Take Them From Where They Are

The first week of kindergarten just ended. It was exhausting, magical and fabulous all at once. I love my new students already. I enjoyed reading lots of books like Pete the Cat, The Kissing Hand, Me…Jane, No, David!, David Goes to School, The Magic Hat and Let’s Count Goats – to name a few. We made books during Writer’s Workshop, started our Explore stations and practiced routines to make our class run smoothly. We played outside, we counted objects, we wrote on our morning message on the SMARTboard. And we got to know each other and begin to build our community. We learned names, favorite colors, things we liked and what we were excited and worried about. We bravely explored our school, ate lunch in the cafeteria and lasted until 3:20 every day – without a nap. It was a success.

One thing that stands out for me, as it does every year, is how different all of  my students are. Some of my kiddos can read already, others aren’t quite sure what a letter is. Some can write their names, others can make squiggly lines on the sign in sheet. Some can count to 100, others can put the counting collections in lines. Some can share the crayons, others want the blue crayon “right this minute” – never mind that it’s in someone’s hand. Some can help a friend find the blank writing books, others wander throughout the classroom and lay on the rug. I love it. How boring would it be if all the kids were the same?

But I have a challenge – again, just like every year. I have an important job to take each child from right where they are to as far as they can go this year. A one-size-fits-all approach simply won’t do. So how does this look when you have 20-30 children who are very, very different –  in many ways? Here are a few things I consider as I plan my instruction to make sure my kids are getting what they need.

1-A workshop approach with lots of small group instruction. I do a lot of instruction in small groups or one-on-one. It just doesn’t make sense to do a lot of things whole group when I may be boring one child to death while I’m talking way over the head of another child. Of course, some things are done whole group – our morning meeting, morning message, read alouds with rich discussions, focus lessons to begin our mathematician’s, reader’s and writer’s workshops – to name a few. Our whole group time is essential to building a community of learners as well. But I try to limit that whole group time and really get to the heart of my teaching in small groups. That way I can plan my lessons to make sure I’m teaching children within their Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) as much as possible. Is this more work and planning? Yep. But it’s my job and it’s what the kids need. It makes no sense to do something like “Letter of the Day” when several of your kids know the letter of the day just fine and several others don’t even know what a “letter” is yet. Either way, we are wasting children’s time and our children are only with us for 180 days – we need to make every minute count.

2-Teach children to be independent. So how can I meet with small groups and one-on-one? By teaching kids from Day 1 how to be independent. You need the tape? There it is. You need to use the bathroom? Make sure no one is in there and go. You need a drink? Get one. You need help finding a book? Ask a friend. I spend a lot of time the first weeks of school empowering children into believing that this is their classroom and they are “can-do” kids. I want them to be able to function without me. We model how to do things and declare “experts” as people to go to when you need your shoe tied or when you can’t find a book or when you need to know how to draw a guinea pig. This is part of creating our community together and it’s essential. But it also allows children to learn from each other and allows me to do a lot of uninterrupted teaching. I firmly believe in not doing anything for a child that they can do themselves. We want independent problem solvers, not robots that need to be told what to do constantly. I work hard at this from day one and throughout the year.

3. Model. Model. Role-play. Model. Repeat… The social curriculum is every bit as important as the academic curriculum. With community at the heart of our classroom, it’s a priority to teach children how to live, work and play together peacefully. I watch them like a hawk – celebrating when I see a friend help another friend and intervening immediately when I hear unkind words. We talk and act out  how to be friends and what we want our classroom to look like, sound like and feel like. There is a tremendous amount of teaching that goes on within the social curriculum. Having many opportunities available for play and free choice throughout the day gives me multiple opportunities to teach children how to get along in the world. This is every bit as important as teaching children how to read, write and do math.

Finally, I accept every child where they are. I do not spend a moment blaming their home life, their preschool teacher, their environment, etc…. There is no sense in blaming or wishing they were any different.  That just wastes time that I could be using to think about how I will teach them. All we can do is teach them. Right where they are. P. David Pearson says this beautifully:

 “…a teacher’s job is always to bridge from the known to the new.  Because there really is no other choice.  Kids are who they are.  They know what they know.  They bring what they bring.  Our job is not to wish that students knew more or knew differently.  Our job is to turn each student’s knowledge, along with the diversity of knowledge we will encounter in a classroom of learners, into a curricular strength rather than an instructional inconvenience.”

P.  David Pearson, 1997

So how do you differentiate your instruction – the academic and the social? 

Making the basal work for your readers

We’ve had several friends around the country who have said to us this summer, “but when school starts, I will be forced to use the basals.” One teacher even wrote, “there is no getting around it! The district office is coming down HARD on our principal because our state test scores aren’t the best and the schools that use the basal are getting good results.

I don’t understand how…any insight?”

Our thought is that the standardized state tests are similar to the basal in terms of isolated facts, kill and drill, or read-and-answer literal level questions. Teaching the basal is like teaching the test. Kids can “get by” and show growth on that one test (which is often the “be all/end all” in so many states). However, many of these children aren’t becoming proficient readers in the full sense of the word. Maybe they can pass the test, but can they navigate a newspaper? A guidebook? Pursue topics of interest? Follow a favorite author? Infer beyond the literal level? Do they choose reading as a pastime? Carry on conversations about their understandings or reflections of a poem or short story? Find meaning in a book causing them to love it so much they want to read it all over again? All of these are things real readers do.  And most of them will not happen if you holdfast to solely teaching with the basal.

So what’s a teacher to do?  We suggest finding what’s good in those basal stories and using what you can in a sensible manner.  By sensible, we mean instead of doing the basal story with the whole class, figure out which children could actually benefit from a guided reading group with this story. Find your own teaching focus that supports those students in adding a word-solving or comprehension strategy to their repertoire (basals often go through a very prescriptive set of strategies and lessons that may or may not be what your students need at that time.) The point of guided reading is to help those students grow as readers, not to just “get through” another basal story.

For another group of children you may find that the basal story is too difficult. You might choose to do an interactive read aloud with those struggling students on that story.  Then supplement their reading with books they can actually handle. And surely there are others in the class who can read the basal stories independently, leaving lots of time for independent reading in books of their own choosing.

Make your read aloud time powerful by choosing texts that beg for deep discussions around topics that interest your students.  Our chapter 6 in Catching Readers gives lots of ideas for getting the most out of your interactive read aloud time.  Help your students learn how to choose books they love, authors they enjoy, or series they can follow.

By using the basal wisely you are putting more thought into what your students are reading and how you are teaching them rather than just following the manual page-by-page. You can still structure your reading workshop with a mini-lesson first, then independent time (while you meet with groups or individuals) and a whole-group sharing at the end. Use the basal stories, poems, and non-fiction entries, but supplement with lots of rich, meaningful texts that kids can relate to and that are on their reading levels. This may mean more work for you, but it’s been our experience that it’s worth the effort.  You will be helping all your students develop into proficient readers who enjoy reading, find out about their world by reading, live like literate beings – yet are still able to pass the tests!

And lastly we urge you to be an advocate. Go to your principal or administration with research about why teaching everyone the same thing at the same time will not work, speak out in faculty meetings about the big picture of developing well-rounded readers, and start conversations with colleagues about how best to meet the needs of individual learners, especially those who struggle with literacy.