Saturday, March 6, 2010


This week I sat down with one of my kindergarten friends and presented her with index cards- each containing one letter in her name. As I showed her each card she correctly identified each letter. I cheered, we hugged, we high-fived, we read the letters again. We did a dance. We went off to tell everyone we met that she'd read each letter correctly. She read them to the principal with a huge, proud smile on her face.

We've been working on these 9 letters since the beginning of August. Every morning we'd sit down and I'd show her the same index cards. For awhile she could only identify the first letter in her name. The rest of the letters all seemed to be the same to her- she didn't seem to understand that each letter had a different name.

So we worked on sorting letters by their differences- letters with curves, letters without curves, letters with sticks, letters with curves and sticks. We needed her brain to start recognizing the small differences in each letter. We used think blocks and the patterns of thinking to identify what is a particular letter, and what letters are not that letter.

For awhile we worked on the difference between c and e- because in reality, c and e are exactly the same except for that little line in the middle of the e. And if you're brain hasn't learned to notice that difference then c and e identical.

We learned c and e, and moved on to differentiating between r, h, and n. Again, letters that can look similar unless your brain is trained to identify them by their differences.

We played feed the mouse- where we put the letters out in front of her and give her a stuffed animal mouse (I have the stuffed animal of "If you give a mouse a cookie") and say, "The mouse wants to eat the letter r" and she has to found the letter r and feed it to the mouse. After she's gone through all the letters we switch- she tells me what the mouse wants to eat. The game requires her to be able to listen to the letter name and select the matching written letter, and also look at the written letter and say it's correct name.

We went bowling in the hallway (my new favorite game). We placed the letters we were working on against the wall on one side of the hallway. I'd say which letter she should hit and she'd throw a small ball toward that letter, trying to hit it. Then she'd tell me which letter I was suppose to hit. Again, making her listen to the letter name and then identify it's matching written letter, and making her see the written letter and then name it, working on both her receptive and expressive skills.

We wrote the letters in glitter glue so when she said "r" when showed an h I could say, "trace it" and she would run her finger along the raised glitter h so her brain would start to recognize it's long, high back and identify what was different between the r and the h.

We did direct instruction methods, such as giving her just one letter and saying, "This is an h. Point to the h. Good! What letter is that? right, H. " and then add another letter and repeat the process, but the second time ask her to alternate between identifying between the h and the r, both expressively and receptively.

My goals with all this were to put those specific letters into her long-term memory since her working memory is so limited. It was also to train her brain to identify specific parts of letters through sorting, and tracing so that she can generalize that skill to other letters- hopefully making it faster to learn different letters.

We were letter detectives- we'd walk the halls with a dry erase board and a marker, searching for the letter we were studying and writing it down on her paper. Training her brain to identify the letter in different fonts and locations- helping her realize that writing is everywhere- these letters are in other words other than her name.

Almost every single morning from August until early March we played this games and went over her letters. I have the data- it's put into graphs, showing my shifts in instruction so I could track what worked, and what didn't, and her slow but steady process until the only letter she had left to learn was i.

My partner-in-crime and I went to her house, bringing letters she could practice with. Realizing there were no toys in her house- educational or otherwise, we sent home an alphabet puzzle so at home in front of the large tv she could continue to work on sorting her letters and matching them based on shapes (puzzles are so important for cognitive development!)

Not to mention she's been a part of her fabulous kindergarten class where they do work with letters every day. She's immersed in literacy in school- she is getting a wonderful kindergarten experience daily, in a classroom with a fairly low teacher/student ratio.

Needless to say, the first day she read all 9 of those letters correctly I almost fell over from happiness. We'd just finished a marathon- we'd earned what we'd worked so hard to achieve.

But at the same time, looking back over my graphs and all we've done, over such a long period of time, I'm a bit discouraged. Not at her, or how we're learning these letters, or the situation itself- but at the education system. I have the graphs and data to back up all I've done. But if you told me about another student who took 7 months to learn the letters in her name I would cringe inside- that's pretty unacceptable in the broader field of education. If I was receiving merit pay for my work with her I wouldn't get it- 7 months? Really? I don't know what else I could have done to speed up the process.
We went to her house.
We worked one on one every day.
I altered instruction specifically to meet her needs.
What needed to happen was to put those letters in her long term memory. And we did that, without failing, without giving up. And those last letters she learned came faster than the first ones. We've moved on to other letters now, and at this point those are coming faster as well. Her brain has been trained to sort letters and identify their specific features.

But my work with her would not get me merit pay. If I needed to hand in the data and explain the slow progress to an administrator, would I be fired if I worked at that Rhode Island school? What politician can praise the work of a teacher that takes 7 months to teach a child 9 letters?

Knowing this I've been racking my brain- what could have sped up this process? What more should I have done? Could I have done? What could have been improved?

I don't know. I honestly don't.

And other than my thoughts on merit pay, and education policy, and wondering if results like this mean the president thinks I should be fired, I don't think I should do anything different. She learned those 9 letters. And now she's going to learn more. I'm going to keep modifying my instruction to meet her needs daily, and she's going to keep working hard, and step by step we are going to make progress. We'll get there. We'll learn to put those letters together to make words- we'll learn to read. We'll learn to read well. No matter how long it takes.

And in the end, no matter what politicians think about how education should work- or what policies might be put into place regarding merit pay or incentive plans or something like it- in the end no one can take those letters away from her.


Unknown said...

This is why I read your blog, thank you!

Kirsten said...

On the contrary, the idea of the NCLB law is that you will labor over children who need more teaching to reach a level, like her. The belief is that previously she would get just the kindergarten class, and be socially promoted without anyone sitting down and going over the missing basics with her.

She wasn't ready to learn letters when you started. She didn't have the shapes down. Now she has so many more tools at her command. She is ready to learn letters now. She will learn them a lot faster.

I am more concerned from the point of view of the 10-month school schedule. What would happen with her spending two months with little written material and no puzzles?

Scott said...

I don't think you could go any faster - her brain wasn't ready to learn that yet. It needed time (to mature) and your patient teaching to get to that point. A kindergarten teacher friend once said to me: "We tell the 1st grade teachers that we do all we can but we cannot make a child mature faster."

Jenny said...

-Kirsten, While I understand your point of view about NCLB, I have to disagree. In theory it seems that is exactly what NCLB is attempting to do. In reality it means that the focus is on students who are on the verge of passing tests, not those that are exceptionally unlikely to pass. Why spend time and energy on students who may make significant progress but it won't be enough to pass the test?

That sounds cynical and I don't believe it is happening across the board. However, I do know that many schools talk in great length about those kids who are right there in the middle.

The kids on either end of the spectrum, gifted kids and kids who struggle significantly, get less attention. It isn't right. But it's what happens when everything comes down to a test score, especially a test score that has nothing to do with showing improvement.