I hope that anyone reading this is healthy and sane during this period of uncertainty. Teachers and kids alike are grieving over the loss of freedom, social interactions, and normalcy. Many families, even those never before considered at-risk, are terrified of the potential for financial ruin or catastrophic health risks. Since I’m all about the love and spreading optimism, I humbly share a silver-lining for teachers and the kids that they serve.

The fact that you are being told to “teach online” in some vague version of “look busy” may mean that teachers are finally being trusted. Districts large and small are abandoning grading as they recognize that education (at home) is inequitable. I guess it’s better late than never to discover the obvious.

Parents and superintendents are vanquishing the needless infliction of nonsense known as homework. Standardized testing is being canceled, an actual miracle. Colleges have recognized that enrolling students next Fall is more important than SAT or ACT scores. Each of these emergency measures has been advocated by sentient educators forever.

So, there is reason to celebrate (briefly), but then you must act! Use this time to remake schooling in a way that’s more humane, creative, meaningful, and learner-centered. This is your moment!

In the absence of compelling models of what’s possible, the forces of darkness will fill the void. Each of us needs to create models of possibility.

The fact that kids’ days are now unencumbered by school could mean that they finally have adequate time to work on projects that matter rather than being interrupted every 23 minutes. I recently wrote, What’s Your Hurry?, about teaching computer programming, but it’s applicable to other disciplines.

Project-based learning offers a context for learner-centered pedagogy. I was reminded that the new edition of our book, “Invent To Learn – Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom,” includes several chapters on effective prompt setting that may be useful in designing projects for kids at home. Invent To Learn also lays out the case for learning-by-doing. Use that information to guide your communication with administrators, parents, and the community.

The following are but a few suggestions for seizing the moment and reinventing education after this crisis is resolved so we may all return to a new, better, normal.

Practice “Less us, more them”

Anytime a teacher feels the impulse to intervene in an educational transaction, it is worth pausing, taking a breath, and asking, “Is there less that I can do and more that the student(s) can do?” The more agency shifted to the student, the more they will learn.

One exercise you can practice teaching online, as well as face-to-face, is talk less. If you typically lecture for 40 minutes, try 20. If you talk for 20 minutes, try 10. If you talk for 10, try 5. In my experience, there is rarely an instance in which a minute or two of instruction is insufficient before asking students to do something. While teaching online, try not to present content, but rather stimulate discussion or organize activities to maximize student participation. Piaget reminds us that “knowledge is a consequence of experience.”

Remember, less is more

My colleague Brian Harvey once said, “The key to school reform is throw out half the curriculum – any half.” This is wise advice during sudden shift to online teaching and the chaos caused by the interruption of the school year.

Focus on the big ideas. Make connections between topics and employ multiple skills simultaneously. Abandon the compulsion to “deliver” a morbidly obese curriculum. Simplify. Edit. Curate.

Launch students into open-ended learning adventures

Learning adventures are a technique I became known for when I began teaching online in the 1990s. This process is described in the 2008 paper, Learning Adventures: A new approach for transforming real and virtual classroom environments.

Inspire kids to read entire books

Since the bowdlerized and abridged basals are locked in school, encourage kids to luxuriate with real books! Imagine if kids had the freedom to select texts that interest them and to read them from cover-to-cover without a comprehension quiz or vocabulary lesson interrupting every paragraph! Suggest that kids post reviews on Amazon.com for an authentic audience rather than making a mobile or writing a five-paragraph essay. Use Amazon.com or Goodreads to find other books you might enjoy.

Tackle a new piece of software

Been meaning to learn Final Cut X, Lightroom, a new programming language, or any other piece of sophisticated software? Employ groups of kids to tackle the software alone or together and employ their knowledge once school returns. Let them share what they know and lead.

Contribute to something larger than yourself

This is the time for teachers to support kids in creating big creative projects. Write a newspaper, novel, poetry anthology, play, cookbook, or joke book. Make a movie and then make it better. Create a virtual museum. Share your work, engage in peer editing, and share to a potentially infinite audience.

Check out what Berklee College of Music students have already done!

Teach like you know better

Use this time to rev-up or revive sound pedagogical practices like genre study, author study, process writing, interdisciplinary projects and the other educative good stuff too often sacrificed due to a lack of sufficient time. You now have the time to teach well.

Take note of current events

Daily life offers a world of inspiration and learning invitations. Why not engage kids in developmentally appropriate current events or take advantage of opportunities like JSTOR being open to the public during the COVID-19 crisis? Here’s a possible student prompt.

“Go to JSTOR, figure out how it works, find an interesting article, and share what you learned with the class.”

Let Grow

Change the world by challenging students to learn something on their own by embracing the simple, yet profound, Let Grow school project. A simple assignment asks kids to do something on their own with their parent’s permission and share their experiences with their peers.

Stand on the shoulders of giants

Every problem in education has been solved and every imaginable idea has been implemented somewhere. Teachers should use this time to read books about education written by experts and learn the lessons of the masters.

Take time to enjoy some culture

There is no excuse to miss out on all of the cultural activities being shared online from free Shakespeare from the Globe Theatre, Broadway shows, operas, living room concerts, piano practice with Chick Corea, and exciting multimedia collaborations. Many of these streams are archived on social media, YouTube, or the Web. Bring some peace, beauty, and serenity into your home.

The following are some links, albeit incomplete and subjective, to free streaming cultural events.

Apprentice with the world’s greatest living mathematician

In A Personal Road to Reinventing Mathematics Education, I wrote about how I have been fortunate enough to know and spend time with some of the world’s most prominent mathematicians and that while not a single one of them ever made me feel stupid, plenty of math teachers did. Stephen Wolfram is arguably the world’s leading mathematician/scientist/computer scientist. Over the past few years, he has become interested in teachers, kids, and math education. Dr. Wolfram spoke at Constructing Modern Knowledge, runs an annual summer camp for high school mathematicians, and has made many of his company’s remarkable computational tools available for learners.

Acknowledging that many students are home do to the pandemic this week, Wolfram led a free online Ask Me Anything session about an array of math and science topics, ostensibly for kids, as well as a “follow-along” computation workshop. You, your children, or your students have unprecedented access to all sorts of expertise, just a click away! This is like Albert Einstein making house calls!

A bit of exploration will undoubtedly uncover experts in other disciplines sharing their knowledge and talents online as well.

Abandon hysterical internet policies

The immediate need for laptops, Internet access, student email, plus the expedient use of available technologies like YouTube, FaceTime, Skype, Twitter, Instagram, and Zoom has instantly dispelled the hysterical and paranoid centralized approach to the Internet schools have labored under for the past twenty-five years. The Internet has never been dependent on the policies of your school or your paraprofessional IT staff to succeed. Perhaps we will learn what digital citizenship actually looks like after teachers and children are treated like modern citizens.

Heed Seymour Papert’s advice

When I worked with Seymour Papert, he created a document titled, “Eight Big Ideas Behind the Constructionist Learning Lab.” This one sheet of paper challenges educators to create productive contexts for learning in the 21st Century. Can you aspire to make these recommendations a reality in your classroom(s)?

Do twenty things to do with a computer

In 1971, Seymour Papert and Cynthia Solomon published, Twenty Things to Do with a Computer. How does your school measure up a half-century later?

Program your own Gameboy

Yes, you read that correctly. Here is everything you need to know to write your own computer games, build an arcade, or program a handheld gaming device!

Teach reading and programming simultaneously

Upper elementary and middle school students could learn to program in Scratch and develop their reading fluency at the same time. Learn how in A Modest Proposal.

Share my sense of optimism

Shortly before the COVID-19 crisis, I published, Time for Optimism, in which I shared reasons why progressive education is on the march and how we might teach accordingly. We can do this!

Wash your hands! Stay inside! Stand with children!


Veteran educator Dr. Gary Stager is co-author of Invent To Learn — Making, Tinkering, and Engineering in the Classroom and the founder of the Constructing Modern Knowledge summer institute. He led professional development in the world’s first 1:1 laptop schools and designed one of the oldest online graduate school programs. Learn more about Gary.

TV and film writers are on strike for a “fair share” of the revenue from internet distribution of the programs and films they’ve written. But in a ironic twist on the relationship of written language to the internet, JK Rowling and Warner Brothers are suing tiny book publisher RDR books for turning what has been available free on the internet into a book. The key issue in the complaint they filed in New York court is that there’s a major difference between information available free online and the same information in a book sold for profit. Is it coincidence that the suit was filed on Halloween?

A middle school librarian in Grand Rapids Michigan has been running a popular website devoted to comment and criticism on Rowling’s phenomenal Harry Potter series. He and his contributors have created a virtual Harry Potter encyclopedia which provides serious literary criticism of Rowling’s work and easy access to information about the books. Even Rowling herself says that it has been a handy reference for her as she is writing and needs to check something out from a previous book.

The website has never taken any advertising unlike several other web sites devoted to the series. So the royalties the author would earn on the book would be the only compensation he would receive for several years of diligent scholarship. The book, The Harry Potter Lexicon, is based entirely – almost verbatim – on the website. So why is Warner Bros and Rowling seeking an injunction to prevent the book which is ready for release in English and several foreign editions from being published when they have actually encouraged the website. The Lexicon author is featured in an interview to be included in the next Harry Potter DVD by Warner Brothers and a timeline he created for the books will also be on the DVD.

No question has been raised about the Potter web sites that earn tens of thousands of dollars a month through selling advertising so its hard to support the argument in the claim that it’s that the book will be sold that makes the difference. The website has had 25 million hits so the information it provides has already been widely accessed.

What’s so different about buying a book to get the same information?

And isn’t it funny that so many folks have been predicting the death of reading books and this suit argues that a book is more of a threat to their literary empire than a website?

On the other hand maybe a book does have some strengths that a website doesn’t have:

  • It’s more permanent
  • It’s edited so that the information in it should be more reliable than the website
  • It’s portable and can be accessed anywhere including the bathroom, on a plane, in bed
  • It doesn’t require access to or use of an energy source

One would think that Rowling would realize that this book has the potential to become a text in literature courses which would enhance her reputation as a literary giant rather than just an author of kids books. Not to mention the future genrations of serious literature students who will be buying her books. Harry Potter could reach the stature of Huckleberry Finn in great literature.

Lawyers are predicting that, because of the murky questions around intellectual property in various media the case could reach the Supreme Court. But that would depend on whether David, the publisher, can sell enough books to acquire the funds to fight Goliath, Warner Brothers.

One anonymous teacher who is quoted in my book, claims that her district is not using DIBELS because administrators and teachers want to use it or because it gives helpful information, because it doesn’t, she claims. “We’re using it because Reading First requires it,” she says. “Some schools are posting fluency scores of children … and then the students have race cars, in the form of bulletin boards, where they are trying to race to the speed goal. On the phoneme segmentation part, some kindergarten classrooms have been known to drill and practice the segmentation while kids are in line waiting for the restroom.”

DIBELS is not just an early literacy test. Teachers are required to group learners and build instruction around the scores. They’re evaluated on the DIBELS scores their pupils achieve. Publishers are tailoring programs to DIBELS. And academic and life decisions for children, starting in kindergarten, are being made according to DIBELS scores.

I believe this period in American education will be characterized as the pedagogy of the absurd. Roland Good, a DIBELS developer, told the U.S. House of Representatives’ Education Committee during a hearing last April that three million children are tested with DIBELS at least three times a year from kindergarten through third grade. New Mexico provides every teacher with a DIBELS Palm Pilot so the pupils’ scores can be sent directly to Oregon for processing.

Kentucky’s associate education commissioner testified at the hearing that the state’s Reading First proposal was rejected repeatedly until they agreed to use DIBELS. The DOE inspector general cited conflicts of interest by Good and his Oregon colleagues in promoting DIBELS.

Another teacher, quoted in my book, claims that while the DIBELS test is used throughout the school year, any child who receives the label “Needs Extensive Intervention” as a result of the first testing must be monitored with a “fluency passage” every other week.

No test of any kind for any purpose has ever had this kind of status. In my book, I analyzed each of the subtests in depth. Here are my conclusions:

•   DIBELS reduces reading to a few components that can be tested in one minute. Tests of naming letters or sounding out nonsense syllables are not tests of reading. Only the misnamed Reading Fluency test involves reading a meaningful text, and that is scored by the number of words read correctly in one minute.

•   DIBELS does not test what it says it tests. Each test reduces what it claims to test to an aspect tested in one minute.

•   What DIBELS does, it does poorly, even viewed from its own criteria. Items are poorly constructed and inaccuracies are common.

•   DIBELS cannot be scored consistently. The tester must time responses (three seconds on a stopwatch), mark a score sheet, and listen to the student, whose dialect may be different from the tester, all at the same time.

•   DIBELS does not test the reading quality. No test evaluates what the reader comprehends. Even the “retelling fluency test” is scored by counting the words used in a retelling.

•   The focus on improving performance on DIBELS is likely to contribute little or nothing to reading development and could actually interfere. It just has children do everything fast.

•   DIBELS misrepresents pupil abilities. Children who already comprehend print are undervalued, and those who race through each test with no comprehension are overrated.

•   DIBELS demeans teachers. It must be used invariantly. It leaves no place for teacher judgment or experience.

•   DIBELS is a set of silly little tests. It is so bad in so many ways that it could not pass review for adoption in any state or district without political coercion. Little can be learned about something as complicated as reading development in one-minute tests.

Pedagogy of the Absurd
I believe this period in American education will be characterized as the pedagogy of the absurd. Nothing better illustrates this than DIBELS. It never gets close to measuring what reading is really about-making sense of print. It is absurd that self-serving bureaucrats in Washington have forced it on millions of children. It is absurd that scores on these silly little tests are used to judge schools, teachers and children. It is absurd that use of DIBELS can label a child a failure the first week of kindergarten. And it is a tragedy that life decisions are being made for 5- and 6-year-olds on the basis of such absurd criteria.

In spite of the scandal in the administration of Reading First uncovered in the Inspector General’s report and in spite of the alarming number of schools throughout the country being falsely labeled as failing schools, NCLB was not a major issue in the mid-term elections.

Now, however, we have an opportunity to begin a nation-wide campaign to make the public and our elected officials aware of the deeper scandals involved in NCLB and particularly Reading First. We have an opportunity to build awareness of the need for drastic change in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to eliminate the punitive test driven changes of the NCLB law. ESEA needs to be returned to its original intention of supporting public education and making sure that it serves all American young people equally and fairly.

2007 is a key year. The first seven year cycle of NCLB ends and the law must be renewed by Congress for the following seven years. If NCLB continues as the law is currently written, by 2014 virtually every public school in the country will be labeled failing. That’s because the required AYP becomes increasingly unattainable. As currently written and enforced there are over 200 ways for a school or school district to fail.

Educators at all levels must take personal and collective actions to inform newly elected and reelected members of Congress of the need to save public education from NCLB.

District Administrators should invite newly elected and reelected Senators and Representatives to meet with them and to visit their schools so they can see first hand the damage being done by NCLB in its current punitive form. They should also invite the print and electronic media to these events.

We need to show them some of the things that NCLB has done to the students and teachers in their district and state.

Among the things they need to see:

  • Experienced and highly qualified teachers forced out of the schools or required to send letters to parents informing them that their children are not being taught by qualified teachers because of the way NCLB defines qualification.
  • Absurd reading tests and text programs teachers are forced to use against their professional judgement that are imposing a one size fits all approach on all pupils and hurting many of them.
  • High levels of anxiety among pupils, particularly the younger ones, from stress caused by high stakes timed tests. Parents should be invited to share their children’s reactions to the pressures NCLB is putting on them.
  • Low teacher morale which is driving many of the most dedicated teachers to leave teaching or take early retirement. Teachers should be invited to share their concerns for how NCLB constrains and limits their ability to serve their pupils as professionals.
  • English learners and handicapped children forced to meet the same AYP criteria and take the same tests as all other children. If one group fails or 95% a group is not tested the whole school is labeled as failing.
  • Limitations by NCLB on providing remedial help to students who need it within the district’s own resources while being forced to use Reading First money to contract with for profit companies who use unqualified and inexperienced staff.
  • The impact of the NCLB policy requiring the district to transfer pupils from “ failing” schools resulting in overcrowding on some schools and heavy unfunded costs to the district. Parents should be asked why they have been reluctant to ask for their children to be transferred to schools outside their neighborhood.

We need to show our elected law makers that far from eliminating the gap between the middle-class and the disadvantaged pupils in our schools, NCLB is disproportionately hurting the disadvantaged pupils. They are defeated by unachievable goals and driven out of high schools when they reach the legal leaving age.

We need to show our elected law makers the costs to our schools not only in the inadequate funding of NCLB mandates but in impoverishing the curriculum and focusing our classrooms away from the pursuit of knowledge and toward a narrow focus on improving test scores.

This is the year we can save our schools and public education from the disaster that is NCLB.

Once a decade or so, the New York Times publishes a hysterical article about “the reading wars,” in which the argument for systematic phonics instruction is advanced. They just did it again in An Old and Contested Solution to Boost Reading Scores: Phonics. The article is a predictable mess.

The phonics phanatics are hard-core. One academic used to contact my former university and demand that I be terminated whenever I questioned the phonics gospel in my magazine column. That was in addition to sending scalding letters-to-the-editor.

In 2004, the entire editorial staff of the magazine I worked for was threatened with termination for questioning Reading First. Here’s another one I wrote in 2006.

To “commemorate” the latest discovery of the “reading wars”, I humbly suggest that journalists tackle the following questions.

Q1: Anyone remember when “whole language” was banned in California? Any journalist wish to follow-up on that legacy?

Q2: Why is “balance” virtuous? Can’t it be dangerous or wrong? In my experience, educational quests for balance result in the weeds killing the flowers. In education, “balance” can be not only simplistic, but cowardly and wrong. When schools seek “balance,” the weeds always kill the flowers.

Q3: Why does the defense of systematic phonics instruction remain a top priority of the religious right?

Q4: Why are the same people so often anti-science when it comes to issues like climate change or sexual orientation and yet cling to phonics instruction as scientifically proven?

Q5: Has there been any research or journalistic investigation (or even interview) about the evolution of Lucy Calkins’ work over time? I acknowledge her contributions, but have simple profound ideas become massive curriculum products? If so, what has been lost/gained?

Q6: Where is all of this “unbalanced” whole language influence emanating from? Please name the texts or teacher preparatory programs that have gone hog wild on non-phonics-based instruction. (Not excusing the batshit crazy, sloppy, silly, reading myths SOME teachers subscribe to.)

Q7: NAME A TIME OR PLACE IN THE POST-WAR (WW II) ERA WHERE PHONICS HAS NOT COMPLETELY DOMINATED READING INSTRUCTION. Doesn’t a “reading war” require actual combatants? One side has nuclear weapons and every White House, the other has Shel Siverstein.

Q8: How can you publish an article about the reading wars without any input from the seminal experts on the losing side? Where is the expertise of scholars such as, Frank Smith, Ken Goodman, Richard Allington, Herbert Kohl? I know you now how to reach Stephen Krashen. He writes letters-to-the-editor of the New York Times regularly.

Q9: How about writing an article in which lots and lots of experts do nothing but define “phonics,” “whole language,” “literacy,” “balanced literacy,” “reading,” and “instruction?”

Q10: If everyone learns to read by being taught a sequence of 43 phonemic sounds, how do you explain children reading in Israel, China, Japan, or other countries with non-phonemic languages. How can deaf people possibly learn to read without phonics>

I respectfully implore you to investigate the effects of an unconscionable lack of access to high-interest reading material in classrooms and school libraries in places like Los Angeles and Oakland. https://www.accessbooks.net/school-library-crisis.html

There are but a few reading memories I have from my childhood. I loved McCloskey’s Homer Price, The MAD Adventures of Captain Klutz, Woody Allen’s Without Feathers, D’aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths and was rather fond of the Uncle Remus “trickster” fables. There was a big brightly illustrated picture book series by Miroslav Sasek called, This is Australia, This is Stamford… that made me dream of travel to faraway lands. I also remember using Battle for the Planet of the Apes (the novelization) when my 12th grade English teacher required oral interpretation of a novel.

Fourth grade was a year of revelations for me. I realized that if I painted everything black I could get the child study team to come in and evaluate me on a regular basis. Rorschach Tests were MUCH more interesting than copying lists of spelling words. I also continued my crusade to become a G-Man just like my boyhood hero, J. Edgar Hoover. If forced, I might have chosen to grow-up as Evil Knievel, although there were more jobs for crime-fighters than daredevils.

There was a series of books in the school library that captured the imaginations of my boyhood friends and me. I remember what the books looked like. Most had red covers with black and white photos consuming the bottom half. The author was C.B. Colby. Thanks to the World Wide Web’s ability to archive bizarre ideas and products I’ve been able to track down a few of the actual titles of these literary masterpieces.

  • Bomber Parade Headliners in Bomber Plane History
  • Chute!: Air Drop for Defense and Sport
  • Submarine Warfare: Men, Weapons, and Ships
  • FBI: The G-Mens’ Weapons and Tactics For Combat
  • Six-shooter: Pistols, Revolvers, And Automatics, Past And Present
  • Two centuries of weapons, 1776-1976
  • Jets of the World: New Fighters, Bombers and Transports
  • Fighter Parade: Headliners in Fighter Plane History
  • First Rifle How to Shoot It Straight and Use It Safe
  • Musket to M-14 Pistols, Rifles and Machine Guns
  • Leatherneck : The Training, Weapons and Equipment of the United States Marine Corp
  • Fighting Gear of World War II Equipment and Weapons of the American G.I

And my personal favorite… Art and Science of Taking to the Woods

I checked these books out of the library by the armload although I’m not sure I actually read them. The photos contributed to my world of fantasy play. Being seen with the texts of Mssr. Colby was as important to gender identity as were water pistols, cap guns, plastic guns that fired rubber pellets and the Boy Scouts – all military artifacts which I enjoyed as a child.

One can imagine the smell of C.B. Colby books being incinerated by schools in the post-Columbine era. I don’t own a gun, despise the stain on American history left by J. Edgar Hoover, am a champion of civil rights for all and have shot very few people despite having read the violent manifestos of C.B. Colby. I must have turned out alright because Marilyn Manson and the web didn’t exist when I was a child. Or perhaps it was because I had adults around who I could talk to?

© 2001 Gary S. Stager

Originally published in the June, 2001 issue of Curriculum Administrator Magazine

We are cheating our students by turning reading into a game of dodgeball.

There is lots of talk about games and education these days. Educators mystified by students’ indifference to schooling are all too easily taken in by slick talkers drawing grandiose conclusions from some kids’ love aff airs with video games. Rather than take the steps necessary to make school more social, teachers more engaging, and curriculum more relevant, we either shift blame to parents, TV and hip hop, or seek salvation in the lessons of Grand Theft Auto.

Kids have always spent long periods of time engaged in activities different from those valued by school. Most display a talent for developing an encyclopedic knowledge of topics from dinosaurs to sports statistics to gossip. Children whose passion or aptitudes happen to match the tested curriculum are declared “good students.”

While we marvel at the intensity and focus required for children to achieve video game success, we are quick to label the same children as having attention deficits while in class. The capacity of children for intensity is squandered by mountains of worksheets, timed tests and other curricular contradictions.

Students as Workers

While we obviously recognize the value of play in video games, we cancel recess and build schools without playgrounds, referring to students “as workers.” As fewer children enjoy the sportsmanship and healthy competition learned from a friendly game of kickball with classmates, they have been transformed into soldiers in a high-stakes political game of international economic competitiveness.

Perhaps there are many more distractions facing children today, but great teachers continue to create environments where their students want to be and to learn. The answer to bad teaching is better teaching, not another worksheet, get tough movement or quick fix. The sad truth is that schools may be better at destroying interest in a subject than inspiring it.

A friend used to require his students to write a weekly television show review. This satisfied a variety of language arts objectives and shared the unintended consequence of the traditional book report: Students’ interest in TV would decrease with each report required.

Illiteracy is not a problem among preschoolers. Every toddler enjoys books. It isn’t until children attend school that they begin to feel self-conscious or failures as readers. We tell kids what to read. We interrupt their reading with comprehension quizzes. We rush, test, score, fail and recover them. We reduce the world of literature to “Fawn at Dawn.” In way too many cases, school has a highly effective prophylactic affect on reading. An alarming number of learning disabilities result.

Winning Points

Too often, schools respond to the literacy crises they create by turning reading into a game. I remember being told that I read 750 words per minute, a feat unmatched by TV’s Steve Austin. The secret behind my bionic ability was a talent for guessing answers to multiple-choice questions, not superhuman comprehension.

Many classrooms today use a popular software program to test student reading. No longer do students read for pleasure or information. They read to win points in a misguided effort to mechanize teaching and learning. This perverse notion of motivation turns reading into a contest with winners and losers. Strong readers choose simpler books to rack up points quickly, while struggling readers are humiliated by the public nature of their scores.

Guess what? Teachers tend to become dependent on teacher-proof systems and stop exercising professional judgment. While the company behind this system has been very nimble and creates tests for new books, teachers are unlikely to value the reading of a book not in the system.

Reading for fun wastes time you could spend crushing your classmates. With score tables automatically generated and parents alerted to their child’s pole position, teachers will invariably use the points in grading students regardless of the program’s intent.

Turning reading into a game is neither effective nor very good for inspiring lifelong readers.

Originally published in District Administration Magazine – April 2008

Last week, my 7 year-old nephew, (let’s call him) Homer, brought home another stupendous homework assignment. He was required to read a phonics primer to his parents, get his parents to sign that they had been sufficiently tortured by the experience and then answer comprehension questions on a worksheet.

The book was titled, Fawn at Dawn.

Here is an excerpt from this classic tale…

I saw a fawn. I saw a fawn at dawn… I saw a fawn at dawn on my lawn…”

Homer then whipped out his worksheet and assumed the role of literary critic.

Question #1: The story was about?
The story was about a girl named Jenny who saw a fawn, but nobody believed her.

Question #2: Favorite part of the book?
The end because the story was very porly (sic) written

The teacher corrected the spelling of “poorly” despite the mistake being wholly consistent with phonics instruction. Then things began to get a bit ugly.

Question #3: Who else do you think would like this book?
I don’t think anyone would like this book. It’s just aw aw aw awful!

On Homer’s paper the teacher wrote something to the effect of “I’m sorry you didn’t like it. I guess you have the right to your opinion.” (as if she LOVED the book) In class the teacher dismissed Homer’s critique by reminding the kids that this was a phonics lesson so the stories don’t have to be good.

The moral of this story?
Homer has been reading fluently for three years and loves books, but this one-size-fits-all assignment made no allowances for his skill or personal interests. In fact, there would be no time for pleasure reading that night because by the time this second grader gets off the bus at 4:30 PM, does his homework and eats dinner there is rarely any time left to waste on playing with friends, practicing an instrument, visiting with his parents or reading a good book.

Couldn’t Homer read a real book and make a list of the “aw” words he encountered?

If I were to suspend my disbelief and stipulate that every child learns to read by systematically mastering 43 phonemes I am left with a simple question. Once a child can read shouldn’t phonics instruction end? Why has phonics become a separate subject rather than a decoding strategy?

Why should Homer and his literate friends be subjected to crummy reading materials until middle school when a bumper crop of high-quality high-interest literature is available?

Originally published Sunday, March 18, 2007 in The Pulse: Education’s Place for Debate