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  • Emina McLean

Keep the balance, Sheryl, keep the balance.

Updated: Sep 18

[This is the sixth story in a series about the journeys educators have been on to change literacy practices in schools. This educator was let down by their teacher training, but persisted through self-directed and formal learning to fill those knowledge gaps over the years. Thank you for sharing your story of the challenges and victories you have faced and the feelings they have evoked. And thank you for all of the work you are now doing to improve literacy practice in schools. This is an unedited recount.]


I was a late bloomer; I didn’t start teaching until both of our children entered kindergarten. I didn’t decide to be a teacher until I gave birth to our first child. Having a sibling and an aunt with a cognitive impairment had me worried and researching the odds that this was genetic. I did a lot of soul searching about the fear of having a child with a disability since my oldest brother, Frank, has a cognitive impairment. All that research ignited my interest to become a special education teacher since my brother, two years older than me, was put in my grade in order to help Frank graduate from high school.


By the time my youngest was in kindergarten, I finished my Bachelor’s Degree in Special Education with an endorsement in cognitive impairments. My first job was at the elementary that I attended with the same principal. I taught in what was called a cross categorical, self-contained classroom for children (grades 1-6) with cognitive impairments. I was as nervous as any first-year teacher despite being almost a decade older than most. I knew the school, the principal and had life-long experience with this population. I was nervous about IEPS, parent advocates and potential classroom management issues with students at different levels.


I didn’t expect to meet a 4th grade student like Brian. Brian was different; he could hold a conversation with more background knowledge than others in my class. Brian understood my jokes and added to the discussion with his own humor. Brian could make his way around the school, keep a schedule, talk with the gen ed students with more ease than the others. He also gravitated toward socializing with the adults in the room rather than the students. I needed to learn more about Brian. I quickly learned that Brian was certified as POHI, today called OHI, otherwise health impaired due to ADD. Really? Brian was in a self-contained classroom for ADD? Oddly enough, Brian’s classwork looked much like the others. His instructional ranges were on the high end of the class but not an outlier. In a short amount of time, I realized that Brian’s decoding skills were lower than some of the students with cognitive impairments. I was encouraged to drop Brian down to the book with the yellow duck, but to change the cover because Brian had been in the basal book twice before. I tried many things with Brian that year, did more research, only to suspect that Brian was misplaced and had a learning disability. I didn’t know anything about dyslexia and didn’t pursue reading about it because it was reserved for the medical profession at that time. So, I researched learning disabilities instead. I felt determined.


I decided to go back to college to get a Master’s Degree with an endorsement in learning disabilities. I had two years left to teach Brian to read before he would move to junior high school. Like me, Brian was a child of a single-parent home. I knew from experience that if Brian didn’t learn to read, he would have difficulty breaking out of the well-known cycle of poverty. I used Brian for every case study and every practicum assignment with a mild impact until I look an introduction to linguistics class as an elective because it was offered later at night after I helped my own children with their homework. Dr. Kathy Pistono, an adjunct professor, taught me vocabulary like phonemic awareness and word retrieval and semantics and syntax. Why hadn’t I learned this before? Why did I feel that this was the class that I needed to help teach Brian to read? Why did this come so late in my coursework? Like other classes, I used Brian for my case study and made a cassette recording (I know, I’m dating myself) of Brian telling me a story about his weekend and another of him reading. Dr. Pistono helped me connect that dots that Brian had a learning disability. He needed to be taught phonemic awareness in addition to phonics.

One of my last required classes was an advanced level reading class where our assignment was to critique brand new Teachers’ Editions from big box publishers. Many advertised on the cover that “Phonemic Awareness” activities were included. I couldn’t find them. I must have been confused. I asked questions; I kept looking. I did more research on the difference between phonemic awareness and phonics because the activities marked phonemic awareness looked the same as phonics in the Teacher’s Editions. I must have misunderstood Dr. Pistono in my introduction Linguistics class. The published Teacher’s Editions with shiny covers had to be correct; I must have needed more instruction in this area. I wrote my critiques for my advanced reading class, included the disconnect between what I thought I learned in linguistics about phonemic awareness and phonics, and completed the assignment. I felt confused.


The same professor as the advanced level reading class was in charge of approving my Master’s project. We were to submit our topic for prior approval. If the topic required a conversation, we were invited in for a meeting. My topic, Teaching reading with phonemic awareness and phonics, required a meeting – and another meeting. My professor and her colleagues wanted to know where I got such an idea! I gave Dr. Pistono the credit for attempting to teach me, but admitted that the semester long experience of looking through TE’s proved that I must be confused and should do more research. Plus, Brian still wasn’t reading as well as I thought he should be for the amount of time and effort that we were both expending. I was invited for a third meeting for my project review; I had decided to change my topic to early intervention (and include phonemic awareness and phonics without putting it my initial outline). Without much further discussion, my original topic was approved with a head shake of exasperation. I completed my project and learned about researchers like Dr. Reid Lyon, Dr. Louisa Moats and Dr. Benita Blachman for the first time. I also discovered Dr. Joe Torgesen’s seminal work regarding the prevention of reading failure of young children and wondered why it hadn’t been part of graduate study since it was published five years earlier. My project was returned without any feedback except an A at the top of the paper and note: Keep the Balance, Sheryl. Keep the Balance. I felt disappointed and relieved.


Brian went on to junior high school and moved out of the district. I fear that I learned more from Brian than he learned from me after being his teacher for three years. Yes, he was reading better than when I met him, but still trailed some of the higher functioning students with cognitive impairments. I had a Master’s Degree in Reading and Language Arts with an endorsement in Learning Disabilities and still didn’t know how to teach kids like Brian to read. I felt defeated.


A couple of years later, I was asked to take on a leadership role in the district to become an intervention consultant for the CI programs, but also the resource room programs. Secondary teachers were on a mission to figure out how to teach older kids to read and asked me to attend a county sponsored professional development to learn more about LANGUAGE!, a structured language curriculum. Together, we did research and adopted this comprehension literacy curriculum for K-12 special education. Teachers were excited because this was the first time that an adoption was approved for special education curriculum in any subject area. We were trained by Dr. Jane Fell Greene, the author of the curriculum, in its infancy. Dr. Greene asked me to become a national trainer and encouraged me to write supplements to her program. Long story short, I ended up getting certified as a National Trainer and worked for the publisher several year later, authoring Sort It! and co-authoring Sortegories, which was the best professional development that a teacher could ask for. I worked directly with Dr. Jane Fell Greene, Dr. Annie Whitney, Nancy Eberhardt and wait for it.... Dr. Louisa Cook Moats. I worked on the writing team for LANGUAGE! 3rd edition with Nancy Eberhardt who still mentors me today. Later, I was invited by Dr. Louisa Cook Moats to work on her writing team for LANGUAGE! Live. I’ll never forget that at breakfast one day, she nicely schooled me that I was confused about my definition of a grapheme. As a LANGUAGE! Trainer, I learned that graphemes and letters were synonyms. Louisa shook her head nicely and said, “No Sheryl, that’s not always the case. Two letters, sh, represent one sound and make up one grapheme. Best breakfast ever! I doubt that Louisa remembers that breakfast conversation; I will cherish it forever. I felt fulfilled.


Before the Science of Reading became a pop term in the literature and on social media, I was on a mission to change the way we teach reading. We had too many curriculum casualties like Brian and didn’t know what to do with them except blame the parents, poverty, attendance, and the like. Our solution was to retain the students, refer them to special education – or even worse – do both, retain and test. Rather than look at how we were teaching reading, we put the blame and the solution elsewhere relieving the system of owning their failure to teach many students to read. I felt frustrated.


After my relatively short and intense career with the publisher, I returned to public education with a neighboring school district. The director was impressed with my knowledge of structured literacy and asked me to teach reading at the high school level. Little did I know, that she hired me to be a change agent. Needless to say, teaching kids how to read instead of teaching literature or using audio books was met with much resistance by my peers. One of my peers was teaching a college class at the time. She would sit in the back of the room that we shared and took notes about my teaching; she claimed that I gave her great content for her evening classes on what not to do. My department chair was also unimpressed with the way I was teaching my classes. She and others asked to observe me teach. I didn’t know that this was not normal; my door remained open. After observing, my department chair said something like, “You act is if learning to read is a matter of life and death!” I was so offended; I asked her if she had read the research that was done with incarcerated youth. She laughed in my face. I was thankful for the upstairs track at my high school. I walked that track often as I was met with much resistance until I was joined by Kyle Holland, another like-minded teacher. We rocked this structured language curriculum and shared our data widely. Our assistant principal at the time, Dr. Carrie Lawler, cheered us on. Soon, others wanted to know what we were doing to raise their reading achievement. Before long, our neighboring high school did the same. I felt proud and hopeful.


Today, I’m the district’s learning consultant for special education. I relaunched the structured language curriculum five years ago by teaching elementary and middle school teachers about our success at the high school and how and why we need to start earlier. I also taught teachers about the Simple View of Reading and Scarborough’s Reading Rope and Seidenberg’s Four Part Processors. Last year, we hired The Reading League; this year we launched the school year with LETRS for Early Childhood and The Reading Teachers’ Top Ten Tools for elementary speech pathologists, school psychologists, teachers and administrators. We also in the midst of two part series with Dr. David Kilpatrick learning more about the science of reading before taking a deeper dive into screening and assessment. It’s taken a long time, but I’ve found my tribe. I’m no longer a teacher of one walking the track upstairs when met with resistance. If you are that teacher of one feeling alone in your school or district, find your tribe elsewhere like I did with the national trainers through the publisher. Today is it easier to find your tribe because of social media. On Facebook, Science of Reading-What I Should Have Learned in College and The Reading League Teacher Group - The Science of Reading is For YOU! are both great places to start. If you haven’t discovered it yet, Edu Twitter can provide better professional development than some college courses if you follow the right people.


Finally, follow me on Twitter @sheryl_ferlito. We can learn together. I feel you.

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