Deeper than data


Moonrise. magnoidCC BY-SA

Papers are spread across the conference room table. The projector shines a graph – a student’s reading assessment history – on a screen. Discussions center on interpreting the erratic data points on a trend line in relation to the aim line toward a goal, the rate of improvement, and whether or not this student is a retention candidate.

A colleague turns to me: “What do you think? You’re the literacy person.”

I consider the numbers, the color-coded risk categories, where this child falls in all of it.

“I don’t know,” I reply. “I haven’t heard this child read.”

Silence. Eyes are on me.

“I need to know what exactly this child is doing during reading, how the child approaches it, feels about it, what the actual strengths and weaknesses are. Until I do, I cannot say what I think. Data is information but it doesn’t tell the whole story, only little pieces at specific points in time. I have to listen to the child.”

I leave the meeting to do just that.

The child is eager to read and turns out to be highly accurate, reading slowly and deliberately; the time that it takes this child to finish reading is why a high risk is indicated on some measures. In fact, the child can read and fully comprehend text above grade level expectation. The only enemy is time, and that’s only an issue in assessing. The desire to read, the ability to self-monitor, and an obvious work ethic so early in life will take this child far.

I think of Brené Brown, professor-author, who says: “I am a storyteller. I’m a qualitative researcher. I collect stories; that’s what I do. And maybe stories are just data with a soul.”

Data is the dust jacket; behind it there’s a story, and in the center of the story is a little soul.

It takes another soul to reach it.

I listen to another child reading with great flow and prosody, to discover that this young reader isn’t making meaning beyond the surface of the text – and struggles a bit even to retell what’s explicitly there. This child, whose data looks near-ideal, “in the green,” is of far greater concern. Supports need to be put in place immediately or this child will fall through the cracks.

On paper – on the dust jacket – this child looks just fine.

A few months ago, as I was printing data reports in the computer lab, I saw a young man walking with a class down the hallway. Subs are getting younger and younger, I thought, gathering my papers and returning to my room to begin analyzing them. Two colleagues joined me at my table.

The young man came into my room, smiling. “Mrs. Haley, do you remember me?”

I look at him. A little face, frowning over a book, springs into my mind. “Yes, I do! Goodness, you’ve grown up!” Mentally, I am counting off years – Good grief, how long have I been doing this?

Turns out he’s not a sub, he’s a high school volunteer. I breathe a little easier about the passage of time. He was one of my first intervention students at this school.

“I am planning to go to college to teach,” he says with a grin. I marvel at his poise. He exudes young professionalism.

“Really? What do you want to teach?”

“Reading. In fifth grade. I think I can help the kids love it. I really didn’t love it until I was in high school and suddenly I couldn’t read enough – I read all the time.”

I am awed. “That’s amazing! I am so glad to know. The kids need you. What a great role model you’ll be.”

One of the colleagues at my table asks: “Was there a particular teacher who inspired you?”

His face – once so little and serious, nearly scowling as he sat at this very table – lights up with a beatific smile.

“Yes. Mrs. Haley.”

My colleagues’ eyes tear up. I cannot even blink, cannot quite process this.

“But – you said you really didn’t enjoy reading until high school,” I manage.

“It took a while,” he laughs. “Reading was hard for me when I was little. I didn’t think I’d ever be good at it. You were the one that gave me the confidence, the one who said I could do it. I kept trying.”

Behind the data is a story. Behind the story is a little soul. A precious one.

Sometimes we never know how the story unfolds once the children go on. We only play a part for a little while, but how priceless is that tiny window.

If data were the whole story, I wouldn’t be a teacher, wouldn’t be writing this now. My parents didn’t go to college; one didn’t finish high school. The odds were against me. But my parents bought books and magazines, my grandmother read to me long before I went to school, and teachers challenged me all along to strive for more.

Another meeting, another table strewn with papers. I stand up. “I have to go now. It’s time for me to read with a student.”

This student and I read every day, if we can. He struggles with vocabulary but his primary issue is lack of confidence – he doesn’t want his peers to hear him.

I am running late. When I find him, he tries to hide a smile.

“I thought you forgot,” he says, as we settle at the table.

“I was in a meeting,” I explain. “I had to leave it.”

Pure astonishment is on his face. “You left a meeting? To read with me?”

“Well, yes. Your reading is important. Let’s get going.”

He looks at me, wide-eyed. “I can’t believe someone would do that.”

“You’re more important than the meeting,” I say.

He smiles in spite of himself.

And he reads.

I listen.


21 thoughts on “Deeper than data

  1. This post is so eloquent and helps articulate for me why I always feel so frustrated when given the task of “analyzing” the data. “Data is the dust jacket; behind it there’s a story, and in the center of the story is a little soul.” love love love this quote…..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for your words – I am delighted that the quote resonated so with you! I so understand the frustration. We are often data-rich without knowing the story and soul behind it – and that’s where all the value lies.


  2. This. Is. Everything. You have put into words all of the things I’ve been thinking and feeling for a long time. As a parent who is about to have a kindergartner in the fall (and who has seen through the lenses of both teacher and coach), this is something that is often on my mind. Will someone listen to my son to learn his story, or will they simply analyze what he knows and what he hasn’t learned yet and judge? I especially love the ending of this piece–thank you for the reminder of why we walk in the doors of our schools every single day.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m amazed at the depth of your response here and that it connected so with your thoughts about your son. That’s definitely a double-edged sword of sorts, being mom and an educator, knowing “too much.” We are the greatest asset that our own children have – and it’s a privilege to be an asset and advocate for other children. Some days are definitely better than others but I, too, needed the reminder of why we do what we do.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I want a poster of this to hang in the conference room where we meet to discuss data.

    “I need to know what exactly this child is doing during reading, how the child approaches it, feels about it, what the actual strengths and weaknesses are. Until I do, I cannot say what I think. Data is information but it doesn’t tell the whole story, only little pieces at specific points in time. I have to listen to the child.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wow, what a thought – a poster in your conference room! Those are totally my thoughts when I listen to a child read – I try to make it as pleasurable as possible. I don’t want them to be nervous or anxious but it’s amazing to see how early these habits form, and unlearning is harder than learning. Thank you. 🙂


  4.! The message, the truth that it speaks. I could go on and on. Wouldn’t I just love to talk to you in person?! We walk the same walk and talk the same talk. I’ll also sing your praises for the writer’s voice that comes across in your post! As always, it’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for sharing, Fran! ~Amy

    Liked by 1 person

    • Amy, you are ever-gracious and wouldn’t we have a blast together in person?! I guess we might never run out of things to talk about! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts in return. 🙂


  5. YES! I have tears just reading this. There is so much more to the reader than just a few data points. Reading your words also brought to my mind the issue of readiness too. Your student wasn’t ready to grow into his reading life until he got a bit older. Now, he can’t stop. Your slice is priceless!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Goodness, sorry about the tears -! I absolutely value your observation about readiness & growing into a reading life. That’s an excellent point. I will live on the glow of the knowledge that it happened for a long, long time, maybe forever.


  6. This is a great story! You have made so many important connections with students and now they are coming back to tell you! Wow! I would think this would be the ultimate outcome for any educator! Data is a difficult subject. It seems that district’s never quite get it right – either they ignor data (my district does this – I know because I asked for some data related to why students were repeatedly dropping a specific course), or districts’s give too much weight to the data they have. I think you have it right, assess the child, not the numbers. Thanks for an inspriational post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think sometimes there’s an overload of data and people in various stages of knowing how to run and interpret it – all ongoing. The sad part is that some labeling may occur and some services not offered because people didn’t look beyond the data to find out what the story really is. Every child is so different. There cannot be blanket or sweeping statements made. Thank you so much for your reply!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This is one of the most special SOLs I’ve read. Thank you so much for reminding us to focus on the child – not the papers and data. What a an incredible impact you are having on your young (and older) readers.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I teach in Oregon as an elementary reading specialist and your story really touched me. I have taught for 20 years now and watched the changes come and go. I just loved the way you addressed looking at the student data and your response about needing to hear the student read. Each student is unique with individual needs, obstacles, and gifts to give our world. No one should ever be just a set of data points. Thank you for sharing this so beautifully. I will be passing it on to my co-workers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much. You’re so right about the different needs and gifts and every child being different – I could tell many stories. There are people who say that data doesn’t lie but I know that there are many variables with data that merit careful analysis, the biggest part of which is getting to the story behind it – the “why.” Our question has to be, for every child, what does THIS child need and how can I make it happen? It begins with the human connection, the rapport. It’s a unique challenge but also a unique privilege – lives hang in the balance. I am so glad you enjoyed the post – thank you again for letting me know. Joy to you and yours!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s