A matter of diet

Listening to a friend extolling the value of a high-fat, low-carb diet (“My sister-in-law, who’s had a weight problem all of her life, has lost sixty pounds. She looks great!”) got me thinking.

The conversation went something like this…

ME: It’s contrary to all we were taught, you know, with the food pyramid.

FRIEND: Right. That food pyramid is wrong. All those grains-!! The carbs-!!

ME: Well, in this heart-healthy era …

FRIEND: The diets cardiologists promote are NOT heart healthy. They’re detrimental. Dangerous.

ME: Hmmm … high-fat kind of amazes me, though. We keep being told that eating low-fat is healthy.

FRIEND: Low-fat is the WORST OF ALL. Take milk, for example. You’re altering it if you remove the fat. It’s supposed to have fat. Our bodies don’t recognize food that’s altered, they’re not designed to handle it, don’t know what to do with it besides convert it to sugar … plus, we’ve depleted important nutrients that we need from the soil …

ME: So do you take vitamins or supplements with this diet?

FRIEND: Yes. Boron, for example …

Boron?

It’s in borax. A cleaning agent. When I was a child, my family used Fab laundry detergent. The jingle, “Fab, I’m glad, there’s lemon-freshened borax in you!”—heavens, I haven’t thought of that in decades.

Boron, stuff of cosmic rays and exploding stars. Not overly plentiful in the universe or in the Earth’s crust, yet necessary to plants’ growth. Apparently it has a number of human health benefits, for everything from the brain to the bones to attacking kidney stones. But too much can be toxic. Plants will die, humans can be poisoned …

ME: It comes down to what each person needs, really. The same amount of anything could be too little for one person and too much for another.

FRIEND: Exactly. It’s a matter of finding what works for each person.

—And THAT is what got me thinking about a reading diet.

As someone who’s in and out of classrooms across grade levels daily, listening to children read, here is what I know: They don’t all need the same things. Some need a little supplement—the right supplement. Some need extra decoding or phonics support. Some need comprehension support (the point of reading is, after all, making meaning of it). Some are learning the language. Some have intensive needs requiring highly specialized support. Many need help with phrasing, with prosody, with CONFIDENCE … and what about vocabulary? ALL need to be read to, every day.

Reading is complex. Teaching reading is complex. There’s even an argument as to whether it can actually be taught, for readers essentially grow by … reading.

A healthy reading diet really comes down to this: What does each child need in order to grow? What is a balanced diet for this child? Too much or too little of a thing can be counterproductive. Potentially toxic.

All too often I hear students say I don’t like reading.

I sometimes ask students why but I know the answer’s partly shadowed by a much larger question: What’s being done to help kids WANT to read? To enjoy it, to love it, to stick with it? Allure is part of a diet, is it not? The pull of some promise?

Trends and beliefs about reading and reading education, like diets, are going to come and go. There will be clashes of opinion. Research is going to be (and should be) tested for validity.

And …

FRIEND: The Food and Drug Administration shouldn’t be one entity. There’s big money to be made by people not eating the right stuff and needing medication.

ME: Big money … cure-alls … why am I envisioning buzzards on a branch, poised to swoop in and devour?

[shudder]

Exactly what—or whom—is being devoured?

Photo: PlusLexia.com.

Deeper than data

Moonrise

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.