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  • Tales Out of School

Getting the Answers Past Your Eyes

by Julie Scullen
 | Jun 17, 2015

A few short years ago, I had the opportunity to work as a middle school reading specialist. My role was to work with students who were not qualifying for special services but still demonstrating a need for reading intervention. On this particular day, one of my sixth-grade students had neglected to visit my office. This wasn’t unusual for Jordan. Jordan could remember what shoes I wore last Tuesday, but not once had she remembered a reading intervention session. To be fair, Jordan forgot most school-related information, but she was very knowledgeable about fashionable footwear.

About 10 minutes into the class period, I was in the doorway of her classroom. Students were busily writing in yellow packets of questions, textbooks open. The teacher looked relieved to see me. “Jordan is a bit behind in her study guide,” she told me. “Can you help her catch up in your time together?” She smiled hopefully, and I mentally threw out the close reading lesson I had planned for Jordan. Monitor and adjust.

Jordan, visibly thrilled with opportunity to escape the room during a reading assignment, grabbed her textbook and her yellow packet and practically danced to the door.

On our way back to my office space, I had a conversation with Jordan that would forever change how I approached my work with students and with staff.

“So, Jordan, what are you learning in class today?” I asked.

“I don’t know. Calories.”

I smiled. “Yes, but what are you learning about calories?”

Jordan stopped and looked at me with sympathy. Poor teacher. So uninformed. So inexperienced.

“It’s OK, Mrs. Scullen. We don’t have to understand it, we just have to do the worksheets.”

I stopped walking and contemplated this revelation. We consistently teach students to read for understanding. How could it be that Jordan had such a deeply ingrained misconception?

Suddenly I understood why Jordan couldn’t remember what she’d read, why she couldn’t participate in a discussion of what she was learning, and why her completion of packets didn’t translate to higher grades. Understanding was not her goal.

I began asking my other students about the work they were required to do with open textbooks, and I found that Jordan’s peers had similar views. Reading was a hunt for the answer the teacher expected, not a search for understanding.

Jordan and her peers were performing what I started to call “pasteurized” (past-your-eyes’d) reading. When students were reading, the words went “past their eyes” but stayed on the page. Students’ purpose for reading was to find the answers. Compliance in the task meant that their eyes saw every word. Students had somehow missed the notion that textbook reading had a purpose, and that understanding was the goal.

This mindset, not unusual for many students, highlighted the need for teachers’ modeling of their own thinking during reading. It presented a strong reason to provide multiple opportunities for close reading across genres and text types, and for providing students with the opportunity to discuss and use what they learn in class. It highlighted a need for authentic reading tasks. It forced me, and my colleagues, to change the way we framed questions and had an impact on the rigor with which we asked them.
Years later, I have Jordan to thank for changing the way I approach teaching students to approach nonfiction text, and the way I guide teachers in professional development.

Incidentally, her shoes were pink that day. Mine were brown.

Julie Scullen is a former president of the Minnesota Reading Association and Minnesota Secondary Reading Interest Council and is a current member of the International Literacy Association Board of Directors. She taught most of her career in Secondary Reading Intervention classrooms and now serves as Teaching and Learning Specialist for Secondary Reading in Anoka-Hennepin schools in Minnesota, working with teachers of all content areas to foster literacy achievement. She teaches graduate courses at Hamline University in St. Paul in literacy leadership and coaching, as well as reading assessment and evaluation.

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