Why Can’t Pandemic Johnny Read?
Updated: Feb 15
By Carly Mitchell / New York City
(The author is using a pseudonym for professional reasons)
I work as a seventh-grade English teacher at a Title 1 middle school in Brooklyn. Roughly 90 percent of my students receive free or reduced lunches. Enrollment has declined in the past few years as more white families move into the primarily Black neighborhood, bringing with them higher rents and the creation of “progressive” (mostly white) charter schools. Teachers often raise money on their own through websites like Donors Choose if they want certain supplies or up-to-date classroom technology.
I love teaching English. As a child I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by books. At one point, I even had my own library in our basement. I majored in English in undergrad and thrived in my English classes, while getting my master’s degree in the same subject. I became a teacher because I wanted to foster this love of reading and writing in young people. I wanted them to experience reading and writing the way that I did and still do–as a way to escape to another world, and to get to know yourself and others in a more intimate way.
But the harsh reality is that only four of the 56 students that I teach actually read at a seventh-grade level. The average student in my classroom is reading at a fourth-grade level. And the pandemic has only made that learning gap worse. Many students who were virtual last year lacked the necessary resources at home to help them really learn. And some students stopped coming to school entirely.
But we are trying our best, even with the extra challenges presented by Covid. At my school, we use a specific English curriculum, “Into Literature,” that serves as the foundation to our teaching. As an English teacher, I have few qualms about the lessons, but they are very dense and do not contain any novels, only short stories.
This foundational curriculum is supplemented by an online program called iReady, a diagnostic tool that measures student’s reading levels. iReady works like this: students take an initial diagnostic test and are then classified by the system according to their grade level. iReady then tailors the online activities students complete based on their individual needs.
For example, if a student’s reading comprehension is at a fifth-grade level, iReady will generate activities for that student to complete that will (hopefully) help them get to a seventh-grade level.
Once a week I take each of my three classes to the school computer lab to do iReady. It’s certainly helpful in that the lessons are personalized for students and involve little planning on our part, but the program is not very writing-friendly. It only aids students in reading comprehension.
I recently participated in a Phonics professional development training workshop, which we will begin implementing by mid-February. For those who don’t know, Phonics is a reading program meant for much-younger students in kindergarten to third grade, which is taught by breaking words down by their sounds. I have 10 students spread across my three classes who will be participating in this program, which means these students are reading at the K-3 level. Obviously, they need this intervention.
One major wrinkle is that I need to conduct Phonics sessions once a week for 45 minutes, and that this cannot be done in the same room as the rest of the class. We fear students who are doing Phonics may get embarrassed. It also involves mostly call-and response, which would be disruptive. As of now, I am not sure how this will look or who will be with the rest of my class while I work with these students.
Learning is not one-size-fits-all. Every teacher knows this. It is necessary to differentiate your materials and provide options so that all students glean the most from their educational experience. For example, if we read a text in class, I may work closely with some students who need the extra assistance while the others read on their own.
In that same vein, I often give students an option when we have end-of-unit assessments. Those with artistic talents may create a storyboard; tech-savvy students can create a podcast; and those who are into creative writing may write from the perspective of one of the characters.
These days though, there is just too much going on for that type of personal attention.
What’s the solution? How can I possibly help to get all of my students reading at grade level? Unfortunately, I am not sure. Neither is the New York City Department of Education, which seems to think that inundating students and teachers with new curricula and schoolwide programs is going to solve all of our issues.
It pains me as an English teacher that our school library is defunct because of budget cuts. Every time I walk past our now-shuttered library, I feel heartbroken that my students don’t have the opportunity to speak with a knowledgeable librarian who can help them navigate such a magical space.
I will admit, at times I feel like my passion for teaching is tested. There are so many obstacles, and it can be very disheartening. Nevertheless, our sense of community is strong, and as I watch as a student experiences an ‘aha!’ moment, or tells me that they relate to a character, I am reminded of why I chose to do this job in the first place.
Carly Mitchell (a pseudonym) is a public-school teacher in Brooklyn N.Y. who loves to learn, to educate, and to expose the hypocrisy of New York City politicians.