Saturday, July 30, 2016

Finding a Flashlight

I know what you're thinking.

My last post spotlighted the flaw in Maggie's first grade language arts program and her teacher who  couldn't/wouldn't/didn't care to offer options.

So how did Cliff and I turn things around? 

It took years.

There's rarely a quick fix where children are concerned.

We knew being turned off to reading would be a major stumbling block for the rest of her life unless we helped her overcome it.

We had to re-connect her to the book magic she'd once known.

So on Saturdays, Cliff let her wander the branch library shelves without regard to reading levels. That's how she learned to approach the school library, discovering more titles about similar subjects. She went through a rock phase, repeatedly bringing home the same three books for months. She started a rock collection on our carport ledge. We never drilled her on geologic terms. We never organized the piles.

They were hers to experience however she chose.

We asked her to write thank you notes when she received gifts. Even though her spelling was occasionally vague, people were often so charmed that they wrote back to her. She discovered writing linked her to a reciprocal happiness.

She helped me write grocery lists. When she couldn't imagine how to spell something, I encouraged her to draw a picture of the word. Perched in the shopping cart seat, she read the list out loud to me and marked off items as we found them.

When getting ready for school became a daily scramble, Cliff suggested she design a morning checklist. He attached them to a Hello Kitty clipboard kept at her bedside. She loved tracking her activities, right down to waving goodbye to me.

Every. Single. Night. we read to her.

When I began writing Sweet Moon Baby, I often held her on my lap at the computer. By watching me write, she learned the value of words and punctuation. We read the pages out loud together, discussing the choices. She saw and heard  how reading and writing happen. We congratulated ourselves for every improvement to the tale.

One of Maggie's favorite TV shows was Scooby Doo. From writing with me, she understood a story needed a problem and a solution. These shows had a definite plot line she could follow, noting how the characters interacted to catch the villain through ensuing hijinx.

So by golly, we wrote our own episodes. Maggie brainstormed mysteries, usually centered around a favorite thing that could go missing. We rummaged through closets to gather props and costumes. Rehearsals happened in our kitchen because its open floor plan provided space for our Siberian husky, who played Scooby, to run with us from clue to clue. Cliff was the appreciative audience for our hijinx. (I was always Velma, by the way.)

But at school, she remained mired in weekly soul-crushing reading assessments, making literature a force-fed academic operation.

Finally I told her how I used to hide when my mother, who wanted me to be more athletic, sent me outside to play. I'd slip out with a novel and a snack and hide in the backseat of our garaged car to read. Maggie thought it was funny but a great idea. So I placed Kate DiCamillo's Because of Winn Dixie in the back of our SUV in the carport. I told her I couldn't read it because I was afraid the dog might die. She volunteered to find out for me. I supplied pillows and snacks. I sent out a flashlight because evenings were coming early. She loved spending hours in her fort with a book she came to love with all her heart. She eagerly delivered plot reports at dinner until she finished. At the end, she proudly assured me the dog didn't die, adding, "Read it. You'll like it, Mom."

Even better news? She took more novels to her backseat reading fort.

When we moved to Minnesota, where DiCamillo lives, Maggie and I attended her author events. Our daughter experienced the real person who wrote the novel that turned a corner for her. Far more than a charming story, it carried her to a new level of confidence. Her world bloomed.

She's been reading ever since.

In short, Cliff and I removed the drudgery of skill and drill language arts programs where only ONE acceptable way is allowed. 

Sometimes schools and teachers get it wrong. They funnel everyone through the system, insisting perfect scores on multiple-choice tests are the ultimate goal of reading.  If you're lucky enough to have a round child who fails to fit their square hole, consider yourself blessed.

Try and try again to support that young heart.

Point toward the magic that defies the A or B or C response.

Because a child's dynamic future is greater than any of the above.

Find a flashlight.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Fill-in-the-Blank Education

I haven't taught in more than twenty years, but I think about classrooms all the time. I've decided there are two ways to teach.

Focus on the answers.

Or focus on the students.

Either way earns the same paycheck.

I once worked with an English teacher who was a fascinating person but gave mind-numbing tests and assignments. She bragged about her multi-paged exams that were a snap to grade. They read, as one colleague joked: The ____ of the ____ is the ____.

"Does that tell you if they really understand Shakespeare?" I asked her.

She shrugged and said, "At least they've read it." But I knew many of them hadn't. Secretly they read Cliffs Notes to grasp the plot points for daily quizzes. Then, prior to the test, they memorized all her classroom pronouncements: "The three themes in Hamlet are...."

No muss no fuss.

I saw the effects of breezy teaching on Maggie when she entered first grade and brought home the Power Book, announcing it was her nightly homework and had to be done at a desk with a lamp.  Faithfully she set up shop at my grandparents' hundred-year-old radio stand upon arrival from school each day. Every page had an illustrated three-sentence story with three follow-up questions to be written precisely like the sentences. It went something like this:

Jenny likes apples.
Jenny climbs the apple tree.
Jenny picks four apples.

What does Jenny like?
What does Jenny climb?
How many apples does Jenny pick?

By Thanksgiving, she'd stacked up perfect scores but complained about the monotony of these stories, pointing out they weren't really stories at all. Keep in mind, this was a girl who, at three years old, pointed to punctuation marks on the page of the picture book I was reading to her and asked, "What are these things?" One night when she was five, she interrupted my reading aloud and flipped several pages back and forth, asking, "Wouldn't it better if this picture came before that one?" She was absolutely right. She also liked creating different endings to her favorite books.

"She has the stuff of an English major," I told Cliff early on.

So we were devastated that her classroom language arts program was an annoying grind that overlooked any sense of independent thinking or imagination. Because of his administrative role at the school, he suggested I speak with the teacher about our concerns and a possible approach to re-engage her mind.

I met with the teacher and proposed that Maggie write her own scenario with an illustration and questions. I assured him she was capable of writing more than three sentences. He stared at me and said that would be inappropriate because it wasn't the point of the program. There would be no way to assess her work because she couldn't be adequately compared to her classmates. "How would we determine her reading level?" he asked.

I recently asked Maggie what she remembered about the Power Book. She said, "It was the first time I understood why people hate school."

So there you have it.

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