Breaking the Cycle


As this new school year begins, I am going to write a short series of reflections on the teaching of reading.  I believe it is critical that teachers approach all teaching with some self-reflection.  Topping my list of self-reflective questions is always “What are my beliefs about how children learn and do my practices match these beliefs?”  If there is a disconnect, I start to think about why it is there and what I can do about it. 

The self-reflection of my literacy practices began during my first year of teaching when I realized that what I was doing wasn’t working.  I began by thinking about how I became a reader (my own personal literacy history) and how I could help my students do the same.   More recently, I wrote these experiences into a mini-memoir piece that I would like to share with you below:

Breaking the Cycle

When you go to school you learn to read. That’s what I always thought. I couldn’t wait to start school so that I could begin to unlock the mysteries on the pages of books. I didn’t attend kindergarten, so I had to wait until I was in first grade, 6 ½ long years to begin my formal literacy journey. I don’t remember much about my first day of school except what happened after I arrived home. I rode the bus home trying to hold in the tears, only allowing them to spill down my cheeks as I ran up the driveway. My mom was sweeping the garage as she anxiously waited to hear about her firstborn’s adventure. She quickly put down her broom when she noticed the distress on my face. “What’s the matter, honey?”

“I didn’t learn to read today,” I sobbed. “You said I would learn to read when I went to school.” She consoled me with some homemade cookies as she broke the news that learning to read is a long process. Not the news I wanted to hear, but news I learned to accept.

I was still so naïve, though. There was so much to do before we could read. We started in the “blue workbook”. The alphabet letters were lined up above the chalkboard, but the pictures were masked.  My teacher would uncover just one letter at a time, a process that would take weeks. First came the letter “m”.  She ceremoniously revealed the picture of an ice cream cone beneath the letter “m”. Of course. Ice cream cone because you say “mmm” when you lick one. It made sense at the time. I dutifully drew rows of “m’s” in my workbook and the first day’s reading lesson was finished. Next came the letter “s”. Tire stood for “s”. The sound of air escaping a pierced tire. Intuitive, I suppose. Next came the first vowel, the letter “e”, and now I could read and write the words “me” and “see”. I found it all very exciting, but it still wasn’t what I expected. I still couldn’t decipher the words in my books at home. We had to complete all of the blue workbook and then the gold one before we were handed our first readers, and it would be months before that would happen.

 I somehow learned to read (and like it) in spite of the disappointing start. Fast forward two years. My third grade teacher introduced me to Scholastic book orders, and a whole new world opened up to me. I still own my first two book purchases: A Pony for the Winter and a biography of Helen Keller. I clearly remember the day I sat in class deeply entrenched in Helen Keller, not realizing that the teacher had begun teaching the math lesson. That is the day I remember becoming a reader. From that point on I would never be without a book. I traveled to faraway places, met interesting people, and lived vicariously through the characters in my books. Even though money was tight, my mom allowed me to purchase two new paperbacks from the book orders every month. My older cousins began giving me the books they had finished. Soon my dad had to build me a special bookshelf to hold all of my prized possessions.

I became a reader, but there was something I could never understand. If I liked to read so much, why did I so dread reading class at school? I was a product of the three reading group/round robin reading/workbook era. Each day was exactly the same—take turns reading the story aloud, answer the comprehension questions, complete the appropriate workbook pages, and if you finish early, begin your SRA cards. This cycle continued throughout elementary school.

Fast forward again. I was now 22 years old in a classroom of my own. My first class consisted of 23 second-graders in an urban school district. This school grouped classes homogeneously, so being the new teacher, I received the low class—23 second-graders on kindergarten and first grade reading levels. My charge was to get them up to grade level using only basal readers and workbooks, to follow the prescribed order of the books, and to be on the correct page each month when the reading specialist came to check on my progress. In addition, I was to do all of this while every 15 minutes a new group of students was pulled out for Title I math and reading services and speech therapy. I knew I was the new kid on the block, but something about this did not seem right. How could I subject my students to the same drudgery that I endured in elementary school? More importantly, how could I find a way to instill in my students the joy of reading that I had known? These children didn’t have cousins giving them boxes of books, moms providing a book allowance each month, or dads building them bookshelves. If these children were going to become readers, it would be mostly up to me.

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