Why Teach Basics?I did my student teaching in an Open School setting. It was child centered. Part of their reigning progressive philosophy was the rhetorical question, "Does a child really need to know what a verb is?" Their answer would have been a resounding "No!" Mechanics were not stressed at all. As I knew nothing about education, since all I had under my belt were methods classes and a few small group experiences with students, I happily went along with the program. And it wasn't a bad school. The teachers and the students seemed to be happy there. It was a magnet school, so parents had to want their children to attend. Teachers worked hard. So did some students. It was a K-8 school and I did notice that over on the middle school side of the building, things were pretty raucous . . . all the time.
I was there for ten weeks. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. My mentor teacher was one of the best teachers I've ever seen. She didn't go wholeheartedly for the open classroom model. She had some structure and more than a few expectations. I left wishing that all schools could be like that one. I even tried to model my own classroom like the one I had learned in.
Over the years, as I'm sure I've written about, students didn't learn as much as they were supposed to learn under the open classroom model or under any of the other models that I was exposed to. I've also written about my conversion from the blind unquestioning following of "whole language" curriculum to one favoring explicit phonics instruction. This is in spite of the fact that the public schools still march in lock step to the whole language drummer, accepting new programs with the same foolish faith that previous programs were adopted. Teachers who have been in the business long enough, understand that the newest are the same as the recently discarded, but since they don't know what else to do, they grumble a bit and then go along knowing full well that except for the cosmetic changes, the newest, in this case, Reading Workshop by Lucy Calkins, most recent of big time curriculum gurus, is the same as what's been abandoned.
Explicit instruction in the basics is frowned upon, but a recent reading episode with my class reminded me why grammar, spelling, syntax, capitalization, and punctuation must be taught to avoid the current problem of high school graduates struggling to read their own diplomas.
The passage in the science book (which we read chorally) reads as follows:
For instance, the pectoral sandpiper travels from northern Canada to southern South America each fall. These birds return to Canada in the spring when the weather in Canada warms up.No big deal, right? The problem was that in the book, it looks like this:
For instance, the pectoral sandpiper travels fromAt the hyphen, everyone stopped and struggled for a minute to put the word "America" together. Then they continued reading. It sounded like:
northern Canada to southern South Amer-
ica each fall. These birds return to Canada
in the spring when the weather in Canada
Each fall these birds return to Canada in the spring when-That's where I stopped them and made them go back to the beginning of the passage. And they did the same thing.
So I stopped the Science lesson and gave them a lesson in punctuation. At this point, it's not that most of them can't read the words. They're only reading the words. They're not reading the stories. I reread the passage to them the way they read it and the way it should be read. Then we talked about the difference in meaning.
One of the things I've always had to work on is mechanics. Now, since students are coming into fourth grade with even lower skills, it's become more important to teach and reinforce these skills. Teachers are taught that mechanics don't matter. They can teach "mini-lessons", or work these lessons into the revision process, or who knows what. The problem is that students haven't learned what a complete sentence is. When they write, many have very little idea where one sentence ends and the next one begins. The don't use punctuation in their own writing because they don't know how. Because of this, when they read, the don't really see the punctuation, kind of like the things we see but don't really notice in our daily travels because they just aren't important. To the students, punctuation marks may as well be random scratches on their papers. And capital letters? Something to be added when the teacher tells you to add them. So I will continue to reteach these skills. Some of them will get it, but none of them will ever be able to claim that I didn't teach them.
We teachers are still battling the whole language lobby. If we are ever able to defeat them, things will get better.