Great Expectations! Brought to you by libraries and play

  • A huge thank you to Carole Edelsky for her work in revising my pieces.

“Expectation—Set realistic expectations for language and literacy development. Become familiar with the developmental stages of emergent literacy, and support children in appropriate tasks. Expect that they will become accomplished readers and writers in their own time.”

My elementary school librarian was extremely instrumental in my love for literacy. I grew up in a small town where everyone knew everyone. It was a community where our elders genuinely cared about the next generation, and our school librarian was no different. Mrs. Stelton lived 4 houses down from my grandparents and we’d exchange greetings as I rode my bike past her house.

During the school year every week when we visited the library, Mrs. Stelton would greet me and wonder what I was interested in reading about this week, I’d tell her and off we went searching for a book that fit that description. Or she’d have a book she thought I’d like and do a little book talk to help me determine if it was a checker outer. I’d either accept the invitation, or we’d continue our search. And of course, she also just let me search on my own too.

I expect she did this for every child who entered her library, but she made me feel extremely special and she believed in me as a reader. Never did she ask me what my reading level was. (Fortunately, that wasn’t a thing back then.)

Her actions and her belief in me taught me a lot about what it is to be a reader because she believed that I was an actual reader.

Her actions may be part of the reason I chose to teach literacy the way I did. I knew that every student who entered my classroom was already an accomplished reader and writer. But I also knew that I needed to establish a relationship with each and every one of them. As explained in my previous blog, community and relationship building were essential for all learning expectations.

With over 1,000 books in my classroom library, students and I were constantly figuring out what book we wanted to read next. Thankfully we also had an amazing school library with a full time librarian if one of my books wasn’t a fit. Students did book talks to lure a peer into another world of reading.

Another very important lesson we covered numerous times was the idea that there was no such thing as a better reader. We were all readers but in different ways. All of us spent time talking with each other about our reading journeys. We talked about our understanding of the text we read and took it much deeper through connections, questions, inferences and evaluating how those words inform and change how we interact with life.

Reading instruction also involved a lot of writing as students were expected to reflect on the text they were reading. Because I know that everyone’s reading journey is different, our focus was on understanding the reader and the processes they now felt comfortable with as well as ones they wanted to work on.

Unfortunately, with my own children’s experiences today, the system expects deficiency; the system deems them deficient unless they can prove competency by jumping through a digitized test that cannot determine a child’s reading ability. The first days of school are busy with assessments, routines and rules. Nurturing relationships are hard to establish in such a sterile environment. They wanted my children to be readers before they were developmentally ready to read. They wanted to force this without even getting to know who my child was. Data walls have become more important than understanding each and every child. Today’s system is bent on standardizing them. Our children are not standard commodities and they are not deficient. The system is.

School systems across this country no longer allow our children to play even though play is the best way for children to learn. Schools are devoid of community building that develops through play and engaging activities. Children are expected to be reading at a certain “pseudo” level before they are even developmentally ready to be readers. The school system didn’t believe my own children were able to become readers and writers. That expectation alone sets our children up for failure. Fortunately, I knew better and didn’t let the school system determine their paths. Fortunately, my bond with my children is strong and they trusted me. So they could adopt my belief in their journeys as readers and writers. I refuse a lot of the current system practices of test, drill and kill and constant deficit-model instruction. Schools state they are working to meet each child’s needs. In reality schools are working to provide what the systems want. The empirical evidence is extremely clear that relationships and trust lead to high expectations.

Children need to play and discover. They need to be actively engaged in all aspects of learning. They come to school wanting to learn. But when control is taken from them, this desire disappears and they become passive.

Fortunately, I got to teach at a time when I could create a classroom environment devoted to active learning, an environment in which my expectations were higher than any standard. One of my last years in the classroom, I was allowed to take a few students to showcase our classroom’s work. As one student explained our work, an adult stated she must be the smartest kid in the class. She stated quite clearly and quickly that everyone in our class was smart. Just in different ways.

Unfortunately, due to top down standardized mandates, many children will never have opportunities to live up to high expectations.

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