Role of Phonics in My Journey
When my son was about two and a half, I began to think of teaching again. I went back to school that summer to pick up the graduate hours I needed for upcoming recertificationand took a graduate level reading course where I began to hear WL bandied about. The professor spoke jokingly of the need to cover all texts--with a blanket. I began to see a hopeful way to teach. For reasons of personal safety and a badly ended marriage, I needed to be far, far away and somehow ended up in Houston. There I got to see how badly implementation can indeed be. Waving a WL and DAP flag, all texts had been discarded in the inner city school I was assigned to and the rooms were literally divoid of anything. I had, qutie literally, a box of 1000 unifix cubes which I had to sign out and my meager, personal library. I fell flat on my face inspite of the money I poured into that room, everything from crayons and paper to books and manipulatives had to come out of my own pocket. I got to see what administrator hell can really be, having no support at all. Coincidentally, I was one of only three white teachers in the school (all first year, all outstate recruits) and my own position had never been filled for an entire year. The first quit at Christmas, I lasted until life threateing surgery and recovery saved me from going the same route, and the third survived sniper attack and transferred to another school.
Back to the plains, I took a class that summer on Whole Language and was unimpressed (poorly instructed) but was encouraged by a teacher I met there to attend something called the Whole Language Institute at Chadron State College. My new mother-in-law gifted me this wonderful experience and it was there that the philospophy took hold of me, I jokingly tell my friends and family that I was reborn, it was that much of an aha. The texts were wonderful but even more so was the opportunity to spend two weeks among a body of teachers enthusiastic and many experienced. I heard classroom stories and teacher tales that spoke to my heart and then I heard Ken Goodman speak. As simple as that, not quite, it spurred me to more self education. I taught for two years in a one room school house in the middle of the prairie. When I interviewed, I learned that several of the students were struggling to read and having trouble with phonics and I proposed that if they hired me, we put away the basals and the workbooks and try literature. It worked for these children, though none of them became super star students, they all finally became readers. Unit study let us work together as a group rather than as one of this, two of that and so on. We were only eight in the first place.
I left that position to take a maternity leave, doing my hippy mom stint home with my woodburning stove. Loved that,too, by the way and when I was ready to go back to school, I applied to my current district because they had endorsed Whole Language and were actively training teachers. And here I am, same district, different school, forced into the closet for a bit by the Balanced movement and still Whole Language.
So phonics? My undergraduate training
in no way prepared to deal with this, there were no linguistics
classes, no discussions of what's, when's and why's. I was very
successful embedding phonics in instruction, it seemed natural
and wholistic to me but I noticed spelling was an issue. My then
second and third graders were not getting beyond the "sounds
like" stage and inernalizing any sort of awareness of visual
patterns or relationships when encoding. What I was seeing all
around me was two fold, wrinkle one was tradition workbooks--photocopied
pages of 'bootleg' books or a hodgepode (that was me, incidentally).
I set out to learn more about langauge, using Sandra Wilde as
my guide. Knowing more helped me do more but still, I felt like
I needed to find a way to make spelling and phonics instruction
a bit more explicit. I started experimenting with Making Words
(Hall and Cunningham), modifying to fit my philosophy, giving
parents the concrete spelling instruction and lists they wanted,
but in a way that I felt was helping children build not an ability
to spell lists but an ability to generalize and spell unknowns.
It works for me so, that in addition to embedded instruction
in the context of real reading and writing, I do use letter tiles,
magnetic letters and other tactiles to explicitly teach phonics
and spelling patterns. As any teacher does, I made it fit for
me by selecting my own "big words", which often relate
to my kids in terms of unit study or math vocabulary, and I develop
my laddered list of only ten words (less for the truly troubled),
focusing on patterns my children are experiencing difficulty
with in their independent writing. I use it because I see it
helping children to apply an understanding of phonetic and spelling
relationships to their independent reading, writing and spelling.
So that's where I am at with phonics. I did use the awful plaid
workbooks last year for a bit, my first year in a new school
and bit of pressure from administrator, peers and my aide but
tossed them at Christmas. It was a learning experience for me
as I had never used a phonics program in all my years of teaching.
What did I think of it, outside of the bored to tears thing?
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