Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email email@example.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.
This week’s Ask a Teacher panel:
Matthew Dicks, fifth grade, Connecticut
Amy Scott, eighth grade, North Carolina
Cassy Sarnell, preschool special education, New York
I have an 8-year-old in third grade, and I found out yesterday that they are reading the Adventures of Rush Revere series in class. I know they are children’s books and don’t contain the kind of vitriol Limbaugh is known for, but I am still concerned about the subtle messages he may be receiving about Native Americans and black people and their place in American history. Am I overreacting here? Should I talk to his teacher about my concerns? I’d like to take a thoughtful approach rather than one of outrage.
—Trying Not to Rush Judgment
I don’t think you’re overreacting. If my daughter was reading the Rush Revere books in class, I would also wonder why the teacher or school district would choose such a polarizing author when so many other quality titles are available. It strikes me as a foolish decision that is likely to create problems in the future.
But knowing that the class has already begun reading the books, I would also recognize the futility in convincing the teacher to change course at this time. The text could also be a part of the school or district curriculum, which would make a change even more challenging and unlikely.
Instead, I would view this as an opportunity. Find out which books your son is reading and get yourself copies of each one. Read them, too. Find out for yourself if these books contain any subtle messages about minorities and their place in American history. Begin a conversation with your son about explicit and implicit bias and the importance applying a critical eye to everything we read. Encourage your son to ask questions about authors and their possible motives when writing. Turn this into an opportunity to help your son become a more critical, thoughtful reader.
If you do find those subtle messages while reading the books, document your findings and only then bring your concerns to the teacher, well-armed and well informed. It’s entirely possible that the teacher does not know anything about Rush Limbaugh and that these books were chosen based upon a recommendation or even based on cost. Having the evidence to support your position will be important if you hope to eliminate these books from future classrooms.
My 7-year-old son started second grade this year. His experience at school has been generally positive, which I attribute to him being a fairly flexible child and to him having had great teachers. He does well academically and socially, though does tend to be a little quieter and more of a “go along to get along” kind of kid. This year, he’s in a “co-teaching” classroom, the only one of its kind in the school. It’s the second year this class has existed at our school.
At Back-to-School Night, the co-teachers shared a lot about how passionate they are about this model, as well as some information on how it will work logistically. In some ways, it felt a little like a sales pitch. Some of what they shared sounded good: individualized math tracks based on individual student performance, no real homework so kids can spend time with family at night. But other aspects seem questionable: There are 48 kids in the class. They assess student progress based off of “conversations” with the kids and three standardized tests throughout the year. Kids are going to be responsible for picking their own partners for assignments so they can learn how to “pick a good friend.”
What advice do you have on how to help support my kiddo in this type of class, and what do you think of them, generally? What should I be looking for to see how he’s adapting to this new style?
—48 Kids Sounds Like Chaos
Dear 48 Kids Sounds Like Chaos,
I agree. Forty-eight kids sounds like chaos to me, too. I’ve seen many models of co-teaching, but none in which 48 children occupy the same classroom at the same time. So in terms of my thoughts regarding the model, I can only say—based upon the information you’ve provided—that I wouldn’t want to be teaching in a scenario like this, and I would not want my own children in that classroom.
Inspiring. I know.
And while I support the teacher’s limited homework policy, I don’t know how you can assign each student an individual math track without regular assessment of some kind. Maybe these questions have already been answered for you, but I’d be interested in knowing: Once you’re in a math track, are you always in that track? How does a teacher adjust instruction daily or weekly without assessment of some kind?
Allowing children to choose their own partners with regularity sounds like a terrible idea, too. While choice should be afforded at times, children should also learn to work with all kinds of people rather than their preferred personality type. It’s a life skill—learning to adapt to these less-than-ideal situations. This is an important part of a child’s education.
“Find your own partner” are also four words that strike fear in the hearts of many kids. It’s not always easy to find a partner in a classroom. Introverts are often slow to react and get shut out of partnership opportunities, and odd-kid-out situations crop up all the time. Three best friends suddenly become two best friends and one kid on the outside, looking in. Many kids prefer for teachers to assign partners to eliminate these precarious situations, and while this shouldn’t happen all the time, it should happen at least some of the time.
My advice is to stay in close contact with these teachers throughout the year and insist upon evidence to support any decision they make about your child’s academics. I would chart your child’s progress carefully, and ask for data at parent-teacher conferences. Perhaps these two teachers are like a couple of Mary Poppins, able to pull things together with surprising ease, but I wouldn’t depend upon that. Be a proactive partner in your child’s education this year, and hopefully they will prove me wrong.
My toddler and I live on the outskirts of a medium-size city that has seen a lot of revitalization in the past six years. The local public schools don’t have a great reputation, but they also serve a large, socioeconomically disadvantaged group. There are a number of increasingly hard to get into good charter schools in our city. All things being relatively equal, my personal beliefs about education would have me wanting to go to our public option.
Taking your column’s advice to get to know the school better, I signed up last spring to volunteer at the local elementary school’s “Bike to School” event from 7:30–9 a.m. on a Friday morning. Three days before, we got an email telling us the event was canceled because the principal was not pleased with results of mock end-of-grade tests, so all events were canceled for more prep time.
Physical activity and recess are important for children. So while I would love to walk to our local elementary school every morning with my daughter, I worry that the pressure to “teach to the test” is going to be too strong at my (poorly performing) local school. I don’t want her stuck doing test prep for the majority of her elementary education.
Is this red flag too big to ignore? Is there anything I can do to help spur change in the school? I thought about writing the principal or the school board, but I don’t know what would be helpful.
—Brains Over Brawn?
Dear Brains Over Brawn,
The emphasis on standardized tests is maddening for teachers, parents, and students alike.
Politicians want accountability, and unfortunately this kind of testing is the cheapest way to get it.
I applaud your desire to keep your kid from enduring an environment that focuses so much on it. You can certainly put her name into the charter lotteries, but be aware that it may not help. First, as you said, the odds of acceptance are typically poor. But also, several of my colleagues and I left the regular public school system to work in a charter specifically to escape the never-ending onslaught of standardized assessments, only to find that they’re creeping in here too. Last year (my first at this school), I was relieved to find out I’d have to administer “only” four standardized tests. This year, it’s seven. And not once has any of these assessments told me anything I didn’t already know from data I’d gathered in my classroom. Just thinking about it makes me want to flip some desks.
In terms of whether this is too big a red flag to ignore at your school, it may be. You name two different values in your letter: (1) You want to go with the public option, and (2) you don’t want your daughter doing test prep for the majority of her elementary education. Unfortunately, in your situation (and that of many others), those values conflict. Which one carries more weight for you?
If it’s the second one and it’s feasible, you could homeschool or send her to private school. Those options would fulfill your hope for a less test-intensive environment, especially if you went with a Montessori or Waldorf school.
If it’s the first, you could put her in the public school and opt out of state testing. Some states have a formal process for opting out; in others, a student might “sit and stare” through the testing session (in which case their blank grid might be scanned and their score entered), or not show up on testing and makeup days.
But let’s say you stand up to the bullying, and your kid sits out—that still doesn’t solve the issue of testing culture. Even if she sits in the library during the end-of-grade test, she will still spend much of the year in a test-prep environment. That, more than the test itself, seems to be your issue with the public school. Can you ask some of the teachers there about their experience? Do they feel oppressed by the specter of testing? (They’ll be more frank than the principal.)
Not that it’s my choice, but here’s what I want you to do: Put her in the public school, and start a revolt.
I’m not kidding. Teachers complain about testing all the time, and nobody listens to us, especially in at-will states like mine. I’m convinced this revolt will have to come from parents. Bring it up at the next PTA meeting and/or Board of Education meeting. Call the principal. Call the superintendent. Call the state’s department of public instruction. Speak out on social media. Write letters to the editor of your local paper. Contact your representatives. Vote for pro-education candidates. Organize. Create a coalition. (Look up NYS Allies for Public Education for ideas on how to approach the task.)
We teachers hate the tests as much as or more than you do, but we’ve screamed ourselves hoarse. Here, you take the bullhorn.
My daughter is in sixth grade at a good public school. She has ADHD but is bright and excels at science and math. Reading is a real problem, however. She has been getting pulled out for extra help in reading since first grade for small group work. Although she has gotten decent grades, she received summer services through the school from first through fifth grade because she was reading so much below grade level. She is in middle school now and in a special small group with a focus on reading. Her grades are good enough that she will no longer be offered summer school for reading.
I’m writing because I’m not sure what to do. She still can’t really read. She can’t decode new words and will not sound them out. She skips them. She skims. She guesses. My husband and I both could read at college level by her age, and our 6-year-old son is reading well above grade level, so I feel confident it’s not some sort of horrible home reading environment that we’ve fostered. What do you suggest? She obviously needs to learn how to read. I don’t want to blame the school or the teachers because they have clearly given her lots of extra help, and they have screened her for dyslexia. I have considered paying for private reading tutors for her, but I think she gets so much extra help, what more can a tutor do if nothing is working? Are there different ways to teach reading that I can ask her teachers to explore, or pay a tutor to provide so that she can finally functionally read? I’m really worried she will become an illiterate adult.
—Afraid She’ll Never Learn
It goes without saying that reading is one of the most difficult and important skills a child learns. Reading specialists like to say that around fifth grade, we ask kids to switch from “learning to read” to “reading to learn”—that is, we stop teaching phonics and word recognition for the general population and begin to focus on comprehension, as well as how to use reading as a tool to teach other subjects (history, science, even math). This is less true for special education, as children who require continued support for reading skills continue to receive them. It’s easy for me to tell you from my chair that you shouldn’t panic, and for you not to hear that because reading is important and it will hold your child back if she never learns.
However, she’s not going to become an illiterate adult, and so you shouldn’t panic. Her grades have improved relative to her grade level, as evident by the fact that she no longer qualifies for an extended school year. If she were still significantly behind her peers, especially in her decoding skills (as opposed to comprehension skills), she would qualify for ESY and the school would offer it. Now, I don’t know the specifics of your daughter’s needs, but I can tell you if she’s skimming/skipping/guessing at words or refusing to decode, it’s probably not that your daughter is incapable of reading. It’s probably the books.
When we teachers assess a child’s reading level using the most standard reading assessments, we get three levels: an independent level, an instructional level, and a frustration level. These levels represent exactly what they sound like. A child’s independent reading level is the level of difficulty of text at which a child is decoding at 95 percent accuracy and at a fluent rate—in other words, a text the child can read independently where they should be able to comprehend the text. A child’s instructional reading level is the level of difficulty at which a child is decoding about 90 percent of the text accurately and at a fluent rate—meaning a child can read most of the words, and with adult support, can comprehend the text.
If a child is reading a text with less than 90 percent accuracy/fluent decoding, that text is on or above the child’s “frustration level”—so called because the child is trying to read and comprehend a text where they don’t recognize most words, or where decoding is frustrating. It’s like reading a whole text in a foreign language when you’ve only taken one introductory class. Even if you do know most of the words individually, trying to understand sentences or paragraphs is challenging because you have to keep stopping to sound words out or look them up, rather than focusing your processing abilities on what is being said, or the meanings of those words. This skill of comprehending is even harder for someone with ADHD whose attention to tasks may be fleeting.
If your daughter is skipping/skimming/guessing, she’s not reading fluently. If she’s not reading fluently, she’s not comprehending. If she’s not comprehending, she’s frustrated. And here’s the key—if she’s frustrated, it’s the wrong text. Good reading instruction exists between the independent and instructional reading levels. In the special reading group, the teacher probably has the class working on their instructional level (or just above it) in order to work on increasing fluency and comprehension skills. But children need to practice reading to get good at it, and practice should almost always happen at the independent level.
So, here’s what you should do. Go ask her teachers what her independent reading level is. They will probably give the F&P level (Fountas and Pinnell, also sometimes called a guided reading level) which is a letter, or her DRA (Direct Reading Assessment), which is a number. For example, your daughter may be reading at an F&P level T (roughly the beginning of fifth grade), or she may be reading at a DRA level 38 (roughly the end of third grade/beginning of fourth grade). Once you have that, you can Google “DRA level __ books” or “F&P level ___ books” to pull up lists upon lists of books at her independent reading level. You may also be able to ask a local librarian: If they don’t already have lists organized by reading level, they’re very helpful people and I’m sure they’d compile a list for you.
One more thing: I know it seems obvious, but let her pick the books she reads as often as possible. When I worked in middle school, we usually let kids pick two books from our library—one on their reading level, and one either above or below. Over time, even the kids who were significantly below grade level began to gravitate toward books on their level. The options at level K-P (second to third grade) are way better now than when I was in school; she may find really enjoyable books there. And if she wants to read something way above her level, read it to her or alternate paragraphs and fill in words she gets stuck on so she can focus on enjoying the book. There’s no reason to spend the money on a tutor if all she needs is time to finish catching up. Good luck!
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My daughter has figured out that since her school has a policy that homework only counts for five percent of her grade, she can still get good grades in her classes without ever doing her homework. She’s proceeding to do just that. I feel like I should make her do the homework anyway. What should I do?
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