This week I was working with some fabulous folks in St. Bernard’s Parish in New Orleans. If you want to read a very inspiring story about a school district that put their district together during and after Hurricane Katrina, look up “Our Story” on the St. Bernard’s Parish Schools website…it’s what’s right in education. I promise you it’s worth it.

While the coaches and I were working together to plan for how they’ll roll out the Common Core from this point on, we veered a bit from the CCSS to the topic of scaffolding instruction. For those of you who regularly read my articles or meet up with me on Facebook, you know that I absolutely HATE terms like scaffolding because I feel like everyone uses the term, but no one really knows what it means!

Well, we decided that scaffolding was a TEMPORARY support designed to give kids a boost into the grade level content. Notice my all caps on TEMPORARY, it’s intentional.

One of the coaches brought up something that I had never thought of before: If we make scaffolding permanent or keep them in too long, we actually handicap kids.

Let me explain: One of the district supervisors in our coaching meeting said that she had heard from a high school student (who was very talented and well-performing) and he was very disappointed by his performance on the ACT. He said that he didn’t even have a chance to finish the test…and when he realized he wasn’t going to finish, even if he’d sped up, he wouldn’t have finished – he was too far behind. This didn’t make sense – this is a high performing, sharp kid and the ACT should’ve been a cinch!

When he was asked why he was slowed down, he said, “I had to annotate every page and that took a lot of time.” The supervisor said, “Did you need to annotate all of the text or could you have comprehended the text and answered the questions or responded without annotating? He said, “I could’ve done most of it without annotating, but that’s what we were taught to do: annotate the text.”

This was a HUGE eye-opener for me: We teach kids structures and strategies and ways to support their comprehension, but we forget to tell them, “When you are zipping through the text and everything’s going fine, you don’t have to do those structures.”

I mean I think about my own reading. Right now I’m on the plane and once I finish writing this, I’m going to dive into my Nora Roberts book (which incidentally is Book 2 in a three book series…and…um…I haven’t read Book 1 – oops!) and I’m not going to pre-read the text, I’m not going to scan the text for words that I don’t know and I’m not going to create a graphic organizer that outlines the whole thing. Why? Because I can read and comprehend the text without the scaffold or strategy.

Now, certainly I know that Nora Roberts isn’t going to be a cognitively taxing read for me, but I don’t use strategies and structures with other more challenging text often, either!

Of course, I am a strong reader, so some of the strategies are automatic – I don’t even know that I’m doing them. I think, for example, that I am automatically monitoring my reading to make sure that things are making sense and that I’m comprehending what I’m reading. How do I know I am? Because if I find myself going, “huh?” when I read, I track back and re-read parts of the text. That’s embedded in my skill set. It’s natural.

But doing a story map or Venn diagram? I haven’t done it since the last time I taught 6th grade and modeled it for my students.

Some reading this might think that I’m abandoning my scientifically based reading research roots, but what I’m really coming to understand in my old age is this: If kids can read and comprehend the text? Let them. And when we teach strategies and structures, we need to explicitly tell kids when they need to use them and when they don’t. In fact, we need to ask ourselves during our prep and planning times, “What scaffold or structure do my kids need here, if any?” Sometimes I think they might need just plain and simple reading of text and conversation.

What do you think?