by Tracy K. Cronin
First grade. Simple, organized, fun reading lessons. Teacher responsibility. Notebooks that don't lose papers. Every page checked with care. Without this, we have failed these kids for their lifetime. It is the single most important thing we need to expect from our education system. Right now we are not getting it.
Today I listen as politicians compete for tax dollars for their favorite backers. I muse at the controversies surrounding labor unions and taxpayers. And I watch the single most important thing we can do for our children remain elusive on a frequent basis. Teach them what they need for life. To read.
My Uncle Barry (certified to teach five subjects) said it best. And it is not a testament to the education business but to truth. "If I had to take everything I have ever learned in college and condense it into one piece of advice, I would tell anyone if they want to learn anything, go get a book on it." True. So if we aspire to children doing independent study, reading for the sake of enjoyment, and not being hindered in other subjects due to the weakness of one, we must look again at our system of teaching each and every child to read.
There are untold numbers of mothers who have whisked their kids off to extra help courses and fueled all kinds of Phonics business enterprises. There are untold numbers of children that have probably questioned their ability to learn anything that required reading because of a faulty teaching system.
Looking at the education system from the perspective of a client choosing a service provider for the benefit of her children, I would objectively condense my understanding to the following thoughts. With the swirling controversies regarding the best ways to educate our youth, today, right now, on a day to day basis we are letting our first through tenth graders labor under a faulty system of teaching reading to them.
My deep concern comes from my own experience with our new system of trial and error, and its consequences. When my child entered kindergarten in a very small school of approximately three hundred students, we were thrilled to hear he had the more experienced of the two teachers for that year. Mrs. Wylund assigned the children into work groups and frequently had my son in her most advanced group. He was progressing well. By first grade he was with a new younger teacher who would for the first time be attempting to try her hand at "whole language" as a reading method. The school was using it for the first time as well. As a busy working mother, it hadn't occurred to me that because of leaving my son to her in the day and having his grandmother assist him with homework after school, a terrible problem was developing.
One day I showed up for a daytime reading recital. Eric was well under par. Choking on words when he came up to read to the group of mothers! My son? My heart raced with fear. I may have been busy, but I managed to coach soccer for two years, attended PTA as well as school board meetings, was on a parent advisory committee, chaired the toy drive, and was class mother for more than one of his elementary years. Yet, I had never grilled my son nightly on his "whole language reading". Why? I am not sure I recall ever giving it a second thought. After all I was a top reader in school when I switched schools back in my own second grade year after testing. I was placed in their advanced group. My mother had never read with me for reading help!! Only nursery rhymes when I was small! His charming first grade teacher told me that if I worked all summer with him he might be able to avoid remedial. WHAT DID SHE SAY???? I was in terror. My only child failed by me. That's all I thought.
Here he was slipping through the cracks on the single most important fundamental of our education system. What did it all amount tomy working nights, getting involved in our community, volunteering in as many ways as I could, only to find that my child had not been properly taught to read? WORSE, to remedy the situation apparently, my only option was to do what I was not inclined to do to consistently sit down each night and grill my son with his weird looking ditto sheets and worksheets of "sight words".
I am type A. I work my own hours. I rarely sit still. Literally, It would be a painful process for me to leave work early, come home, and each night do repetitious work with my son to catch him up on his reading. I mention this because of the diversity of people who will be relied upon to do "part two" of teaching children to read who do not learn under a faulty system. How could I as a frightened, panicked mother change my child's ominous reading future? I called every crackpot ad in the yellow pages and local small paper. Strange learning centers and businesslike people answered and quoted fees. One college had a special Saturday teaching program. All involved lots of traveling, expense, and had an eerie cold feeling to them! HELP!!
Exasperated, taking deep breaths, and in terror that my child's whole future was turning downward, I sat and thought hard. Then I picked up his books and carefully examined his notebook and the ditto sheets that had been given to him as a means of learning to read. I read them, and they looked like lots of exercises that would need lots of repetition and effort on my part. Suddenly I began thinking that reading was going to be the largest project I had ever taught my son, and I truly dreaded it. I thought perhaps I might want to have him redo the work in his notebook. The word "work" just kept hitting me. It looked like hard work. Things seemed so much simpler when I was youngthat was what saddened me. After all my mother was helping my son with his after school homework in the same way she had helped me lightly overseeing it nothing more.
My epiphany. My mother was a gem, not for helping either of us all that much in our homework, but for doing something rarely done. That darling woman saved my first grade notebook. I took it out and compared it to my son's big bulky nightmare of loose dittos and oversized big "A" and little "a" sheets. When I saw my notebook, it all came back to me. The competence and skill of Ms. Martens, my favorite teacher. She was one tough woman. Tall, with pitch black hair and pointed glasses!! But she taught us to read like a drill sergeant!
In my small little black and white notebook (the kind where a child couldn't drop the fact that 'eigh' says long 'A') were the little pages that made life so simple. May every child have a Mrs. Martens! On all my pages were stars or stamps, relating to the season, for good work! Each page was reviewed with care! Apparently she didn't conceive of telling my mother to do the job back then! She didn't trust us with looseleafs! She didn't take our word for it that the assignments were doneshe made sure! Boy, was she amazing! It all flashed back to me. Every morning she began aloud, "'A' says 'ugh', 'B' says 'bughh', 'C' says kughh'" etc. eventually we hit "ould says ughd" then we went to our other chart of blends. (I wondered, "Did my son know that 'ore' says 'awwwr'? ) After this repetitious, loud chant each morning of our first grade lives we would start with the day's work. It always included something key, like 'ed' says 'T' as in 'picked', and all of the other words we could think of, and then we would write them three times in only the neatest of columns. We had to fold our pages in three parts each day to make sure no column ran crooked!
I never loved her more than today when I realized how much my son needed her. So yes, I battled a child who was now sadly averse to reading. I also had no system in place to capture his long divided attention for the task ahead. So I broke as many rules as I could from skipping out of my work for longer lunch hours over the summer to bribing my son with payments to sit and begin learning to read AGAIN. In about three weeks I had finished the work with him, and he and I both enjoyed it. The first week, there were so many tears! I was bribing him with $10 dollars an hour to complete this with me. Then he began negotiating to $20, then he reduced it to a half hour, then he insisted he take lunch during the half-hour. Whatever. Honestly I could have cared less about the propriety of my tactics. He finally requested to write the words just once instead of three times. At that key point , I thought O.K., if after you write them once, you can recite them without mistakes.
What I found amusing was that he was then finally paying very close attention to what he was writing to avoid the repetition of three times. He was actually speaking carefully when he read them back to me, and we laughed when he blew it and had to rewrite three times. But no matter what, each day we reviewed the prior day's work, and he had to read fluently! One day long after the trauma of having to tame my wild reading averse boy, I caught a glimpse of him staring at the front of "TV Guide". As he opened the cover, he seemed to realize that what his eyes used to avoid looked somewhat recognizable and perhaps even easy to view. After all, Monday, Tuesday, etc. were on our list of words! He found his way to the day that it was and proceeded to figure out the shows that were on.
After that it was history. He became the most voracious reader of fluff I had ever seen. Name it: video games, strategy guides, Superman comicsno expense was spared at the stores. He was costing me upwards of $70 a month on the magazines he "needed". He sailed through second grade with his very stern "toughest teacher ". Then the following year was the elementary school Comprehensive Assessment Test of his reading skills. Our district used third grade as a reference point. A teacher came over to me and said "Wow, I heard your son possibly had the highest score". It really might have been him. It really might have been that summer of hard work. But honestly, I am sure it wouldn't have been without hermy first grade teacher.
After that summer I never worked at his reading with him again. Ms. Martens had a system that was timeless, and truly, those fundamentals were what was needed, in any environment, with any amount of parental input a fail safe, organized, simple system of teaching reading. Can we take a look at and master that in all classrooms before we try to do more?
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