Report from Louisiana: on Reading and Education

By:  Pat Austin

SHREVEPORT – With the resignation of Louisiana State Superintendent of Education John White, effective in March, many Louisiana educators are closely watching the process and the candidates for the post.

Personally, I shed no tears over John White’s exit. Under his tenure we have moved into Louisiana’s version of Common Core of which I have been a vocal opponent.

I am on year twenty-four right now, in my career, and plan to do one more and then leave the profession.  I have no desire to teach from a canned, scripted curriculum that assumes one size fits all in the classroom. The education profession has become something I no longer recognize; it might be better, it might not, but it’s left me behind.

As a secondary ELA teacher, it hurts my soul that my students no longer read novels. In tenth grade, only the PreAP, or honors kids, are assigned an entire novel and that is a summer reading assignment. In the classroom, my curriculum is based around two “anchor texts,” Macbeth, and then The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. We do actually read all of Macbeth but with Lacks, we only read the Prologue. We are required to read many, many scientific articles about ethics. We read a couple of short stories. We do a whole lot of graphic organizers.

So, it is my hope that the new Superintendent of Education will put an end to this nonsense and bring back actual textbooks rather than copied articles. But, it is also true that the new superintendent could double down and make this all worse.

The one thing that has made all of this bearable to me is that I am still fighting for my students. A couple of years ago I started a classroom library and in my classroom every child reads for fifteen minutes at the beginning of ever class period. Their reading is from a book of their choice and I’ve built a nice collection of both fiction and non-fiction.

My school is a high-poverty school and is Title 1. Most of my kids are not on grade level and many don’t have books at home. And you know what? The buy-in for my reading initiative has been awesome! It is pure joy to me to look out at my kids during that fifteen minutes and see every kid buried in a book, reading.  I hold them accountable only by their Friday reading response journals: every Friday each student writes a letter to me about what they’ve been reading all week. I often respond back, with a couple of sentences, and we have a sort of dialogue about their books.

Whenever a student finishes a book they’ve really enjoyed, they tell their friends and through word of mouth, interest spreads.

I now have students that have left my class and moved on come back to my room asking to check out a book. We have a school library as well, and some go there. But many of these kids now trust me to recommend a book they will like, or they know that I will order the next book in a series they’re reading. We’ve built a relationship around books. It’s pure joy!

I started out building this classroom library by going to thrift shops and pillaging every Little Free Library near me. I went to garage sales and estate sales. I ordered a lot of books with my own money, I wrote a grant and a local television station gave me money to buy books. I used my own blog and social media accounts to beg for donations and I set up an Amazon Wish List. Books flooded in. I was amazed! People I didn’t even know were sending me books. Many came from readers of this blog!  I still have my Amazon Wish List and I currently have a Donor’s Choose project running to add current titles to my shelves that kids have been asking for.

When I retire I’ve promised to donate my library to two other teachers in my department.

I will be closely watching the search for our next Superintendent of Education. It is my sincere hope that he/she also believes in independent reading, student choice, and teacher autonomy. Teachers know their students and know what they need. And what we don’t need is a one size fits all scripted curriculum implemented with an iron fist.

Pat Austin blogs at And So it Goes in Shreveport and is the author of Cane River Bohemia: Cammie Henry and her Circle at Melrose Plantation. Follow her on Instagram @patbecker25 and Twitter @paustin110.

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