First Person

Parent blog: Teaching kids to be readers

Boulder psychologist and mother of three Suzita Cochran shares seven tips she’s learned through experience about helping even reluctant kids become better readers.

I knew having three kids would make me a more humble parent, I just didn’t realize how much more humble!

Students at Denver’s Bruce Randolph School show the power of reading. <em>EdNews</em> file photo.

When it comes to reading, each of our kids has taken a different path.  We have one who was a natural reader.  He would have loved reading no matter what we did as parents.  If we’d only had him, I wouldn’t be writing this post.  Instead I’d be thinking, “What’s the big deal with teaching kids to love reading?  It just happens.”

Our two other kids have required a more active parental campaign in order to learn to love reading.  Much trial and error and, hence, lots of learning on our parental parts.

What I’ve learned:

1. I can’t read aloud to a child at bedtime.  I become too mind-numbingly tired and exhaust all my energy fighting sleep.  It’s just not worth it.  For the first four or five years of parenthood, I felt exceedingly guilty when I heard other parents talk about bedtime reading with their kids.  Thankfully, I’ve moved past this.  Now I read to my kids after school, on weekends, holidays or sick days.

2. Reading aloud creates a shared memory.  Especially when I do the hard work of finding a book we’ll both enjoy, reading aloud has become one of my favorite parenting activities.  I’ve noticed that we talk about certain books we’ve read together again and again, the way we might fondly recall an enjoyable vacation experience.

3. Let the child do what he needs to in order to focus on the story.  With my son Daniel, the cozy image of me reading with him snuggled beside me was the first thing I had to let go of.  He’s a ball of energy, and with him reading aloud works best after a strong dose of exercise. Then, before we begin reading, Daniel chooses something to keep his hands occupied – a floor puzzle, Rubik’s cube, cards – some quiet activity which doesn’t require too much concentration.  Even though this may seem like a song and dance to do merely to read a book together, it’s exceedingly superior to my wiggly, unfocused alternative.

I recently read an article with the subheading, “Fidgeting may enable children with ADHD to stay alert.”  It stated that all the children in this particular study fidgeted when remembering and manipulating computer-generated letters, numbers and shapes.  However, the children with ADHD wiggled even more.  As far as I can tell Daniel does not have ADHD, but it was so pleasant to see that I don’t have the only super-squirmy boy.

4. Use characters from your kids’ books to help you better understand your kids.  This is an old child psychotherapy trick. You may have noticed that past a certain age, kids dislike talking about themselves.  Yet they’re usually willing to tell you something about their friends.  So ask them “what Amelia would do in this situation” or “what Ben’s opinion of something is” and you are likely to hear indirectly about your child’s views.

Back to books … This strategy can also be used with characters in books.  While reading aloud or talking about your child’s current book, ask for details about her favorite characters.  What does she like about these characters?  What does she think a character would do or feel in various circumstances?  You get the idea.

5. Don’t purchase video games until a solid love of reading has been established.  This rule was enacted mostly for our dear Daniel, who would likely trade his left leg for the chance to play 2-3 hours of video games.  I haven’t actually seen this happen (the game-playing marathon) but Todd and I know it’s true.  Parental intuition.  It’s been hard to hold the line on video games, but not having them in the house has definitely allowed Daniel to focus more on reading.  I’m not exactly sure how to define “a love of reading has been established” but I’ll know it when I see it.  We are slowly getting closer.

A study at Carnegie Mellon found that even average 8- to 12-year-old readers had stronger white matter connections in the brain area called the anterior left centrum semiovale than poor readers.  However, when poor readers in the study were given six months of intensive instruction, their white matter connections improved significantly.

6. Do what you need to in order to hook a child into a book.  Unlike our son who loves reading anything and everything, our second two children often have a tough time getting into a book.  If I am quite sure the book is a good fit for the child, I often read the first chapter aloud to them.  Then they read the rest of the book on their own.  Or if the book is slightly above their ability level, I’ll sometimes buy an audio version for them to listen to first.  Then later, they read the book unaccompanied.

I also periodically encourage confidence boosters.  When Daniel is struggling through a challenging book, I’ll have him put it aside and instead open an old favorite.  It was at one of these moments that I realized the Geronimo Stilton character would be part of my life for so much longer than I ever wished or hoped for!

7.  Reading really does improve writing.  Okay, I have heard teachers say this before but I never completely understood it until recently.  While reading one of Stephen’s school essays this year, I finally saw how reading enhances writing.  He wrote about coring trees at science club and his essay included the sentence, “The tree was in a group of similar Cottonwoods, most of which were now succumbing to the forces of Fall.”  I mean, we just don’t speak this way in our home. Alas, would that we did.  And I know they don’t talk that way at school!

Stephen must have picked up this language from a book. Although he’s only in 6th grade and his writing is still evolving, I love that he has a huge store of ideas and techniques from his reading to inspire his writing.   Between this and improving my brain’s white matter connections, it’s enough to encourage me to read more!

I’d love to hear other people’s tips for creating readers!

And here are two books I recommend that my kids loved:

Esperanza Rising, by Pam Munoz Ryan.  Third through seventh grade girls would love this one.  This is a story about a girl from a wealthy Mexican family.  When she is 13, her father is killed and her life changes drastically.  Now poor, her small family immigrates to California and they become migrant workers.  This book is fiction, though based on the life of the author’s grandmother.  I read this aloud to my kids and we all loved it, though some parts were pretty sad.

The Circuit, by Francisco Jimenez.  Try this one especially with third though seventh grade boys.  This is an autobiography by a man who is now a college professor in California.  His family immigrated to America from Mexico when he was a young child.  They too were migrant workers in California, following a circuit of fruit and vegetable picking from year to year.

I recently read this aloud to Daniel, though Stephen and Annie also listened at times.  Daniel really connected with the main character and it helped him to understand the importance of family over possessions.  The story only follows the main character to age 15, so Daniel and I looked the author up on YouTube because Daniel wanted to know how things turned out for him in the end.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to [email protected]

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.