— Dr. Chris R McGee (@cmcgee200) March 10, 2017
A few days ago, the above tweet was sent out by Chris McGee, a friend of mine and an assistant principal out of St. Louis, Missouri.
While these words can apply to countless areas of education, I found myself thinking about them this past Friday during a professional development session in which an excellent Heinemann consultant, Sheila, was working with my district’s elementary level on Fountas and Pinnell’s Benchmark Assessment System (BAS)…In short, the BAS is an assessment that’s administered to students, one-on-one, usually two or three times a school year to determine each student’s three reading levels: independent, instructional, and hard. All levels are indicated by a letter on Fountas and Pinnell’s Text Level Gradient, which ranges from A-Z.
Towards the end of the professional development, after Sheila had spent the time focusing on (1) how to find each student’s levels and (2) how to use qualitative data to drive instruction, she made it a point to say something to the effect of, “Despite all the testing, Irene Fountas and Gay Pinnell have always left it up to the teacher to decide at which level to instruct each student.” When she uttered these words, my thoughts shot in two different directions.
Direction #1: Simple, Not Simplistic
First, I thought about Chris’s tweet and the ways in which it’s often tempting to make education simplistic by reducing practices to numbers (e.g., percentage grades), letters and frameworks (e.g., SAMR), and concrete steps (e.g., the writing process). While I do think simplification often provides us with comfortable starting points, sticking with this mentality for too long can be harmful. For example: there are countless problems with percentages; pedagogy (and students publishing for authentic audiences) supersedes redefinition; and the writing process is anything but linear.
I have found that some of the most powerful professional learning takes place when the facilitator know the topic so well, she is able to communicate its core ideas as if they’re entirely simple, when they are anything but. Of course, simple is different from simplistic. While the former is a synonym for “easy to understand,” the latter is used in place of “dumbed down.” When the abstract is made simple, the simplistic can be circumvented.
Direction #2: Quantitative, Qualitative, and the Reader
Second, I thought deeper about how the readings we assign students (or those chosen by students) should be determined by more than just letters (if at all, in some instances). In fact, systematically assigning students to letters/levels is one of many ways to kill a love of reading. (And, if you’re looking for more ways, check out “Let's Not Kill The Love Of Reading” by Tony Sinanis and “The Reading Rules We Would Never Follow as Adult Readers” by Pernille Ripp.)
While the BAS provides valuable quantitative and qualitative data, it doesn’t entirely account for the other two components that should be taken into consideration when pairing a student with a text: a qualitative evaluation of the text, and consideration for the reader’s unique qualities. And, if the idea of analyzing all three of these factors sounds intimidating, take a look at Kylene Beers’ and Bob Probst’s one-stop-shop tool for determining text complexity; there’s one for fiction and another for nonfiction. These are resources I use when facilitating close reading and guided reading professional development.
In the End
Chris’s tweet says it all. Yes…numbers, letters and frameworks, processes, and quantitative reading scores may be comforting, black and white, and easy to follow.
But…If we don’t step out of our comfort zones and embrace the messiness – which is exactly what we should want our students do be doing – then we are doing them a disservice.
When was the last time you stepped out of your comfort zone?
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