How to [anything]

“How to” is married to “how come?” They are partners in our curiosity and creativity.

But along with this great beauty comes something much harder to bear. What do you do about the answers that lie beyond your reach?

I have only had one teaching job to date, and this past spring I wondered if the grass might be greener. I’ve been honest with employers and interview committees of why I may be seeking other opportunities, and subsequently why I decided to stop having those conversations for the time being. I am overdue for some professional growth opportunities: those moments have been truncated and stagnant with past administrators (note: this is not a criticism, just a different leadership style and priorities). There has been a lot to learn from sitting on that side of the interview table, and I’ve also been sitting on the interviewer side, too. I can’t and won’t divulge details of what candidates offered, nor where I took missteps. (Okay: I’ll share one: I pointed out a typo on the questions for a high school ELA position, joking that I wondered if it was a test. The unsmiling faces and defensiveness of the teachers interviewing me assured me no, it was not intentional, and their senses of humor, in short supply anyway, quickly evaporated. Is it sour grapes to say it probably wasn’t a good fit if they didn’t get my irreverent sense of humor?)

Sorry for the detour. This is intended to be a discussion about ‘how to teach [fill in the blank]. A colleague and I noticed none of the ELA candidates spoke to reading instruction other than an aside, and all (and I am not being generalizing or global here) spoke about writing instruction and their work in that area. Some spoke about presentation and the listening/speaking standards; however, reading was the afterthought.

I am wondering if maybe the questions themselves lent the respondents to focus on writing, or if there is some message that’s being telegraphed about writing instruction being neglected. I wonder if others believe I’m not a competent teacher of reading because I talked about my work with PSWP/NWP, and my work with reading instruction is quiet and deep. (I would have thought my masters in children’s literature as engaging reading instruction, my National Boards certification, or my multiple novel units/curriculum would have demonstrated adequately my skills, but I am terrible at self-promotion.) This is the only reason I can think some jumped to this Island of Conclusions.

"To be sure," said Canby; "you're on the Island of Conclusions. Make yourself at home. You're apt to be here for some time."
“To be sure,” said Canby; “you’re on the Island of Conclusions. Make yourself at home. You’re apt to be here for some time.”

This not only deeply offends me, but these dangerous assumptions create a climate of defensiveness and undermining. And I am struck by how much I’m not laughing about it now, either. And perhaps those multiple candidates did not speak about reading because teaching reading is about as difficult as it gets. Our responses and biases toward any text are as complex as a dream, and twice as difficult to describe or explain.

Why is reading difficult to teach? While many articles focus on teachers’ actions as the culprit for why reading is a “instructional ghetto,” many voices strive to underscore the inequity of school-readiness. I know whose parents have the luxury of time to read to their children, and those who don’t. I’ve encouraged many students throughout the year to read to younger siblings. I’ve done book talks, librarian discussions, close text and annotating lessons, and a text-rich classroom.

Personally, I’m returning to basics, as well as refreshing some tried and true approaches. I’ve linked this before, but it deserves another read, to think about engaging texts not in terms of difficulty, but in terms of thematic thinking. Close reading need not be the pulling the wings off the butterfly, but expressing the beauty and anguish in language; not being afraid to teach the fundamentals of reading. By the time I get students in eighth grade, there will be a handful in every class who do not know that the vowel sound changes if you had an ‘e’ at the end, or to chunk sound patterns instead of the laborious ‘sounding it out.’ Their prior teachers did nothing wrong: the gaps come from our never-ending push through of students and not knowing their strengths and weaknesses.

One thing I plan on doing intentionally and wholly this year is teaching reading with love. Not the kind of love that is mushy or some kind of Facebook sentimental glop. The kind of love that is dangerous, and full of conflict and struggle, as well as safety and agreement. I’m going to hold that baby multiple ways, but never, ever drop it.