“How many pages does our vignette have to be?”
“Wait, how many lesson plans do we have to turn in?”
“When you say one-pager, what exactly do you mean by one page?”
My students cannot seem to get away from quantifying their thinking, this year and every year. To some extent, I understand this compulsion: despite living in a highly individualized culture, our education system prizes standardization when it comes to measuring student achievement. My kids have been indoctrinated into a culture of numerical evaluation for many years.
This has always bothered me, and my answers to these questions have varied: “However long it takes you to make your argument.” “Just write until you feel like you’ve said all you want to say, and then we’ll revise.” “Sixteen lesson plans, Joe. One per week. Good grief.” “One page. Single-spaced. Don’t be weird with your margins.”
Lately, I’ve honed in on how often we seem to want to measure the independent reading our students are doing, perhaps to prove the rigor of this practice or perhaps because we just can’t get away from quantification. If our goal is to build fluency and have students reading authentically and for pleasure, we can’t keep grading or measuring or tracking our students’ reading lives so meticulously.
A 2012 study, summarized nicely here, showed that the very act of requiring students to track their reading made them likely to read less than they would have to begin with. In contrast, students who were offered “voluntary reading logs” were actually more likely to enjoy reading, and read more often. It seems that choice is imperative.
Similarly, this article details a 2016 study which found that “the more you quantify something that’s rewarding for its own sake, the less likely you are to enjoy it—and the less likely you are, too, to do more of it.” Reading, for me, has always been rewarding for its own sake. This is what I want for my students, too, and perhaps the very reading logs and booklists I asked them to keep prevented me from helping them get there.
We’ve been thinking about alternatives to reading logs for some time, brainstorming ways to read the room between conferences, and our readers have offered this great list of possibilities, which includes:
- Student-to-teacher booktalks
- Padlet reading responses
- “Status of the class” check-ins
- Reading “focus discussions”
- Student-created rubrics for self-assessment
If measuring makes us enjoy things less, but we are bound by the rules of school and have to grade things, it follows that we should do lots of qualitative, formative assessment like the methods listed above. And not just in reading–across the curriculum, in writing and speaking and listening, too. We need to move away from measurement and toward a less quantifiable, test-heavy classroom culture.
In this video (which I could just watch on repeat, because she is such a great combination of brilliant and adorable), Nancie Atwell explains how she “doesn’t believe in tests and quizzes,” and rather evaluates students daily through portfolios, discussions, and one-on-one conferences:
We may not all have an entire school of our own like Atwell does, but we do have classrooms of our own, where we can strive to create communities of individualized achievement and assessment. The goals we have for our students–to be impassioned, informed, lifelong readers and writers–are not goals that can be measured easily. Let’s get away from an obsession with quantification and work to move our students toward the immeasurable joys of becoming real readers and writers.
Shana Karnes is so over being pregnant, and looking forward to welcoming her second daughter into the world within the month. She teaches practicing and preservice English teachers at West Virginia University and is fueled by coffee, sour gummy worms (this week), and a real obsession with all things reading and writing. Follow Shana on Twitter at @litreader and read more of her writing on the WVCTE Best Practices Blog.