On a recent Monday morning at Cascade Elementary School in the Marysville School District, veteran teacher Lauri Hagglund engaged in a timeless activity — reading aloud to her second-grade students.
The children sit cross-legged or up on their knees on brightly colored carpet squares. The teacher stops at the end of each page to display the book's illustrations.
But pull the lens back a few feet and the classroom becomes a laboratory for practicing the latest approaches to literacy. A reading coach sits a few feet away from Hagglund, charting plot details about cause and effect from a story involving a very tidy cat and a very messy one.
The problem with read-alouds is pretty clear. During the read-aloud the student isn't actually reading! And what second grade students need to be doing more than anything else is practicing reading.
But, let's get beyond that.
What is most string about this "laboratory for practicing the latest approaches to literacy," as you will soon see is how primitive the laboratory actually is. I would have thought that the level of "experimentation" would have been a tad more sophisticated in 2007.
This isn't even the beta version of reading comprehension. In this school, reading comprehension is still in the alpha stage and this is the first trial run through to catch bugs.
At the edge of the reading carpet, several observers, including the district's superintendent, assistant superintendent and school principal, take notes.
When Larry Nyland took over the district in 2004, the new superintendent launched an initiative focused on strengthening students' reading skills. Standardized test scores in the district were among the county's lowest, and classroom assessments showed that even students who read stories at grade level sometimes struggled to understand their science and history books.
It's always worse than you think. They've been in alpha testing for three years now.
Let's go to the videotape and see what the reading scores are:
Fourth grade: percent meeting standard (state average)
2003-04: 75.6% (74.4%)
2004-05: 82.8% (79.5%)
2005-06: 84.9% (81.2%)
Slightly better than average. But look at the third grade scores (only tested in 05-06):
2005-06: 60.9% (68.3%)
And, finally let's use the reality check to see how inflates those scores really are: Fourth grade NAEP reading scores for Washington: 33% proficient or better in 2003 and 36% in 2005. That's a nice little 45 point discrepancy.
Perhaps, they'd be getting better results if they wore white lab jackets, thick horn-rimmed glasses, and had shiny silver clipboards because that's what I hear all the real scientists wear when they conduct science-like experiments.
The district developed focused training for teachers on ways they could help students more readily grasp meaning and deepen their thinking about books. Principals learned how to observe and give feedback to their teachers. Reading coaches at every elementary school worked with struggling students.
Seems like they forgot the most important step. Step One: determine if the intervention works. Step Two: disseminate and train.
In January, they began presenting lessons in classrooms while teachers observed both the techniques and their effectiveness with the children.Maybe instead of re-imagining the classroom they should have re-imagined their concept of reading. Last I checked reading involved getting close to the text of books, not getting close to the "spoken word" of a teacher reading the book for you. No wonder the kids have a hard time reading.
The elementary classrooms were also re-imagined so that each had a communal-reading area where the children could sit comfortably and closely to the spoken words.
District administrators began making regular visits to classrooms to gauge how the training might be furthered or refined. Last year, Nyland and his staff made 500 such visits.
For many teachers, it was the first time they'd been regularly observed and given feedback since they were students, Nyland said. And some were wary of the approach.
"Up until now, administrators were only in the classroom to evaluate teachers," Nyland said. "We had to show them our focus was on improving student learning. It's like athletes watching game film to see what they're doing and what they might want to change."
What is it with teachers being so reluctant to be observed by management? They need to get over that real quick.
Back in the classroom, the school's reading coach, Leanne Rivas, asks the children how the two cats in "The Tale of Two Kitties" feel about each other. In the illustration, they sit at opposite ends of a long fence, their tails toward each other.
Ostensibly, this is a lesson on reading comprehension. And here we are discussing an illustration in the book. I think there's some cognitive dissonance in play here.
Let me suggest a better exercise to teach drawing inferences from text. The students read the following passage: "Linda and Cathy were alone on an island. Linda said, 'Stop crying, Kathy. We are both very smart, and if we use our heads, we will get out of here.'" Afterwards, the teacher asks: "Why was Kathy crying?"
That micro- exercise comes from lesson 68 of Reading Mastery III, a second grade curriculum. The instructional content of that lesson is light years ahead of what's going on in this classroom. Go take a look.
"Turn and talk," Rivas instructs, and on cue, the students turn to a partner to discuss the cats' mutual disdain. The approach seems more typical of a grown-up reading group than an elementary-school classroom, but Assistant Superintendent Gail Miller said that by recalling details, summarizing their thoughts and finding evidence for their views, the students go more deeply into the text and practice skills they'll use all of their reading lives.
No, they're talking about a picture of two cats. One kid is talking to another kid about a picture. Then the other kid takes a turn. Missing is the feedback and assessment by a teacher to determine who understands and who doesn't.
Some shortcomings of the approach are quickly apparent. Confident and chatty children give their opinions first. When Rivas counts backward — three, two, one, time for talk is done — several quieter students haven't said a word.
Another challenge emerges. Rivas is drawing boxes around the plot elements to help illustrate cause-and-effect. Writing the students' own words down also helps them summarize their ideas and gives kids just learning English a chance to see their spoken words in print, but her examples of cause-and-effect get a little lost in all the plot elements.
In short, this is a poorly thought out and even more poorly executed lesson. It is confused. The point of the instruction is unclear. Assessment of individual students is impossible. It is a waste of time from beginning to end. So why was it being presented to the students in the first place. This one should have been strangled in the cradle.
Still, the pedagogy doesn't interrupt the students' enjoyment of the book. Most laugh and point as the cats, Fluffy and Scruffy, team up to rout some impudent mice.
I think they call that being off-task.
I wonder how many of these students know what the words "rout" and "impudent" mean? Not knowing the meaning of words like this is what causes comprehension difficulty in the later grades. Yet, the teaching of vocabulary will be downplayed in classrooms like this in favor of these hokey reading strategies.
About a half-hour after it began, what the district calls a reading "walk-through" ends.
You don't want to know what I call it.
The school administrators regroup with the reading coach in the office of Cascade's principal, Chris Sampley. Miller, who previously worked with student teachers at Seattle Pacific University, asks Rivas to recall the purpose of the lesson and how it went.
Rivas says she realizes she strayed from the initial goal and isn't sure what the students learned.
That pretty much sums up what's wrong with education today. No one knows what the students actually learned.
And here's problem number two:
The observers are less hard on her than she is on herself. Miller reminds her how at different points she guided the students back to the text, the same strategy a more experienced reader would use to search for meaning or relationships.
Everything is all right, sweetie. You just keep working at it. You'll get better. Someday. hopefully soon. Or not.
Rivas, in hindsight, thinks "The Tale of Two Kitties" was better suited to demonstrate compare-and-contrast than cause-and-effect. The observers agree that one challenge of their literacy effort is that each book has to be dissected for its best lessons in advance.
It took three years to come to that realization? This is why we have NCLB. This should have been done thirty years ago.
At lunch time, she'll sit down with the classroom teacher and review any thoughts both of them have.
A week later, Rivas and Hagglund are teamed up again with another book. Some adjustments are immediately evident. The students are instructed to take turns talking about the book so no one is left out. Rivas is also more deliberate about what she chooses to chart, emphasizing cause-and-effect, which she notes is both a life lesson and a question likely to appear on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning.
See I was wrong. I had initially assumed that the students were instructed to take turns discussing. They weren't. And, it took these two trained professionals a week to figure that out.
The main problems with the lesson are still present: the teacher is reading the book, not the students, the teacher is making the chart, not the students, and the teacher still has no idea if each student learned anything.
After class, Hagglund talks about the literacy initiative and how, after 27 years in the classroom, it's changing her teaching. More than anything, she says, the literacy initiative has reminded her what it's like to be a student again, to be asked to do something new and hard.
"It puts us all in the place of being learners," she said.
I thought that's what ed school was supposed to be for?