Putting Education Reform To The Test

Classroom Contemplations: Little Books, Big Statement

Editor’s note: Names of teachers and students have been changed.

Ms. Roberts left teaching ten years ago, but she remembers very clearly a day in class that changed her and her students.

It was her first year and she was teaching English to over two hundred kids a day in Room 100, also known as “the Pit.”  The name came from the fact that her class was where several other Language Arts teachers had transferred challenging students.

One of the most difficult parts of the first year is coming up with material and lesson ideas for each day, and Ms. Roberts was relying entirely on the Language Arts textbook she had been instructed to use.

A Toni Morrison novel was a sign to one classroom that their teacher believed in them.

malik ml williams / Flickr

A Toni Morrison novel was a sign to one classroom that their teacher believed in them.

A student of hers, Roland, who had become the fulcrum of his particular class.  In a way, he was in charge each day.  He had the power to determine which way the class would go.

Ms. Roberts said she never knew when he opened his mouth to talk if he was going to help her or sabotage her lesson.  Either was as likely.  She recognized Roland’s leadership ability and the tremendous influence he wielded over his classmates.

One day he asked Ms. Roberts a question during class.

“Why do we read different stupid things every day out of these dumb books?  Why don’t we get to read real books, the little books, like the other kids?”

Open, public challenges like that are difficult for any teacher to handle, let alone a first-year teacher.  And Ms. Roberts wasn’t even sure what he was talking about.

“Little books?” she asked.

“Yeah.  Little books.  Why don’t we read books with just one story in them?”

Roland was talking about novels.  That’s what he meant by “’real books,’ or ‘little books’” (as compared to the ten-pound textbook).

He, and by extension the rest of the class, had noticed that the textbook was a collections of lots of pieces of stories, with questions to answer at the end, but was not a “real” reading experience. No one in the real world carried around a textbook to read.

Ms. Roberts explained to me the epiphany she had.

“What I heard in his voice is ‘why aren’t we good enough to read a real book, like the students who had not been transferred to the Pit?’”

Ms. Roberts decided then and there that they would read a novel.  She was fortunate to get Mitchell Kaplan from Books and Books to donate over 200 copies of The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. Each student got to have their own “little book.”

She and her classes read the novel together.

“This changed my relationship with my students,” Ms. Roberts told me.

Of course this was no magic pill.  This isn’t a movie in which all the students could suddenly, miraculously read and write at grade level.  Those kinds of things don’t happen in the real world.

Her students continued to struggle with their skills–and Ms. Roberts continued to struggle through a difficult first year. But the kids worked harder to understand Pecola Breedlove, the main character in the The Bluest Eye,  than they had worked to answer the rote questions prescribed in the textbook.

And something was different for them and for her after they read the “little book” together.

“I think the value of that experience was that an adult listened and paid attention to what they were really asking for.  It was a way of saying, ‘Oh, yes you are good enough.’” Ms. Roberts said.

She provided these students with an experience that empowered them, an experience that made them feel valued as learners and as people.

Whenever advocates call for measuring teacher value beyond the test, there is a response by testing proponents that this other stuff is too soft, or too “touchy-feely.”  They say it isn’t rigorous. It isn’t academic.

It’s important to note that the experience Ms. Roberts and her students had was an intensely academic experience; it was part of what good English teaching is.  And while it may or may not have had any measurable influence on their subsequent test scores, such experiences must be a part of what we talk about when we talk about good teaching.

One of the insidious things about the emergence of the “value-added” score is that it values one thing — test scores. Everything else is regarded as less important, and therefore devalued.

While several of these teacher stories bring up the non-academic parts of a teacher’s job, it’s important to recognize that many of the academic parts have also been shunted aside by the over-reliance on test scores to determine teacher performance.

Jeremy Glazer is a Miami-Dade teacher writing a series about classroom issues for StateImpact Florida. Want to sound off on something Glazer has written? Want to suggest a topic for him? Send us an email at Florida@stateimpact.org and put “Classroom Contemplations” in the subject line.


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