This is the time of year when campus and district leaders are gearing up for teachers to come back. There will be weeks filled with convocations, training, celebrations, and looking at data from the previous year. At some point, every teacher will be involved in either setting or hearing what new goals have been set for student success this year. I’m willing to bet a large number of those goals will involve increasing scores on a standardized test by some increment. That’s fine, but I encourage you to aim higher. I don’t mean aim for a higher score...that’s well and good, but I mean to aim for goals that help students rise and succeed above and beyond a test.
Last year, I was introduced to the book Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. It is a fast-paced read on how to be successful in business by rethinking some of our commonly held beliefs about work. One of the tips that I particularly like is “Be at home good.” The authors talk about the frustration that many of us have felt when we have compared 2 products and finally decided on one but when we get it home, it doesn’t live up to what we were hoping. It is not “at home good.”
In education, if we teach our students skills that help them to pass a test but don’t apply in an authentic context, then we are not being “at home good.” Let’s take vocabulary for example. We know that having a deep vocabulary helps with comprehension and communication. So, how do we learn new words to build our vocabulary? This question can be answered in several ways. Some will be ways that are “on-test good,” and others will be “at home good.” I could take the approach of giving students a list of words every week, having them look them up, write sentences (that generally don’t make sense), and test them on those words on Friday. They might do fine on the test, but they will likely never use those words in speaking, reading, or writing.
Another approach I could take is to teach them to notice and study words. Instead of giving them a list of words, I can have them collect words that they come across when reading...words that are fun, interesting, unfamiliar. We can study how those words are built (affixes, roots, syllables), how they change in different contexts, and how they are used in the texts where they are found. I can create language stems using academic vocabulary for students to articulate their learning. Anytime I ask them to write a response or turn and talk to their neighbor, I can follow the direction with, “...and it should sound like this…” I can then give them a language stem like “One thing that was emphasized by the author was _________. “ or “On page ____, the author says _____ which indicates _____.” By becoming aware of words, noticing how they are built, and providing opportunities (and scaffolds) for orally using new vocabulary, we can build skills that will benefit them far beyond a test.
A good indication of whether what we are teaching is “at home good” is if the students are transferring the skills. Grammar and conventions are great examples. Hours upon hours upon hours of instructional time is spent having students correct error-riddled sentences only to have those same students turn in writing that is full of the exact mistakes they have spent so much time correcting. If we are aiming for 100s on worksheets...then that approach will do it. If you are aiming higher- aiming to be “at home good” - then that approach fails miserably. Instead, we could use mentor texts to help students notice how authors use conventions and WHY they craft sentences in certain ways. Then imitate those authors. Look to writers and teachers like Jeff Anderson and Steve Peha for resources and explanations on how to take more authentic approaches to grammar instruction.
I am a firm believer that there are many ways to get students to pass a test, but not all of them are good for kids. That’s what I mean when I encourage us all to aim higher. Don’t settle for teaching in ways that will just get students to pass a test. As we set goals for the year, look beyond those scores. Consider how you might phrase these statements:
This year, our students will become readers who _______________________.
This year, we will strive to build writers who ___________________________.
This year, we will support our students as they become communicators who _____________.
Then, think...how will you know if you have reached those goals? If you say you want your students to become readers who purposefully choose texts and have the needed tools to navigate and learn from what they read, how will you know if they have become that kind of reader? What would you observe? What would be happening? You won’t be able to tell from just a test.
How would your students complete these statements? It might be interesting to ask them. Those students who have struggled for years may have some surprising statements. It will also give you a way to help them see growth and success beyond a test score. For some students, becoming a reader who has a favorite author might be a huge accomplishment.
So, as you reflect on how relevant (or “at home good”) your current literacy instruction is, consider these questions:
- What are your students' attitudes toward reading and writing?
- Where outside of the classroom or school setting will students use what they are learning?
- How do your teachers explain specific content skills?
- What materials do your teachers use to teach specific content?
- What do students say is the purpose for reading and writing?
Aim high. Then dare to aim higher. Your kids deserve it...and society needs it. Shoot for the moon and lead the way.