The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Things I’ve Learned From our Youngest Readers

by Dr Sam Bommarito

It’s said that the very best way to learn something is to teach it. That point was reinforced for me this week as I carried out my service for parent educators in a local district. So, what did I learn?

First of all, I learned just how important the idea that reading programs should be made to fit the the needs of the child really is. Nowhere is it more critical than with our youngest readers, who are at the ages of birth through three. Are the kids that young really readers? Yes, they are. But they can’t really read, can they? Well if you take the narrow view that reading is decoding, no they can’t.  But that’s not how I learned about what reading really is.

As part of my doctoral studies I ran the reading clinic at my university for a year. I did this under the supervision of one of my committee members. Back then when we tested a child in reading it was for listening comprehension, oral reading, and silent reading.  The composite of the three skills resulted in an overall estimate of the child’s ability to read. So back then we viewed the overall ability to listen to and learn from a passage as part and parcel of the reading process. But reading is so much more than just decoding the message.

It is part of their larger experience of learning all about their world and exploring it.  The key to this stage in the process of learning to read is that young children gain the background knowledge once called “The Concepts About Print” by Marie Clay. She was among the first to realize that there is a necessary step in the reading process that comes before learning the letters and decoding the message.  It is the step in which the reader learns how print works. In our culture, print moves from left to right carrying the message.

As I talked to the parent educators, I knew I was preaching to the choir on all those points. They knew that research shows the brain of a child in that early age group is not ready to learn letters and sounds. Going through this stage lays down the neural pathways that are needed to be successful later on when the time for more direct instruction comes, which is usually at age 4 or 5. That is why I cringe when I see the advocates of direct instruction telling parents to teach their preschooler the entire system of sounding out words. Doing what he suggests flies in the face of current brain research and of common sense. The fact remains that children need the discovery stage first if they are to succeed when the time does come for direct instruction. I did remember to say “laying down the needed neural pathways” didn’t I?!?

One surprise for me was that some parent educators found that even at a reasonable age some children were still “reluctant readers”. They didn’t seem to be interested in listening to a story for very long. Fortunately one of the parents provided the answer of what to do when that happened. On one of her visits, when a parent asked her why a certain baby did not seem interested in books, that child picked up the book she’d brought and started playing with it.  We must not expect children so young to sit and listen to long and involved stories.  Instead we should focus on providing them with all the experiences of dealing with print. Listen to the written word; talk about the written word. Learn to appreciate the wonders people created when they learned how to lay down the written word, so that wisdom could be passed on from generation to generation.So for me, the biggest takeaway from that session was the realization of just how smart move Marie Clay made all those years ago.  Long before brain research, she recognized the need to create a print-rich environment and a constellation of print experiences for young children. She laid the groundwork for giving the advice we now give to all parents of young children.  They should read to them, and talk to them about what’s been read and also make the reading experience positive by reading like a story teller. Also re-read those books to children. Just as the book I referred to at the start says “I love your voice and all that you say…”i.e.

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A Principal’s Dream

Today’s piece is a copy–with minor changes–of an introduction to a book I planned to write for teachers and those who were considering becoming one. Because I never completed that book, this is the first time I have published my introduction. Although I’m not sure that I made my point clear I tried hard to convince readers that establishing a good school is a marvelous–and rare–skill

When I was a school principal a young child would sometimes come into my office, sit down with pencil and paper in hand, and ask questions about my job. I always found those questions hard to answer in terms that a child could understand. But I would have had almost as much trouble if the questioner had been a sophisticated adult. A principal’s job is often a hodge-podge that defies description, and every principal does it differently.

In the beginning I had only a notion about what a principal’s job entailed and no preparation for it. So I proceeded to fill my time with minor tasks like delivering new books to our school library or stepping into a classroom for a few minutes to watch a lesson. One day when our lunchroom supervisor was absent I cleaned the tables in the lunchroom and laughed when students teased me for not doing a good job. But more often, I roamed the hallways or went down to the gym to see what was happening there.

As time went by I got to know many students by name. Several of them had got into trouble and been sent to me for punishment. Fortunately punishment wasn’t what I was good at. I tried to help each person see their situation as a chance to repair errors and restore good feelings. We also talked about the things they wanted from school and how they might get them through different behavior.

I also spent a lot of time talking to teachers personally or in small groups. I wanted to find out what pleased them, what hurt them, and what they needed to do their job well. One thing I was able to change immediately was teachers’ individual work time. The custom had always been having each teacher work alone for one period a day. But it was easy for me to change that. I arranged for same grade teachers to meat at the same time every day to share their skills and ideas

Over time our school made good progress. The turning point came when I received an award for being an outstanding principal and was asked to give a speech on that topic.  For the first time I was forced to look philosophically at the principal’s job and define it in terms that were more universal than my personal experiences.  What I came up with was a three part job description that included 1) managing school operation, 2) fostering teaching and learning, and 3) keeping the dream alive. Below I have reproduced—with a bit of editing–what I wrote at that time for my speech and later shared with parents through our school newsletter. It seemed to me that they, as much as other school principals, should know about my philosophy of seeing a principal’s job as an inter-locked three-part responsibility. Below is my speach

When a school has a dream, everyone involved, though not always consciously, knows who “we” are, what “we” do, and how “we” do it. However, principals do not “create“ schools.  That is, they don’t invent their own dream of excellence and dump it full blown on a school. Their role is to see the school in its true nature, its possibilities for excellence, and the pathways it should follow, then help others to see them too.  Principals are most successful when they bring as many stakeholders into the process right from the beginning and work to enhance their perceptions, hopes, and willingness to continue.  Having a dream makes a principal feel better, but only when everyone involved has it also, can it become a reality.

Ultimately, a successful dream becomes internalized so that everyone  recognizes what fits with it and what does not. When teachers look over a new textbook, they quickly recognize whether or not it’s right for their students. Children no longer have to check the school rules; they just know : “we don’t behave that way at our school.”  Parents know what to expect in terms of homework, discipline and teaching style because “that’s the way things work at our school.”

The most amazing thing about a dream is that when it becomes internalized by everyone there is far less work for the principal to do.  Leaders start to emerge among teachers, other staff members, parents and students. All are eager to take over some small part of the dream.  And they can be trusted to do it well.  The principal doesn’t have to keep rere-explaining the dream or making sure everyone is in tune with it.  At times there may be minor skirmishes with outsiders, but they never seriously threaten the dream. Best of all, the dream building process proceeds under its own steam, gaining momentum and making everyone involved proud and self-confident.

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My Bad

Dear readers,

In case you didn’t know until now, let me tell you that I am not good at following formal instructions on a computer. Two days ago I managed to combine an old piece of writing with a new one, and sent them out as if they were connected. Apparently, many of you began reading the top part, realized that you had seen it before, and stopped reading altogether. I apologize and will try to do better in the future.

Joanne

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If I Were the Queen of Schools

My version of school reform is based on two premises: (1) poverty and its accoutrements are the major causes of students’ poor academic performance (2) the principals and teachers who live their professional lives in schools are the ones best qualified to make decisions for schools and to implement them.

Convert schools in high poverty areas to full-time community centers.

By moving as many community services as possible into school buildings and making them available in the evenings and on weekends, schools could provide  social supports to poor families more efficiently and economically and also add recreational and self-improvement activities now in short supply.

In restructuring school building use, the only adjustment to the daytime programs would be the addition of basic health and dental care for students. During evening and weekend hours, however, libraries, gyms, meeting rooms and computer labs would be open, offering a variety of activities for adults and young people. In addition, inexpensive and nutritious evening meals could be offered in the school lunchroom.

Turn over the management of high-poverty schools to professional educators.

We need to lure the best principals and teachers into low performing schools by offering them incentives of autonomy, professional advancement, and higher salaries. Under the leadership of a dynamic principal, chosen by the school staff and parents, schools would be empowered to create their own structures, including a principal’s cabinet and grade level instructional teams. Within each team, roles and salaries would be differentiated according to teachers’ expertise, and willingness to take on additional responsibilities.

Evaluate teachers on their own performance, not those of students

Although principals’ views of teachers’ competence are not perfect, having a wise and alert administrator observing what teachers do to help students learn is the only rational way to evaluate them. Not only formal observations should count, but also classroom drop-ins, finding a teacher in the library helping some kids with research, noticing how often a teacher volunteers to do something extra for the school, seeing a teacher eating lunch at her desk while she reads student essays, and teacher leadership among colleagues.

Offer early retirement to burned-out teachers and incentives for ineffective younger teachers to resign or transfer to non-teaching positions.

At present, removing an unsuccessful teacher in any school district is a long, unpleasant and expensive process. But the problem is not teacher tenure. It is the lack of evidence of failure that makes attempting to remove a teacher look arbitrary or vengeful. The first step to improve the situation is to insure systematic evaluations of  teachers with prompt feedback and offers of assistance. Ultimately, all teachers marked for dismissal should be provided with counseling, a dignified resignation process, and some incentives.

Cut reliance on commercial educational materials for students while increasing teachers’ professional development opportunities

Rather than depending on slick commercial programs and their disposable materials (i.e. workbooks), schools would do better to invest in high quality literature, technology, and reference books for students and professional books and university courses for teachers.

Increase the size and power of the school library and make the librarian a key figure in the education of students

Every school needs a full-time professional librarian/technologist along  with an aide so that the library is open full time during the school day and perhaps for a while after school closes. Not only should every class have a regular weekly library time, but also times when teachers can sign up to send small groups for specific assistance in finding and using library materials. School librarians should also meet with teacher teams to plan units to be taught and make sure that the materials students need are available. To make these things happen fully funding a school library should be a high priority for the principal and the school district.

Provide poor children with the background knowledge and support they may have missed at home and in their community.

What makes school difficult for most poor children is not their lack of ability but their meagerness of social, cultural and literary experiences. What many have missed out on is being read to, having substantive conversations with adults, visiting museums, parks, forests, and beaches, and being members of an educated community. To learn academic content and skills successfully, poor children need a school environment that is not only welcoming and supportive, but also rich in books, hands-on activities, cooperative learning, and exposure to the world outside their home community. Every high poverty school should receive additional funding for student field trips and in-school music and drama performances.

Reduce the number of standardized tests and the time devoted to test preparation

Not only do standardized tests now dominate schools’ curricula and classroom teaching time, they are extremely expensive and of little value beyond informing local districts and state officials about schools’ average test scores. Within our schools today tested subjects crowd out other subjects, and test preparation becomes almost a subject in itself. In addition, tests influence teaching style in general making it shallow and formulaic to fit the limitations of a multiple choice testing format. Both

Today’s post is in many ways a summary of all the things I have written about in this blog and other places over the past several years.  It seemed to me that readers could  benefit from seeing all my ideas condensed and consider whether the things I propose would really make positive changes in American education. Let me know what you think.


Having complained long and loud about the misguided school reform schemes that have dominated  public education over the past several years, I think it’s time for me to step up and offer my own ideas for making schools work. Be warned that my proposals are not only unorthodox, but also teacher-biased, and cheap. Well, at least cheaper than the test-drenched practices now in place.

My version of school reform is based on two premises: (1) poverty and its accoutrements are the major causes of students’ poor academic performance (2) the principals and teachers who live their professional lives in schools are the ones best qualified to make decisions for schools and to implement them.

Convert schools in high poverty areas to full-time community centers.

By moving as many community services as possible into school buildings and making them available in the evenings and on weekends, schools could provide  social supports to poor families more efficiently and economically and also add recreational and self-improvement activities now in short supply.

In restructuring school building use, the only adjustment to the daytime programs would be the addition of basic health and dental care for students. During evening and weekend hours, however, libraries, gyms, meeting rooms and computer labs would be open, offering a variety of activities for adults and young people. In addition, inexpensive and nutritious evening meals could be offered in the school lunchroom.

Turn over the management of high-poverty schools to professional educators.

We need to lure the best principals and teachers into low performing schools by offering them incentives of autonomy, professional advancement, and higher salaries. Under the leadership of a dynamic principal, chosen by the school staff and parents, schools would be empowered to create their own structures, including a principal’s cabinet and grade level instructional teams. Within each team, roles and salaries would be differentiated according to teachers’ expertise, and willingness to take on additional responsibilities.

Evaluate teachers on their own performance, not those of students

Although principals’ views of teachers’ competence are not perfect, having a wise and alert administrator observing what teachers do to help students learn is the only rational way to evaluate them. Not only formal observations should count, but also classroom drop-ins, finding a teacher in the library helping some kids with research, noticing how often a teacher volunteers to do something extra for the school, seeing a teacher eating lunch at her desk while she reads student essays, and teacher leadership among colleagues.

Offer early retirement to burned-out teachers and incentives for ineffective younger teachers to resign or transfer to non-teaching positions.

At present, removing an unsuccessful teacher in any school district is a long, unpleasant and expensive process. But the problem is not teacher tenure. It is the lack of evidence of failure that makes attempting to remove a teacher look arbitrary or vengeful. The first step to improve the situation is to insure systematic evaluations of  teachers with prompt feedback and offers of assistance. Ultimately, all teachers marked for dismissal should be provided with counseling, a dignified resignation process, and some incentives.

Cut reliance on commercial educational materials for students while increasing teachers’ professional development opportunities

Rather than depending on slick commercial programs and their disposable materials (i.e. workbooks), schools would do better to invest in high quality literature, technology, and reference books for students and professional books and university courses for teachers.

Increase the size and power of the school library and make the librarian a key figure in the education of students

Every school needs a full-time professional librarian/technologist along  with an aide so that the library is open full time during the school day and perhaps for a while after school closes. Not only should every class have a regular weekly library time, but also times when teachers can sign up to send small groups for specific assistance in finding and using library materials. School librarians should also meet with teacher teams to plan units to be taught and make sure that the materials students need are available. To make these things happen fully funding a school library should be a high priority for the principal and the school district.

Provide poor children with the background knowledge and support they may have missed at home and in their community.

What makes school difficult for most poor children is not their lack of ability but their meagerness of social, cultural and literary experiences. What many have missed out on is being read to, having substantive conversations with adults, visiting museums, parks, forests, and beaches, and being members of an educated community. To learn academic content and skills successfully, poor children need a school environment that is not only welcoming and supportive, but also rich in books, hands-on activities, cooperative learning, and exposure to the world outside their home community. Every high poverty school should receive additional funding for student field trips and in-school music and drama performances.

Reduce the number of standardized tests and the time devoted to test preparation

Not only do standardized tests now dominate schools’ curricula and classroom teaching time, they are extremely expensive and of little value beyond informing local districts and state officials about schools’ average test scores. Within our schools today tested subjects crowd out other subjects, and test preparation becomes almost a subject in itself. In addition, tests influence teaching style in general making it shallow and formulaic to fit the limitations of a multiple choice testing format. Both students and schools would be better served if standardized tests were given only every four years and classroom teachers were allowed to use their own methods and judgment to determine the extent and quality of each student’s learning.

Make every school a place where students want to be

In the recent studies of  test scores from school to school and district to district, researchers cite student absenteeism and indifference to learning as some of the causes of low scores and stagnation in student progress. If instead of advocating for better teaching and more rigorous students expectations, schools concentrated on providing classes and assignments that appealed to students’ interests and also gave all students opportunities to make decisions and play important roles in school operations we would see better performance from  everyone.

Although I could add a few more change proposals to my list, I believe that those above are the basics. Through my experience as a teacher and a principal I learned  a  lot about what helps teachers to teach well, children to learn, and schools to be the the healthy, happy places I have known and the even better ones I still dream of.

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