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Dedicated to Teachers

Heinemann Fellow Tricia Ebarvia: One Important Thing I Can Learn from Students

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For years before he retired, the teacher next door kept track of how many days were left until the end of the school year. He started at the first faculty meeting, joking “185 days to go!” to a roomful of smiling teachers, energized for a new year. By the time we got to February, March, April, teachers still smiled as he announced the number of days left, but their smiles were different, worn down. I’m just trying to make it, their smiles said. Only a few more weeks . . .

Although I understand the urge to count down the days, the end of the school year evokes different feelings for me—namely, panic with a healthy dose of guilt. When fourth marking period hits, I realize how much more there is still to do, how much content that may go uncovered. And then there is testing season in the way. Where did the time go? I wonder.

A few years ago, however, I started to shift the way I looked at the end of the school year. Rather than let the panic overwhelm me, I decided to pilot a new novel with my ninth graders. That book was The Kite Runner. While some may question my decision to teach an entirely new novel with only weeks left, I believe that decision was one of the most important moves I’ve made as a teacher. I had been having some nagging feelings about the curriculum, worried that there were too few diverse voices in a course on world literature. Although I knew I had to handle this title with care, I also knew my students—and I knew the experience of reading The Kite Runner would be a valuable one.

Rather than join the chorus of end-of-the-year countdowns, instead of giving in to fatigue (or cynicism), what if we reframed our thinking and asked ourselves: What’s the one important thing I can still do with my students? After all, it’s never too late to do work that is meaningful and important to our students and to the world.

Or how about this question: What’s the one important thing I can still learn about my students? We have our students for a relatively brief amount of time, and while they leave, we remain. And then we welcome another group of students in the fall. As we approach the end of the year, what can we learn from our students today that can better inform our instruction for our students tomorrow?

Here’s one thing I’ve learned. As part of my action research with Heinemann Fellows, I started to pay closer attention to not just what my students read but how. As a high school teacher, I realized that while I covered X number of novels each year, I didn’t know much about how my students read those novels. I don’t mean what they got out of the reading. Our class discussions were often animated: kids shared their reactions, asked good questions. Then they went home, read some more, and came back the next day to repeat the cycle.

Unfortunately, this meant that my students’ reading processes were, more or less, invisible to me.

So I decided to use the closing months of the school year to “flip” our reading. Instead of asking students to read outside class, I gave students time to read in class. As they read, I noticed things I’d never noticed before, and I quickly realized I’d been making a lot of assumptions over the years.

For one thing, I assumed students read a lot faster than they did. Because I taught honors-level students, I fell into the trap of thinking that better readers were also fast readers, even though research suggests otherwise. As students read, I watched their eyes move across the page and when they turned to the next. I assumed (wrongly) that most students could read about one page per minute. Thus, an honors-level student could easily read thirty pages of assigned reading in thirty minutes. This wasn’t happening. Instead, the engaged and thoughtful reading I wanted students to do often took much longer.

I also realized they had a lot of questions as they read—questions that, left unanswered, impeded their understanding. One day, one of my students raised her hand to ask a question. She was a good student, one who never seemed to need help—a “good” reader. When I walked over, she pointed to the page and said, “I’ve read this page over and over again, and I still don’t get what’s going on.” In this case, she was struggling with a lack of background knowledge. We worked through the text together, and by the end of our one-minute conference, she smiled. “Ah, I got it. That makes a lot more sense.” As I walked away, I watched her lean in a little closer to her book. You could see her body language shift: she was engaged.

At home, perhaps she simply would have struggled and then asked a question the next day (if she remembered). However, more likely, her confusion on that page might have led to further confusion on the next, and so on. Frustrating reading experiences lead to disengagement. But in class, I could work with students like her to access and apply comprehension strategies she might otherwise neglect to use if she were alone.

During class—and careful not to interrupt their reading more than necessary—I could pay better attention to students’ reading processes. And I learned a lot about teaching reading. Not assigning reading, but teaching. As a secondary teacher, I’d assumed that teaching reading was what my elementary colleagues did. High school students already knew how to read. Ironically, at the same time students are presented with more challenging texts—and whole-class, required novels—we stop teaching reading. We teach characterization, symbolism, theme—we teach books, not kids. While this literary analysis is important, we may miss an opportunity to help students become better readers when we prioritize post-reading strategies alone—when we focus on what students do after they read rather than during.

So as we close the school year, as the inevitable countdowns begin, ask yourself: What’s one important thing I can still learn about my students? For me, that one important thing was learning more about how my students were reading. For too long I’d only focused on what. While I wrestled with questions about classic versus contemporary texts and debated between whole-class novels and choice reading, what I needed to learn more about was what my students were doing once they had those books in their hands. I won’t get all the answers, but I know I’ll be a better teacher to the students I have next year.

The end of the year can be challenging. As the weather warms, our students’ attention spans shorten. Our patience thins. We, teachers and students, look out the window longingly. We only have a little time left, we think. And that’s exactly right—we only have a little time left.

So let’s make the most of it.

TriciaEbarvia_heinemann_fellows_2016_0034 Tricia Ebarvia has spent the last 15 years as a classroom educator with a student-driven approach to teaching reading and writing. Through her career, Tricia has applied the philosophy of the teacher-as-researcher while applying best practices to “cultivate independent learners” through independent reading and student choice. “For better or worse, “well enough” doesn’t satisfy me. I approach each school year, each course, each unit with fresh eyes.”

Topics: Education, Heinemann, Heinemann Fellows, Literature, Reading, Tricia Ebarvia, High School, Language Arts, Literacy, Middle School, Nonfiction

Date Published: 05/03/17

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