Friday, February 25, 2011

"I am ewnec"

The poetry version of last week's first-grade effort to grasp character traits...

On the outside, you can see my physical traits:
"I have tanish-pinkish sgin."
"I have krly eyelashs."
"my body is tall"
"my hair is shtrayt"
My words and actions show my character traits on the inside:
"I am a little shiy."
"I am prsistent."
"I take care of my frands"
"I have lost of ideas"
"I am ewnec. there is only one me in the wrld."

And an open letter to colleagues:

As we survey our reading asessment results and think about how best to meet the needs of children in our classes, I want to raise a few points that I think sometimes get insufficient attention in our “data-driven instructional model."

The students we work with are 5, 6 and 7 years old. They are all, to a greater or lesser degree, egocentric, and they live in the here and now of their daily experience. They come to us as children first, and no matter what their academic ability they share the fundamental needs we all have: the need for security and comfort, the need to be known (and yes, loved). That’s partly why we have chosen this job, because we’re good at making little children feel at home in our classrooms--their home away from home.

Our students come to us second as individual learners. Each one has his or her strengths and weaknesses, and part of being a good learner is growing into a sense of where you have the power to help others along and where you might need to ask for help. We create heterogeneous classes because that’s what the world is like, and part of a good education is learning to be an effective participant in a diverse community. (In fact, I believe that’s the whole point of public education in a democracy, which is why, even as a reading teacher, I tend to start my planning with the social studies curriculum in mind).

Third on the list, our students come to us as readers--and now they all have a nice fresh label attached. In my first grade class, for example, I have two boys who are alike in many ways—mischievous, not as intrinsically motivated to “do school” as we might wish, and within 6 months of each other in age (which is quite a lot, really, when you’re only 72 months old). They have both moved from Level 5 to Level 8 since the beginning of the year, but I will not be putting them in the same guided reading group, because they are very different learners.

One is wired to decode pretty well, but he has a hard time focusing on the ideas behind the words, and in general his problem-solving skills are not strong. He needs a lot of support in reading for meaning, and a slower pace will also be a benefit as he struggles with some unfortunate family circumstances. I’ll put him with the Level 5/6/7’s because there he can have a chance to shine a little and the comprehension demands will be manageable.

The other boy is much more attentive to life generally, more observant, has shown himself ready and willing to rise to a challenge as long as it wasn’t actual reading. However, he’s been very conscious of his struggles in comparison with classmates, and now that he’s making some noticeable progress, this is the moment to put him with a snappier group of thinkers, to capitalize on his competitive tendency and to maximize his growing investment in becoming a reader. I’ll be putting him with the 10/11/12’s--for now.

And then there are the books. We know that all Level 8 books are not equal, and just because both boys read the Level 8 fiction selection successfully doesn’t mean they’ll do as well with every other book labeled 8. So it’s part of my job to choose books that will be “just right” for each of these boys labeled Level 8, and those “just right” books may be Level 6’s or Level 10’s or not leveled at all. They may be books that speak to each boy where he is right now, like Goggles! by Ezra Jack Keats, which they both love because of the way Peter and Archie put one over on the big boys. This book is challenging for each boy in different ways, but they are both persevering in reading it because it’s meaningful and because it has become part of our classroom culture.

By now you may have guessed what point I'm getting at. Because our students are children first, who need to feel at home in the culture of a classroom (a culture that we work hard to build), individual learners second, and labeled, leveled readers last, I want to advocate against moving Kindergarten and 1st grade children around at this point in the year.

I feel strongly that any instructional gains we may earn by moving a child into a group with other Level X’s are likely to be cancelled out by the emotional upheaval of moving that child out of one classroom culture (that culture that we so carefully build in community with our students) and into another.

Of course, there are always reasons to make considered exceptions, but I think we mistakenly give up some of our professional power if we allow the handheld assessment device to determine a child’s daily experience of school. I believe in the usefulness of data, and I believe that teachers and children are more than interchangeable pegs in a big pegboard. Grouping by reading level tends to turn us all into pegs.

With respect for all you do in the classroom,


  1. This is a wonderful way to look at each child uniquely. Or ewnec-ly! I admire and respect your dedication to your calling.

  2. What interesting poetic ideas the kids come up with through their inventive spelling -- "I have lost of ideas." Hmm.
    Liked the whole post, and was particularly struck by how well you know your kids and also, "even as a reading teacher, I tend to start my planning with the social studies curriculum in mind." Wow! That's awesome.

  3. The politicians who think the work we do is easy and for which we are compensated too much (if not with money, then with all those "amazing" vacations), work which could be done just as well by a Teach For America volunteer with no experience and no education background, need to read this post.

    FABULOUS description of the intricate thinking process we go through for each instructional move.


Thanks for joining in the wild rumpus!