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So, as I have outlined up to this point, my daughter’s school was teaching using a Whole Language philosophy.  They would say that they taught phonics, too, but they did not, at least not in any way that I found useful.  How do I know this?  Well, I know it because of my own daughter’s experience, but also because I helped struggling readers in the Second and Third Grade at my daughter’s school.

As part of our training, we were told that when a child reached a word they did not know, they were supposed to look at the pictures and guess the word, read the rest of the sentence and then guess the word based on context, provide the word to them, and at the bottom of the list was to have them try and sound it out.  When I did ask a child to try and sound the word out, they usually had no idea how to do it.  They were strangely unaware of the short sounds vowels make, much less the “altered” sounds vowels make that are neither short nor long.  They also did not understand syllables.  You cannot have a chance of applying any decent system of phonics without an understanding of syllables.

I was completely stunned that both the Second and Third Graders who were struggling had the exact same problem, and except for some minor differences, appeared to be stuck at the same place in their reading development.  I drew pictures representing the short sounds that vowels made and kept them near us when we read.  This helped, but we parent volunteers only had so much time per week to work with them.  They had to be pulled out of class during times when other things were going on.  They noticed.  The other kids noticed.  It just was not an optimal solution.  Of course, not being able to read well is worse than having the whole class watch you leave for reading help….I guess.

Another big change in Second Grade was an even stronger focus on writing.  In lieu of reading (Book-its and daily reading at home were encouraged in First Grade but not Second), writing assignments were sent home on Mondays with the children.  Parents were expected to help their children over the course of Monday and Tuesday to brainstorm ideas and put those ideas into a story which was to be signed by the parent and turned back in to the teacher on Wednesday.

I don’t know about you, but when I sign my name to a document, it means something.  It means that the paper is the best example that can be produced, within reason and ability, and that I have actively participated in getting my child to a story that passes for decent Second Grade writing.  The problem was, I just did not think Second Grade writing had much to offer.  Most Second Graders do not know enough or have enough experiences to have anything of real value to say and they are not reading enough books, especially good books, to gravitate toward a style and a voice they can emulate until they discover their own.

On top of this problem was the whole spelling issue.  Despite the fact that I was discouraged, as a parent, from focusing too much on expecting correct spelling from my daughter, I would not let my name be attached to a paper that had misspellings.  If you are working from the position that there is no such thing as “bad” spelling, it surely eliminates a whole bunch of pressure from writing.  I guess that is why many schools have decided spelling is unimportant; one less thing to worry about.  But not in this family.  And I make no apologies.  I have had too many occasions to read poorly spelled and worded papers by young adults who think (are deluded) they are educated because they have been led to believe they are by their diploma and the grades they were given in high school.  It is truly a sad situation.

As you might suspect, Mondays and Tuesdays were not pleasant during Second Grade.  They were filled with stress, frustration, tears, and discouragement for both child and parent.  These sessions were beneficial, however, in that they led me to realize just how woefully unprepared my child was to perform her work independently.

Since Kindergarten, my daughter had been taught to work in groups and synthesize ideas.   She was good at coming up with global ideas for creative stories, but could not get the sequence down for putting specific ideas in a story.  She kept waiting for me to prompt her, and even when she had perfectly wonderful, creative ideas, she had to know that I agreed before she could proceed.  This was not about her wanting to please me.  It was how she approached most everything from dance to art; look and see what someone else is doing first.  If you took the time to observe, you would have seen most of the kids doing this; looking around trying to figure out what to do by looking to other kids.  This was not something that was natural for my child.  In preschool, she did not have that problem.  It is something she learned through repeated practice and reinforcement, day after day, in a public school that sees the benefit of peer-led instruction.

I know that those of you who teach and like this philosophy are going to disagree with me.  And those of you with the one or two children in the class who are actually NOT looking around are probably going to think I’m making a big fuss about nothing, but we will just have to disagree.  I would like to point out that many of those more focused kids were the ones that had been held back purposefully by their parents.  I suspect they were playing the system because they knew going in what to expect.  Hey, who can blame them?

Anyway, the Second Grade writer wants to tell you all about what a person or thing looks like through the entire story.  So, you might get something that reads like…….The end.  Oh, and she had freckles and red hair. I get that this is cute when your child brings you something she has created at home and you can enjoy it purely from the perspective of an interested and engaged parent, but these writing assignments were schoolwork not refrigerator art.  The purpose of the assignments was to learn how to write effectively.  I know my daughter learned a lot about writing that year, but it was not fun and it was not pretty.  And I was left a whole lot disillusioned about what exactly my role was as a parent of a child in public school.  Just as the decision to feed a snack to my child in Kindergarten two hours after she had breakfast and an hour before she had lunch had disrupted our evening meals and family time for the whole year, so these writing assignments were even worse.  Oh, and it wasn’t just me.  Other families, past and present, expressed the same frustrations.  (If you are interested, we use IEW for writing in homeschool.  This is a wonderful writing program.)

Then, there was math.  What I saw being taught were those sheets I mentioned at the start of class; the little appetizers.  Math worksheets were sent home as homework; presumably to become proficient.  Math facts were expected to be taught at home, as well.   Just one more thing to eat into family time which, after meals, baths, and homework, was precious few hours.  Don’t get me wrong.  I appreciate that schools want to provide an exciting learning environment and I’m glad my child’s favorite things at school are lunch and recess and Music in Motion, but I would like time to share some memory-making moments with my child, too.  I certainly do not want to have to teach during my free time.

So, I am frustrated.  Frustrated that kids can’t read.  Frustrated that the system seems designed to make sure kids learn to read in the hardest, least efficient way possible (for the child and parent).  Frustrated that so much of the day is spent in student-led teaching/learning.  Frustrated that my daughter is not being pushed to her full potential.  Frustrated that she is learning the opposite of thinking independently.  And then enter Math Liftoff.

This is a PTO-led program that is designed to give students practice on math skills and also to help identify where children might need help in math.  Once a week, parent volunteers pull children out of class to take a one-page quiz.  If they score 100%, they get to take the next quiz in the series the following week.  If they do not score 100%, they put their paper in a folder and retake the same quiz the next week.  They did not look at the paper again.  The teacher did not look at the paper.  The parent volunteer did not look at the paper again.  There was no interim training before the next quiz to address the reason(s) why a student missed a problem(s)..

My daughter informed me at some point that she had been stuck on the same quiz for three or four weeks.  This was adding one-digit numbers to two-digit numbers.  She could do this in her sleep.  She was missing ONE on every quiz.  Each quiz had about 20 – 30 problems.  She was missing the problems because she lost focus, was distracted, got sloppy – something – but it was not because she did not know how to do it.  She felt she was not good at math because of this.  I talked to the teacher.  The teacher was surprised that my daughter had not moved to the next test and indicated she would inform the parent volunteer to administer the next quiz in the series.  This happened several times.

I brought my problem to the PTO.  I explained to them that if I went my whole school career having only missed one question on every test I took, it is likely that I would graduate at or near the top of my class.  So, their requiring 100% before moving to the next quiz seemed to be the opposite of achieving their desired goal which was to help children master particular math skills and then help them when they reached a concept they were struggling with.  In fact, I explained that because they did not provide any help or guidance between tests, they were not really “helping” the students if those students were, in fact, struggling.  I suggested perhaps they needed to loosen their requirement for moving on, say three or less missed.  Or some other acceptable way to pass the kids if they could show mastery, in addition to providing assistance on learning concepts with which they were struggling.

You would have thought that I had suggested making the fastest kid in class run a relay with one leg tied up.  This would not be FAIR!  I was confused.  Was this a contest?  No, I was assured it was not.  The kids were not even “supposed” to know where the other kids were; yeah, right.  Well, then what is not fair?  It just would not be fair to the kids who had actually passed with 100%.  I took another stab at it.  Look, the kids are not even supposed to know who has taken what test, so how is this not fair?  They do not get a certificate or an award if they pass the most tests.  No one gets a scholarship.  My daughter is stuck adding one and two digit numbers which she has mastered up to my standards (and my standards are HIGH).  However, based on your silly program, she now thinks she is not good in math.  I went even further.  It is cruel to tell a child that missing one question equates to failure while at the same time providing no assistance or a means to work out of that situation (remember, the paper was stuck in a folder never to be looked at again).

Brick wall.  The principal seemed to understand what I was saying, but the parents just could not get past the unfairness of it all and the fact that administering the program as I suggested would take too much time and effort.  Hearing this, I asked if participation in the program was mandatory.  No…..slowly…..it was not.  However, I sensed a BUT.  They did not want me to do that.  Why?  I don’t know.  Perhaps nonconformity was too much to handle.  But, if it was not mandatory, then I was inclined to have my daughter stop taking them at all if things continued as they were.  I was serious and they knew it.  I would not have my daughter be conditioned into believing that she was a poor math student because she did not get 100% on every quiz.  The topic moved on with no resolution regarding Math Liftoff being reached.  However, things have a way of working themselves out when you threaten to quit (not my reasons for doing it).  I would like to think that after considering the questions posed, the program has been changed.  I hope so.

If only Math Liftoff were the entire problem with math, though.  My daughter is a decent math student.  When she is focused, she is pretty darn good at math.  My hope for her is to be an excellent math student as I think math is so very important.  If you are diligent at math, you have an advantage in many areas of life and it works hand-in-hand with other higher critical thinking skills.  So, imagine my consternation when I made an “announced” visit to class to pick my daughter up for an appointment only to find her under a desk, in the dark, with several other kids, “doing math” on their backs while the teacher helped other kids individually.  O.K., I’m willing to accept the beanbag chairs for reading and lying all over the floor for the center-based games and manipulatives, but this was just too much.  I believe that when you have a pencil and paper with math problems, you need to sit AT a desk (not under it), quietly (not goofing with friends), and give the problems your undivided attention IN THE LIGHT OF DAY.  I’m strange that way.

Shortly thereafter, I went to a homeschool convention to learn more.  It was exciting to see all the texts and workbooks (especially for writing and math), talk to some homeschooled children and their parents, and to just hang out with people who by-and-large placed a lot of value on academics like myself.  I think the extras are fun, important and even necessary, but not at the expense of actual learning. Even while I was finally beginning to believe that I might actually homeschool my daughter – was really allowing myself to seriously consider it – I was fearful.  But my bigger fear was the continued road down Whole Language and Everyday Math.

Next time:  The end of Second Grade, and although we did not know it then, the end of public school….for now.