The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

A Principal Has to Be Tough to Do a Good Job

Todays post describes my experience as a teacher and a school principle. It also explains why some school practices work well and others do not. I hope it helps parens to understand school changes.

When I first became a school principal I quickly gained the reputation of being a “witch.” My problem was that I wanted to form classrooms for students who were having trouble learning, while parents wanted to have only the best teachers for their children.

My position was not a matter of showing parents that I was the “boss,” but my conviction that carefully constructed classrooms are the best places for students to be successful and happy learners. Fortunately many parents finally realized that I was right when their children were doing well in the classrooms I had chosen for them.

In order to plan for placing students, I met with teachers of each grade level near the end of every school year. Our task was to decide where students should be placed for the following year. We considered not only their abilities but also their interests and behavior, because we believed that when kids are similar in those areas, none of them would be isolated or unhappy. Instead they would find partners for learning, playing games, and taking care of each other.

In contrast, many elementary schools today work to establish ability-based classrooms throughout their buildings without any concern for students mixed personalities. They believe they can do a good job of teaching if all students in a classroom have similar learning abilities and meet the same work level. 

My experience taught me that teaching to the presumed ability of a whole class never works because even the best students have differences in their work habits, learning paces, social interests and personal experience outside of school. But there is also a more serious problem: Kids placed in low-ability classrooms know why they are there and deeply resent it; while kids in regular classrooms are also aware of the situation and label it. So in the end, low-level classes can create a self-fulfilling prophecy: “Since everyone thinks I’m here because I’m dumb, I’ll show them just how dumb I can be!”

Do other types of mixed ability classrooms also create problems? Not when they are structured like a symphony orchestra, or a professional sports team. When kids are placed in classrooms that have supportive and harmonious structures, each one plays his best role and learns successfully.

In contrast a significant number of public schools across the country have decided –in respect for the “Common Core State Standards”–to form classrooms where all students are of similar ability, because that makes teaching easier. But even if classrooms are not marked for their teaching levels, students quickly figure them out and then recognized by which room they entered, who were the “smarties” and who were the “dummies” Although the system of separating students by ability is still common in schools it is not popular with most students or their parents.

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What is The Best Way to Teach Reading?

Today’s post is a copy of the comments I made in response to phonics supporters statements in Dianne Ravitch’s blog. I’m repeating them here (revised) in order to be clear about my beliefs

In response to Michael Petrelli’s recent article, which recommended phonics based teaching, I believe that phonics is more difficult for young students to learn than becoming familiar with written words and acquiring the ability to name them. 

Unfortunately, Michael Petrilli is not the expert we can trust when it comes to determining the best way to teach reading. Continually, he denies the reality of readers’ instant word recognition, and maintains his own belief in the necessity to blend letter sounds together until they become a word. Then, he suggests repeating that process until the words grouped together become a sentence, and then all sentences become a message. 

As a successful teacher of reading in four elementary schools, and later, a school principal in two states, I am disturbed by Petrilli’s descriptions of the reading process and his claims of successful instruction using phonics. Even though teaching phonics has never been prominent in our public schools, its supporters have consistently claimed that it is the right way to teach reading there. 

In phonics based teaching, students are expected to sound out letters, which are grouped together and translate them into a single word. In contrast, the whole language approach teaches students the pronunciation of words, not their spelling. Thus, these students are able to make sense of many written words quickly and to remember them without sounding out their letters. The latter system system turns out to be much easier for teachers to use, and far more successful for students to learn than the former.

What good teachers in regular classrooms do is take students through the process of recognizing and remembering new words.  In addition, steady and pleasurable practice with poems, songs, and games provide them with the ease and satisfaction of recognizing and remembering words when they see them again. 

Although learning to read may take more time for children who are not familiar with the pleasure of books or have not been read to regularly, they can become readers by remembering the appearance of written words that were earlier heard, understood and liked. That is the normal way all children ultimately learn to read and write. 

Ultimately, I believe that students of all ages and abilities must recognize that neither spoken nor written English is what it used to be. 

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