How Mia Can Level the Playing Field: A Reading Specialist’s Perspective
By Leigh Ellis Beauchamp, M. Ed., Certified Reading Specialist
Why might a teacher and certified reading specialist like myself want Mia in their classroom? Here’s what I told the author of a recent blog post centered on why Mia is not in some sort of competition with teachers:
As one teacher in charge of 125 wonderful middle school students per year, I’m afraid I’m just not able give each one the level of individual attention that I’d like. I would love to believe that I am somehow able to answer every question they have, provide frequent on-target book recommendations, consistently suss out their reading issues, and provide meaningful feedback on a daily basis, but, sadly, I’d be kidding myself.
You can understand the frustration of knowing how to help students love and succeed at reading but not having adequate time in the school day to give each of them what’s needed to accomplish that in full. That’s why I want a technology like Mia to supplement what I’m already doing: one of Mia’s great assets is that she is so accessible. Practically any child with an internet connection could utilize this resource, and Mia could provide the unique attention they need to grow and thrive as readers. But I didn’t always know what helps to make students into better readers. That knowledge came later.
The basic college courses teachers pursue to become educators must cover a wide range of topics: classroom management, data-keeping, child psychology, and more. Consequently, many new teachers don’t have the opportunity to dive deeply into reading education during their undergraduate training. Once I became a teacher more than a decade ago, I realized I had little idea how to help my struggling readers, how to motivate my aliterate (those who are able, but unwilling, to read) students, or how to challenge high achievers. Determined to do my job better and help each type of reader, I pursued a Master’s in Reading Education. The district where I teach was only able to pay 1/10th of my tuition, and I was lucky to have parents who were willing to pay the rest.
It took me four years and about $10,000 to earn my graduate degree. Many teachers may not be able to invest that amount of time and money into this type of educational program, or they may choose a different subject to pursue. This means that teachers with deep, specialized knowledge about reading are quite rare.
Mia does not cost thousands of dollars, is not a rarity, and has some of the same knowledge at her disposal that a highly-skilled, trained professional would. This makes her an absolute gold mine.
What excites me most about Mia, I think, is her potential to help level the reading achievement playing field. So many families do not have the resources or privilege to pursue educational needs. Asking a teacher for help sounds so easy to most of the people I grew up with, but that behavior derives from a fundamentally middle-to-upper class mindset. For many families living in poverty, or who are English language learners, even the simple act of walking into a school building can be an incredibly intimidating experience. Getting an email or phone call from a teacher sets many parents’ hearts to pounding. I know, because I can hear the fear in their voices when they answer. Contacting a teacher, meeting up with a librarian, or visiting with a reading specialist is something that many parents simply do not have the time, energy, knowledge, or resources to do.
When we expect these families to conform to our middle class expectations, we ensure that in general, only middle and upper class students have the chance to succeed. This is a sad, alarming, and unjust pattern. Here’s where I envision Mia coming in. Providing affordable, quality tools that can be accessed from home could crack that issue wide open – programs like Mia could help ensure that all children have a shot at succeeding. I can think of nothing that I want more, both as a teacher and as a person.
Mia gets that a love of reading is indivisible from the power of choice. It is absolutely essential that students choose their own books. In one of my graduate seminars, a professor told us a story about a group of adults taking a course who had to read three books. The first two books were assigned to them, while they got to choose the third book from a list. “Guess which one they were the most motivated to read?” my professor asked us. I bet you can guess right.
That’s not to say we can’t use classroom texts or have students read books that we’ve assigned. They just also need to have access to quality literature which they’ve had a hand in choosing. People who feel they exert some control, whose opinions are valued, will always be more engaged than those who don’t. So it is with reading, and children are no different from adults in their desire to take an active role.
I’m also encouraged by Mia’s ability to teach children the skill of selecting books for themselves – and make no mistake, it is a skill. I’ve so often seen students struggle with choosing books that are too difficult or too easy, sticking stubbornly to a single series or author, being overly reliant on reading levels, or defaulting to books that someone they know recommended without considering their own interests. Mia helps kids to broaden their reading, reflect meaningfully on their interests, find the “sweet spot” between too easy and too hard, and to recognize that levels can be useful but are not foolproof.
In my follow-up guest post, I’ll discuss some of the more harmful beliefs and myths about reading and the ways that Mia can help to counter them.