Learning on the Job

deskIn the good old days, back when I was an elementary student myself, the teaching methodologies and classroom expectations were much different from the ones presented to me at the college level.  I was a product from a private school setting that required one teacher to instruct between 40 and 50 students and two grade levels in one classroom setting.  My formal reading instruction had consisted of the “Dick and Jane” series, and the approach our teacher, Sister Winifred, used to teach from that series was one that purely taught sight words and utilized memorization of these words to read the selections in our reading text.  Sister Winifred would write the words on the board and then point to them, telling us what each said, and robotically we would repeat them after her.  We never learned the sounds of any letters or how the letters of the alphabet worked together, but miraculously, most of us were wonderful readers and even great spellers!  In my second grade class, I can recall only one of my classmates who struggled with his reading, and interestingly, there was always a willing student who would sit at Johnny’s desk with him and help him learn and remember the new vocabulary words of the day.  Sister Winifred appreciated the help since she had to switch gears to teach the other grade in the classroom, and Johnny was a willing participant in the additional instruction from his classmates.

Once I made the decision to become an elementary teacher, my college classes consisted of instruction in the history of education and some basic classes in math, literature, history, and science.  It was four years of studying and taking tests, but little time was spent with actual methodology or classroom instruction.  It was not until my senior year, first semester, that we were allowed to actually try our hand at working with children and instructing them in their academics.  I have often wondered what might have happened if one had spent three years studying to be an elementary teacher and then found that working with a group of children day after day was really not to one’s liking!  It seemed obvious that one ought to have had some exposure to one’s “career” prior to making a three or four year investment of one’s life, but I digress…

My student teaching experience was great!  I was assigned to a young third grade teacher and she was one of the warmest, most enthusiastic teachers I have ever met.  With an art and elementary background, she created some of the most inspiring bulletin boards and classroom art projects imaginable.  All of her students loved her, and it was obvious that she loved them.  She was a master at encouraging her students to achieve at their highest potential, and I feared I could not meet up with her level of warmth and instruction when my turn to teach came.  Yet, with her enthusiasm and guidance, my student teaching experience was totally rewarding.  The students and I bonded well and together we conquered the first semester of their third grade!  It was a most gratifying and exciting experience for all.

When my first contract for third grade was offered in a public school setting, I felt confident that I had found my niche in life!  After all of the district indoctrination and introductions, I was given my assignment and sent to my new school.  As I prepared my classroom for the first day, I leafed through the teacher’s guides to insure that I was totally and completely prepared for my new life adventure!  Whoa!  The reading series was a phonetic approach to reading….not the sight word, memorization method used when I had learned to read.  Since my college classes did not include instruction in phonics, I was at a loss!

The school district was totally immersed in the “Words in Color” method of teaching reading, a program I had never seen and knew nothing about.  My work was cut out for me.  I stayed up late each night reviewing and learning the various colors of the sounds, the consonant pairs and triplets that worked together to form one sound, and the many varieties of vowel combinations that were part of the English language.  I had studied Latin in high school and Spanish in college, and all of these sounds and letters had me totally baffled!  How had I gotten to be a 23 year old teacher and not know all of this?  Each day, my instruction was not only to teach my students these wondrous things about reading and our alphabet, but, also to address my own lack of knowledge about teaching reading through the use of phonics.  Besides our wall charts, each classroom also had a set of books filled with nonsense stories that were rhythmical and progressive through the many sounds and skills.  I suppose perhaps it was because this was my first experience with teaching phonics, but, I thought this series actually was well designed and students had much success with it.  But, times were a changin’ and book companies began pitching another philosophy in the teaching of reading, and soon those little phonetic books disappeared from our classrooms only to be replaced with some hard covered “literature” books.  It was no longer “popular” to continue teaching phonics after second grade.  The new way of thinking was that the children should be reading actual stories, etc. and that instruction with sounds should all be accomplished in the first two grades of elementary school.

It was a few years later when I was assigned as a Title I Reading teacher at the Middle School that we began to note the errors of our ways.  All students were tested for reading proficiency as they entered Middle School and as those whose phonetic instruction had ceased at the end of second grade, larger numbers were requiring some reading intervention.  As the district was immersed in the total language methodology by this time, no one was willing to suggest re-implementing the phonetic approach in the higher levels of the elementary schools.  And so, as a Title I teacher, I found myself teaching and re-teaching some of the basic sounds and combinations and then adding the additional higher level combinations to provide a means by which the students could decipher unknown words in their Social Studies, Science, Literature, Language, and Math classes.  What apparently had happened with the switch of philosophy was that students did not get formal instruction on some of the more difficult vowel and consonant partners and those who may have failed to totally master the basics became lost when words became impossible to sound out using the basic rules they had learned in grades one and two.

It was through trial and error that I began to discover some of the missing parts for my Title I students.  Most difficult, though, was finding material appropriate for Middle School students that provided those phonetic skills that had not yet been mastered.  Again it was a time of my learning along with my students.  Even with a multitude of supplies purchased through the Title I funds, I found it necessary to improvise often to put into place those devilish combinations that were stalling my students’ progress.  After all, if you can’t read at grade level, how do you find success in any of the academic areas?

Nearly ten years of my teaching career was spent as a Title I Middle School teacher, and for those ten years, it was a constant learning opportunity for both me and my students.  Students who were struggling fought to overcome their reading “disability”, while their teacher fought to discover just the right method or program that would make their Middle School experience successful!  After ten years, I was reassigned to an elementary school and vowed, no matter what the District’s philosophy, I would sneak in those demons that could one day interfere with my students’ progress…the best laid plans of mice and men…if only…

Jacqueline J. Dierks, Author
Rapid Road to Reading

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