As changes loom, a look inside a reading classroom

In a sixth-grade reading classroom at Dunloggin Middle School in Ellicott City on Tuesday, teacher Amy Monachino guided her students through a chapter in Lois Lowry's "Number the Stars."

Books on the Holocaust lined the chalkboard. But the only book up for discussion that day was Lowry's 1990 Newberry Medal winner, a work of historical fiction about one Danish family's efforts to save their Jewish friends from the Nazis.

Monachino reviewed last week's test on the book, and from the discussion rose questions on genetics, Hurricane Katrina and how to determine the difference between fact and opinion.

Later, after vocabulary words such as "exasperated," "submerged" and "impassioned" were taken off the projector, paraeducator Rachel Glover began reading aloud from "Number the Stars." The 19 students following along, gasping at suspenseful moments, sighing in relief with the turn of events and the turn of the page.

Reading classes like Monachino's might disappear from Howard County middle schools next year. On Thursday, Feb. 9, the Board of Education is set to vote, again, on a new middle school schedule that does not include traditional, standalone reading classes.

In a move to align the system with new common core standards set forth by the state, central office proposed last year to remove traditional reading classes, and infused reading in all content area classes. Under a drastically revamped curriculum, central office staff told the board last month, students would receive reading instruction in every class.

"Reading's not going away. Reading cannot go away," Monachino said. "It's going to be taught in a different way. It's just going to look different."

Still, the proposal has been denounced by many teachers and the Howard County Association, and a split school board vote two weeks ago delayed the proposal's approval.

Under the proposal, all middle school schedules — now mostly variations of an 45-minute, eight-period day — would be uniformly set in 50-minute, seven-period days. Reading would be embedded in every content area, as well as the English Language Arts class, and students who read below grade level would still receive reading interventions, as they do now.

For the county's 100-or-so reading teachers, like Monachino, the changes mean assuming a different role, either at the elementary level or as another subject-area teacher or reading specialist.

Monachino, who has been teaching for 15 years, two of them in Howard County, said she could put in for a transfer to teach elementary level reading. But she won't. She hopes to stay at Dunloggin as an English Language Arts teacher.

"I love to teach, so I don't mind where my adjustment is at," she said. "I want to stay in the middle school — I love the students."

Union still unhappy

HCEA is still denouncing the plan, citing, among several things, an inequity in planning time for related arts teachers — those who teach world languages, physical education, health, technology education, family and consumer science or music.

Under the proposal, each teacher, including related arts, would have two 50-minute periods a day, one for personal planning time and one for program implementation. However, since related arts teachers have a rotating, every-other day program of classes, they are seeing double the amount of students, HCEA President Paul Lemle said.

A larger concern, Lemle said, is the elimination of standalone reading classes, despite the infusion of reading into other content areas.

"Students learn to read from engaged time," he said. "It's practice. You need hours and hours of explicit instruction to be a good reader."

As of earlier this week, the final proposal for the program of studies had not been submitted to the board, or made available to the public.

Board member Brian Meshkin, who voted against the proposal two weeks ago, said if the same proposal came to the board, he would again vote against it. However, if concessions were made — like the inclusion of standalone reading in the new schedule — he'd view it more favorably.

"Some measure of a reading class, maybe a quarter, or a semester, for the sixth-graders, to evaluate where they are and what they need – that would be wonderful," he said

Board member Cindy Vaillancourt, who also voted against the proposal, said she could foresee little happening before the vote that would make her change her mind.

"If (central office staff) is looking for our stamp of approval to avoid controversy, they're not getting it from me," she said. "I don't think the notion of eliminating reading makes sense."

Back in the Dunloggin classroom, Glover paused in her reading, asking the students why the main character of "Number the Stars" panicked when her little sister started talking to a Nazi soldier searching their train, encouraging them to look for clues to determine whether or not a conversation really occurred.

The bell rang before Glover could finish the chapter, and Monachino reminded her students to study for a vocabulary test the next day before ushering in another class.

"Sixth-graders, they come in still absolutely loving school, and loving their teachers," Monachino said in an interview. "It's fun to help them problem solve, not just with academics, but with life issues."

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