¶ … Working with the individual child in my case study was definitely enlightening in terms of understanding the struggling reader more generally. I think probably the most salient fact I learned about Jake -- the one which really occasioned the most generalized breakthrough in terms of my own understanding about this sort of educational difficulty -- was to observe specifically and intimately the differences in Jake's experience.
Vlach and Bursie (2010) emphasize the importance of "narrative" in for students in Jake's position -- my close observation really brought their conclusions home to me in an unexpected way, as it revealed the importance of narrative for educators as well. To clarify, "narrative" in this sense refers to the individual student's narrative, the way in which the story of the student's own process of learning to overcome reading difficulty is described and indeed internalized by the student himself or herself. The importance of narrative in this sense is that very often frustration and failure in this process can come from the student's internalization of the wrong or discouraging narrative. This is, quite obviously, a large factor that can make or break a student's motivation and can have lifelong effects on self-esteem as well. What Vlach and Bursie's article does not emphasize, but that was probably the chief lesson learned by me in studying an individual child, is how these narratives can affect and be internalized by an educator as well. When educators have not studied a child in depth but rely instead upon learned disquisitions rife with statistics and brimming with methodology, it is all too easy to let the shorthand of our classification systems replace our real-world sense of what the actual struggling reader (in my case a likeable and enthusiastic twelve-year-old boy) is like. What do I mean by this? I mean that, in this specific instance, Jake's Critical Reading Inventory registers his level of comprehension and fluency as being at a "second grade level," although Jake is in the seventh grade. Studying Jake in depth, and getting to observe him as a student and as a reader and (perhaps most crucially) as a human being also led me to observe an easy trap into which educators can fall: confusing the human being with the numbers and statistics. The simple fact is that the ultimate statistical gradation that is applied to Jake's Critical Reading Inventory is extraordinarily different, and vastly less complex, than the reality of observing Jake in the act of reading. On the most basic level, I got to see that Jake is actually a very good student -- he's the kind of student most classroom teachers would be thrilled to have. He is not distractible or a behavioral problem: in point of fact he is extremely well-behaved and respectful. To read the statistical designation of "second grade level" on a pre-printed form is very different from observing the real person, who tries with genuine effort and focus, and who is actually able to achieve adequate comprehension given enough time and effort.
In some sense, the close observation of Jake is something that I can extrapolate from and apply more generally in my future practices as a teacher. It is unwise to let convenient shorthand designations ("second grade level") substitute for actual close observation, and sensitivity to human realities, when dealing with a struggling reader. On the most basic level, before this experience I might have looked at a Critical Reading Inventory result, saw that a seventh grader had been registered at reading on a second grade level, and I would have assumed that (in some level) this was a bad student, and that the low performance reflected the student's own behavior, motivation, or "agency," to use the term favored by Vlach and Bursie (2010, 522). Now that I have completed this sort of close observation, I understand that the real issues are vastly more complex, and that it would actually do Jake a serious disservice to reduce him to his test results. The best way to teach Jake how to read better involves an...
The individual case study project definitely helped me as an educator to explore new strategies and resources that would be tailored to this particular student. As noted above, part of what made this seem necessary to me was the realization that this particular student is motivated and a hard worker: he wants to improve his reading skills. So the question becomes whether his reading skills have been impeded because of the methodology of instruction. Of course within Jake's own lifetime there has been a technological revolution, and it would be foolish not to take advantage of this technology for his betterment -- his age makes him a "digital native," as the current buzzword defines it, and the simple fact is that his hard work and determination, his acknowledged desire to be a better reader, makes it seem more likely that the various forms of technological assistance that can be brought to teaching him to read might actually have a positive impact. There are so many more resources available now than there even were in the year that Jake was born -- it would be unwise not to enlist any and all of these resources in the attempt to find a workable program for Jake.
3. In terms of how the individual case study was able to better enhance my own teaching, I think it was largely a matter of learning what to look for more generally by studying one particular student in detail. The most interesting facts about Jake were not available on his list of Critical Reading Inventory results -- instead they were gained by observation and practice. Noting that Jake declined every offered opportunity to take a break, for example, made me realize that in some profound sense he was trying to demonstrate his own commitment to becoming a better reader, to demonstrate it to himself if not to me.
Knowing the genuine value of what I learned from observing this particular student at close quarters begs for a way in which such practice can be integrated into actual daily teaching life. This is where the situation becomes more complicated, however, because it is not always possible to get this amount of one-on-one close observational time with a student when there is a classmate full of students vying for the instructor's attention. This led me to wonder how the basic skills I learned from this exercise could best be integrated into teaching life, and I recognize that to a certain degree the answer entails building up a substantial career-long experience. This is the first chance I have had to study a specific child's learning strategies up close. My hope is that in future, greater additional experience will permit me to recognize and know the relation between specific prescriptions and their execution. But for students specifically with reading problems, the close examination allowed me to realize how dedicated and hard-working some students can be: for today's digital natives, not being able to read is tantamount to not being able to socialize. The motives for attaining competency and fluency are stronger for a student today than they ever have been.
4. I do think that the case study brought home to me the need for differentiated instruction, for reasons I touched upon earlier: it became very obvious very quickly that reducing this student to the bare facts of his Inventory and the statistical summations gave a poor picture of what he actually looked like when in the room with me. He was actually a very hard worker and applied himself intensively to the tasks at hand. But obviously in a large class full of students, these issues become even more important -- although it is astounding how resistant many educators are to the notion of a differentiated curriculum, especially considering how respectful of, and attentive to, diversity those same educators can be under other circumstances. In some sense, a differentiated curriculum should simply be considered as a basic issue of diversity and handled accordingly: it allows different students with different methods of learning an equal access to the curriculum, and the capability of approaching the work in their own way with equivalent means of attaining and measuring success.
In terms of what I learned specifically from my study of Jake and his reading level, I think the gulf between his low performance and high levels of motivation and effort under observation demonstrates something additionally important: educators can be so focused on teaching "to the test" that they may sometimes neglect the actual learning process. The Critical Reading Inventory is obviously quite different from the state-instituted standards which have affected the educational process nationwide, but it is nonetheless a measurable standard by which Jake…
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