In January, two figures sneaked into the book room of a Colorado public school after unlocking the door with a key from the ring the principal had given one of them for access to a supply closet.
“We both wanted to get into the book room, but did not feel comfortable asking for permission because we felt we would be questioned and watched,” Melissa* says.
Melissa hid in the room—among pallets of unused textbooks and resources, and cupboards stacked floor to ceiling with neglected novels—while Rebecca*, who had been given the key ring, returned it to the principal before hurrying back to meet Melissa.
“We were ridiculous and hysterical,” Rebecca says. “We looked through the books with the lights off.”
Rebecca and Melissa, who signed confidentiality agreements when they were hired and consented to be interviewed only on the condition of anonymity, work at the middle school. Rebecca teaches 7th and 8th grade Language Arts, 7th and 8th grade Reading Intervention, and Special Education Reading Intervention. Melissa teaches 6th, 7th, and 8th grade Language Arts and Reading Intervention.
That day in the book room, the two were secretly returning Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, which they’d both read with their respective classes despite the administration’s insistence that novels not be taught. Books have been off limits to students and teachers for about two years.
“The former superintendent believed that at-risk students should be taught skills in isolation and that reading books was a frivolity that they did not benefit from. That is, it does not help test scores,” says Rebecca, who has ten years of teaching experience, much of it with at-risk students.
Adds Melissa, who is on her second year of teaching, “He said, and I quote, ‘Novels are a waste of time.’”
The “he” they’re referring to is Mike Miles, the controversial superintendent who has since moved on to Texas where he now heads the Dallas Independent School District.
Under Miles’ leadership, Rebecca says, teachers were to follow a strict classroom schedule that included setting a timer for each activity (which Rebecca says she refused to do). When the timer went off, teachers were to check for understanding and move on to the next activity. It was all part of Miles’ attempt to “streamline” teaching and raise students’ test scores. (Data regarding his effectiveness has been inconclusive.)
The YouTube video “Superintendent Miles Teaching 8th Grade Math” illustrates the extent of Miles’ streamlining. Each student, upon entering the room, receives an index card from the teacher (in this case, Miles) who greets them at the door. At their desks, they each have a small whiteboard, which Rebecca explains teachers are to use to assess student comprehension: “Can they answer the question correctly, immediately?”
“White boards on three: one, two, three,” Miles says in the video, and the students hold up their answers. In the next scene, Miles, a West Point graduate and former Army Ranger, points at numbers projected onto the wall and says, “Do you get me.” It doesn’t sound like a question.
“We get you, sir!” the students shout in unison.
“Each class must have four components,” Rebecca says. “Warm-up, direct instruction, activity, assessment of learning. Every day. Every class. And no concept may be taught more than two days consecutively.”
She calls the system “crazy-making” and says the teacher of that math class had to reteach the lesson after Miles left the room because the students were so confused. It is a system she insists trains “factory workers” who will perform quickly rather than young thinkers who look beyond the fast response. It is also a system that discounts her instincts and experience, crippling her—and Melissa’s—ability to treat students as individuals and create lifelong learners.
That is, it would if they followed the rules. But it’s important to both of them not to.
Rebecca and Melissa teach at a Title 1 school, which means 75 percent or more of the students live below the poverty line and are considered “at-risk.” The students and/or their family members often have criminal records. It was this particularly troubled demographic that drew Rebecca from another part of the country to the Colorado school.
As a child, Rebecca would have been considered at-risk. Her parents were married and divorced several times—to each other and to other people. Sometimes they were extremely poor, other times they weren’t. Nothing was constant. Books were her escape. She read “any and all romances” for their happily-ever-after endings and mysteries for their resolutions.
On an educational level, the books helped Rebecca develop an advanced vocabulary at a young age and taught her about the world, history, and the universal human condition. As a teacher, she uses books to inspire her students to learn. Before moving to Colorado, when she taught novels to at-risk high school students, Rebecca found it was necessary to read to them for an hour at a time just to get them through the book. But when she reached the last page, the students felt an immense sense of accomplishment and would brag that they had “read a whole book.”
So she reads novels—James and the Giant Peach and Big Friendly Giant, among others—with her 7th and 8th graders even though, according to school rules: novels are not to be taught, she may not read aloud for more than 10 minute, excerpts may not exceed two pages, and students may not read aloud to each other.
“Reading aloud is (good) hard work for these kids. When they are reading, they’re barely comprehending because they’re so busy decoding. The kids who are listening have time to process and come up with the most fantastic connections, comments and questions,” Rebecca says. “After the first one, they begged for another, so we’re all reading our second book together now.”
Melissa had been considering defying the school administration and teaching novels on her own, but it wasn’t until she knew Rebecca was doing it that she mustered the courage. “It felt like we were being punished for wanting to put books in the hands of students. Ultimately, I wasn’t doing (them) any favors by keeping novels out of their hands; in fact, it was hurting them as growing thinkers.”
She says that some of her most troublesome students this year ended up becoming the most eager to know what book they would be reading next. One of her 8th graders said she wished there were extra copies so she could take one home, but the copies they have—several of which were donated after Rebecca put out a call on social media—are limited. Another of Melissa’s students checked out a copy of the assigned book from the public library because he didn’t like having to leave it at school when class ended.
“After reading novels in class, I’ve noticed that my students are learning to stick with something for longer than five minutes and to not base their thinking strategies around a timer on the board,” Melissa says. “Their observations and connections are more meaningful and insightful than ever before. Honestly, I’ve never seen such good work from my students as when we started reading novels in class.”
All of the larger benefits of novel as learning tools aside, Melissa asks a pertinent question: “What else are you supposed to teach in a Language Arts class if you’re not allowed to read books?”
For as long as they remain at the school, the two intend to keep reading complete novels with their students. However, neither will be there much longer. Rebecca, who received scores of “0” on a class evaluation taken while she and her students were reading together, resigned in January and says she expects to be escorted out of the building at any time. She will continue teaching, but somewhere else.
“I can’t stay. It’s all too crazy there. So little focus on the kids and their education, and too much focus on policy and political posturing, are what make that district a toxic place to learn and teach. I have asked myself, should you retire? Are you truly a bad teacher? If you really care about these kids, why can’t you play nice and just get along with admin so you can be there? I have been asked back to three of my prior positions. This district chipped away at my confidence, but the universe and my experience have helped me to rebuild it.”
Melissa, on the other hand, plans to leave the district, the state, and for the time being, teaching.
“When I decided to teach, I thought that I would get to share with my students what made me fall in love with literature and school: reading novels, having deep discussions, and sharing the love of reading and learning with my students. Instead, I’m bogged down by paperwork and a million nonsensical rules to follow, forced to work harder, not smarter. Who knows? Maybe years down the road, when people aren’t so focused on the test anymore and we can rediscover the joy of reading, maybe I’ll come back to the classroom.”
Kristen J. Tsetsi is an award-winning fiction writer and a feature writer & columnist for a Connecticut newspaper. Kristen is a former instructor of expressive writing, play writing, and screenwriting, a former adjunct English professor, and a former cab driver. Kristen is also the author of the semi-autobiographical wartime novel, Pretty Much True… .