Monday, August 15, 2011
A Little Triple "E" Swagger
"If you are reading this, your first grade teacher was probably pretty good."
If you haven’t heard the news, the Early Elementary Education Program is gone. At first it merged with the Urban Youth Development program to make the more generalized (or ‘specialized,’ take your pick) program called Education and Youth Development. Then when Congress decided to cut the Peace Corps budget for this year, our newly hybrid-ed program got the ax. Yep, we got the chop. After my group of EEE volunteers leaves next year, Paraguay will have no more volunteers devoted specifically to Early Ed. Adios. Hasta Luego. Hasta la vista, baby. Personally I’m a little bit salty about the whole deal. The move forces us EEE volunteers to consider a rather depressing question: “is our sector so unimpactful and possibly pointless that the office decided to get rid of us before all others?” The answer is a resounding “hell no, we are awesome.” The move, however, has made me consider the lack of respect (or at least priority) that is given to early elementary teachers here and in a lot of places in the world. Reading pedagogy, as we call it in the biz, is taken for granted, big time. My work in Paraguay has shown what happens when early childhood development is done wrong, but also the transformation that can happen when it is done right. Hear me out: I would like to demand a little more respect for our elementary teachers.
If you think I’m being overly defensive about the education profession, think again. Consider which majors ‘talented’ college students are advised to choose. The Sciences, business, law, or going into academia come to mind. Elementary Education majors are mocked as outcasts who failed their first college bio class and as a result are majoring in ‘singing nursery rhymes.’ One of the smartest/most talented people I have met in the Peace Corps was an elementary education major, and when I asked her about it, she admitted that many times in college people had asked her why she didn’t decide to study something more intellectually demanding than Early Ed. Even as an Ed major myself, I still have it ingrained in me that teachers (especially elementary) are given less respect than other similar caliber office jobs.
Let’s use salary as a gauge of respect. Go look at teachers salaries in the Chicago suburbs on Champion.org right now. A Physical Education teacher of 20 years with a masters who coaches sports commonly might make six figures or close. How much does the all-star 1st grade teacher with 30 students and similar experience make? Maybe half. You see, while the work of the elementary teacher is much less glorious than the work of the high school teacher, a plethora of research shows that formative years in pre-school, kindergarten, first grade, second grade could be much more impactful in terms of intellectual and linguistic development than high school. Not only have studies shown this, but it is just plain common sense: who is more in danger of dropping out, a first grader who can’t read or a seventh grader who can’t? Trust me, school is way more boring (and embarrassing) for the illiterate seventh grader. But that is beside the point. How did a student make it all the way to sixth grade without learning how to read? The sad fact is that it was (outstanding cases aside) probably a lack of elementary teaching that reaches everyone.
It’s about damn time that we give our elementary teachers some mad props when they do a good job, and make elementary teaching more of a priority. It’s just that early childhood development is easy to brush off as insignificant. The difference between a bad teacher and a good teacher in the early grades is extremely subtle. It is the difference between taking 10 minutes instead of 3 minutes for the daily calendar activity. It is the difference between giving students 5-10 seconds to think of the answer instead of just saying it out loud for them. It is using word cards and gestures while singing a song instead of just singing. It is singing the ABC song everyday. Still seem trivial? THINK AGAIN. Let’s take a look at some evaluation results.
Last year the reading evaluation I administered in Kilometer 16 school showed that ONE of THIRTEEN kids could recognize a single word. In case you did not comprehend that last sentence because you were in disbelief: 12 of 13 students could not identify ONE word on a list of ONE SYLLABLE words.
This year? 14 of 18 COULD IDENTIFY words. Yea, in case you were wondering, that is a pretty big jump. Pretty, pretty, pretty big.
This was due largely to the ‘subtle’ changes we made in terms of teaching techniques in Kindergarten and first grade: singing the abc song every day, exposing the students to words via word cards, doing a word wall, playing bingo with letters and words. The changes are sometimes so subtle; it’s hard convincing the teachers that they need to consistently do them when I’m not around. I feel like I am the nagging Paraguayan version of the boss from Office Space. Instead of Did you put the cover sheet on those TPS reports? We’re gonna need you to go ahead and DO that. MMMkay?, it’s Did you sing the ABC song yet in kindergarten? Area you doing it every day and saying the sound of the letter along with the word? I’m gonna need you to go ahead and do that. Do mind if I watch your calendar activity and micromanage the way you do it? Are you still having the kids spell out the day and not just asking them for one second and then spelling it for them? While these differences might seem insignificant, they are the difference between learning for all and learning for the top third (who know how to read already anyway).
It’s easy to be bitter and angry at the evil but faceless ‘school system’ when a 9th grader still can’t read. It’s not easy to get Scrooge McDuck style furious at elementary teachers when they skip out on the daily game of vowel BINGO that you suggested. It’s even harder to get angry at the ‘system’ for the fact that elementary teachers don’t get respect. It’s a lot easier to whine about the lack of success students have later on in their school career.
The Naperville School District gets it: they are trying to equalize high school and elementary school teacher salaries. Guess who is going to get the most talented elementary teachers in the years to come?
Reading pedagogy is not rocket science. It is not sexy...well maybe if Jordan Lanfair was your teacher. But it’s also really easy to overlook and screw up. It's the offensive line of education (see: the history of the Bears' awful running backs). When it's good, you barely even notice it. When it's not good, you can still just blame the running back (aka blame the high school teachers), or the coach, or the quarterback, whatever.
If this post seemed like a repetitive diatribe defending early elementary education and those who teach it, it was. So much money and resources (not to mention spineless rhetoric) is wasted these days on changes that have zero effect or are the equivalent of putting a band aid on a gushing wound (see: remedial programs in high school). Why not focus on what we know works? We so take for granted our elementary teachers, the ones who taught us how to read, write in the lines, and add. Next time you think that an elementary education major is learning how to major in ‘singing nursery rhymes,’ just consider again that one year of implementing basic participatory teaching reading techniques increased mid year word decodification ability from 7.6 % of the class to 77.7 %. So next time you are having a good time, maybe in a restaurant reading a menu or something taking your literacy for granted, make a toast to your 1st grade teacher, or maybe even pour one out. This one’s for you, Ms. Marciniak.