If you didn't know any better, you might well have thought Kristen Walsky had been teaching devil worship, fundamentals of terrorism and the proper use of a crack pipe to her kindergarten students at Tampa's Oak Park Elementary School.
Instead, Walsky has been instructing her pupils on how to read. No high crime there, except the technique employed by Walsky and her colleagues at Oak Park is regarded by some educators as the academic equivalent of heresy, although if you are of a certain middle age this is probably precisely how you, too, learned to read. It's called Direct Instruction and at the moment only two schools in Hillsborough County use the method: Oak Park and Egypt Lake Elementary.
And, oh yes, it works splendidly, too.
Essentially, Direct Instruction teaches students to read at its most basic level - one letter of the alphabet at a time, teaching students the sound of each letter, then connecting them to words, connecting the words to sentences.
Watching Walsky working with her students is like seeing a mix of June Cleaver and a Marine drill instructor. Pointing to a page in her textbook, Walsky repeats the drill again and again, pointing to letters and quickly calling upon students.
"A!" a child exclaims proudly, as the process continues through "N," "O," "T," "H," "E" and "R."
"ANOTHER!" the kids shout in unison.
The woman is a saint with the patience of a safecracker. Is the program working? Hillsborough County school officials are still conducting empirical research into the benefits of Direct Instruction. But this much is certain. These children, kindergartners and first- graders under the guidance of Walsky and her colleagues, are reading books, which puts them ahead of some junior high school students in the public school system. Detractors of Direct Instruction argue that repetitive phonetic teaching is boring for the teacher and the student. It is an argument Walsky rejects. "Bored? If anything I'm excited watching them learn," she said. And it would appear her students at least were excitedly engaged with Walsky as she crisply worked them through their paces.
For years, the benchmark instructional teaching method has been Whole Language. Children are immersed in written and spoken language where, it is argued, they learn to read and write by a sort of osmosis. Egypt Lake's Principal Sherry Orr said Direct Instruction was readily accepted by her teachers. "We were looking for a solution and offering this as an alternative in terms of desperation." But she cautioned that Direct Instruction should be viewed as merely one tool in a teacher's arsenal of techniques to help students read. Indeed, she added, for students already grounded in strong language skills before they come to school, Direct Instruction may not be all that helpful. Walsky agreed. "This [Direct Instruction] teaches children how to read, but we still need other components.
"Our county needs to have this in our schools as a reading element," Walsky said. And that is why, after being treated by school officials almost as if Direct Instruction was a Taliban primer, Walsky and her colleagues recently conducted a workshop for teachers from across the county.
Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has mandated a return to the teaching of basic phonics for all public schools to help improve the state's dreary grade-level reading scores. And so, after being essentially ignored for her efforts, teachers like Walsky have jumped to the head of the line as one of the few experts on phonetic-based teaching. Is she making a difference in the lives of her mostly minority, mostly poor, mostly transient students?
"KINDERGARTEN!" they responded with giggles.
"What grade do you WANT to be in?" Walsky asked next.
Yeah, she's making a difference. Kristen Walsky's kids can read.
Columnist Daniel Ruth can be reached at (813) 932-7257.
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