TRUGS and what it means to “teach reading”?

If I gave you a list of foreign words, taught you the generally applicable rules for decoding those words, then invented a game to let you practice this decoding, would you be able to read a novel written in that language?

Would I have taught you how to read in that language?

How about these words? I’ll teach you how to pronounce every one, then give you a poem written in this language:

noll, fyra, femte, atta, tjugoforsta, tjugo, tolv, arton, tack, hejsan, kvall, nej … and so on

Could you read it?

Or could you just ‘word call’ it – make every word sound just right but have no idea what the piece was about?

In other words, is learning to pronounce single words correctly, without any syntactic or semantic, context really reading?

Of course not!

Reading is about making meaning and without any syntactic or semantic cues individual words have wavering, shifting meanings, and sometimes no meaning at all.

So why is it that a card game that helps children to decode individual words, devoid of meaning or context, called ‘Teaching Reading Using Games’ or TRUGS?

Quite simply it is NOT a reading game. It’s a coding game. And reading is about far more than coding and decoding.

The game is fine, and the ability to decode words through phonemic analysis and the application of grapho-phonic rules is an important skill, but let’s not pretend that playing the game is the same as teaching reading.

In an article in The New Yorker of June 3, 2013, Adam Alter writes:

“These studies suggest a sort of linguistic Heisenberg principle: as soon as you label a concept, you change how people perceive it.”

Names are powerful. The change the way we think.

So please, let’s not call this game TRUGS.

It doesn’t teach reading.

It is a great decoding game.

How about calling it Teaching Decoding Using Games  instead? TDUGS?

You can read more about this here:

http://www.thisisdevon.co.uk/Joanna-sees-passion-reading-royal-seal-approval/story-16716955-detail/story.html#axzz2jPMlX0Wm

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Teach for America/Australia is the equivalent of rice and fresh water.

I try not to be controversial. Today I will fail.

I have just read this in one of the more respected Australian newspapers:

“The government is also planning to increase the number of Victorians in the Teach for Australia program, which accelerates non-teaching graduates into disadvantaged schools.”

This is a spin off from the American program “Teach For America” and it has siblings in other countries around the world including the UK.

This initiative takes high performing graduates from pretty much any discipline and places them in disadvantaged schools after a six week orientation course during the summer. The idea is that they will teach from the beginning, but under the guidance and support of more experienced and highly skilled teachers.

We all know that disadvantaged schools could benefit from more teachers, smaller classes and more individual attention, so what’s the problem?

Well, look at it this way. We have long waiting lines in many hospitals for orthopaedic surgery, so maybe we need to fast track some surgeons. Give a high flying archaeology graduate a six week crash course in hip replacement and a mentor to provide a bit of pre and post op advice and we’re hunky dory. In some communities there is a lack of police, so let’s get an A grade English student, giver her six week’s training, a gun, a set of handcuffs and a police car and the community will be safe. Can’t find a mechanic to fix the electrics on your car? We need to fast track a few Fine Arts graduates. And so it goes.

If this sounds crazy in each of these professions, why is it OK for teaching?

To make matters worse, these graduates are placed in disadvantaged schools, where teachers are already under extreme pressure simply trying to keep up with the academic, social and emotional needs of their students. Additionally these schools are often under resourced with top notch teachers. The best teachers have the choice of the best schools. I have had first hand experience of how hard it is to attract first rate teachers into a super challenging school environment.

We know from experience in the USA that Teach for America graduates tend to burn out fast. Their initial contract is for only two years and there is frequently a high turnover as they return to their original career paths, fortified by the experiences they have gained in these low income, disadvantaged, struggling schools. One of the greatest advantages of this fast turn over is that school districts save money because they avoid the salary increases that come as employees attain greater seniority.

Teach for America, Teach for Australia and all the other manifestations of this short cut to teaching are dismal examples of our lack of understanding about what quality teaching needs. They demean and undermine the profession of teaching in a way that would never be countenanced by any other profession. It grows out of the misapprehension that since everyone has been to school, everyone can teach, as long as they are smart enough.

If a six week trained teacher in a disadvantaged school is getting better results than a fully trained teacher then I suggest we need to look closely at the fully trained teachers. A starving child may do better on some rice and fresh water, but that doesn’t comprise a balanced, healthy diet. A balanced healthy education needs teachers with the full range of skills and knowledge, just as a balanced healthy diet needs the full range of proteins, fats and carbohydrates.

Teach for America/Australia is the equivalent of rice and fresh water.

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Handwriting – the beauty of variation

Keyboards are everywhere. I marvel at the speed with which my own kids manage to pump out text on a full sized keyboard or with their thumbs on a smart phone. In the USA there is a growing debate about whether or not children need to be formally taught cursive writing. The new Common Core State Standards do not mandate its teaching. In Australia we have seen frequent discussions about the problems faced by final year high school students being required to write extended passages long hand in exams, when they are unused to the practice during their school year. They feel they lack fluency and their hands ache!

For some years now I have been troubles by the weird and wonderful ways in which I see young adults holding pens and pencils. They look awkward and they revert to keyboards as soon as practicable.

When I taught grade one and two children  a major part of my curriculum was teaching them how to hold their pencils efficiently and how to form letters that would lead to fluent, legible, effortless handwriting. The refrigerators in the homes of my students were festooned with examples of their early attempts.

There are those who regard this particular learning process as a waste of time,  as clinging to an old, outmoded technology.

I disagree!

How often do we set things that are essentially different up against each other for comparison and competition?

Which is better, the movie or the book?

Which side of the brain is most important, the left or the right?

Who is smarter, men or women?

Which do you prefer, oysters or chocolate cake?

Which is better, a photographic or a painted portrait?

These comparisons don’t work.

Neither does the question, ‘which should we teach, keyboarding or handwriting?’

There will always be a place for the handwritten, just as there will always be a place for the painted.

Just because a child can easily take a photograph of a tree doesn’t mean that we should not give him the opportunity to draw or paint a tree. There is something about the artist that is revealed in a painting, a personal response to the subject matter and a reinterpretation of the literal truth that comes about when a subject is painted or drawn.

So it is with handwriting.

We know that every person’s handwriting is unique. Why? Because the movements of the pen on paper are influenced by the character and experiences of the writer. They keyboard gives us the vocabulary and the syntax. The pen gives us something of the person. Another manifestation of the marvelous variations between people can be seen in the formal, controlled and perfectly formed handwriting of one person, the tight, tiny, cramped writing of another and the expansive, impetuous scrawl of yet another.

Our handwriting is one of the things that proclaims our individuality.

How many of us hold dear the early attempts of our children to write us notes, the love letters of an early sweetheart or even the handwritten name of a long dead loved one in a favorite book of poems?

We seem to be very good at throwing out our babies with the bath water in education.

Let’s not do it again.

Let’s continue to teach our children the intimate, expressive art of handwriting as well as the efficient, expedient skill of keyboarding.

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Learned Helplessness

Carol Dweck’s book ‘Mindset’ is on my mind again.

How do we develop a sense of self worth in our children?

If we praise children predominantly for who they are, rather than what they do, what do they learn?

If we tell a child, “You are so clever,” when she comes home with an A on a test, or shows us a beautifully executed drawing of the street where she lives, what does she learn? She is coming to believe that she is worthy simply because she is told so.

If instead we say, “I know you studied very hard for that test, well done”, or “I see you used what you learned about perspective in that drawing. It’s great”, what is she learning that is different? She is learning that effort is of great worth.

If we praise children simply for being, they come to believe that their self worth lies in the opinions of others. 

This can be disturbingly disempowering.

Let’s follow the possible repercussions of believing that I am a valuable, worthwhile person because other people (my parents) tell me that I am, regardless of what I do.

My goal as I grow up and go into the world will be to ensure that I mix with people who think well of me, regardless of what I do because my sense of self worth rests in the opinions of others.

This may mean that I will prefer to associate with people who think even less of themselves than they do of me, so that I can always seem more worthy by comparison.

It is much easier to look like a high flyer when you travel with a low flying flock.

This is a recipe for disaster.

If we want our children to challenge themselves, to seek out the best the world has to offer then we need to ensure that we praise them for what they do.

Then they will come to believe that their worth lies in their own hands, in what they choose to do with their lives.

Unconditional love is not the same thing as unconditional praise.

We love our children unconditionally, but we praise them for what they do.

Love me for who I am.

Praise me for what I do.

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The Power of ‘Yet’

I can’t do that.

I’ve never been any good at that.

Nah, its not something I’m any good at.

Too hard. Always has been.

How many times have you said that?

How many times have you heard that?

It’s a cop out!

Carol Dweck, the author of ‘Mindsets’ has described the word YET as powerful.

Every time you allow one of those ‘can’t’ comments to pass unremarked and unchallenged, you contribute another brick to the wall that surrounds and limits human achievement. In yourself, your children, your students.

Every time you add the word ‘yet’ to the statement “I can’t do that”, you remove a brick, you begin to create a doorway, an opening in the walls that hold us all back from achieving above and beyond what our limited expectations tell us is possible.

Make ‘yet’ a powerful word in your vocabulary.

brick-wall-with-sky-showing-thrublog

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Let’s Hold Each Other and Dance

As the anniversary of 9/11 approaches I would like to tell a story that has only an oblique relevance to education but says much about the strengths of humanity.

I went to live in the USA in January of 2001, leaving my grown up daughter behind in Australia. I missed her desperately. I was rocked by the events of 9/11 nine months later. As an assistant principal in my first American school, a school located deep in the middle of a highly militarized part of the country, I found myself being asked to deal with advice to parents and to teachers. I will never lose the image of walking the hallways and discovering a TV set on in every classroom, the teacher’s eyes glued to the screens and the children at their desks and tables, confused and fearful. As hard as it was, my first step was to have all those TV sets turned off. Teachers were in shock and the children did not need to see those images unmediated by a loving parent to hold them close.

As the day progressed more and more parents came to collect their children and take them home. They knew something profound had just happened, that might change their lives forever. They had no idea what might come next.

My daughter’s birthday was at the end of the month and I wanted to buy her something in time to mail it back to Australia. A couple of days after the tragedy of the towers I was in a book store in our local shopping mall. Browsing through the books I came across one with a CD attached. It contained a poem entitled “I Hope You Dance”.

My daughter has dance in her blood. Her father was, among other things, a ballet dancer. I find it impossible to keep my feet still if the photo copier starts to kick out a decent rhythm in the school office. It was inevitable that I would be drawn to this title.

I asked the shop assistant if I might listen to the CD and she put it on the store’s player. As we listened, we both began to weep. I was crying because I was missing my beautiful girl so much. She explained the reasons for her tears. She had just received a phone call from her brother, telling her that he was safe. He worked in the World Trade Building in New York.

As the song played we stood hugging each other in the middle of that store, tears rolling down our faces. Two women who had never met, but had been brought together by circumstances and were giving each other comfort. I don’t know what the other shoppers made of this. Perhaps not too much. All emotions were so high in those days that a couple of weeping women might not have looked much out of place.

I bought the CD and sent it to my girl.

Here are the word to that song, written by Mark Daniel Sanders and Tia Sillers and sung by Lee Ann Womack

I hope you never lose your sense of wonder;
You get your fill to eat but always keep that hunger;Image
May you never take one single breath for granted;
God forbid love ever leave you empty handed.
I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean;
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens.
Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance,
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance

I hope you dance
I hope you dance

I hope you never fear those mountains in the distance;
Never settle for the path of least resistance.
Living might mean taking chances, but they’re worth taking,
Loving might be a mistake, but it’s worth making.
Don’t let some Hellbent heart leave you bitter;
When you come close to selling out, reconsider;
Give the heavens above more than just a passing glance,
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance,

I hope you dance,
I hope you dance.

I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean;
Whenever one door closes I hope one more opens.
Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance;
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance,

Dance.

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Let’s hear it for the tiger mothers!

tiger-cub_1714112iIf you ask any young mother who is the most important child in the world to her, she will reply, “mine”. We would expect nothing different. This feeling doesn’t change when the child turns five and goes to school. Every loved and wanted child is the centre of his or her parent’s world. Pity the child who isn’t.

And so it seems odd when a teacher complains, “She thinks her child is the most important child in my classroom”.

Of course she does, and the sooner you acknowledge this, the sooner you will be able to set up a productive relationship between teacher and parent.

No parent sees a class full of children from the same point of view as the teacher. Good teachers strive to ensure that each child is treated as one among equals.

But no parents view their son or daughter as simply ‘one among equals’.

As a principal I have dealt with many an irate parent in my office. Sometimes their sense of outrage has seemed totally unreasonable from my viewpoint, where their child is simply ‘one among equals’. But it’s this sense of my child being the centre of the universe that leads parents to cry ‘unfair’ and demand to know, “what are you doing to punish the other kid?”

It’s easier to deal with the Tiger Mothers who look as if they might leap across your desk and tear your throat out at any minute, if we understand why they feel like that. They are protecting their young, the centre of their universe, the most precious thing in their lives, at a time when they feel their cub might be under threat.

Give me a Tiger Mother any day rather than the disinterested, unengaged parents who never walk through the school door or pick up the phone and dial the school’s number.

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