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On Parent Communication and Finding the Good

As a teacher, communication with parents hasn’t been my strong point.  I don’t like to initiate contact.  Sometimes I’ve let things wait for too long until they become bigger problems than if I’d just taken care of them early on.

Part of my difficulty is the very reason I’m an elementary teacher: I like kids better than I like adults.  Kids are easy to talk to.  Grown-ups are scary. Part of it is habit formed by my first teaching job.  I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say that micromanagement made communicating with parents a major hassle.

Ever since then, I’ve been battling with myself to take initiative and communicate with parents regularly.

This year I tried something new.  I made a goal to email one family each week with a positive note about their child.  I only write about positive things in the email.  Mostly I’ve focused on things like good participation, critical thinking skills, and social skills.

The result of this has been two-fold.  I’ve gotten wonderful response from the parents.  Of course they like hearing positive things about their child.  It builds our relationship and helps parents feel comfortable approaching me.  I’ve also gotten some really nice email about how they appreciate my efforts with their child, which definitely feels good.

Even more importantly, it has made me look for the good in each child.  Some emails are easier to write than others.  But it’s important to find positive qualities in each of my students.  It helps me see them as a whole person, which helps me be more compassionate and patient with them.

This goal felt like a big step to me.  It turned out to not be so difficult, once I committed to it.  The results have changed my teaching for the better.

Phonics V. Whole Language Learning

If you were in elementary school in the 1980s or 90s, and you struggle with reading, it’s probably because your teachers used the whole language learning approach.  Thankfully, whole language learning since then has, in many cases, been replaced with phonics.

First, I must define my terms.  Phonics is a method for teaching reading using the sounds of letters, combinations of letters, and syllables.  You can read a more in-depth description here.  Basically, if reading instruction focuses on “sounding words out,” it’s probably phonics-based.  Not all phonics curricula are created equal, of course.  Some are more methodical and complete than others.

Whole language learning focuses on teaching reading through recognizing words as a whole, in which students learn to read words from context.  There is not breaking words into parts and decoding them.  You can read more about it here.  The emphasis is to spend a lot of time reading to and with children.  The theory behind the whole language approach is based on the work of Noam Chomsky.  He asserted that language acquisition is natural and, therefore, does not need to be explicitly taught.

The human brain is wired for language.  Oral language, that is.  Children naturally learn to speak and understand oral language simply by being exposed to enough of it.  Reading and writing are not quite as natural, as evidenced for the need for writing systems to be invented.  This is the basic reason why reading and writing have to be taught explicitly and oral language does not (at least for an individual’s native language).

You have probably figured out that I am firmly on the phonics side of this debate.

Recently I read an essay from Frank Smith called “12 Easy Ways to Make Learning to Read Difficult *and One Difficult Way to Make it Easy“(the second essay).  As an early elementary teacher, I was interested in getting more ideas about how to make my reading instruction more effective.  The beginning part of this essay was whole language nonsense, though he does make good points about child development in general.  I would like to address Smith’s ideas point by point.

  1. Aim for Early Mastery of the Rules of Reading – Smith asserts that there are not rules for reading, which is quite preposterous considering that English is an alphabetic language.  He also claims, with no evidence, that no child has ever learned to read by using phonics.  I have personal experience with students that shows the exact opposite.  I have been working this year with a first grader who could barely read at all.  After a few month of explicit phonics instruction, her reading ability has increased exponentially.  It’s true that not all children need explicit phonics instruction.  Some children seem to learn to read as naturally as they learned to speak.  This is not true for all children.  Some children, especially those learning English as a second language, need explicit phonics instruction to be successful.
  2. Ensure that Phonics Skills are Learned and Used – Smith claims English is too irregular for phonics rules to assist students.  This is blatantly untrue.  I’ve seen students decode words that you wouldn’t think a child of their age would be able to read, by using phonics rules. He points out that fluency is one of the main goals of reading instruction, and claims that phonics is too cumbersome to aid fluency.  Certainly fluency takes time, but so does any other worthy endeavor.  A student who struggles with phonics will not necessarily acheive fluency any faster with the whole language approach.
  3. Teach Letters or Words One at a Time, Making Sure Each New Letter of Word Is Learned Before Moving On – Well, it does make sense to introduce new letters or words just one or a few at a time, that way students can actually remember the new information.  As Smith says, teachers don’t need to stay on that same word until it is completely mastered; rather, students will learn better by being able to compare it to other words.  On this we are in agreement.  I also haven’t seen any phonics curricula that states you must focus on one letter or word until it is completely mastered before introducing any other letters or words, so this argument seems rather like a strawman to me.
  4. Make Word-Perfect Reading the Prime Objective – Another strawman.  This is not a phonics thing.  This would be the result of a teacher who is a perfectionist.  Naturally, demanding perfection of our students is counter-productive.
  5. Discourage Guessing; Be Sure Children Read Carefully – It’s fine for children to make an educated guess at an unfamiliar word, but surely Smith understands that we do need to teach children to think?  If a child is attempting to read the sentence “I see a truck,” I would discourage a child from guessing if they guess “boy” or “the” or something similarly unrelated in the place of “truck,” and instead use phonics and/or context clues to come up with an answer that makes sense.
  6. Insist Upon Accuracy – Smith points out that learning involves making mistakes.  Of course learning involves making mistakes.  Every good teacher knows that.  Phonics is perfectly compatible with creating a safe environment for students to fail in the process of learning.  The classroom culture has more to do with the teacher than the pedagogy.
  7. Provide Immediate Feedback – Smith says that giving immediate feedback to correct a child’s reading interferes with fluency and reading comprehension.  Again, he is associating an undesirable practice with phonics even though the two things aren’t necessarily related.  I leave it to the teacher’s discretion to know when to correct a student and when to let the error go in favor of letting the student figure it out.
  8. Detect and Correct Inappropriate Eye Movements – I’ve never heard of a teacher doing “eye drills” to make sure students are looking in the right place.  Maybe he’s referring to finger pointing?
  9. Identify and Give Attention to Problem Readers as Soon as Possible – He says that our expectations of students should be age-appropriate, and they should be given age-appropriate reading that is engaging.  Here I agree with him.
  10. Make Sure Children Understand the Importance of Reading and the Seriousness of Falling Behind – I’m really thankful I don’t know teachers like the ones Smith knew, all hellfire and damnation if you ever made a mistake in class, or *gasp* fall behind.  Certainly it is not a moral failing to develop more slowly than one’s peers.  It’s important to keep in mind that all children develop at a different pace.
  11. Take the Opportunity during Reading Instruction to Improve Spelling and Written Expression, and Also Insist on the Best Possible Spoken English – So, no discussion of spelling or written expression allowed.  So, I guess we’re not allowed to discuss alliteration, or similes, or any other kind of figurative language, either, during reading instruction, since those are part of written expression.  If we come across words or phrases that tie into what we’ve been talking about in spelling, writing, grammar, or any other subject, I very well might highlight it during our reading lesson, because making connections between subject areas helps students really learn the material and develop critical thinking.
  12. If the Method You Are Using Is Unsatisfactory, Try Another.  Always Be Alert for New Materials and Techniques – Here Smith explains that trying new techniques too often confuses children and prevents them from learning.  I do think that teachers should always be open to ways to improve their instruction, and furthermore, there is a happy medium between providing consistency in pedagogy and mixing things up when needed.  Individual teachers are in the best position to make that call.

One Difficult Rule for Making Learning to Read Easy – His one difficult rule is an interesting one: “Respond to what the child is trying to do.”  His explanation for this is that learning to read is largely intuitive, as is teaching how to read.  Children should simply spend a lot of time reading, and they will learn to read, he states.

Now, this is true for some children.  Some children will learn to read seemingly effortlessly no matter what techniques are used.  But that won’t work for all children.

Certainly, more time spent on reading, especially of quality reading material, is a good thing.  But some kids simply need phonics.  As the number of English language learners in our classrooms increase, the need for phonics will only grow.  The whole language approach does offer some good ideas and insights, but can never replace phonics in terms of effectiveness.

References:

To the Non-Pinterest Moms and Teachers

I love looking at pictures of Pinterst fails.  Not to make fun of them, but because I can relate.  I am decidedly not a crafty person.  Whenever I try some cute craft or confection, they just don’t come out right.  But you’ll be wanting to see my credentials.

For Talk Like a Pirate Day a few years back, I found this really cute handprint art:

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So I tried it out with my first graders.  Ours came out like this:

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Now, those are just frightening.

Another time, I tried to make ghosts by dipping pretzel rods into white candy I melted on the stove.  I got some water in the candy, and got a goopy mess.  Another time I tried to make cinnamon dough ornaments and got a goopy mess.  Then there was the time I attempted leaf-print art and instead of getting nice prints the leaves crumbled and the prints looked like wispy blobs.  Or the time we painted “fish bowls” with corn syrup and the syrup just wouldn’t dry.

I’ll go ahead and insert my disclaimer now: this post isn’t about bashing Pinterest moms and teachers.  If you enjoy and are good at making intricate cupcake decorations and designing darling birthday invitations, go for it.  Do whatever you enjoy.  This simply isn’t the article for you.

This article is for all the moms and teachers who feel the pressure to make everything cute and adorable, but just can’t do it.  Our hearts are in the right place, but our fingers and materials won’t cooperate.  This article is to help you feel better about your incompetence.

Sometimes, when going for cute, you can fake it.  I’m a big fan of printables.  If I need a worksheet for my class, I’ll see if I can find a “cute” version one line.  Many talented people have made lots of cute things, like spelling sheets, word sorts, and the like.  Teachers Pay Teachers and other websites even have stuff you can get for free.

I’m also a big believer in kid art.  I love putting up my students’ art in the classroom.  It makes the room look fun and inviting.  Kids love to see their work up, and parents and visitors like looking at it, too.

When you do an art project with your kids, you are faced with a choice: do you micromanage them so they do it “right,” or do you just let them have fun?  Of course, sometimes when you just let them go, you get results like my pirates pintrosity.  But you also get awesome work like this:

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I showed my students Picasso’s The Three Musicians, and had them create their own musicians inspired by Picasso’s.  Of course, not all the paintings turned out well, but they learned so much more and expressed themselves more than if I had dictated every step to them.

And let’s be real.  Which project will be more memorable to the kids?  What they’re really going to remember is how fun it is to get their hands covered in paint.

They’ll also learn from the failures.  They’ll learn that ideas don’t always work out the way you expect them to, but that’s okay, too.  You can try again or just try something else.

Then there’s the subject of parties.  You can make everything themed, with invitations, decorations, and treats all themed perfectly and looking adorable.  And taking up way too much time considering those cake pops you spent hours on are going to be eaten in about 5 minutes.

I”ll be honest.  All kids want at a party is to eat and play.  If you provide for those two things, they will be happy.  For my class parties, I pull out the bean bag toss and BINGO, print some coloring pages, and ask parents to bring food.  And the kids think it’s the best day ever.

Kids don’t need anything fancy to have fun.

Pinterest-perfect birthdays and crafts aren’t really for the kid’s sake at all.  It’s for the sake of the person who created it and wants praise for their skills and creativity.  As I stated earlier, there’s nothing wrong with that.  I just want to point it out so people who don’t have the time, money, or skills to do it feel like they need to do it in order to be a good mom or a good teacher.

The most important thing for kids is to be present for them.  Pay attention to them.  Have fun with them.  Care about them.  That’s going to mean more to them than anything else.  That’s what they’ll remember.

Saxon V. Go Math

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When I first began teaching, I used Saxon Math, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, to teach my second graders.

Saxon largely uses traditional teaching methods for teaching arithmetic and problem solving skills, with homework problems for each lesson.  The homework has five or so problems focusing on that day’s lesson, while the majority of the homework is spiral review.

I found Saxon to be rather trying.  For me, not necessarily the students.  Each lesson was on a different topic.  For example, one day we might be working on fractions, and the next day we’d be doing word problems, then decimals, then something else, then finally back to fractions.  Every day I had to begin my lesson with significant review, since we hadn’t discussed that day’s concepts for awhile.  I thought this was a huge pain.

Little did I know.

The next school I taught at adopted Go Math!, also published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Go Math! does not use traditional methods of teaching math.  By this, I don’t just mean using modern technology, though Go Math! does provide for that.  Go Math! attempts to teach a fundamentally different way of thinking about arithmetic and problem solving.

For each concept in arithmetic, Go Math! presents a variety of ways to solve them.  For example, in the first grade curriculum, students learn to solve addition problems using counters, ten frames, and number lines.  There is little emphasis, however, on memorizing math facts.  In third grade, students are using number lines to solve three-digit addition problems.  Why on earth are third graders still using number lines to do addition?  Why can’t they do it themselves?  These “alternate methods” are being used as a crutch, not a tool.

Furthermore, on assessments, students are told which method to use to solve any given problem.  I though the point of teaching students alternate ways of solving problems was to allow them to use the method that works best for them, since not all methods will make sense to all students.  What is the point of teaching multiple methods if you’re going to dictate which method they use?

The majority of word problems (at least in the first grade curriculum) were multiple choice.  So much for teaching them to solve problems independently.

There is also precious little spiral review.  Typical homework assignments only contained two to three review questions.

When we got close to the end of the year, I realized my students didn’t remember half the concepts I’d taught.  There was no time built into the curriculum for review, and the “critical thinking” segments didn’t actually build critical thinking.

This caused me to look at Saxon Math rather differently.  The lesson order that drove me crazy helped students retain each concept.  The straightforward approach to arithmetic and problem solving allowed students to solve problems in whatever way made sense to them.  These two things built true critical thinking in my students.

This upcoming year, I will again be using Saxon Math in my teaching.  I return to it with tears of repentance in my eyes.

By the Content of Their Character

The most poignant moment of my career actually happened my very first year of teaching. I will never forget it.  I still tear up when I think about it.

It was 2nd grade.  We were reading a story from our reader about Jackie Robinson.  He was, as we all know, the first African American to play baseball in the major leagues.  He faced discrimination because of his skin color, but he persevered, and was named Rookie of the Year, among other successes during his career.

When we came to the part about being judged by his skin color, my students laughed.

At first, I didn’t understand why.

They laughed because it sounded so absurd to them to judge someone by their skin color.  What does skin color have to do with anything? they wanted to know.

I was so touched by their innocence.  But it was more than just innocence.  They didn’t know it, but they had wisdom.

Skin color doesn’t have anything to do with your character.  It has nothing to do with whether you are smart, reliable, capable, responsible, motivated, or a million other character traits.  It has nothing to do with whether you can be a good student or a good friend.

My kids understood all that at the age of 7.

I hope they still do.

Don’t Think For Yourself – Ask the Experts!

Multiple times people have taken jabs at me on this blog because I call myself “self-educated.”  I study and blog about topics that interest me in an effort to educate myself.  Our minds require exercise just like our bodies do.  Self-improvement is a noble endeavor.  Millions of people preach the ideology of bettering our circumstances through education.  So why denigrate someone’s efforts to better educate themselves?

Self-education has a distinguished history in America, beginning with many of our Founding Fathers.  Benjamin Franklin taught himself Greek, French, Spanish, Latin, and Italian.  Patrick Henry and Abraham Lincoln both taught themselves how to be lawyers.  Frederick Douglass taught himself to read and write.

Self-education isn’t obsolete.  Steve Jobs dropped out of college and taught himself all about computers before starting Apple with his friend Steve Wozniak.

I had a second grade student who was brilliant at science.  Calling on him to answer science questions felt like cheating, since he always knew the answers.  His answers were also generally well above the understanding of the rest of the class.  I found out that this student woke up early every school day and spent an hour reading about science on his dad’s computer.  This student struggled with reading and writing, but absolutely inhaled everything to do with science.  His passion for the subject drove him to be truly self-educated in this area.

I’m certain he has a bright future ahead of him, because he passionately seeks knowledge in his area of interest.

That’s what self-education is about.  It’s about making your life better and richer by furthering your own education.  When you are self-educated, you can decide what you will study and how much time you will devote to study.  It is the ultimate in personalized education.  What you learn through self-study will be more meaningful.  Most likely, you will remember it better, since you are really interested and not just studying because a teacher is making you.

The reliance upon so-called experts infuriates me.

I don’t go to a gym to exercise.  I do exercise routines at home, usually from YouTube.  In particular, I like the Fitness Blender channel.  In their disclaimer at the beginning, they say “Fitness Blender and its partners…suggest that you consult your professional healthcare provider before attempting any exercise or exercise program.”  I’m not irritated with Fitness Blender; I completely understand that they do not want to be held liable for some idiot doing an exercise wrong and trying to blame a YouTube channel.  What irritates me is the reliance that our society has on always asking experts rather than rubbing two brain cells together.

We are inundated with articles like this one:

Nothing wrong with articles giving advice about reducing sugar intake.  But headlines like this point to a problem in our society – the belief that people can’t figure things out for themselves, even things as simple as how to eat less sugar.  (Oh, I don’t know…maybe eat less junk food.) (Note that I’m not talking about specific diseases that require the intake of a particular amount of sugar, as diabetes. I’m talking about your average person who just wants to eat healthier.)

There’s even a men’s underwear site that claims to be the “Underwear Expert,” with dozens of articles claiming to have all the perfect answers to your underwear questions.  (I would link to it, but the pictures were too disturbing.)

I’m pretty sure I can figure out how to perform simple exercise routines, eat a relatively healthy diet, brush my teeth, and any number of other activities without consulting “experts.”

Similarly, we don’t need “experts” to know our own minds.  We don’t need “experts” to tell us what to think, what to wear, how to vote, how to raise our children, or how to live our lives in general.  And yet, one of the most common arguments liberals use in order to further their agendas is to claim people don’t know how to make good choices.

We must ban large sodas and candy bars because people can’t make good choices about their health.

We must ban un-homogenized milk because people can’t make good choices about their health.

We must not allow school choice, vouchers, and homeschooling because parents don’t know how to educate their kids.

We must not allow people to carry firearms because they will try to act the hero and actually kill more people when mass shootings occur.

We must use the CPS to take kids out of their homes for things such as letting their kids walk to the park, because parents don’t know what is good for their kids.

A lot of the liberal agenda is based on the assumption that people do not know what is good for them, or how to run their own lives.

Well, guess what?  I do in fact know how to run my own life, and I’d really like liberals and their “experts” to butt out.

Last Day of School Activities

I always have lofty ideas about having the perfect last day of school: the perfect blend of fun and deep and meaningful.  I think I managed to pull it off pretty well this year, so here’s what I did with my first graders:

Morning Journal: every day my kids begin with a journal prompt.  But I sent everything home on the penultimate day of school.  Everything.  Even pencils.  So I cut four huge pieces of butcher paper, which I spread over each table group, and let them color with markers (I still had some of those).

Deep and Meaningfuls:  1. I often do an activity with the kids in which we toss a Beanie Baby from person to person, and when it’s your turn, you have to share something from a given category (adjectives, facts about X, etc.)  On the last day of school, they each shared their favorite part of first grade.  Some of their answers were: math and writing (yay me!), art projects, field trips, field day, birthdays, pizza, and cupcakes.  You just can’t beat cupcakes.

2. I gave each student a blank piece of paper and a clipboard.  I had them write their name at the top (with colored pencils).  The kids were all sitting in a circle.  They passed their clipboard to the right, and wrote one nice word to describe the new person.  Then they passed the clipboards again, until they went all the way around the circle.  At the end, students had a paper with a nice word from each student in the class, plus the teacher.  (I totally participated too!  And was touched by what they wrote: beautiful, nice, kind, funny, to name a few.)

3. Yearbook signing.  First we took about 20 minutes of just our class, then about half an hour more letting the students go between all the first grade classes.  Many students asked me to sign their yearbooks, of course.  It takes time, but I write a personal message to each student.

Fun: I teach my kids lots of “wiggle songs” (like you sing at summer camp).  We spent about half an hour singing their favorites, such as “The Moose Song,” “Tarzan,” and “The Princess Pat.”

Read aloud: I always end the last day school with one last read aloud.  Oh the Places You’ll Go is popular, but I figure they’ll hear that one about 90 times between now and senior year, so I opt for something different.  This year it was I am Albert Einstein by Brad Meltzer, from the Ordinary People Change the World series.  This one emphasizes believing in yourself and never giving up.

The last day of school always seems to come too soon.  Well, in another way, I’m eager for it to come.  But at the same time, I hope I’ve done enough to teach my kids and to love them, and I wonder how they are and what they are up to after they leave my class.