Dear Library Donors,
With semester one over, I have closed one volume and have begun another in my [ABCDE] series on teaching. Volume II is already overflowing with surprises, since I am following three almost completely new groups of students. (This is, alas, what happens when your school is on a 4×4 block schedule where, for some perplexing reason, a teacher does not necessarily keep students between semesters; they might take the same English class during the same period but with a different teacher. Go figure. This is DCPS.) But I realize now that I never wrote the epilogue to Volume One. I write to present you with an update on Volume I, “The Library Project: How Mr. K’s students have progressed as readers, with your help.”
I’d first like to update you on the status of the materials you have bestowed upon our classroom. Although the inflow of books has tapered off recently, our stock has remained as high as ever. That is, despite the constant movement of books on and off of our classroom shelves, only a handful has disappeared. For example, one of our three copies of Always Running went missing. This does not surprise me, given that all three copies, aided by the hands of my Hispanic students, were constantly moving in and out of our classroom. I’m missing The Rose That Grew From Concrete, a book of Tupac’s poetry that exchanged hands so frequently that I am not ruling out the possibility that the book decomposed into the microscopic fibers, rendering it merely invisible. As final examples, Hatchet and Hanging on to Max are being held “hostage,” since two oft-truant students told me outright, after finding out that I had “failed them,” that they were not going to return these books (I’m working on a more formal administrative response to get them to return the books with spine, pages, and covers intact. I assure you—no ransom will be paid). On the whole, given that the library system is based on the honor code, I’m surprised and pleased that so few books went M.I.A.
But, getting more to the heart, to the actual epilogue that might open up your imagination and reveal a world of possibility, I’d like to present my end-of-semester Gates-MacGinitie reading test data. As with most of my lengthier posts, I’m sticking to the principle of B.L.U.F. Here’s that B.L.U.F.: some students made significant gains as readers while others made few to no gains.
(What a boring start to the epilogue, you say! Thankfully, I don’t have to sell copies of this first volume and I don’t have a domineering editor lording it over me. I can do and say what I want. What I say is boring, but it’s the truth.)
Let’s explore the big picture (period-wide data) first:
As you can see, the growth that my students achieved in periods 1 and 3 were significant, while growth for period 2 was just about average (I entered the classroom late, remember).
- Period 1 was, indeed, my all-star period. Median growth was 1.4 years. I know why: I rarely had to raise my voice; I taught attentive, focused, engaged–albeit perpetually tired–students; period 1 checked out more books than either other period, even though it had the fewest students; KN, ES, HL, JB–all of my “favorite” students–populated this period. As one example of serious progress, JB–one of the 15+ special education students that I had last semester–jumped from 7.3 to 12.0 (I also convinced her to join the robotics team, so now I see her twice everyday).
- Period 2 was a wild ride. I can’t say I helped them much. I suspect this was because of chronic classroom management issues that made it difficult for me to keep them on track. A few students made some progress though. SC–an extremely low-level reader–moved from a 5.4 to an 8.6. As with JB, I was able to convince SC to join the robotics team; he, being the mechanical-junkie that he is, deals with our robot’s drivetrain (coincidentally, our school has a strong culinary arts program and SC made pasta lunch for me the other day). But SC is a rare example in period 2.
- Period 3 also moved mountains. I had a half-dozen students “grow” 2 years as readers. OG, the immigrant dreamer, worked his butt off (on 4 hours of sleep) and moved from 5.1 to 7.6. However, I noticed that while my lowest level readers improved the most, the higher level readers made less progress.
Despite the general “success” of the first semester, I must still point out a few of the worries that I had and still have about my students’ progress:
- I don’t know if I helped my higher level (relatively-speaking) students. Because the range of reading abilities in my classroom was so broad, I tended to focus on the lower end of the reading spectrum. Was I doing a disservice to those at the top of the class?
- I had way too many truant students. Although I am certain that HL, JB and OG improved significantly as readers, what about MP, RS, TW, AC, MH, BO, JS, JW, JP and the many others who rarely–or never–came to class? Can I be “content” if a significant portion of my students didn’t make any progress, as far as I can tell?
- A lot of data was missing. Even if my students weren’t truant, there were some students for whom I could not get data; no matter what type of incentive I offered, they would not come in during lunch or after school to see how much they had grown.
- The test doesn’t only measure “reading” growth. That is, how much “growth” can be attributed to my students just trying harder the second time around? I know that when I first administered the test, many of my students still hated me for having just replaced their old teacher. At the end, I had students trying their hardest, because they knew that was exactly what I expected. I don’t know how much to trust the data.
- Some of the results seem unrealistic. For example, even if I know for a fact that she took both tests under “strict” testing conditions–since she came in after school each time–rendering her results “accurate,” did JB actually make 4.7 years of reading growth? Surely, a normal human being can’t advance almost 5 years as a reader in half a year. Or, am I just playing the role of the cynic and denying the potential for miracles to occur?
These are real concerns that I have. Indeed, they are real.
Worries aside, I am still ultimately happy with how my students progressed. That is why, in closing, I have to thank you again for giving my students the resources with which to grow as readers. I do not think that KN’s new-found love for books could have developed were it not for the urban fiction titles that you donated. Nor would LD have been able to push his own reading independently through reading, for example, Dreams From My Father, Ender’s Game, The Book Thief and Fast Food Nation. Our school, though blessed with some resources, simply does not have enough books–good or bad–on its shelves to create an environment that nurtures strong readers. You provided the missing pieces to our reading puzzle.
I still have all of the letters that my students wrote to thank you. I will find the time to mail them out (my web-announced deadline is March 21, since spring break will offer plenty of time for me to mail letters). Not all of you will receive handwritten letters from students, as I left it up to the students to choose which book donors to write to. Furthermore, since you used many methods for delivery, I do not have an accurate database of all donor addresses. Nevertheless, know that your contribution was valued and valuable.
Here ends the epilogue. Volume I is closed (until further notice).
I’ve just begun to analyze my semester two reading diagnostic data. Looking at the summary visualization (I’m not posting it) makes me just as depressed as the first time around. Yet, it also renews my sense of urgency. In my first semester, I’ve learned how important it is to invest students in independent reading. While I was certainly successful investing a handful of students in reading, I know I need to reach more this time around.
I’ll give myself some credit: I’m doing a better job with reading investment. This semester, I spent a full class period discussing literacy and examining literacy statistics. This semester, we’ve gone over the significance of independent reading and have spent a good amount of time doing that. This semester, my students know that when they are done with their classwork on a given day, they can–and should–continue reading their IR book. This semester, my library check-out book has almost as many entries already–at the end of week 2–as the entire first semester.
But I still need to improve as a reading investor. I need to create a more formal IR system–one that will keep track of how much they are reading and how they are improving as readers. I need students to take more pride in their reading and, consequently, share with their classmates through book discussions. I need to keep returning to basic reading strategies–ones as simple as decoding multi-syllabic words and making predictions.
Reading brings joy to my life. I am doing my best to make sure it brings joy to my students’ lives too.