I came to teach in public school 10 years after getting my teaching degree. I began my career (and did my student teaching) in a small, private alternative school, then worked at Headstart, had a baby, and ran my own daycare and preschool.
When I got my first job teaching kindergarten, I was thrilled. I felt like I was in the Big Leagues and finally using my teaching degree to the fullest. Hey, I had health insurance and my biggest paycheck yet, about $1200 a month for half time. (This was 1996)
I went to my first training and I was excited to learn more about the new Language Arts curriculum. The trainer began talking about how to use the program, which was “letter of the week” focused. I raised my hand and asked what the reasoning was behind the letter of the week and the order the letters were presented. She got kind of flustered and said no, she didn’t really know the reason.
At that moment, I felt a little twinge of anger. Why should I do something that had no reason? Did anyone know if kids learned their letters this way? I didn’t have much time in the day and was this just wasting time? I was several months into the school year and it was already clear that some of my kids weren’t catching on to letter sounds.
Most of my previous teaching experience had been play based without an academic component (different era, right?). But now I did feel a sense of urgency. This was real School and many of my students had no home support in learning. I was going to make or break this, and I wanted to do it right.
Research was coming in quickly during these years, as the “reading wars” waged, and our school began to move quickly towards intensive instruction in phonics and phonemic awareness. These materials made perfect sense to me.
But what about writing?
Reading instruction was making more sense, but writing time was a mess. The trainers who came to help our school would go on and on about strategies for writing, while my fellow kindergarten teacher and I would roll our eyes at each other. Uh… that won’t work in kindergarten. What are we supposed to do? The answer was always, Have them draw pictures and label.
Okay, so here’s what that would look like in my room:
6 kids with hands up because they don’t know the letters for the sounds they need, 2 kids fighting over crayons, 1 under the table crying because he couldn’t draw, 2 calling to me about the kid under the table, 4 drawing and loudly talking, and 5 on task with drawing and labeling.
Handwriting wasn’t sticking either. At the end of my third year of teaching, I still had plenty of students making letters all kinds of strange ways even after weekly “Rainbow Writing” lessons. What to do?
Over the summer, I took stock of the situation.
More kids were learning letter sounds with a direct approach. Wouldn’t that work for writing also? I concocted a plan that I called Handwriting Boot Camp. It would be daily. I would have a group lesson where I showed exactly what was expected and how to do it. (It wasn’t until almost 10 years later I came across the term “explicit instruction”) There would be a silent practice time for at least 10 minutes. Students would fix incorrect work.
I knew the students would hate it and I would probably get irate calls from parents, but I also knew it would work. And it did. Beautifully. Every student learned handwriting well.
As for the hating and the irate calls? It was just the opposite. Kids loved the success we were having together and they loved the group lesson every day. They loved the routine. They even came to love the silence, after some practice with it.
The biggest realization I had was that writing instruction for young children begins with handwriting. Once handwriting was secured, we could easily move on to spacing, phonetic spelling, and eventually to labeling. In other words, handwriting isn’t an extra and it’s not separate from writing instruction at the beginning. I’ve come to see that it is the developmentally appropriate place to begin.
I had been so stressed because I was trying to force kids to do assignments they weren’t ready for.
I went to the state library to look up research on handwriting and found one article (microfiche, remember that thing?) Now the research is coming in with very strong support for handwriting in learning phonics and for the fluency needed to be a strong writer.
One thing led to another. Kids had been drawing when they were finished with the handwriting, and that expanded into the creation of the two-part lesson – conventions and creativity. I moved up to first grade and added lessons on punctuation and sentence formation. Each grade level (K, 1 and 2) took seven years to make right. Every lesson that was confusing or frustrating was broken down into smaller pieces until I felt that I was doing right by every child.
I spent many evenings and weekends trying to figure out what was missing in certain lessons and why some kids were confused. It was exhilarating when I would hit year 6 or 7 and everything would just click. I was constantly making and re-making workbooks. It was my hobby and I loved it!
The more I worked on the curriculum and studied other curriculums and curriculum design, the old anger started to burn in me. There were so many terrible lessons in my math curriculum that confused kids. Why didn’t these people take 7 years to figure out what works? Did they actually even try it on real kids? Is curriculum publishing just a money making machine without regard to what works for real kids and real teachers?
I began to feel angry at how many hours teachers put in on weekends trying to supplement or piece together replacement materials to find something that works – in all subject areas, when districts have paid millions of dollars for materials. Teachers deserve to have evenings and weekends for themselves and their families. Teachers deserve to open up a teacher’s guide to lessons that are developmentally appropriate, explicit, and effective for the entire class. Lessons that have been tested over many years on many classes and worked well.
Now, in addition to my passion about good writing instruction, I’m wanting to help teachers understand what good curriculum should look like in all forms, so you can fight for it. I look forward to spreading the word about this.
In the meantime, if you teach K-2, join the other teachers who say that teaching Growing Writers is their favorite time of the day!
Thanks for taking the time to read my story!