Saturday, February 20, 2010

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 from
northern Canada to southern South Amer-
ica each fall. These birds return to Canada
in the spring when the weather in Canada
warms up.
At the hyphen, everyone stopped and struggled for a minute to put the word "America" together. Then they continued reading. It sounded like:
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.

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At 7:52 PM, Blogger MightyMom said...

well, since you brought it up.

what's the deal with these "sight words"??? Each week my son (kindergarten) comes home with a new sight word that he's suposed to memorize. I don't get it.

What happens when his (remember he's autistic) catalogue of words becomes too large for him to remember and he's stuck reading at that level cuz he can't sound out the words?

Now, for the record, I am teaching him to sound out the simple words he doesn't know yet. And, I must not be alone as I've noticed him sounding out more and more new words. His teacher has taught kindergarten (at his school) for 25 years so I'm sure she's seen all sorts of brillant models come and go.

Have you noticed that when you mention your teaching in a post I pay more attention to sentence structure and punctuation??

just wondering.

At 7:54 PM, Blogger MightyMom said...

I love my punctuation....

I tend to use excess punctuation for added emphasis!! I'm sure my Fish Grammar Prof would fail me miserably if he read my blog!!!

At 4:16 PM, Blogger Harry said...

Speaking of punctuation, I still think, I, go, overboard, with, commas, sometimes. I debate colons and semicolons with my kids.

It's not only autistic kids whose catalogue become to big to remember. Teachers wonder why kids who got good reading grades in first grade are falling behind by third grade. Kids can only memorize so many words before they're full. Then what do you do?

Wait! I know! Phonics! Kids need to be taught what sound the letters make and how to sound out words.

At 5:42 PM, Blogger Jungle Mom said...

Grammar, punctuation! I am very weak in both and because I know this, I over think everything I write. And then, I can't remebr which language has which rules, and...
Ok , enough excuses!
I wish you could teach my children the mechanics of our language!

At 1:34 AM, Blogger MightyMom said...

JM, uh-huh, you have to WAIT....he's teaching MINE First!!

At 7:34 PM, Blogger Harry said...

JM & MM,
Have the kids come by after school. Who will notice a few more students?

When I post I try and make sure my mechanics are immaculate. With all of the talking I do about it, I'd better do it right . . . or at least passable.


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