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.


Provo City Center Temple


The Provo City Center Temple is on South University Ave. in downtown Provo, Utah.  Construction began in May, 2012, and was dedicated in May, 2016, after an open house to which all comers were invited.  It’s the 150th temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.


There is a central tower capped with a statue of Moroni, with four towers, one in each corner.


This temple was originally a tabernacle, not a temple.  A tabernacle is meant as a meetinghouse for the church. The tabernacle was heavily damaged in a fire in 2010.  In 2011, President Monson announced that it would be rebuilt as a temple.  The interior was completely redone, but the facade of the tabernacle was preserved.  The tabernacle’s pulpit was also saved.


The landscaping around the building is lush and beautiful.


I love this reminder of the purpose of temples: to unite families for eternity.


A reflection of the temple in the glass wall of its neighbor.

Additional references:

  • History of the Provo City Center temple on LDSchurchtemples.com
  • History of the Provo City Center temple with lots of pictures on lds.org

Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee

I’m sure you’ve heard about the riots at UC Berkeley.  Milo Yiannopolous was invited to speak there.  Students rioted, throwing bricks and fireworks, attacking students who tried to attend, and calling Milo fascist and hateful.  UC Berkeley failed to give Milo sufficient police protection, and instead the event was canceled.

If you look on social media, you’ll find people disgusted by the actions of the rioters and the spinelessness of the university.

There are also plenty of people applauding their actions, for expressing their views and protecting others from hate-speech.

It must take a lot of double-think to call someone else fascist while threatening and attacking others and destroying property to keep someone from expressing their opinions.

Not to mention, Milo is not a policy-maker.  He’s also not an American – he’s from the UK.  He has zero ability to directly affect American laws and regulations.  He’s a journalist and senior editor for Breitbart News.  What was he going to do at UC Berkeley?  Talk.  That’s it.  All he was going to do was present his opinions.  Contrary to the accusations, Milo has not advocated for violence against anyone.  (If you don’t believe me, go find out for yourself.)  Non-violent talk never merits a violent reaction.

The riot and cancellation say a lot more about the rioters than the speaker.  If you become so unhinged at just the thought of someone articulating an opinion contrary to your own that you start throwing things and attacking people, I suggest you seek professional help.  If this was a calm and calculated decision, you are a psychopath who needs to be in jail.

The school claims it wasn’t Berkeley students who were the rioters.  Their evidence?  “That’s not our students’ behavior.”  But, since the individuals who started the violence were masked, and not arrested (reports vary between zero and one arrest), I can’t say that the university’s assertion (repeated as fact by the left-leaning media), is terribly convincing.

Back to the irony of violent protestors calling someone else a fascist.  Fascism means (according to Merriam-Webster): a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.”

I’d like to highlight that last part: “Forcible suppression of opposition.”  Which side of the political spectrum is actually practicing the forcible suppression of opposition?  It certainly wasn’t the Republican club on campus who invited Milo to speak.

If you really are confident that you are right, why not let someone else speak?  If you are right, and they are wrong, other people will be able to figure that out, and they will side with you.  If someone is resorting to violence to prevent someone else from speaking, maybe it’s because they know, deep down, that they aren’t so right after all, and they’re afraid that if they let someone else speak, other people will realize it too.

I’ll leave it up to you to decide who really is the fascist.

Additional References:


The Long Mars: A Review

Image result for the long mars

This book is the third in the Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter.  It’s probably best to read the first two before reading this one, since there are a lot of references to earlier events.

If you come to this book through a love of Terry Pratchett, it’s important to know going in that this is a very different kind of book.  It has a few humorous moments, but definitely not the comedy of the Discworld books.  This is a decidedly serious book.  All the same, I must read this series as part of my obsession with all things Pratchett.  I don’t know how it compares with other books by Stephen Baxter, but I suppose I’ll get around to those sooner or later.

Some readers have criticized this series as boring and without much action.  It’s true that not a lot happens in this book.  It reminds me of early sci-fi novels, such as those by H.G. Wells.  Instead of being action-packed with exciting events, this book is more of an exploration of ideas.

The characters encounter all sorts of exotic environments and life forms in the exploration of the Long Earth and the Long Mars.  Those chapters are a thought experiment in the types of life that might be possible.  This book also explores what might happen if mankind continues to evolve.  What will those people be like?  How will the less-evolved people react to them?

All in all, I enjoyed the book, though it is a bit of a slow-starter.  But there is what seems to me a glaring oversight, and it really bugs me.


************** SPOILER ALERT**************

What really bothered me was the treatment of the “Next.” Everyone was arguing that they are a danger to humanity because of their high intellect. The danger isn’t from their intellect. It’s because they are psychopaths. They have no consciences. The five who murdered civilians in Happy Landings in a coup and murdered naval personnel on the Armstrong had no remorse for their actions. That is plenty of proof that the Next are indeed dangerous. But the human characters just argue about them like they’re harmless puppies that humanity hates just because they’re “different.”

It’s not like Pratchett to overlook something like that. He’s usually much more perceptive. So, I blame his coauthor.

Salt Lake City Temple


Last summer, my husband and I made a trip to Utah, and we spent a day at Temple Square.  You’ve got to admit, it’s a pretty impressive structure.  The walls are 9 feet thick at the top, and 6 feet thick at the top. The angel Moroni statue on top is 14 feet tall.


It’s even more impressive when you know a little of it’s history.  Construction on it began on July 28, 1853, only six years after the Latter Day Saints arrived in what we know as the Salt Lake valley.  The city of Salt Lake was planned around the location of the temple.


The stone used to build the temple was brought here from a quarry 20 miles away.  The whole temple took 40 years to build.

There are many other buildings at Temple Square, as well as monuments and gardens.

20160617_113024    The temple and the Tabernacle, a meetinghouse for the members and the first home of General Conference.


The temple and the Joseph Smith Memorial Building.

The words “Holiness to the Lord. The House of the Lord” can be found on every temple to remind us of the purpose of the temple.  It is a sacred and beautiful place where we can worship Heavenly Father, make covenants, and feel His power in our own lives.utah-june-2016-127

If you want to learn more about the Salt Lake temple, you can learn more at LDSchurchtemples.com

You can learn more about the purpose of the temple at LDS.org

Language is Always Changing

Yesterday I read a great article from Mental Floss, “4 Changes to English So Subtle We Hardly Notice They’re Happening.”

Language is indeed always changing.  That’s how we got modern English from middle English, and, before that, old English.  It’s a significant part of why writers like Shakespeare are often difficult for readers today to understand. The language, including both vocabulary and grammatical constructions, changed over time.  And it’s still changing.  (I’ve taught this to my 2nd graders, too, and it gives me great delight that they know this.)

Language change isn’t inherently good or bad; it just is.  Many people decry the increasing casualness of our language, etc. etc., as if it were a moral fault.  I admit, I have also been known to chide people for mixing up “there,” “their,” and “they’re.”  I like to think that I correct people only on actual errors, though, and not on things that are just “different.”  (People who know me might object to that assessment.)

But back to the Mental Floss article.  When the author, Arika Okrent, mentioned the great vowel shift in the introductory paragraph, being a word-nerd and amateur linguist, I was predisposed to like it.  And it did not disappoint.

The first change listed is the replacement of infinitives with gerunds.  For example, instead of saying “They started to walk,” we would say “They started walking.”  “To walk” is the infinitive form of the verb “walk.”

This got me thinking of the naughty split infinitive.  It’s a made-up rule in English that you’re not supposed to split an infinitive.  Instead of saying “to slowly walk” you must say “to walk slowly,” with the adverb coming after the verb instead of between “to” and the verb.  This rule was invented to make English more like Latin, which cannot have split infinitives because a Latin infinitive, just like in Spanish, is one word, and cannot actually be split.  Since English is a Germanic language and not a Romance, this rule is nonsense and can be ignored.

Then I realized that I actually haven’t heard many complaints about split infinitives.  This isn’t because all the grammar nazis have chilled out.  Rather, it’s because using infinitive is becoming rarer, replaced by the gerund.

The second change is that we are using the progressive form of verbs more often.  These are the verbs with “be” constructions and “-ing” endings, such as “I’m being serious” instead of “I’m serious,” or “I should be going” instead of “I should go.”  Personally, I think the progressive verb lacks punch.  I think people would take you more seriously if you say “I’m serious” instead of “I’m being serious.”  The progressive verb lacks sincerity.  Or maybe that’s just me.

The third change is related to the second one.  The helping verbs “shall” and “ought” are hardly used any more, but “will,” “should,” and “can” are being used more than ever.  I think this is tied to our greater use of the progressive.  We use ever more intensifiers, which actually results in watering down our language.

The last one is replacing the “was” in passive sentences with “got.”  Passive voice is when something happens to the subject, rather than the subject being the doer, for example, “The tourist was robbed.”  This type of construction is now frequently “The tourist got robbed.”

A friend of mine commented that she doesn’t like the use of “got” since it sounds too casual.  I had an English teacher in high school who hated the word, and never let us use it.  Naturally, since then, I have no problem with using it, and, on occasion, even encourage it.  Generally in written language, however, there is another word choice that sounds better (to me, anyway).

None of these changes are “errors.”  They’re just different ways of using the language.  Different constructions rise and fall in popularity over time, and sometimes new ones are invented.  What fascinates me more than anything else is how organic the process is.  No one can control it.  It’s like what Mr. Universe says in Serenity: “You can’t stop the signal.”