On Lexiles and Control, Chaos and Learning

This past week, my second grade son, Desmond, who is an avid and somewhat obsessive reader, came home from school and told me that his teacher didn’t want him to read the book he brought from home during their daily Readers’ Workshop. I emailed the teachers, and asked her if this was true — I figured that he might have misinterpreted what she said.

Nope — she responded by saying that while he measured an “O/P” on the Fountas and Pinnell reading assessment, and the book that he brought in (which was number 3 in a series he had been devouring) was at a higher level. “I want him to read at his independent reading level,” she wrote me, so she would continue to supply Desmond with “O/P” level books.

So, instead of reading Erin Hunter’s Warrior series, which he reads any available moment — in the car, at recess, at dinner, and EVERY SINGLE TIME we’re trying to leave the house — Desmond needs to read books that are “at his level.” Namely, Captain Underpants.

After hyperventilating a little, and writing a twitter rant (during which my horror was supported by some very fierce and knowledgeable lexile-skeptical women), I started thinking about how we, as teachers, ceaselessly try to control children and children’s learning, and on the beauty of wobbling and being less-than-100%-in-control of our students for the sake of having children truly control, and own, their own education.

My son’s classroom is, in many ways, a dream of differentiated practices: they use Lucy Caulkins’ reading and writing workshops, and they do allow students choice in their reading and writing. However, the tethering to lexile levels renders this flexibility moot. Practices like readers’ and writers’ workshops challenge teachers — many of whom have a streak of control-freak in them — to let go, existentially, of controlling the pace and form of children’s learning.

Done beautifully, workshops open up opportunities, and allow children to take control of their own learning. What may appear to be chaos, many a teacher’s bete noire, may ensue, and most of us — and I have found myself firmly in this camp for many years — have found ways to feel a greater sense of control in such situations. Maybe we put limits around what students can read or write (no comic books! no romance novels!). Perhaps we restricted how students can work (you have to work alone! you have to work in a group!). In controlling what and how children can learn or create, we have taken away perhaps what is most valuable about the bones of a workshop model: a child’s ability to self-assess, reflect, and figure out how, where and why they learn best.

We, as teachers — and as parents who poke our heads into classrooms — need to be at peace with what might seem like chaos, but what really is a skeleton that allows for the sinews and flesh of active learning. It will look like cognitive dissonance, negotiating of boundaries and meaning, experimenting with form and function, and epiphanies. It might not look like all children reading at their lexile level. It will, once we open our eyes to how varied and multiple our students’ needs and minds are, look like learning.

My son’s teacher is young and earnest, and her refusal to stray from the (flawed) gospel of lexiles is not surprising given the culture of compliance and quantitative data so prevalent in urban districts like ours. How might we nudge newer teachers towards understanding that while tightly controlling children might make us feel more comfortable, it does not serve children, who must learn to own their learning? For now, I am writing a kind and firm note to my son’s teacher, and I am taking these lessons with me into my own classroom: do not over-control, Shannon. Listen to your students. Involve them in every step of the learning process. Allow their interests and desires to guide their learning. Ask them to experiment with how and why they learn best, and don’t be discouraged if they don’t know or mess around with these ideas. Do not let creative chaos unnerve you.

(And, perhaps most concretely and usefully, throw out the damn lexile scores).

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