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  • Emina McLean

Seeing the light

[This is the first story in what will hopefully be a series about the journeys educators have been on to change literacy practices in schools. This educator prefers to remain anonymous as they are still fighting for best practice in their school. Thank you for your bravery and generosity. This is an unedited recount of their experiences.]


Seeing the light

I was a conscientious Uni student. I did all the readings, even the suggested readings and I carried my share of peers through group assignments. I graduated in 2012 with distinction and I genuinely love learning and love working with children. So, when I tell you that the extent of knowledge and expertise imparted by my University on how to actually teach reading was limited to; how to take a running record, multimodal texts and a single tutorial discussion about the different sides of the argument, it is not that I missed that lecture because I was barely showing up, or I was just submitting assignments to pass the units. I had some serious skin in the game!

Fast forward to my first year of my first teaching job of a grade 3/4 class and I am standing in a supermarket after work one night getting verbally abused by a parent of a child I was teaching because his daughter’s handwriting in her diary was not neat enough. For the longest time I didn’t know why this event was so traumatic for me. I never really feared for my safety even though he was a very imposing, erratic character and was quite possibly drug-affected. But I lost countless hours of sleep that year. Way, way down deep I think I always worried that maybe there was some merit in his criticism and rejection of me as the teacher. Maybe I didn’t have imposter syndrome and was just a plain outright imposter!

But how could he think I wasn’t doing the best job? I mean, didn’t he know how lucky he was that his daughter had a teacher that was going to love his child to literacy? A teacher who didn’t stand in front of the class for copious amounts of time but who was a gentle guide on the side so that they could construct their own knowledge, which is far superior to being told! A teacher who was definitely not getting bogged down in a boring knowledge-based curriculum because, duh, we have Google for that! I was all about inquiry based learning across all areas of the curriculum and teaching spelling as it popped up in context. Never mind that it popped up 10 times in a student’s single paragraph and I tried to ‘teach’ multiple spelling patterns in one hit that were not related to each other. I wish I knew something about Cognitive Load Theory back then!

I stuck it out at this school for two years and I jumped at an opportunity to move schools when it presented itself to a school that was slightly more into explicit teaching but was still entrenched in Whole Language/Balanced Literacy practices. So I kept trying to love these kids to literacy and impart my passion for all things reading and writing. I always had beautiful relationships with my students and I think this was what was getting me by. My students were motivated, happy to be at school and more than happy to be in my class. Imagine if I could have harnessed this with actual teaching!

For the first 4 years of teaching I had taught grades 3/4. So I was busy telling parents that their child had a comprehension problem or that they needed to read more at home. It really wasn’t until I was moved to Grade 2 that I was found out. I had some students who were into their third year of schooling with us and still couldn’t read. One student in particular had been on the same PM level with the same reading goal to look at the first letter and think of a word that would make sense, for an entire year! I never felt satisfied with my guided reading groups and really began to feel like these students were learning to read in spite of me, not because of me.

This is when I started to look for answers. There had to be an agreed best practice out there somewhere! How incredibly lucky that one of the first resources I stumbled across was Alison Clarke’s Spelfabet website. She had a link to David Kilpatrick’s ‘Equipped for Reading Success’ so I ordered it and read it in the first lot of school holidays. I was still holding onto the phonics = bad mantra from uni so it wasn’t an instant buy in BUT uni never said phonological awareness was bad so I launched into 1 minute PA activities with these struggling readers. The thing I found with phonological awareness was that it really goes hand in hand with phonics and when I assessed the phonic knowledge of these kids, they didn’t have much at all and it was THE thing stopping them from getting the words off the page. If I were to read them the text, they could understand it. So my reluctance to engage in teaching phonics was eroded over the next couple of months.

Being a THRASS school, I had to tread so carefully. We had no school-wide scope and sequence and the gaps in knowledge by the time these kids got to Grade 2 was so varied and overwhelming I didn’t know where to start. Luckily I was working in a great team and so I started sharing bits and pieces with them which they were happy to take on. We added in explicit and systematic teaching of PA skills and we even managed to put together some groups of students who were extremely low in this area. They would do some 1 minute activities and follow it up with a levelled reader. There is no way I would implement the same groups now but at the time I still didn’t know enough.

I started having conversations with colleagues who were also really frustrated with guided reading and feeling like they were failing some of their students who just weren’t making progress. At this time, a member from leadership had been to a dyslexia symposium where she heard stories from people like Sarah Asome (Bentleigh West AP). Having someone not only hear what I was saying but have some buy in propelled me forward again. I had discovered decodable texts and was printing the free versions from the SPELD SA website for use in my own class. I began organising sneaky team teaching sessions with a Grade 1 teacher who wanted so much more guidance than ‘Have the THRASS charts on tables at all times, practice the raps and you choose what to cover based on each student’s point of need.’

That member of leadership sent me off to the Phonics Roadshow that year and I definitely came back wanting to change the world. So many things finally clicked and made sense and I wanted to go back in a time machine and actually learn this stuff at uni. As much as this member of the leadership team was supporting me, there was another member who held beliefs at the opposite end of the spectrum. Any step forward was met with a couple of steps back. I had pretty open dialogue with my principal about it but without him wanting to do some reading and learning about it he was being swayed back and forth. Somehow we came to the point where the following year I wouldn’t have a class of my own, but would become a literacy leader for Prep-2 and run intervention, with the leadership member who was most objective to what I was bringing to the table to retain the literacy leader role for years 3-6.

I knew of one other school in our area using Little Learners Love Literacy decodable texts and knew that these were a must for intervention so was given permission to buy some and even go to the one day PD. The opposing member of leadership came to the one day workshop and I was even able to put forward the name of the Grade 1 teacher who wanted more support to come. Our new intervention program was somewhat of a trojan horse way of infiltrating the status quo.

The ensuing year was a rollercoaster ride. Most of the intervention students were making great progress and most of the teachers in years 1 and 2 started to adopt elements for their whole class and small group instruction. But my heart ached for the students who came to intervention and were encouraged to read all the way through the word and not rely on pictures and context to read the words, then headed back into class and were encouraged to do the exact opposite. I was reprimanded often for saying the ‘wrong thing’ or questioning the validity of using Running Records for assessment. I was bombarded with straw man arguments and accused of undermining the other literacy leader’s role. It became personal, it confused staff and left them not knowing what they should or shouldn’t be doing. The guilt of that weighed heavily on me. My mission was to help these hard working teachers get more bang for their buck and in turn, give these kids the best possible start in learning to read and write.

Amidst the ups and downs of advocating for change, we were able to implement Heggerty Phonemic Awareness from P-2 and begin working on an agreed phonics scope and sequence. The grade 2 team that I had been a part of the previous year were catching their students up and had moved to a more structured literacy approach to teaching reading and writing. Our year 3 NAPLAN spelling results for that year were not good, especially for our demographic, so out of curiosity we tested the Grade 3 and Grade 2 students on the same NAPLAN sample test. The Grade 2 students who had had six months of structured literacy outperformed the Year 3 students. A group of Grade 2 students were really reading for the first time in their academic life. They were writing with confidence instead of avoiding the activity at all costs. Their parents were starting to be able to sleep at night without worrying about whether their child would ever be able to read and without being told that we should just wait and see.

As it happened I fell pregnant to my second child during that year and went on maternity leave in late November. A couple of staff that I keep in contact with tell me more progress has definitely been made and things that were met with a firm ‘NO’ in the past year were now being implemented. I really think that the battle became personal and that the ‘No’ was more to me than to the ideas being presented. Being at home with two small children in Victoria with long periods of isolation this year has got me really thinking and reflecting. Maybe me going back to that school is not the best thing for that school? There is still such a long journey ahead but I would hate to be the element getting in the way!

Having had all the time in the world to think about the trauma I experienced in my first year of teaching I am so much more at peace with my biggest fear of not doing the best job. I absolutely didn’t and that’s ok because I did the best with what I had at the time. Sure, I would love to track down those students and apologise, even try and re teach them a few things. But without that experience I may never have chosen to leave that school. I may never have had the perfect conditions to examine what I was doing and why, or find myself in a position where I could impact change at the staff, student and school level.

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