesterday’s N.Y. Times described a problem in the New York City schools at this time of year that seems worthy of attention. In a nutshell, it’s the drop-off in school attendance near the end of the school year: “Every year, attendance becomes challenging as the school year winds down. It begins to drop after state testing is complete in the spring, then slips further in June. But the last few days can be particularly sparse, and this year the final day of school falls on a Tuesday (6/28) late in the month.”

The article goes on to describe high school students’ reasons for being absent. Highschoolers had finished the Regents exams in mid June, and in their minds there was little reason to keep going back to classrooms where nothing of importance was happening. At best, those days were an anti-climax. Also, hot, sunny weather, summer jobs, and opportunities to travel were drawing them away. Although many school principals had devised attractive events, such as field trips and classroom parties, to draw students back, they predicted that about 25%, the same numbers as last year, would be absent the whole time.

As I read about this situation it seemed to me that trying to keep kids in school after all meaningful education has ended is a waste of time, effort, and money. Why not end school in mid June after the tests have been given and scored and students know where they stand for the following year? The answer to that question is that New York, like most states, requires a 180-day school year. Okay, then why not start school earlier in the fall; say the week before Labor Day? Or maybe officials should be re-thinking the “180 Day rule”.

When I was a principal in Oregon from 1988 to 2000, the law there prescribed hours of instruction, not days. And it was quite strict. A school district could not count recesses, lunchtime, or even the minutes allotted for students to move from class to class as part of instructional time. In rural areas where many students worked on farms in the summer and where bus transportation was a big expense to school districts, many schools had moved to longer school days and shorter years. Some even went to four-day weeks to save on busses.

If my math is accurate, cutting 10 days from the school year in New York City and other places where 180 days are now required, would mean adding about half an hour daily to school instruction. Perhaps, in these times when high stakes testing and climate change have strong effects on students and their families, state policy makers should consider such a move.

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Too Little and Too Late.

Today The Oregonian published a letter I submitted a month ago.  After a week of hearing  nothing about my submission, I posted it here, figuring that the newspaper was not interested in what I had to say.  Although I’m pleased to find out I was wrong, I think it is far too late for my letter to have  any effect on The Oregonian readers.  Will anybody remember the original article about Portland’s new purchases for teaching reading?  How many people will understand my objections?  For my own readers I will post the original newspaper article and repeat my letter in response below. In a few days I will describe very different and successful reading programs in both schools where I was principal.

Teaching Children to Read: Portland, Beaverton Reject Mainstream Series, Forge Own Approaches

By Betsy Hammond

Portland Public Schools, searching for a new way to teach young students to read and write after years of struggle, has decided to go it alone.

At the strong urging of teachers and other educators who’ve sampled various reading series, Oregon’s largest district on Tuesday rejected offerings from every major publisher. Instead, it decided to buy six components from five companies and combine them into a unique reading and writing curriculum of its own.

Beaverton schools have already made a similar shift and will add the same main reading program that Portland picked, Units of Study in Reading, to all 33 of its elementary and K-8 schools this summer.

It’s becoming increasingly common for the nation’s school districts to create their own elementary reading curriculum. Educators have realized that rigidly adhering to a single reading series, which used to be praised as showing “fidelity,” poorly served a lot of children, including those learning English as a second language, said Donald Bear, a literacy expert and author of both mainstream and supplemental reading programs.

Mixing and merging an assortment of reading programs “is risky,”  said University of Oregon education professor Gina Biancarosa, a Harvard University-trained expert in reading and literacy. The effectiveness of the suite of materials Portland and Beaverton have chosen is unproven, and the approach requires greater skill and judgment by teachers to pick the right lessons and the smartest sequence for skill-building.

But sticking with a mainstream reading series would be risky, too, Biancarosa said, noting there’s no solid evidence that textbooks by familiar names such as Scott Foresman or Houghton Mifflin are effective either.

Portland picked teachers from about three dozen schools who tried the six components it plans to adopt, plus a seventh program it didn’t pick up, for much of this winter and spring. District officials measured some of the results, but so far have declined to release the findings.

Mainstream reading programs, which contain scripted lessons designed to teach phonics, fluent reading, accuracy, comprehension and vocabulary, are called comprehensive core reading programs. Research into how young readers learn, along with a big nudge from the federal No Child Left Behind law, enshrined them as standard in nearly all U.S. schools over the past decade and half.

But after Portland Public Schools’ current reading series, Scott Foresman’s Reading Street, didn’t pan out well, district officials were open to novel options. A district selection committee eventually suggested forgoing any mainstream reading series until at least 2023.

Teachers and other educators on the district’s selection committee had two primary reasons for ruling out mainstream offerings, said Elizabeth Martin, one of five former teachers who coordinate and provide training for elementary literacy instruction in Portland Public Schools.

Most series failed to broadly include cultural minorities or portrayed them in stereotypical ways, she said. And all of them catered to a limited band of students in the middle, offering little instruction that fits well for the weakest or strongest readers, Martin said.

Portland chief academic officer Chris Russo said the district must do a better job teaching to all children to read — and black and Latino students in particular.

In 2014, the last year Oregon’s old state tests were given, 27 percent of the district’s third-graders failed the reading exam. In 2015, using the more challenging Smarter Balanced tests, 43 percent of Portland third-graders, including about 70 percent of blacks and Latinos, fell short of the national proficiency standard.

Russo is hopeful the new approach, backed with lots of teacher training, can help drive the huge improvements Portland schools need to show.

This fall, the new approach will be fully implemented in all Beaverton elementary schools and in 10 of Portland’s 56 elementary and K-8 schools. Portland plans to provide the new materials to its remaining 46 schools over the next two years.

Both districts plan to rely heavily on teachers’ judgment to interpret test results and customize lessons, small group work and independent assignments to match the needs of individual readers, said Portland’s Martin and Beaverton’s Nicole Will, administrator for elementary curriculum, instruction and assessment.

Teachers don’t view that as putting too much weight on their shoulders, Will said. Rather, they’ve been hungry to cast aside scripted programs and use their professional judgment to match lessons to students.

“They’re finding it refreshing, exciting,” she said.Elizabeth Skorohodov, a kindergarten teacher at Atkinson Elementary in Southeast Portland, tried out Units of Study this spring and was relieved to no longer have only lessons that sail over the heads of her struggling readers and bore her most advanced ones.

“It is very much based on the interests of the kids,” she said. “It’s highly engaging, and all my students are seeing themselves as readers and writers. It is a really rich program, and I saw results.”

By fall 2018, every Portland elementary and K-8 school will have new materials to teach children to read and write.

The line-up includes:

Units of Study in Reading and Writing, a decades-old writing program and very new reading program by Columbia University professor Lucy Calkins.

> Words Their Wayan activity-based nuts-and-bolts program for teaching phonics and other early building blocks of reading plus spelling and vocabulary.

> Project READan explicit, teacher-directed multi-sensory approach to teaching phonics, phonemic awareness, comprehension and vocabulary. Children with dyslexia are among those who benefit.

> Benchmark Assessment Systeman individualized test to measure students’ reading abilities and pinpoint what skills they need reinforced and which they should be taught next.

> Two large sets of books, from ultra-easy-to-read picture books of just a few pages to books that’ll challenge advanced fifth-grade bookworms. One set, from Lee & Low, is known for being culturally inclusive. The other, from Scholastic, contains non-fiction work.

Teachers at schools across Portland who tested various options are fired up about their committee’s final selections, which the Portland school board approved unanimously Tuesday night.

Teachers will need to weave all the programs together and customize the scope and arrangement of lessons for individual students. That will require far more training than simply opening a teaching manual containing a year’s worth of scripted lessons.

Both Portland and Beaverton plan three full days of training in August for K-5 teachers in schools adopting the new programs. The districts also plan to offer whole and partial days of training during the year. Portland will also pay eight full-time coaches for the 10 schools that get the books this year: Arleta, Bridger, Forest Park, Grout, Laurelhurst, Lewis, Sitton, Vernon, Vestal and Whitman

Portland is taking those steps because it learned a lesson when it last adopted new reading materials in 2007, Russo said.

The district first failed to get widespread buy-in from teachers, a problem it rectified this time by asking two large teacher-dominated committees to frame and make the selection, Russo said.

The district then compounded the problem, he said, by providing almost no training to teachers, except in high-needs schools. As a result, some teachers barely used the textbooks, while others felt ill-equipped to use their full spectrum of features, he said.

Biancarosa, the University of Oregon expert on literacy education, said providing as much training as Beaverton and Portland plan to offer is smart.

“Professional development and coaching is really key, no matter what what curriculum or potpourri of products you are putting together,” she said. “Sixty hours of training in the first year sounds fantastic.”

There is no evidence from a valid scientific study to show that Units of Study in Reading, either alone or in a suite like the ones Portland and Beaverton are developing, work to get nearly all students to learn to read well.

To assure taxpayers, parents and teachers that the new materials are effective, Biancarosa said, Portland Public Schools should hire an independent research team to examine the results and make them public. Russo said the district is committed to doing so, but has not decided on any specifics of who would to the research or what metrics and standards of success they might use.

At a public hearing, Meg Hagan, a parent of two Portland students and an advocate for students who have difficulty learning to read, pressed the district’s curriculum director and board members to explain how they’ll determine whether the new materials are a success. None of them gave specific answers.

State reading tests, given starting in third grade, won’t show how well the program is working in the earlier grades. But parents and educators will want answers to that question after the new approach is in place, Biancarosa said.

But board member Julie Esparza Brown, whose day job as a Portland State University education professor involves knowing research about early reading instruction, said she and the rest of the board will insist on seeing evidence the new approach is paying off for all groups of students.

Biancarosa said current tests developed at UO that track young students’ progress in reading can provide important insights if researchers compare results from the 10 schools with the new materials to 10 very similar Portland schools without them.

“It doesn’t have to be a massive study,” she said. “But it would be important to have an evaluation of the immediate and the more lasting effects of the shift.”

Bear, author of a comprehensive reading series and also the “Words Their Way” phonics, vocabulary and spelling program that Portland and Beaverton chose for their new approach, said publishers are making it easier for districts to pick and choose different elements that add up to a holistic way to teach reading.

“Publishers of both supplemental and comprehensive programs are responding to this interest by creating a greater variety of materials,” he said. They know that, under the Common Core State Standards, teachers are expected to get all students to read and write at more advanced levels – and it will take more individualized, culturally responsive teaching materials to get them there, he said.

“This is an exciting time,” Bear said. And, he predicted, “There will be further changes, and more adaptive instruction at students’ developmental levels, as digital materials become more available.”

Most elementary schools devote at least an hour and a half daily to teaching reading, and that time will be used differently in Beaverton and Portland schools that switch to the new materials, officials said.

Lessons for the whole class will take up less time. Instead, students will get more one-on-one and small-group time with their teacher and spend more time working independently or with partners to read small books and do other word work geared to their skill level.

Teachers are eager for the switch, educators in both districts say, because students engage much more deeply in work they choose and in lessons pitched perfectly at their needs.

“This whole thing has been transformation for our whole system, in a very positive way,” Will said.

To the Editor:

As a retired educator, still deeply involved with the teaching of reading and writing, I was dismayed to read that the Portland Public schools are still tied to one-size-fit all commercial materials for teaching reading and considering combining pieces from several of them to make a new program. By this time experienced teachers should have learned that each child learns to read in his own time frame and in his own way, and that real literature and non-fiction are far better tools than anything concocted by commercial publishers.

Learning to read is not all that difficult when children are given interesting and well-written books for group activities and allowed to choose books that appeal to them to read on their own. It also helps when adults read aloud interesting books with illustrations on a regular basis. That is how children learn vocabulary and begin to understand the world outside their own homes and neighborhoods. Reading poetry helps too, because of the repeated word sounds and lines.

Over all, we should remember that reading and writing have been around for many centuries, and that the people who wanted and needed to use those skills found them easy to learn– often without a teacher, and certainly without any breakdown into separate skills, workbook exercises, or tests.

Sincerely yours,
Joanne Yatvin


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How Do We End the Testing Mania and its Bad Effects?

By now two things about high-stakes testing in our public schools seem clear: officials at the national and state level are not going to end it any time soon, but parents have the power to reduce the negative effects of testing within school districts by opting-out their children.

Today’s post, written by Jaime Franchi and posted on Diane Ravitch’s blog, tells of what parents in Long Island, New York accomplished when they worked together and got some like-minded people elected to local school boards.  

One of the hotbeds of opt out in New York was centered on Long Island, which consists of Nassau County and Suffolk County. Fully half of the students eligible for state tests did not take the tests.

A year ago, parents were battling a combative Governor Cuomo, facing a hostile State Education Department, and rallying against Common Core. But what a difference a year makes. Now the Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, Betty Rosa, is an experienced educator who is sympathetic to the parents who opt out.

And the movement has larger goals:

The struggle came to a head during this spring’s testing season, culminating in a giant win for Long Island Opt-Out, a parent-led group that organized an historic number of test-refusals this year with almost 100,000 students—more than half of the student population in Nassau and Suffolk counties—opting out of state tests. Their message has been effective: No more Common Core. Despite incremental fixes promised by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his so-called “Common Core Task Force,” they are still demanding concrete changes.

Yet, it remains to be seen how this evolving protest movement will improve or replace the current education agenda.

According to local public education advocates, the answer is multi-tiered. It includes elections: first at the state level and then at the local school board in an effort to tackle education policy from all sides. The goal is a shift away from schools’ increasing test-prep focus almost exclusively on math and reading skills—eschewing the arts and play-based learning—to a comprehensive curriculum that addresses what some advocates call the “whole child.”

The opt out leaders have been shrewd. They have elected nearly 100 of their members to local school boards. They threw their support behind a candidate for the State Senate and he eked out a narrow victory. They regularly schedule meetings with their representatives in Albany.

Opt out leaders want a sweeping change in education policy, from scripted lessons and high-stakes testing to child-centered classrooms, where children are really put first, not test scores.

In Oregon, my state, the movement to opt kids out of tests is slowly gaining traction.  As might be expected, it is more popular in cities and wealthier communities than in rural and high-poverty places. Many parents are afraid that their children will be punished if they don’t take the tests or that their schools will lose funding. Others still believe there are benefits in the data that show scores for all schools and in holding teachers accountable for students’ poor performance. What we and other states need is more people working together and a wider dissemination of the negative side of the testing story. I’d like very much to hear from readers about what is is happening where they live, especially if parents have been successful in forwarding the opt-out movement.

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What is “True Grit”?


On June 18th Diane Ravitch summarized an article about “Grit” that had appeared earlier in SLATE: “Is Grit Really the Key to Success?” written by Daniel Engber.  Since the idea of developing grit in students seems to be popular these days, I went to the original article and will summarize it briefly here.  Then, I will re-post a piece I wrote about grit  a while ago and have edited over time. I think you will understand why I chose to repeat it.

Engber’s article is a review of Angela Duckworth’s new book, “The Power of Passion and Perseverance.” In it he also devotes a lot of attention to examining the history of the research on grit done by others and offering his own opinions.

Duckworth’s book is based on her theory of grit, captured in the book’s title, and the research she has done to identify it in specific groups of people.  She began her research by interviewing successful celebrities who worked their way up through lengthy and demanding circumstances. Later she developed a survey to identify the presence of grit in groups of people who were applying for college acceptance, demanding jobs, or admission to elite organizations.

One reason that Duckworth and her research have gained so much attention is that a movement to teach grit in today’s schools has gained a significant amount of interest and support. Duckworth also believes that grit can be taught through a variety of classroom practices, and that the resultant behaviors will make many more students successful in school.

Although it’s clear that Duckworth was “gritty” in her research, Engber finds it unconvincing.  He cites both contrary research studies and common life experiences that show other personal qualities just as powerful or more so than grit. He is also very skeptical of the predictability of Duckworth’s surveys.

Even though I haven’t read the book, I share Engber’s skepticism.  I’ve read similar views of grit and arguments for teaching it in schools and remain unconvinced.  Here are my views on grit in the essay below.

Topping the national news several months ago was a story about two dangerous criminals escaping from a high security prison. For several months they had devoted themselves to preparations: persuading a woman prison employee to get them the tools they needed and agree to drive them away when they got outside the prison walls, digging a route to the outside of the prison from their cell, and working late at night to avoid attracting notice. When their preparations were finally complete, they also went through several rehearsals before carrying out their plan. Unfortunately for them, they were captured only a few days after their escape. Their promised driver had broken her promise and left them without a plan or an opportunity to practice any new tactics to reach safety.

What interested me about this story was that men who had wasted so many years of their lives in crime rather than seeking education or legal jobs were able to plan so well, work hard, and show so much patience in carrying our their escape. They certainly showed “grit” when the goal was important to them and the stakes were high.

Another story of grit is told in one of my favorite movies, “Cool Hand Luke”, which is about a man arrested and imprisoned for a minor crime. Because he is smarter and more independent and resourceful than his fellow inmates, he is continually singled out for punishment and public humiliation.  Yet, he endures everything and continues to defy prison rules and trying to escape. Finally, he steals a prison truck and drives a long distance before hiding out in a deserted building.  Unfortunately, the prison officials manage to track him down and set fire to the building. In the end Luke chooses to take his own life rather than surrender. Yet, by losing his life he also wins: he will never go back to prison and no one can punish him ever again.

Although Luke is gone at the end of the movie, his lessons of “grit” inspire other prisoners to follow his example and stand up for themselves against prison cruelty. Although the movie shows so much harshness and sadness, its ultimate message is one of hope.

In both the real prison escape and the movie’s story, I found lessons about “grit” not understood by the experts now calling for teaching that skill to students in the classroom. Not tyrants, prison guards, nor teachers can teach grit. Human beings—and most animals– develop grit only when they are so dedicated to reaching a particular goal that they will push on through obstacles, rejections and repeated failures.

As a teacher and principal I often saw ordinary students develop grit on their own because the conditions in the classroom were right. Their teachers taught lessons that were interesting to young people and offered opportunities for self-chosen projects, collaboration with classmates, and innovation. And because the kids had already tasted success and satisfaction in previous classroom activities, they believed they could stretch themselves even further this time. Yes, the work was harder than before, but it was doable, and in their eyes the goal was worth the extra effort. They had already developed grit and could use it. And they believed in themselves.

Education should be a dynamic experience for all students. It’s not preparation for college or the workplace; but a laboratory for exploring who you are and what you want to do; for trying out your interests and talents in a safe place and for sifting out  the gold  buried in the sand of school subjects. It’s also a place to develop grit because you believe you can.





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