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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
May 1, 1999
Vol. 56
No. 8

Voices: The Professor / The Year That I Really Learned How to Teach

Ten years ago, I left my teaching position at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and returned to a 1st grade classroom in the Clark County School District. It was time for me to either "walk the talk" about child-centered, integrated-literacy instruction or never again preach to my university students how to do something I had never tried doing myself.
"No big deal," I told myself. "After all, I'm an experienced K–1 classroom teacher, almost finished with my doctorate in education, and armed with a thorough understanding of the research base supporting integrated-literacy instruction."

Reality Bites

As Nevada state law requires, I received a textbook for every child in every subject—306 textbooks in all! Somehow I was supposed to shovel this mountain of information into the minds of my 6-year-olds in the next nine months. How could we possibly get through these books and still study mammals, space, earthquakes, or the dozens of other topics that 1st graders are interested in learning? As I was repeatedly reminded throughout that year, the year-end tests would be on mandated curriculum, not on all that "other stuff "—the topics that interested the children.
The temperature was already close to 100 degrees when the children arrived. Each class had its number and a corresponding line painted on the playground where teachers were to pick up their students. Decked out in my new red suit and high heels, I welcomed what seemed an endless line of excited and nervous faces. Suddenly, one child leaped out of line, wrapped both of his arms around my thighs, and began sobbing hysterically. After determining that he was neither bleeding nor near death, I asked him what was wrong. My heart broke as he shrieked between sobs that he could not read.
I thought of all the textbooks in my classroom and knew that I wouldn't be passing them out after all. Then I did a really stupid thing—I bent down to look into his eyes and told him not to worry. By the end of the day, I promised, he would be able to read. My distraught student, Trevor, clung to me as I finished making my way down the line. I berated myself: How could I have just made that promise to a child about whom I knew absolutely nothing? Frantic, I mentally reviewed my academic plans for the day.
No books changed hands that day as we popped popcorn and used our observations to write a language-experience story. We ate popcorn. We sang popcorn songs. We smelled popcorn before, during, and after popping. We measured equal portions of popcorn to eat. We created popcorn art. By the end of the day, we had read our popcorn story at least 15 times, and Trevor could read it all by himself. Whether or not he memorized the story didn't matter in the least to Trevor—or to me—because now he believed that he could read.

Lessons Learned

The year was both the hardest and the most rewarding that I have ever had professionally. My class did study mammals, space, earthquakes, jungles, marine biology, and dozens of other topics. I began to understand more about how important the job of a classroom teacher really was. Classroom teachers are sometimes the only buffer between the children and the regulations that can hamper the learning process that they are supposed to help. Daily, I agonized whether I was doing the right thing by teaching the topics that the children were interested in studying. I was questioned by some of the more traditional teachers—the 2nd grade teachers in particular wanted to make sure that I covered volume 1 of the textbooks so that the children would be ready for volume 2 in 2nd grade.
I had unbelievable parental support, however. Parents loved the books that their children were creating, the stories that they were writing, and the knowledge of current topics that their children were developing. For example, we studied why the columns on the two-tier freeways in California collapsed in perfect symmetry with one another during a major earthquake. We looked at both sides of the tuna fish boycott that resulted in the dolphin-safe labels on the tuna cans. And when one of my students brought in a piece of the Berlin Wall, we studied that as well.
We never did make it all the way through volume 1 of the handwriting, the spelling, or the language-arts textbooks, but somehow my class's average on the year-end test was in the 90th percentile.
I now teach at a private, urban university in Texas. I am often deluged with the "Yes, buts" from my graduate and undergraduate students questioning the feasibility of implementing child-centered, integrated instructional practices. I happily play the videotapes of my 1st grade classes as I explain how I bucked the system. It can be done, I tell them. You will survive. Child-centered instruction does work. And best of all, the children are worth the effort it takes to make it happen.

Ranae Hagen Stetson has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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