Making the words make sense

With new standards, teachers learn to help readers comprehend

July 21, 1999|By Erika D. Peterman | Erika D. Peterman,SUN STAFF

Professor Gloria Neubert opens James A. Michener's historical novel "Chesapeake" and reads a colorful passage about a blue crab to her students at Towson University. The scene bursts with images of wildlife on Maryland's Eastern Shore.

Then she reads from a ninth-grade textbook, "Biology: The Dynamics of Life." The passage? "Why Arthropods Must Molt." The boredom is palpable.

But her students -- current and would-be secondary teachers -- need to make texts like that engaging for middle and high school students.

"When our students come through elementary, aren't they used to being read to?" asks Neubert, a professor of secondary education at Towson. "Then we hit them with the heavy-duty expository stuff. They're going to struggle with that. It's a different kind of reading."

Many of the students in Neubert's class are there to fulfill requirements approved last year by the state school board. Reading instruction courses were once required only of elementary teachers, but the state's new emphasis on teaching reading has led to the demand that all teachers learn to help students improve their reading.

Maryland's middle and high school teachers must pass two courses in reading, compared with four for their elementary counterparts. Previously, Maryland required only one reading course for elementary school teachers and secondary-level social studies and English teachers. Other secondary teachers weren't required to take any.

While the requirements were criticized by state teachers unions and college deans as a one-size-fits-all approach, they represented a political victory last year for Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

The state education agency does not know how many of Maryland's 47,000 teachers have gone back to college to meet the new requirements. Teachers have two options: They can take college courses or in-service classes offered through their school systems.

To make this training more readily available, Towson University has created the Reading Leadership Institute, a post-master's course designed to prepare reading specialists to teach other secondary teachers the state-mandated material. Twenty-four reading specialists across the state are authorized to teach other secondary teachers.

Some exemptions

In meeting the new requirements, teachers have a grace period of at least five years to take the courses once their certificates come up for renewal.

Grasmick has the authority to waive the requirement for teachers who have exceptional experience or skills. Local superintendents also may request a waiver for certified teachers who are at least 55 years old or who have worked for public or approved nonpublic schools for at least 25 years, says Ronald A. Peiffer, a spokesman for the State Department of Education.

In addition, the state plans to create a performance test that would exempt certain teachers from having to take the reading courses. College officials pushed for such an assessment.

At Towson, Neubert's charges are learning how to make reading meaningful for their students.

"The bottom line is, we're trying to help teachers help their students use reading and writing skills to learn content," Neubert says. "We're not trying to turn middle school and high school teachers into reading teachers. It's a different focus."

Neubert's students seem eager to learn those skills. All say the reading course requirements are a good idea, proof the state is serious about helping children become competent readers.

The dozen or so students gathered in the small classroom on a recent Monday evening include veteran teachers and rookies, public and private school employees. Among them is Mike Konrad, who recently completed his first year teaching at-risk students at Chesapeake High School in Baltimore County.

"Reading is a tool for lifelong learning," Konrad says. "Our efforts in using reading in the classroom are going to determine whether these kids are turned off. A lot of the students just don't like to read, period. It's like pulling teeth to get them to read a passage."

Neubert's Michener-vs.-textbook readings about the blue crab made sense to Kelly Dison, who recently finished her first year teaching sixth-grade science and reading at Loch Raven Academy, also in Baltimore County.

"If they're interested, they're going to want to read," she says. "I think student interest is real important. Science books can be kind of dry to read."

Making it lively

Neubert says the challenge is to help students become independ- ent readers, adding that may involve using other reading materials to "bring voice" to lifeless textbook material.

For example, history teachers introducing students to the Dust Bowl era might supplement the discussion with a chapter from Karen Hesse's award-winning novel, "Out of the Dust." One passage describes how a mother set the dinner table with the plates upside down so they wouldn't fill with dust, a detail that "makes it come alive for students," Neubert says.

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