Read Along: The Uncommon Problem (Or, Doug Lemov's Reading Reconsidered)

My Teach for America Institute experience was a DISASTER.

When I finished teaching my first class (a self-contained ESL/SPED classroom of 30+ students who knew that summer attendance, not effort, would get them passed on to the next grade), I went into the bathroom and cried for over an hour. I'd been so certain that I would be a natural-born teacher. I'd done countless observations at KIPP and Achievement First and Harlem Village Academies. I'd scored a teaching job on my first interview and demo lesson. I'd even diligently completed all of my Institute pre-work assignments, unlike everyone else in my cohort -- and yet they were all leaving me in the dust! I remember that when everyone else in my cohort received one area of growth on their Teaching as Leadership rubric, I received FOUR, which meant that I was basically on an improvement plan for teachers who were failures. I was ready to give up before the first day of school even started.

And then, Uncommon Schools came into my life.

At the end of Institute, we all attended a workshop, facilitated by Doug Lemov (the founder of Uncommon Schools), introducing us to what would later become the Teach Like a Champion taxonomy. I remember thinking to myself: "WHY didn't they schedule this workshop on the FIRST day of Institute?" Here was a researcher who was giving me all of the discrete skills necessary to manage a classroom and raise student achievement. Everything suddenly clicked and at the end of my first year, my students had made an average of 2.38 years in reading growth and had scored 82.7% content mastery. (Yes, I was one of THOSE Teach for America teachers.) When I decided to leave my placement school at the end of my corps commitment, I remembered the extraordinary professional development that I'd received from Doug Lemov and immediately sent in a job application to Uncommon Schools. I've been teaching at the network's flagship Brooklyn school for six years now, and I've never once considered leaving.

Teach Like a Champion should be on every graduate school of education's required reading list. It's the perfect book for first-year (or second-year or third-year) teachers who are just learning how to manage a classroom. I still whip out my copy from time-to-time to brush up on some of the techniques. (This year's focus? Techniques #43 and #44: Positive Framing and Precise Praise. Use at least five times during your opening procedures for maximum student happiness.) So now that Doug Lemov, along with Colleen Driggs and Erica Woolway, have released a new book, Reading Reconsidered: A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy Instruction, I was excited to pick up a copy -- especially since I started my career at Uncommon Schools as a sixth grade reading teacher.

And Reading Reconsidered has a lot to offer. It's basically the Uncommon Schools Reading Taxonomy compiled into book form -- extolling the merits of close reading, reading/writing integration, embedded nonfiction, and rigorous text selection. That said, when I was reading the Introduction, I became aware of a problem. It's a problem that existed in Teach Like a Champion. It's a problem that exists in Reading Reconsidered. It is, quite possibly, the Uncommon Problem.

Distilling education down to a set of discrete skills benefits many teachers. I should know; I was one of them. However, it also simplifies many of the problems that are larger than anything happening in an Uncommon classroom. In the Introduction, Lemov talks about how he was asked to "'figure out' reading." While Uncommon's math departments were closing the achievement gap at breakneck speed, students weren't reading on grade level until graduation. So the Teach Like a Champion team set about identifying the skills that teachers could use to make their students better readers. It's both noble and necessary work.

But it's also fundamentally flawed. We're never going to be able to catch students up in reading at the same speed as math, and the reasons have everything to do with public policy and little to do with instruction in our classrooms. As any literacy instructor knows, reading is made up of a series of complex skills -- decoding (and encoding), fluency, vocabulary, comprehension, background knowledge, etc. And once students have fallen behind in these skills, it's a painful and frustrating battle to catch them up. As we know from research studies (particularly Hart and Risley's "The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3"), many low-income children start struggling with literacy from the moment they leave the hospital delivery room. By age three, they've been exposed to 30 million fewer words than children from high-income families, which produces major deficits in their knowledge and skills. The answer to solving that 30 million word gap isn't the Teach Like a Champion team. It's . . .

- Generous paid maternity and paternity leave
- Free child care, especially for dual working parent households
- Universal pre-K*
- A federally-administered single-payer health care system
- Better welfare systems for providing adequate nutrition and housing to all Americans

* While I know that Bill de Blasio hasn't been an ally for charter schools, I think that universal pre-K is one of the best NYC policies in recent memories. Thank you, Mr. de Blasio, for helping our most struggling students to succeed from pre-K to college.

I've only read the first few chapters of Reading Reconsidered, and I do highly recommend the book based on what I've read so far. (Although I'm sure that I'll be bringing up the issues with text selection in a future post.) Uncommon has incredible classroom practices; that's a major part of the reason why I wanted to teach with this network. And I'm definitely not saying that classroom teachers shouldn't go above and beyond to "do their part." But we need to remember that it really is just their part. America's low-income students need more than a few good superteachers in order to close the literacy gap. They need an entire system of community, state, and federal support. I worry that when we put the onus entirely on teachers, when we say that everything they need to be successful can be found inside a "toolbox," we're perpetuating a culture that scores, ranks, and subsequently shames teachers for trying their best in a failing system.

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