Each afternoon for the last hour and a half of the school day, I work on reading with third graders. By this time of the day, the students and their teacher are worn out and a frenetic buzz drives students to throw paper, write each other nasty notes, and engage other forms of crazy-making. The teacher’s frustration is apparent: her face flushed, she calls her students back to their meeting-place, the carpet, in an effort to recall their attention to the task of independent reading and station rotations. I witness this daily routine and mull over what I’ve learned and noticed about children and education since I began working in an elementary school several months ago.
Children’s brains are not prepared to focus on reading for sustained periods of time – not without support anyway. Children need a lot of support to develop the skills necessary to read. Certainly, this is the presumed role of the educational institution: to provide support. In the Denver Public School (DPS) where I work, literacy instruction accounts for about 80% of the school day. In addition to the classroom time dedicated to literacy, many students are pulled periodically throughout the day for literacy intervention programs. With such heavy emphasis on literacy, I was shocked to meet students in the third and fourth grades who are still working as “emergent” readers.
One wall in the room where I lead intervention groups is dedicated to tracking the literacy scores, goals, intervention programs, and development of each student that attends the school. The wall is a graphic representation of the cultural value we assign to reading, it is divided into three sections and progresses from left to right: Unsatisfactory on the far left, Partially Proficient in the middle, and Proficient on the right. Each student has a card somewhere on the wall. The left side of the wall is rather cluttered. With such a sturdy support system in place I wonder how so many students fall off or become stranded on the scaffolding that has been built to help them achieve academic excellence. I suspect there must be something more fundamental in a child’s education than literacy.