For seven days in April, I was on assignment to observe a fourth grade classroom. I was most eager to see what the kids were reading, the variety in their book selections and, of course, how many of them chose nonfiction.
What did I learn about their reading choices? Absolutely nothing. Why? Because during the seven days I was there THE KIDS DID NOT READ ANY BOOKS. Yes, you read that correctly.
There was no independent reading. There was no quiet reading time. Not even a single read aloud by the teacher.
In New Jersey, students in grades three through eight take the ASK (Assessment of Skills and Knowledge) standardized test in May. This means that in April, teachers are encouraged to teach to the test. In this particular fourth grade classroom in a poor neighborhood that needs all of the state funding dollars it can get, the teachers focused almost exclusively on preparing students to take the test. Thus all math and science lessons were devoted to material on the test. Literacy workshops focused on how to read and respond to the kinds of questions most frequently found on said standardized tests.
I watched quietly. I grew more and more frustrated. The kids didn’t seem to be intellectually stimulated on any level. I knew what could have helped them. A few good books.
When studying the few facts about the planets that were required by the test, they should have read every single Seymour Simon book on the individual planets. This would have gotten every kid interested and thinking about the solar system. They would have remembered much more than which the mandatory information, like which planet is the third from the sun, and began to think about exploring space in depth. For math, they should have tossed out those boring worksheets that focused on the same skill set over and over again. Instead, they could have cozied up with some of David Schwartz’s books on how far a frog can jump or estimating how many kernels are in a ginormous bag of popcorn. Understanding the overall concepts would have led them to come up with their own mathematical examples. And I’ve never seen kids less enthused by a boring googled image of a food web--they just didn't care. But let them read April Pulley Sayre’s Trout Are Made of Trees and they would have made all sorts of connections that might have got them thinking about it in a much more sophisticated way.
I could easily go on. Name a curriculum and there are interesting books out there on topic and beyond.
We’re not necessarily doomed to be stuck with an ineffective system. Our education system can be so much more than standardized testing. Good books are there for the teaching.