Invited Post by Liz Willner, Ed.D.
I was reading this week about Oklahoma schools and districts being given scores on a “simple” A-F basis. It reminds me of the challenges faced by those of us who are dedicated to helping all our students reach their full potentials. How do we report complexity to the public? How can a single grade tell anything about a school and the efforts of its staff, students, parents, and greater community? How can we help Oklahoma citizens care about other people’s children as well as their own? I wrote the following piece 5 years ago when I was struggling to explain why the very foundation of our work with child readers ought to be joy–not test scores, not skill and drill test-prep instruction, not fear of the public shaming ritual begun with No Child Left Behind.
This essay was written to an audience of Oklahoma reading teachers, but maybe it would be helpful for others to take a step back and ponder the power of words, the value of the individual, and the ultimate purpose of reading…
What is the most important goal of reading instruction in our schools? Some would say it is to teach students to comprehend increasingly difficult texts, others would say it is to help students develop the skills to think and question critically, and still others would say it is simply to ensure that our students do well on standardized tests. However, I believe there is a foundational goal that must be in place before anything else matters. That goal is JOY.
Ask yourself, “What is the value of reading in my life?” If your answer has more to do with satisfaction than skill level, more to do with comfort than comprehension, more to do with engagement than exams, you have experienced the joy of reading that ought to be the birthright of every student in Oklahoma’s schools.
But can we teach joy? Not really. We can, however, let it permeate all of our work with students. We can model joy and invite our students to experience the sheer pleasure of reading with us. It’s not that we’re off the hook from the more “scientific” aspects of the teaching of reading. We do need to include excellent instruction and quality assessment, but we also need to allow ourselves the privilege of demonstrating for our students the central role that reading plays in each of our lives. As Opitz and Ford write, “We not only teach children to read, but we also teach them to be readers” (2001, p. 4).
What does teaching children to be readers look like? It looks like the teacher who throws back her head and laughs with her first graders when she sees the pictures in Underwear Do’s and Don’ts (Parr). It looks like the teacher who cries when the painful part of Bridge to Terabithia (Paterson) affects him. It looks like the teacher who searches tirelessly for books that will engage a third grade boy who says he hates reading. It looks like the teacher who shares her own favorite passage of the latest book she’s reading with her students. It looks like the teacher who listens to one more fifth grader’s retelling of the latest Harry Potter book (Rowling).
Teaching children to be readers looks like a teacher who invites her sixth graders to love (or NOT love) a book she holds dear. It looks like a teacher who includes books from a variety of cultures in his classroom library. It looks like a teacher who challenges a seventh grade girl to read a book that she doesn’t feel confident about. It looks like a teacher who reads at home, comfortably nestled in his favorite old chair. It looks like…well…it looks like JOY.
Oklahoma teachers of reading should want for our students what we get when we are curled up with a fascinating book, when we’re so totally engaged in our reading that the world fades away, when we are so excited about a book that we seek out someone else who has read it, when we get a little self-satisfied feeling when a radio program mentions a book we’ve read.
Oklahoma teachers of reading should continue to develop their professional practices with new techniques and strategies, but always keep the ultimate goal of reading instruction in sight—JOY.
Opitz, M. & Ford, M. (2001). Reaching Readers: Flexible and Innovative Strategies for Guided Reading. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Reprinted from the Oklahoma Reading Association Newsletter Fall 2007