Six Intervention Shifts to Re-Envision an Intervention Design That Honors Our Children

Written by Mary Howard

     In 1972, I began a passionate professional journey in small town Missouri as a special education teacher. That year, and each year that followed, children became my teachers. Since my entry into education, understanding student-centered intervention approaches has continued to inspire my professional curiosity. When a global pandemic isolated us at home over the past year, I enthusiastically launched a deep dive into my own learning to reinforce and extend my current understandings while also supporting teachers behind the scenes. I have never been prouder of the courageous educators who remained selflessly dedicated to the emotional and learning needs of their students in the middle of the most challenging time any of us have ever experienced.  

Yet, as I perch my fingers on the keyboard imagining post-pandemic interventions, I am filled with a sense of dread. I ponder educational pitfalls that have existed for far too many years; exacerbated by but not caused by this pandemic. I reflect on the shoulders of giants in the field I have stood upon for five decades as Richard Allington, Marie Clay and others continue to fill my head and heart with intervention hope. I worry about the educational ignorance and political pulls of those who have turned a blind eye to this gift of knowledge and equity-minded possibility, as quick fix mandates dishonor teachers who desperately want to use that gift with children who need them to have the freedom to do so.

      I wrote about this concern in 2009 in RTI from All Sides: What Every Teacher Needs to Know (Heinemann). The term "intervention" was popularized by IDEA 2004 which gave rise to Response to Intervention (RTI). But popularity without understanding has moved us further from a responsive student-centered perspective that could elevate the intervention process. What should have motivated an intervention design worthy of our children has been guided by knee-jerk homage to a three-letter acronym, resulting in a warped view of intervention opportunities our children need and deserve.

In this post, I'll share shifts that can awaken a research-based intervention spirit and address misconceptions that deter our efforts. As we find ourselves standing at an intervention crossroads, we can choose the meandering path that brought us here or move in an alternative direction toward an intervention design guided by thoughtful intent. The loss of financial, time and energy resources has been catastrophic; wasted on mindless experimentation at the expense of children. As we look ahead to a post-pandemic world, we are afforded an opportunity to envision a renewed intervention perspective within a sense of professional urgency. This will require us to refute the 'learning loss' narrative perpetuating a myth driven by standardized tests and out-of-the-box programs that demean the impact of professional agency when our knowledgeable teachers are at the decision-making helm.

I want to emphasize that there are many teachers, schools, and even districts who are doing remarkable things in the name of interventions. They choose to break down the barriers that thwart the way forward so that they may craft a renewed intervention journey. Both children and their teachers are fortunate to be a part of these admirable efforts. But until every district, every school, and every classroom makes these things a priority, our children will be subjected to the luck of the proverbial intervention draw. What if instead, every school launched this renewed vision using Six Essential Shifts?

SHIFT #1: Maintain a Schoolwide Spirit Grounded in Collective Ownership

I begin with this shift since it reflects one of the ultimate failures of our intervention efforts. RTI, wrongly seen as an identification process, led to a referral frenzy with an open-door invitation to shuffle children off to the 'fix it room' without even considering options. This has given rise to flawed models like "Walk to Intervention" where teachers within a grade level label and exchange students they don't really know as learners. Any system that uses students as bargaining chips or limits interventions to what happens in thirty-minute sessions is doomed to fail since the other six hours matters deeply. We have an obligation to view interventions as supplementary in addition to support rather than the instead of mentality that merely supplants the first line of defense - classroom instruction. Our first instinct should not be to initiate the referral process but to consider how to build a collective intervention bridge across the learning day. Some teachers may not have the knowledge base to support an intervention all-day perspective, but we could address this by offering ongoing professional learning with expert coaching. Yes, some children may need support beyond the classroom setting, but relegating support rather than embracing both our individual and collective responsibility is ill-conceived.

SHIFT #2: Embrace Increasing Volume as the Intervention Heart and Soul

Education is slow to learn from the lessons of the past and even slower to apply those lessons in practice, particularly in the case of interventions. In spite of decades of research to support the critical role volume plays in the success of striving learners, we continue to minimize the potential impact of extensive authentic opportunities for children to engage with texts in teacher-supported, peer-supported and independent experiences both in and beyond the intervention process. Oddly, the very children who would benefit most by substantially increasing daily reading minutes often get more isolated skill and drill as we further widen the volume divide that already exists. In fact, many children leave their classroom during joyful volume-enhancing experiences like read-aloud, independent reading and book-centered peer collaborations only to be subjected to computerized or boxed interventions with isolated activities devoid of authentic text experiences. I wrote about the intervention impact of volume here while Stephanie Harvey and co-authors highlight volume in Intervention Reinvention cited below. After forty-plus years, we have yet to answer the wise question Dr. Richard Allington posed: "If they Don't Read Much, How they Ever Gonna Get Good?"

SHIFT #3: Design a Flexible Comprehensive Framework of Balanced Support

While schools continue to pull from an intervention pool of suspect practices largely limited to pullout settings, we ignore the vast intervention possibilities that exist within a balanced literacy comprehensive framework of options. We have narrowed our view to a We Do model where guided reading has become the star of the intervention show. If we could broaden our intervention view, we would acknowledge I Do and You Do as equally influential intervention opportunities. When this broader thinking guides our efforts, the range of what counts as interventions would also be substantially broader. The bottom line? Read-aloud is an intervention. Independent reading is an intervention. Conferring is an intervention. If we viewed the daily schedule from a framework lens where interventions can coexist, the intervention possibilities would be limitless. As long as we narrowly define what constitutes an intervention, we ignore rich support options at our fingertips that offer in-the-moment opportunities that do not require children to leave their own classroom where they could thrive within a community of learners.

SHIFT #4: Marry Reading and Writing Across the Curriculum

We have long-time research support for the intervention impact of celebrating the reciprocal nature of reading and writing. Too often, reading interventions are viewed solely from a reading perspective without acknowledging that we could dramatically elevate the reading process if writing was considered integral to the intervention mix. When our interventions merge reading and writing, we could use one to support and enhance the other. In doing so, a by-product would be to increase the volume of reading and writing through reading inspired writing and writing that inspires reading within a circular reading/writing intervention design. Through this focus on reciprocity, we can multiply our intervention efforts as reading and writing work in a two-way proposition that moves in both directions and apply this in any instructional setting across all grades and content areas. We would heed Peter Elbow's caution that some children struggle with reading because writing has been neglected and thus use writing as a pathway to reading. And we would have the flexibility to consider this reciprocal benefit of writing Peter Elbow describes: "Students invariably read better if they write first-if they start by writing their own thoughts about a topic that the class will tackle in a text" (2004).

SHIFT #5: Make the Invisible Visible by Amplifying Student-Centered Talk

When misguided schools use computerized programs and scripts in a box as the intervention focus, we ignore the influential success contributor of talk that places students squarely at the center of the teaching/learning process. Talk has become the sacrificial lamb of rigid programs by default due to the sheer number of instructional minutes devoted to controlled approaches under the guise of a fidelity battle cry. Talk is the instructional glue when dialogue-centered collaborations allow students to make sense of their own thinking publicly in ways that reinforce, extend, and enrich their thinking in the company of others. If we were to emphasize child-centered invitational collaborations over basal-driven question interrogation, we could dramatically enhance learning. And in the process, by making invisible in-the-head student thinking public, we are afforded on-the-spot assessment that can inform our instructional decision-making. Interventions devoid of talk are an act of doing while talk-fueled shared experiences can offer a stepping-stone that breathes new life into thinking as learners grow together.

SHIFT #6: Step Back to Engage in Wide-Eyed Professional Wonder Often

One of the most important aspects of any intervention design is often the missing ingredient. Interventions offer teachers an invitation to transform into curiosity-inspired kid watchers willing to become dedicated observers of learning in action across the day. Intentional observation of students engaged as active participants in their own learning allows our children to take the lead as we assume our role as enthusiastic professional wonderers. These precious opportunities to zoom in to learning in action supports new understandings about children in the heat of learning moments. In an era of hyper-fixation on data collection and color-coded numerical spreadsheets often riddled with suspect assessment, we could take back the assessment reins. These learner-focused noticings can counteract the potential flaw of relying on numbers that dictate rather than inform next step actions. When assessment is embedded within the learning process, the instructional decisions we make using varied sources of information acknowledges that assessment and instruction are inseparably intertwined.

As I pause to ponder these six intervention shifts, I am reminded how far we have yet to go to create an intervention approach that would be a force of good for children and celebrate teachers as knowledgeable decision-makers. This pandemic should inspire us all to embrace the opportunity we have been given to refute past missteps and re-envision the intervention process through new and wiser eyes. The source of our ills is not an intervention issue but one of common sense that has pushed us deeper into the intervention black hole. If we stop the forward march of interventions driven by misconceptions and flawed premises, we would be motivated to meet our responsibility to teachers by offering professional learning with support over time. This ongoing time for teaching embedded professional support demonstrates our belief in our teachers as professionals who are deserving of trust. If we kept these six shifts in view, we could alter the trajectory of our efforts with a responsive intervention design guided by our unwavering commitment to children who would reap the benefits of that commitment. Because in the end, our success will forever be measured by theirs

And that would be a giant step forward worth taking!

Tackling a Serious Equity Issue: Voluminous Joyful Literacy Opportunities by Mary Howard

Intervention Reinvention: A Volume-Based Approach to Reading Success by Stephanie Harvey, Annie Ward, Maggie Hoddinott and Suzanne Carroll (Scholastic 2021)

Richard Alllington (1977) If They Don't Read Much, How They Ever Gonna Get Good?

Peter Elbow: Writing First! Educational Leadership Oct 2004. Vol 62 No. 2, page 9-13

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