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ImageMy daughter entered First Grade in the Fall of 2010.  Unfortunately, she missed the first day of school because she had Roseola and a high temp, so we also missed the excitement of moms and dads snapping photos of their children on the sidewalk entering the school in their “first day of school” clothes.  We still took a picture the next day, though it was not quite the same.  I did, however, note that my daughter’s backpack did not look nearly so big on her that year.

First Grade structure turned out to be almost exactly like Kindergarten except they did not have “dress-up” and “role play” time anymore.  This surprised me. The classroom used Daily 5’s and C.A.F.E. (just like Kindergarten) which, as I found out later, was a system developed by two sister teachers from Washington state.  The program, as described in the book synopsis at Amazon, is:

“Do you love teaching but feel exhausted from the energy you expend cajoling, disciplining, and directing students on a daily basis? If so, you’ll want to meet “The Sisters”, Gail Boushey and Joan Moser. Based on literacy learning and motivation research, they created a structure called The Daily Five which has been practiced and refined in their own classrooms for ten years, and shared with thousands of teachers throughout the United States. The Daily Five is a series of literacy tasks (reading to self, reading with someone, writing, word work, and listening to reading) which students complete daily while the teacher meets with small groups or confers with individuals.”

AND

“The Daily Five is more than a management system or a curriculum framework; it is a structure that will help students develop the habits that lead to a lifetime of independent literacy.”

What I did not understand when my daughter was in Kindergarten was that Daily 5’s and C.A.F.E. were a “curriculum” of sorts and that it was being carried through at least the first three grades of elementary school.  I originally thought it was just a cutesy name for what they did in Kindergarten.   My advice to parents with kids entering Kindergarten is to ask what curriculum related to literacy and math the school will be using.

Anyway, as you can see, this teaching tool, philosophy, curriculum (TPC, for short) is designed to have the children working outside the direct influence of the teacher for a good portion of the day.  Additionally, the TPC has students working a significant amount of the time “together” or in “small groups”.

So, what happens when you have a child who isn’t a strong self-motivator, but is pretty capable of achieving “average” or “above average” results with a minimal amount of work at school and a great deal of mom and dad teaching her at home?  Is it possible that when parents are really involved (at home) that the teachers think the program is working better than it really is?  Is it possible that when a child does not achieve under this system because they do not have parents expending this extra effort at home that the teachers think (unfairly perhaps) that the child has a learning or behavioral problem?  What happens when you have a highly social child, a child easily distracted by movement, movement such as that created by changing to different learning “stations” or “into groups” which is the very purpose of the TPC?  Isn’t it possible that a child like I just described may not be challenging herself academically under this teaching philosophy and may, in fact, be hamstrung from achieving up to her highest potential?  Is this child I described the anomaly or the norm?

Sure, the description of TPC outlines that lofty goal of having children move toward “independent” literacy and didn’t I want my child to learn to work independently?  Personally, I think that phrase – independent literacy – is redundant if its meaning is that you need to be able to read on your own.  If you cannot read on your own, you cannot read; ergo, you are not literate.  If the phrase means – and I suspect it does – that they want the child to play a big part in teaching themselves to read and write and spell, then the program is full of weaknesses and pitfalls.   And the answer to my question of whether I want my child to learn to read independently or from some other 6-or-7-year-old is an emphatic, “NO!”  I guess that makes me something of a rebel.

And remember those vowels I talked about from Kindergarten?  Well, they were still an afterthought when my daughter was “writing”.  She scored 100% on spelling tests (because she has a GREAT memory), but could not make the connection between writing, reading and spelling.  There were just too many ways that were allowed for spelling when writing.  The children saw a handful or more different ways to spell even the least complex of words.  And my daughter, despite her skills in memorization. has an equally strong tendency toward forming habits.  If she learns something incorrectly, it is nearly impossible to turn her away from the damaging habit.

Here are a few misspelling examples from the last three months of First Grade for my daughter where she used mainly consonants when “writing”:  anmls (animals), strtid (started), grty (“p” was written backwards as a “g”; supposed to be party), and hrd (heard; I would have been happy with herd, hurd, or hird as an attempt to spell with some higher level of phonics).  These were not the only examples, but you get the idea.  While students, including my daughter, were encouraged to look at the “word wall” or their personal “sight word dictionary” to spell words correctly, one has to recognize the word as being spelled incorrectly; otherwise, there is no incentive to look to those sources.  Without a continual reinforcement that letters and groups of letters make certain sounds, that there are strong rules to decoding the English language, that words are spelled incorrectly and that there is only ONE correct way to spell a word, that words have syllables, and that each syllable requires a vowel, then a child has very few tools to recognize misspellings. Therefore, “hrd” IS a correct way to spell “heard”.

Then there were the words that had vowels in the completely wrong place –frnot for front – or words that were spelled phonetically using a sloppy pronunciation; jest instead of just, for example.  I had my daughter’s eyes, hearing, and speech tested to make sure she did not have a physical problem that was causing her to drop vowels, use the wrong vowels or even the wrong consonants when she was writing.  An example of the latter problem would be a word she spelled “djown”.  It took a good half hour for her to explain to me that this was the word for “that dress that princesses wear”.  Oh…. GOWN!    If this stuff was not corrected at school, where my daughter spent most of her waking hours, who was going to realize that my daughter was pronouncing gown as DJOWN?  By the way, all tests for physical problems came back negative and I was told that it was highly unlikely that my daughter had dyslexia, but that they could not really test for it until the end of Second Grade or so anyway.

It was some time during my daughter’s First Grade year that I started doing some heavy duty digging into what I was seeing at school and in my daughter’s work and the work of the other children.  I did not know what it was, but I Googled things like “my daughter can’t spell”, “no phonics”, “sight words”, and “learning centers” and I was rewarded with a lot of information about Whole Language.  I had never even heard the term before.  So, I was not coming at this problem with a preconceived idea regarding phonics vs. whole language, which was a war that was being fought well before my daughter entered school but was not part of my personal elementary school experience.

While there were a lot of teachers and educators out there who seemed to think that whole language was the bee’s knees, there were an equal number of people, many of them parents like me with complaints similar to mine, that were not happy with the results.  There were educators with PhDs after their name that were none too impressed either.  I talked to my friends from other states who were similarly discouraged.  The evidence was mounting that many children could not read unfamiliar words and had no tools to figure them out except looking at pictures (not available in good, advanced literature), reading the rest of the sentence and guessing the word, skipping the word entirely, substituting another word that made sense, pronouncing the word incorrectly, or a combination of all these things.  Almost everyone I spoke with said their children could not spell even once they were in high school.

I finally felt like I was not crazy.   Other people were having the same experiences with their children.  I was not alone.  Maybe my child did not have an undiagnosed learning disability after all.  So, I went to the teacher who set up a meeting with her and the principal.  Both these women are wonderful people and completely devoted to their jobs and the children in their care.  My daughter’s First Grade teacher was the most organized, thoughtful, caring, engaged teacher I had ever met.  The principal knew every child’s name and greeted them, and their parents (by name), every time they walked in the building.

Understand that it was not easy for a person like me, who was a product of public education and felt her life was saved by it and who liked and admired these women, to approach them and tell them I thought their curriculum was damaging my child.  I have no problem speaking my mind, but this felt personal, like I was attacking them at the core of who they were as educators – their professionalism – their ability.  It made me sick.  But then I would remember my daughter.  Their feelings and our relationship just were not worth my daughter’s future.

The result of that meeting was that I left with a foot high stack of books with sticky notes that highlighted the pages reassuring me that they knew best and my daughter was doing fine and anything that I saw as a problem in First Grade was going to go away in the years to come.

It was after that meeting that my husband and I started seriously considering homeschooling.   But it would take another year to finally take that huge leap.

Next time:  Second Grade.  Did it get better?

**Here is a link to an excellent article on some of the main reasons parents are dissatisfied with public education, including Whole Language.  I don’t agree with everything the author says, but most of it rings true.  I hope you find it edifying.

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