Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Literacy History 6

In college, as graduation was approaching, I decided to join Teach for America. I was appalled at the statistics I read regarding literacy in urban and rural elementary schools. I was disgusted to learn that fourth graders growing up in low-income communities are already three grade levels behind their peers in high-income communities. I joined the corps, took an exhaustive training course where we taught for part of each day and learned everything we could about literacy, motivation, diversity, and classroom management. I didn’t pay as much attention to the literacy aspects of the courses, because I think some part of me believed that since I loved reading, it would be a breeze to teach reading.

I have never been so wrong in my life.

My first year of teaching kindergarten was excruciatingly difficult. I couldn’t understand why my kids weren’t learning when I was exposing to them to as much literature as I could. We sang songs and I tried relating my young experiences with reading to these students. I quickly realized that learning to read isn’t necessarily a natural process. There is a science to it that I didn’t fully understand. Surprisingly, I found that despite my aversion to numbers, math was the easiest and most effective subject for me to teach my students. By the end of the year, I was surprised that any of my students had progressed in reading, and I still feel guilty about the struggling readers in that class who have continued to struggle because I didn’t provide them with the right reading foundation.

When I taught second grade the following year, I focused all of my energies on reading instruction. I could assess my students to find out their reading levels, motivate my students to read, expose them to literature beyond the basals, teach them vocabulary and give them fluency practice in small groups. My kids made progress, some improving their reading levels by as much as three years, but there were still a few students that I couldn’t seem to help. I came to UF for graduate school hoping to learn more about what can be done for those students. I find it so frustrating to know the kind of pleasure being able to read can give a person, and watching my students struggle and give up on reading, and essentially a future with more opportunities.

Now that I’m in graduate school, I find myself engaging in new literacy experiences. I have to employ many of the comprehension skills I taught my kids in order to understand the research articles that are required reading. My students would get a kick out of knowing how often I have to reread a paragraph and look up unfamiliar words before I can make sense of what an author is trying to say. I also have learned about ways to infuse literacy experiences with technology. I’ve started blogging, using RSS to read about things I’m interested in, and listening to podcasts. I still read profusely for pleasure. I often have to remove a good novel or magazine from my apartment when I’m doing school work so as not to get distracted by them and miss deadlines. I would like to try my hand at writing a children’s book or young adult novel, but I never seem to find the time to do it because I would rather be reading a children’s book or young adult novel.

Another literacy experience I’m interested in trying, but I never seem to follow through on, is learning to read, write, and speak Spanish. I have a love of Spanish poetry and the magic realism in the translated books of many authors. I can only imagine how beautiful these pieces must be in their native language. However, being what one might call a “good” reader or writer in English, doesn’t seem to translate itself into being a “good” reader and writer of Spanish. So for now I’m focusing on my goal of learning all I can to help struggling readers successfully become “good” readers.

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