Genre Practice In May

We’ve reached that time in the year when everything often seems to slowly degenerate into chaos.  From an objective stance, objective defined as adult not in the classroom, there seems no reason for May and June to go to waste.  Finding myself in conversations with these sorts of people, I’ve grappled with not succumbing to this slow-drip towards summer.  To combat it, I’ve embraced the genre practice formats more intensely than ever, like one leans on compulsively organizing an apartment when avoiding more intense thinking work, the beauty being that the deeper thinking work is inherent in the efficacy of the structures that have been molded over the course of the year.

Just last week, mid-mini-lesson, an uprising began.  On a Friday I had kids list out all of the reading strategies they employ whether in unison or independent reading.  Just like you should never ask a kid a question to fish for a specific answer they couldn’t have preordained, you shouldn’t go into a lesson assuming the student generated piece will yield the results you anticipated.  However, catching yourself amidst mistake at least has the potential to reveal underlying problems to tackle, which is what came to pass last week.  As expected, kids quickly identified breaking words into parts, reading ahead, re-reading, looking for context clues, and substituting words in as skills they use in unison.  When thinking through what skills they use during independent reading they said getting absorbed in the text, and choosing good texts.  We then took class tallies of how many people think they regularly use each of the skills in the respective formats.  From my observations I assumed that kids would say most of the word attack skills they use in independent are not carrying over to their independent reading lives.  And while this did prove to be the case, there was great uproar about how the vast majority of students were not thinking through text choice in unison reading.  As opposed to immediately jumping to the teacher-pleaser conclusion of this evidently being something to work on, the second-half-of-6th-grade hormone horror coupled with a year of teaching agency and autonomy led to all out war—a welcomed war at that.

The first grenade rang out with “Now that the state tests are over, can’t we just read independently?”  After trying to explain that even though the tests are over, unison reading helps us to improve our reading, and they acknowledged that in some ways it’s harder than reading independently, a bold few continued to claim boredom, and so we needed to get to the bottom of the issue.  I had the five most vocal kids write me letters explaining what they liked and disliked about unison reading, what they thought they could to improve their experience of it, and what they thought I could do to improve their experience of it.

Facing the Rebellion
After reading over their letters I had reading conferences with each of them to discuss their strengths and needs in reading, discussing first independent reading and then unison reading.  Looking over these strengths and needs, the kids then developed three goals that I in turn wrote down.  Edward noticed that things had a grown a little stale because people were only signing up with their respective cliques, and each clique was tending towards a particular topic.  When we met he decided he could do a better job picking texts he was more interested in than the repetitive videogame review category that his clique had fallen victim to, and a better job of signing up based on interest in the text more than clique affiliation.  A couple other boys had similar findings, but the others had more troublesome claims.

Josh and Trevor said that they only signed up with their friends because they wanted to be with people that were on their own reading level.  This took me by surprise because we don’t level kids at our school and have all homogenous groupings, but kids who came form other elementary schools were used to being segregated by lexile level throughout their elementary education.  When discussing it, they expressed frustration with having to explain things and not being able to go faster.  Once I explained how they were improving their cognitive control through this meaning making process, they climbed slightly back on board.

But then, another layer of problems was revealed.  In their desire to work together a social monster was born.  With their friends, they said, they could not be the task-master; it was not cool to keep everyone in their group on task, they in fact didn’t think that they could do it.  They even admitted that there were plenty of things they needed to stop for but weren’t stopping because that involved buying-in to the structures.  When I pointed out that this was inhibiting their learning, they agreed to try to get back on board.  But we were at a stand still because they were so convinced of their inability to work in a group without a teacher that they asked if I could meet with them everyday.  When I countered that with the fact that I had to meet with everyone on a rotating basis, they went so far as to draft schedules displacing my mini-lessons, share and all of writing time so that I could meet with everyone.

Finally we came to a compromise.  The five of them would meet together for longer periods of time everyday in the following week, picking articles that they deemed more interesting than their careless choices in the past, and I would forfeit my independent conferencing time to ensure that I met with them for a percentage of each of their meetings to practice what promotive behaviors look like, as well as how to stop the group for conversations beyond the stuck on a word phenomenon.  The week following this practice round they agreed to all be leaders and disseminate their learning.

This whole revolt demonstrates to me the power that the curriculum has had on them this year.  They came in being strictly used to silent independent reading, with a deep seated belief that they could only learn with people who they perceived had a certain subset of decoding skills.  They realized that reading silently, a practice they had invested much time and energy into mastering didn’t give them the social skills they needed to work diligently at deeply understanding complicated texts.  Particularly at this emotional turning point, halfway through sixth grade, when many curricula fail to address kids’ socio-emotional development other than to put it on hold with punitive teacher-directed control increased, this curriculum allows teachers to bring it to the forefront and teach kids the skills they need at this age to be positive about school and supportive of one another.

On my first day reading with them, we had to practice coming up with strategies other than speaking louder than one another in order to get other group members’ attention, and slowly but surely they told each other how it made them shut down when others leaned back and looked exasperated when asked a question.  As we read about the big bang, Edward asked what “inherent,” meant but pronounced it “inherit,” and after some loud sighs and attitude ridden “It sa-ays inherent,” they all acknowledged that they didn’t know what it meant, and so began the process of getting to the next level of understanding.