Does the suit make the teacher?

January 28th, 2011 | Filed under: Opinion, teaching

Not in The Netherlands it doesn’t. I’ve not had a great deal of exposure to Dutch work environments other than the few times I’ve visited the immigration office and the time I’ve spent with the curriculum team developing a new international school. Working from home isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. But even after a few visits to real workplaces, something is startling clear: Casual apparel is okay in The Netherlands, especially in the workplace.

In America, as most Americans can attest, your work attire is taken very seriously, particularly in offices. As a newspaper reporter I only dressed up when heading to a cushy office to interview someone and the rest of the time I rocked jeans and casual dresses. In a workplace where people (used to?) smoke and keep bottles of bourbon in their desks, this is an improvement. But when I became a teacher that all changed. I needed to “dress respectably to be respected,” as one principal told the staff during a meeting. Apparently dressing respectably meant skirt and pants suits like the administrators wore each day.


Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to begin training in the MYP curriculum. It was an all-day session that challenged me and my new colleagues to move away from our previous experiences as educators and think within this new curriculum focused on authentic, project-based learning and interdisciplinary collaboration. I’m still reflecting on the experience and writing about it, which I’ll share soon, but as invigorating as the experience was it was also a chance for me to chat casually with these teachers. Usually we’re cramming a lot into our meetings and have little time for chit-chat, but we had lunch together and tea breaks and I shared a lot about myself, the true outsider on the team, and learned more about them. Photo by semuthutan.

The most glaring difference I found while hanging out in the personeelskamer (teacher’s lounge) is that seeing people “dressed up” was a rarity. Now, these educators weren’t rolling into work in sweat pants, but here are just a few examples:

– Older gentleman in jeans, flannel shirt, suspenders, sneakers.
– Younger woman in cotton dress, tights, Ugg-type boots.
– Administrator in khakis, button-down shirt (no tie), and a houndstooth jacket.
– Younger man in khakis, loafers, and an untucked polo shirt.

It may seem that I’m being overly superficial, analyzing the wardrobe choices of the teachers I encountered, but it affected me so much that I knew there had to be a reason. I realized that this casualness toward dress code was indicative of something deeper in the culture of the school and the attitude toward the teachers. They are considered professionals and treated as such. It’s as if someone said “Yes, I know you’re a professional and I don’t need you to wear black pumps and suit pants to prove it.”

I met a young teacher who had the opportunity to do her student teaching internship in Pennsylvania as part of an exchange program. She said she was told she had to dress up and spent the first few weeks buying new clothes for the entire experience. She told me that in The Netherlands people dress down at work – wearing “work clothes” – and save their dressy attire for events and nights out. Makes sense to me. Teaching is hard work and I don’t know how many days I came home from my internship with my toes nearly arthritic from being crammed in fancy shoes for eight hours.

As a teacher in Virginia I’ve been frustrated with the discussions surrounding a potential ban on virtual communication between students and teachers. The state’s board of education is considering banning teachers from chatting with students on Facebook, Twitter, and through text messages. The reason? To protect the students. At first blush that sounds like a good idea. We all want to protect the students! But why would we want to protect them from their teachers? Yes, there have been the few cases of teachers and students sexting, but with nearly half a million teachers in the country that’s a small drop in the bucket. The education system paints with a wide brush and often does so to the detriment of innovation in our tired system. In this case, rather than deal with the inappropriate teacher-student relationships as they arise, the board is treating all teachers as potential predators than the professionals the majority of them are.

Yes, there are things online that I’d prefer students not run into – predators being the main one. But those dangers are everywhere, not just online. And to take away the one connection to responsible adults that kids may have in those spaces is truly irresponsible. Wouldn’t it be better for us to hold their hands crossing the road than to say “No, holding hands might lead to a sexual relationship, so we’ll just let the kid cross the six-lane highway. Alone.”

I’ve heard familiar gripes about teachers here – that it’s so easy and they get the summers off. Dream job! But overall the school culture itself seems to lead toward a mutual respect among colleagues and an understanding that no, whether one wears jeans or a suit doesn’t mean one is a better or worse teacher. Effectiveness isn’t tied to your tie. Leadership isn’t lost by leaving your collar unbottoned. Seems a little ridiculous when we think about it this way, don’t you think?

It’s small thing, but it means a lot. It has me wondering what other small differences might go a long way to change the entrenched culture of schools in America.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , 10 Comments »

“He was just crazy” isn’t good enough.

January 11th, 2011 | Filed under: Opinion

Being far away from America means I live without the 24-hour news cycle of American CNN. I don’t have to watch a ticker across the bottom of the screen tell me which talking head is outraged by Obama’s call to the Philadelphia Eagles owner. In return I get news sources that are more global and cover issues like conflict in Sudan and the use of rape as a weapon of war in Africa. Anyone can do this by adjusting your personal news sources, though I didn’t do it myself until moving to Northern Europe. I don’t know why I didn’t do this earlier…

But a few days ago I couldn’t miss the horrific shooting at a Safeway grocery store in Arizona where a number of people were murdered, including an innocent 9-year-old girl. It hadn’t hit my global news sources yet, but my Twitter network was in full force with people tweeting their feelings of shock, dismay, and utter frustration at the hate. Some speculated about the lack of serious gun control in America and its role in the event. Others wondered how much Tea Party rhetoric played a role in the gunman’s decision to attack this political meeting organized by U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords,  a Democrat from Arizona who according to the latest reports is recovering from surgery. She was shot in the head.

We don’t know yet (and we may never, truly) if the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, was compelled by the vitriolic rhetoric and campaigns of the Tea Party and extreme conservatives to attend the Giffords event with the goal of assassinating the representative. She has been outspoken about the xenophobic and hateful policies instituted by Arizona in an attempt to curb illegal immigration. One can’t ignore the language used by these campaigns to foment outrage and anger among a constituency that is anti-other and carries guns to political rallies. Words like “eliminate” in reference to contenders in races, “in the cross-hairs,” “on the attack.” Is it typical campaign language or is it something else? Language is power. To deny that is to essentially put your head in the sand and pretend the world doesn’t exist. What we say and how we say it has meaning, something I try to teach my students always when words like “faggot” or “retarded” pop up in class. Loughner may well be a psychopath – there’s no other way to describe someone who shoots up a group of random people in a grocery store – but how much did language play a part in how he decided to release that rage? For many people on the outskirts of society, people like Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris of the Columbine shootings, they often find solace in communities that are outside the norm. For years people tried to connect shootings like this to horror-core and other music genres, but most of us cried out in the name of censorship and said no, this is just a result of a community leaving these boys behind and children bullying, knowing not how they hurt others in doing so. Others lamented weak gun legislation. And of course there are always the people that shake their heads, call the shooters crazy, and move on from the event choosing never to reflect on how they could have done something.

But which is it? I’m a rabid support of free speech. Even in cases where I hate the subject and wish others weren’t writing/painting/singing about it in an attempt to raise even more supporters, I deal with it because I see it as a necessary part of supporting the right to free speech. But how far is too far? Most journalism students learned the case of Schenck v. United States where the phrase “clear and present danger” was first used (speech should be free unless it creates a clear and present danger to others). This can be stretched to fit anyone’s argument (for or against), but we must think about it in moments like these, even just a little. And maybe Loughner’s shooting had nothing to do with Tea Party rhetoric. Maybe he is just a psychotic killer and not a psychotic killer that’s also a Tea Party member (Jacob Weisberg tackled the idea that Loughner may have been influenced by both mental illness and political rhetoric on, calling it “politically tinged schizophrenia” while David Greenberg labeled Loughner a political assassin.). The question still remains: How are we going to deal with a society that seems to be growing ever more hateful and outraged and a political system that purposely taps into that rage to push agendas only to back away and say “no, he was just crazy” when it blows up in their faces? I say these things, but then the hairs on my back stand on end when I realize I’m pushing to limit speech that is used in many situations (political campaigns, sports games, etc.). Maybe I’m just looking for a big group or movement to blame, something on which I can take out my anger when I see the faces of the innocent dead on web pages.

Blaming something big and without a face is easy…looking inside ourselves to see what we could have done to prevent this is not. As a teacher it’s my job to reach out and support my students – all of them – even when there are so many I can’t seem to find the bottom of the grading pile. And especially those students that seem to be on the fringe, getting lost in their own thoughts and shameful memories, bullied by students for being so damn different. This isn’t to say that it’s always the “weird kid” that ends up going on a murderous rampage, but it doesn’t hurt to care for those students and show them they aren’t alone in whatever they might be dealing with at home or just in their own heads. As news sources try to find explanations for an unthinkable event we will no doubt learn more about Jared. He already has a pretty clear digital footprint that should have been a warning to someone, but it’s hard to tell in a world where anyone can upload anything, where insanity and fringe behavior are rewarded with more hits and views. Loughner is getting lots of views and hits right now, but the warning signs are lost on viewers. It’s too late.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , No Comments »

Second language learning in America

November 8th, 2010 | Filed under: Opinion, teaching

On a recent trip to the grocery store I shyly approached a young man (probably a teenage boy) quietly stocking the shelves. I stammered out my best “Pardon, spreekt u Engels?” to which he replied “a little bit.” I let out a sigh of relief even though I knew the answer before asking – everyone speaks at least “a little bit” of English. I’d been in The Netherlands for long enough at that point to recognize a Polish accent when he spoke. I needed help figuring out what to do with my produce since a sign covered up the scale where I normally weighed my fruit and obtained my price. While this young man’s English language skills weren’t perfect, he still understood my question and gave me the answer I needed.

thank you note for every language

I was impressed, as I often am when outside the U.S., by this man’s skill in being a Polish immigrant to The Netherlands speaking enough Dutch to get him a job at a store and also speaking enough English to help me. This man spoke three languages. Maybe not perfectly or academically, but he still spoke three languages. This wasn’t some university professor who had spent time in another country or a young person privelged enough to attend second language lessons at a young age. This was a stock boy in a grocery store. Graphic by woodleywonderworks.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve found myself shocked by the second and third language skills of people in countries other than my own. In France a garbage collector was able to give me directions in a nearly perfect English accent. In my Dutch class there are students with native languages that make learning Dutch much more difficult than it is for me (Thai, for example), yet their tongues form the words and when they can’t get their point across they switch almost effortlessly to English. It’s in these moments that I realize my stereotype of multilingualism as a hobby of the elite is completely unfounded.

These moments shame me and inspire me. I am fluent in only one language – English. I attended a few private (and very low budget) Christian schools and graduated from public school where I was required to study Spanish. I also studied Spanish at university, but I can do little more than understand vocabulary words and simple sentences. Conversing is out of the question. I know very few people in the U.S. who are truly bilingual or even fluent in another language. The few people I know in America who are bilingual are so because they were raised in homes where English was not the first language spoken – not because their schools pushed them toward fluency in another tongue.

Research has shown us, time and time again, that the time in our development most ripe for language learning is at a young age, yet very few schools begin foreign language study at the primary level. On a recent trip back to America, I had a chance to grab a drink with a friend I taught with last year and we both lamented our inability to speak a foreign language and the daunting prospect of attempting to achieve fluency as adults. We felt jipped by our educations – like the people making the decisions didn’t think we were important enough to cultivate into global citizens. Unfortunately, part of the problem with foreign language education in the American public school systems is time. Students often have to take five or six classes each year just to graduate, leaving little time for in-depth study of a second language. And many students can graduate without ever having studied a foreign language.

America has put so much pressure on English and math courses as “most important” in the curriculum. Many of my students struggled with communicating clearly in their native English tongue and they were approaching 18 years old, so one might ask why we should even bother getting those students learning another language on top of English. We should do it because there is no better way to understand your native language than through the lens of a foreign one. I have never been so cognizant of English grammar constructions than when I started studying Dutch. I’m an “English teacher,” yet I’m continually learning about my own language as I learn a second one. To understand how the Dutch construct a sentence one has to understand how it differs from how sentences are constructed in your own language.

The lackluster foreign language education in America is breeding unilingual teachers like myself. The teachers who are bilingual (or multilingual) see the marketability of that fact and may reach beyond the borders of America for more lucritive and exciting careers in international education or opt for private schools that will compensate them for the rarity of fluency in a second language. Or they may skip over the prospect of education as a career since pay scales are set in stone and allow little room to compensate new hires for unique skills.

Dutch students are required to study not just their native language and English in school, but French and German. We put limits on the potential of American students by not pushing them to study two or more languages. Being able to speak a second or third language instills confidence in students and opens up new worlds to them, not to mention it helps to mold them into more global-minded individuals by allowing them to delve into cultures other than their own. While I hate the rhetoric about America “losing” to other countries in certain fields and studies, I would ask the leaders that make that argument as a push for standardized testing how they expect the students that score highly on those bubble tests to help America “win” if they can’t communicate in languages other than English?

I feel like I was done a disservice in my education by seeing foreign language study portrayed as an elective and being told “but don’t worry – everyone speaks English.” That may be comforting to the occasional traveler, but if we want our students to be able to go anywhere and do anything, as we so often tell them they can, then we have to put a heavier pressure on administrators and elected officials to appreciate and fund foreign language education.

Now, who wants to help me with my Spanish?

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , 31 Comments »

But what about the rest of the kids?

October 1st, 2010 | Filed under: Opinion, teaching

Since I moved to the Netherlands in July, I’ve not kept up with much of the American news cycle for the mere fact that I can’t. We have CNN International over here and BBC in terms of televised, English-language coverage, and they both do a great job of making you realize America isn’t the center of the universe. But there’s something I haven’t been able to avoid and nor do I think I should even if I’ve moved to another country and that’s the documentary “Waiting for Superman.” While I should be thankful I’m not teaching in America at this vitriolic moment, I’m actually sad that I can’t stand strong alongside so many of the public school teachers I know who are standing up for students facing incredible odds.

I debated with myself whether I should even join the fray with a post about the documentary, which to be honest I’ve yet to see, though I plan on catching a screening while on a trip to America next month assuming I’m up for handling some teacher-bashing on the big screen. I read post after post by teachers and educators I follow on Twitter – nearly 30 heart-felt essays in less than a week on what it means to be a teacher and why Oprah, NBC, and others have got it all wrong. Some were angry in their tones and carried battle cries. Others threw their hands up in cynicism and recommended just closing the door and teaching. And some were defeated, wondering why, with everything they’re up against each day they walk into school, they have to defend their very existence to corporate America and celebrities. People have said so much already – why should I bother? But as Chris Lehman put it, I had to find the strength to write about this one. It’s important.

I’m a new teacher and my experience is limited, but if you spend just a week in the shoes of a teacher you will quickly realize they are not in it for the money or the summers off as some like to shamefully accuse. I’ll save a rehash of the plot of “Superman” since you can easily find reviews and summaries online, but while the director David Guggenheim of “An Inconvenient Truth” fame says he didn’t try to be pro- or anti-anything in the film, most analysis concludes that the film makes teachers and particularly teacher unions out to be a selfish iron wall in the path toward educational reform. Guggenheim is a great director and in filming the cruel lottery system of some charter schools, he succeeds in riling up his audience. You can’t help but be pissed off after watching even the trailer for the documentary.

Now, while not everyone has a memory of a teacher that changed their lives or truly inspired them, everyone seems to have a memory of a “terrible” teacher, one that was far past her prime and “should never have been teaching.” Maybe you’ve even worked with one of these teachers. The sort of teacher that is clearly burned out from working and grading and calling parents and confiscating cell phones and addressing dress code violations and seeing her students’ mug shots in the papers for hours on end only to be required to attend a “professional development” session on how to teach to a test, the scores for which will determine her employment. I don’t want to make excuses for mean or inappropriate teachers, but I feel that deep down most of those cynical, veteran teachers that have lost the spark are a result of the culture of our educational system that seems to snuff out creativity with every chance it gets.

I worked with a funny teacher last year who was on her way to retirement. It was her last year and she was quite vocal about how sick of the whole system she’d become (a luxury of being on your way out the door). She had wonderful lesson plans and ideas that she happily shared with the new teachers in the department and she told me once that “This is what I love to do and if they actually let me teach I’d do more of it.” At a going away party during the last week of school, this teacher, whom I considered one of the most cynical in the office, cried as she gave a short goodbye to our department. I can’t imagine the emotions she must have felt, the many students she taught over the years running through her mind, but I’m sure she wasn’t thinking “Damn, that was an easy gig and I got summers off!” There are people who really do enter teaching just as any old job after college, but most of them have run from the building screaming within the first few years. Teaching is a test of emotional and physical fortitude each and every day. Ask any new teacher like myself how many times they cried their first year and you’ll see what I mean. So to be accused of not caring enough about the future of our students to actually prepare them for the world ahead, of treating it like just another paycheck, is an incredible slap in the face. Oprah, you’re breakin’ our spirits over here.

Everyone is blogging and tweeting about this documentary and one of the few upsides to it all is that we have a chance to speak out and reach a larger audience. Of course if major news outlets chose to interview teachers alongside the wealthy business elite and celebrities that they seem to treat as experts on education our voice might be heard, but that’s yet to happen. The battle cries are good and well, but when debate reaches a fever pitch like this the details are often left on the floor like sad, post-parade confetti. And never have the details been more important. The problem with documentaries like Guggenheim’s is that they try to tackle an incredibly large and complex issue through a medium that can’t even begin to shoulder it properly. The last thing we need to simplify is the debate over educational reform as if one solution is the answer. There’s not one answer and even if there were it isn’t privatizing the public school system and handing it over to Silicon Valley.

Teachers aren’t napping during their planning periods (if they have them) and dreaming about summer vacation. They’re calling parents and counselors and planning lessons and giving thoughtful feedback to students – and they’re doing it all knowing they may never see the fruits of their labors. My mother told me once when I came home crying last year from a tough day of teaching that as a teacher I may never see the life I’ve changed or the spark of inspiration I planted in a student – that my impact might not bubble to the surface for years after that student leaves my class. So you see, teachers do all of this for a future they may never know. This isn’t our future we’re talking about, as Sir Ken Robinson puts it, but the future of our children. We won’t be there to see what they build upon the foundation we lay, but they will and it’s important that we try to get it right.

An upsetting result of the Oprah effect on the education debate is that people questioning the main points of “Superman” are seen as the “old guard,” or worse, as people threatening the future of our children to prop up teacher unions. Some say we should speak out and fight for a seat at the table, others speculate that joining a fracas that will no doubt be old news in a few weeks just distracts us from the truly important job of educating our students. Somehow we have to be heard while not losing focus. Good thing teachers are skilled masters at multitasking.

My biggest question right now: What about the rest of the kids?

What about the rest of the kids that don’t find a spot in a fancy charter school, as “Waiting for Superman” documents? What about the kids that don’t have parent activists at home to speak on their behalf? What about the kids who don’t have parents at home at all? What about the kids that have never used a computer? What about the kids that don’t know how to read? What about the self-contained kids in special education departments? Who will advocate for them?

I know we mythologize and romanticize teachers as heroes for our children and that sometimes there are just plain bad teachers with poor, ineffective methods out there that need to be reckoned with. But for the most part teachers are there for a reason other than the paycheck and the well-deserved perk of having part of the summer off. They’re there because they know that there are children out there for whom no one will advocate. They’re there because they see their communities faltering and children joining gangs in an attempt to be a part of something resembling a family.

I worked with a teacher who had a great rapport with my students, especially the many boys I taught. He would often joke with them “You guys are never absent ’cause your parents don’t want ya’ll at home!” And we would all laugh and the students would trade jabs with him, but the truth of the matter is this: school was the only place they had to go. Sure, a few of them had a home life we would consider normal and well-adjusted, but for the most part there was something other than education driving them to that school building every day. The comfort of a friend group that is like a family and the strange comfort of a teacher who disciplines them, believes in them, and pushes them because she knows – absolutely knows – that they can do better. That’s what public education affords those children – the ones left behind after charter school lotteries and private school enrollments.

Charter schools are not the silver bullet or the superman we need. Neither is merit pay. Teachers need more support and relevant professional development than ever before – they need room to grow and learn with their students. Teachers need administrations that will support those efforts and work as allies and not as adversaries carrying test scores and breathing down their necks.

I’m just one voice among many trying to be heard in this debate. I encourage you to read some of the pieces that inspired me this week. You can do so by checking out my RSS feed of Superman-related links.

Tags: , , , , , 7 Comments »

Truth in a post-Citizens United v. FEC world

January 24th, 2010 | Filed under: Opinion, teaching

CB022158I’ve tried to write this post a couple times, but I became so frustrated I had to backspace myself to zero and take a break. Rightfully so, most media outlets have been consumed by the death and destruction in Haiti to put this story on heavy rotation, but it hit me like a ton of bricks of dirty, corporate money and I’ve been trying to find a way to vent constructively about it.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this past week in Citizens United v. FEC that the government cannot ban political contributions by corporations in candidate elections. The New York Times did a great job explaining the story when it broke and there are a number of more in-depth articles and editorials on the far reaching impact of this decision from both sides of the aisle. I particularly like this one by David Kairys on Slate who calls the decision “misguided” saying “money isn’t speech and corporations aren’t people.” The short explanation is now corporations and organizations can give as much as they like in an election or buy as much airtime as they like. On the one side, people (mostly Republicans) say this is a win for First Amendment rights and free speech, calling the previous limits on corporate spending during elections “censorship.” On the other side, people (mostly Democrats), including the President, say it’s a win for corporations and special interests that want to keep their grips on the decision-makers in Washington.

At the risk of stating the obvious, business is a crucial part of this country and its people, but I think it too often weasels its way too far into public education. And with this decision business will have even more control over our government and in turn over those that make the decisions on education. But really, the money isn’t what I’m most worried about. Those decisions are far above my pay grade…especially considering I don’t even have a teaching job yet.

While driving down the interstate, I was listening to NPR coverage of the decision (you can listen to the same story here)). Rep. John Boehner, house majority leader and supporter of the decision, downplayed worries that it would make it more difficult to tell who and what corporate entities are backing major candidates in elections.

“Sunshine really does work if you allow it to,” Boehner said.

That may be true, but what percentage of the voting population is able to determine where money is coming from? And how many care enough to do so? There are great organizations and resources out offering services like searchable databases of campaign contributions, but often the people that visit are already those discerning, thinking individuals, or cynical ex-reporters like myself. What about those that want to care but don’t really know how to uncover the truth on their own?

My cooperating teacher had a great saying that she used often when we would eat lunch during our planning blocks, feeding our stomachs and our news addiction with CNN: “Only 5 percent of the population thinks,” she’d say. “The other 95 percent waits for someone to tell them what to think.”

Right now it’s even more important that we as educators focus on helping our students learn how to learn. They need to be able to answer their own questions without waiting for someone to tell them what to think because, more often than not, it will be a special interest-funded politician or extreme talking head (Glenn BeckKeith Olbermann…I’m looking at you guys). While at the annual NCTE convention in November, I had the pleasure of attending a great session with Kelly Gallagher. He talked about a lot of things, but one of his stories stuck with me about a student that wanted to know who “this Al guy” was that everyone was talking about…she was referring to Al Qaida. This student was getting ready to enter the world as a young voter and her knowledge of current events in this post-9/11 world clearly disturbed Gallagher as it did everyone else in the session.

“I want my students to know what a politician is saying,” Gallagher said. “But also what he’s not saying.”

And I think that’s the difference. Our students will need to be even more ready to think, discern and read between the lines. Politicians are the same now as they were a hundred years ago, I’m sure, but we have even more power to educate ourselves and demand that sunshine Boehner says works so well.

So, is it about free speech or is it about protecting democracy? To me, those issues are one in the same. The bigger issue is the background noise this adds to an already confusing system where two parties, glutted with corporate and special interest dollars, fight for 51 percent of the vote. Where does education fit into this decision? Trying to find the truth in politics seems daunting enough for me as a young voter, so I’m wondering how I will help students sift through it all?

Tags: , , , , , , , No Comments »

Reading Rainbow and Student Choice

August 30th, 2009 | Filed under: Opinion, personal, teaching


I’d heard rumors that the show was having trouble keeping its funding, but this week PBS finally announced that Reading Rainbow is ending after a 26-year run. Having just turned 25, I spent a lot of time as a kid watching the show’s host Levar Burton on his book-themed adventures, listening to reviews of books from kids my age, and then heading to the library to check out a few. I always thought my kids would have a chance to experience the same excitement about books that I did at a young age through this show.

As this article explains, there’s a lot of debate about whether kids need to be taught how to read first, with phonics and other comprehension strategies, or whether getting them interested in reading should be the first plan of attack.

I believe that generating interest and excitement should be first and foremost our goal as educators. If we get them interest and excited about reading, they are interested in learning, right?

My Facebook feed was a flutter this week with old college friends lamenting the death of Reading Rainbow and they all said the same thing “I like to read because I watched this show.” Sure, they may have seen parents modeling reading in the home, or teachers that encouraged independent reading, but they all felt that this show had a big impact on their reading habits today.

The lyrics of Reading Rainbow come to mind…”I can go anywhere / Take a look / It’s in a book.”

My philosophy of education is ever-changing, but one of the things I always maintain is that I want to cultivate curiosity in my students – a desire to find the answers on their own. I’ve met so many adults that ask questions of friends and coworkers that could (very, very) easily be answered with a quick Google spin. I want my students to know that they can find the answers on their own – that I, as the teacher, am not the font of knowledge in the classroom.

Reading Rainbow did more than just create excitement around reading for children – it taught them that reading is a normal thing, that you can have your own opinions about something no matter your age, and that the more you read the more opportunities you have – that you can “be anything” and “go anywhere.”

The story about the end of the Rainbow hit around the same time as a much-discussed and Tweeted-about New York Times article about giving kids choice in what they read as opposed to assigning class sets of the same novel. The story is part of a great series in the paper on the future of reading.

A reporter follows Ms. McNeill, a teacher in Georgia, as she shifts her classroom from the traditional reading methods of class sets and textbooks to giving students freedom of choice in what they read. McNeill implemented the method after a workshop she attended with Nancie Atwell, author of “In the Middle” and “The Reading Zone.”

What got to me about this article was not the success Ms. McNeill had with the method, which was impressive, but the constant speculation about whether this is the way to go. The reasons behind the speculation? That it may not prepare students adequately for standardized testing and that teachers may have trouble keeping up with all the different books. For me these problems don’t outweigh the potential payoff.

One quote left me hopeful, though, from Catherine E. Snow, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education:

“But if the goal is, how do you make kids lifelong readers, then it seems to me that there’s a lot to be said for the choice approach. As adults, as good readers, we don’t all read the same thing, and we revel in our idiosyncrasies as adult readers, so kids should have some of the same freedom.”

I’m always frustrated at policies and methods that seem to move kids away from personal freedom, because shouldn’t that be one of our ultimate goals? To give them the skills they need to make big and little decisions on their own?

Hopefully pilot programs like the ones detailed in the Times article will spread with success, because we’ll need something to pick up the slack if the canceling of Reading Rainbow is any true sign of the times.

Tags: , , , , , , , No Comments »