This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education in communities across America. Sign up for our free New York newsletter to keep up with NYC’s public schools.
The day before my first day of teaching middle school in 2018, I decorated my Brooklyn public school classroom with quotes from famous people reflecting on the importance of reading. Hanging on cream-colored cardstock were the words of Malcolm X, Toni Morrison, C.S. Lewis, Barack Obama, Maya Angelou, and dozens of other writers and thinkers. I hoped to inspire my students to fall in love with reading. I didn’t think to hope that all my students could do the very thing I was asking them to love. I didn’t know that part of my job as a sixth grade Humanities teacher would be to teach students to read in the first place.
There was a round table in the very back of my classroom that a group of five sixth-graders bee-lined to on day one. On day two, I asked one, then another, to read aloud to me. My request was met with silence, guessing, a fist slammed on the table, and a student storming out of the room. When those sixth grade students finally sat down for a reading assessment, their ability to decode print text was at a first or second grade level.
As a newly minted middle school English teacher, I was shocked by the number of students who entered my classroom unable to decode text. As I got to know them, I saw that herculean efforts to mask their reading disabilities revealed intelligence, determination, and traumatic relationships to school.
Since my first year of teaching, I have dedicated a lot of time to understanding why that happened. With the toxic combination of inaccurate reading assessments and a whole-word approach that encouraged guessing rather than decoding, the Matthew Effect (rich get richer, poor get poorer) has been in full swing in middle schools all around the country. The children who lived in text-rich environments and/or with families who could afford supplemental private tutoring got to “get it.” And those who didn’t? Many never acquired the literacy skills that are tied to power and privilege in this country.
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