From Deliberate Ignorance to Intentional Awareness

The bottom line is that most U.S. schools have no plan to provide the sorts of classroom instruction that at-risk kindergartners need. Neither high-quality, extensive professional development for kindergarten teachers nor expert tutorial instruction for at-risk kindergartners is on the agenda at this point. This means that most schools deliberately create a pool of students who will become struggling readers. I say deliberately because, unfortunately, that’s just what it is— deliberate ignorance of what we should do to address the problems of at-risk kindergartners. (Allington, 2011)

In a recent staff meeting, we read the article “What At-Risk Readers Need” by Richard Allington. The above quote stuck with me and elicited some great discussion among a group of us during the meeting. The article discussed the lack of instruction at-risk readers receive within the classroom. Allington asserts that children leaving kindergarten not knowing their letters and letter sounds will more than likely become struggling readers. In fact, at the time of this research, he stated that 66% of students were reading below grade level. Take a moment just to consider that. That means, two out of every three students in your classroom, are reading below grade level! Astounded by this realization, I had to stop and consider my own students and actually found the statement to be consistent with what is happening in my classroom!

My thoughts cling to these two words, “deliberate ignorance”. Who, in their right mind, would practice ignorance, on purpose?! Well, according to Allington, many of us tend to fall prey to this particular form of ignorance. You see, when we know that we don’t know a particular instructional process or strategy, we choose to deal with our ignorance by purposely overlooking those struggling students and focusing on those we know we can help instead. Why? Because it’s the easiest thing to do! It’s just as compelling as it is true, isn’t it? It was for me and, after some thought, I found, and consequently owned the fact that I, myself, have apparently been practicing this “deliberate ignorance” for much of the year!

Okay, so, what exactly does this “deliberate ignorance” look like? I’ll explain by sharing my personal experience and perception of what it looks like in my own classroom. Earlier in the year, I acknowledged my fear of literacy instruction and development. I mean, I have enough knowledge of how to teach reading and comprehension skills to get by, but, when it comes to grammar, spelling patterns and conventions, this is a struggle for me. It has been for some time now, and although I continue to seek help and guidance, the mere thought of being responsible for the facilitation of my students’ literacy development, scares me to no end. If I fail, they fail, right? Well, with deliberate ignorance, that is exactly what I have already done…failed my struggling readers by providing surface level intervention.

Additionally, when it comes to guided reading groups, although I know and agree with the differentiation of instruction, the actual process of implementing 3-5 small reading groups a week, AND attending to my most bottom three readers, five times a week, during a separate intervention time during the day, along with collecting weekly data for all, has proven to be very overwhelming for me. Because of my overpowering insecurity, rather than attacking the issue, rather than researching, watching, and working to implement a new process, a new strategy, a new routine that would benefit my students…I did what benefited ME instead…and deliberately ignored the developmental needs of my lowest reading students. Listen, ignoring it was a lot easier than addressing it, so, I did what was comfortable. I KNOW I’m not alone in this, so I’m okay with this public admission. In fact, for me, this public realization and disclosure signifies my personal commitment to transform my deliberate ignorance into intentional awareness.

For me, choosing to become intentionally aware is a resolute, determined, uncompromising shift in paradigmatic thinking which will help me truly attend to the individual needs of my students. That means being intentionally aware of how students acquire and develop language, being intentionally aware of how students construct the meaning of vocabulary and being intentionally aware of how students construct meaning from what they are reading rather than simply labeling this with a quantified number or test score. It means tackling the areas of my practice that I fear so much with confidence and purpose. It means getting beyond the surface of my students learning and putting their needs ahead of my own, even when it feels uncomfortable. As I sit and reflect on my students and this year, I believe that becoming intentionally aware will do nothing less than further align my passion with my purpose. My students deserve nothing less than my all, especially when they so often feel that no one else will.

Well, there you have it. That’s my take on deliberate ignorance. What about you? Is there an area in your practice that you can admit to being deliberately ignorant? If so, turn it around, become intentionally aware instead, and further align your passion with your purpose. Two-thirds of our students depend on it!

“The Matrix”: An Attempt at Evading the Inevitable


During my last 13 years in education, my husband and I have had three children.  It’s true what “they” say…each one of them has their own identity. Each has their personal strengths and weaknesses. Two boys and a girl. Our youngest, a pretty little girl with tomboy tendencies; a girl after her mother’s own heart! She loves pink and purple, frilly dresses, wrestling with her brothers, running track, doing 1st grade homework, and reading! Everything a tomboy, teacher mom could ask for in a perfect little girl. Ok, I’m probably a little biased.

Our middle son, a fourth grader, is the dirty playground, playing in puddles, neighborhood pick up football game type.  He insists on playing with the big kids in the neighborhood. Exactly the things that make a daddy’s chest puff out with pride.  He does have a sensitive side, as well I must say.  He’s a pretty well-rounded young man for this 21st century day and age, if I do say so myself.  He is also the one that strives for academic perfection at this point and time.  Admittedly, we have to encourage him to put his book down or leave it at home when we run errands.  He reads all…the… time! I mean, that’s heavenly for a teacher mom, right?

Our oldest son, our first born, well…he learned to entertain himself at an early age. We were told that this was typical of the first-born, so, we went with it.  While he entertained himself, he entertained us as well. He loved Sesame Street, The Backyardigans, and Scooby-Doo and we thought that was so adorable at the time.  Three years into teaching, I thought I was doing everything right in terms of introducing him to literacy. I had labels all around the house (door, refrigerator, bathroom, etc.), we read to him every night, and he listened to books on tape. I mean, we were even teaching him sight words BEFORE he went to kindergarten! Everything you can think of, we did! After all, I am a teacher, so, I knew exactly what he needed to begin obtaining strong literacy skills, right?

By the middle of first grade, we began to notice that our oldest, our first-born, was struggling with reading. How could this possibly be? I mean, I’m a teacher!! I’m doing everything RIGHT!  He began to show strength in the area of mathematics, but was now shying away from reading. He didn’t want to practice reading at night and certainly didn’t want to talk about the pictures and what was happening in the story. His demeanor seemed to be saying, “Hey teacher mom, will you please just read the story.” He was beginning to become uninterested in anything that involved reading. We just assumed this was developmental. Everything will come together soon. His reading will improve and he’ll be a lover of reading, just like we dreamed he would be. After all, his mother IS a teacher and that’s how things are supposed to be, right?

I was heartbroken as things did not get better right away and in fact, reading is still a major struggle for our now 6th grader. Don’t get me wrong, he’s made excellent strides, but, in all honesty, reading remains his pain staking nemesis; the thorn in his side; his “matrix”. To him, reading was pages among pages of letters that simply frustrated him every day and evening at the beginning literacy stages. “What is this? What is going on?”, I thought to myself so very often. His MOTHER is a TEACHER for heaven’s sake! Why doesn’t he love this…this…reading! Tested…yes! Tutored…yes! Genres of interest? Certainly. Modeled behavior? Absolutely, yes, yes, yes!  We tried all of those things. Been there and done that. He, himself would admit, “Yes, reading is ok, but, it’s hard.”, so he did, and still does, everything he can to get around it. Therefore, the fact remains, that he, our first-born, sees reading as a matrix and evades reading at all costs. My goodness! Doesn’t he realize that reading is the main artery that cultivates every other subject? Reading is inevitable! There is no way around it! It’s connected to everything we do! Of course he knows this! For goodness sake…HIS MOTHER….IS…A TEACHER!

Well, in the grand scheme of things, he DOES enjoy reading about historical fiction and books about nature…for a few minutes at least. He gets excited about buying books at the book fair and going to the public library and we are extremely proud of him and his siblings for that matter for the gains they have all made. But when it comes down to it, if our son had to choose reading on his own, without prompting… Oh, no. This wouldn’t be number one on his list of things to do. He evades that matrix at every opportunity, even choosing to do more chores before reading! Yes, yes…I AM lucky in that aspect.

So, what of this thing called “reading”?  How do we as teachers get our students to appreciate this matrix that surrounds us?  We work with 20, 25, 30 students everyday and are suppose to put that teacher touch on literacy and reading to make it exciting and fun. But, what about that “one”? That one like my oldest son, who passed all the “identifying” assessments, and just simply is not motivated to read. How do we help them to enter the matrix with no fear? There is no portal to close and no magic pills to take to protect us from it or to avoid it. There is no evading what is inevitable! Reading is all around us! How do we help our students get motivated and connect with reading? I mean, come on…we ARE teachers after all. We DO have all the answers to everything. Don’t we?