Educational Expectations and Teacher Responsibility: What We CAN Do!
There is a universal debate in the educational field, which continues to resurface and conflict administrators and teachers alike. Are our expectations too much too soon for children? The foundation for this dilemma is the way in which we have structured our educational system, NOT any one set of standards or curricula. Our expectation is that all children who turn chronological age five by a certain date are ready for the same thing, which is a complete falsehood. Due to this foundational mistake, we are left picking up the pieces, trying to find “fixes” and “band-aides” to make it right somehow. With this knowledge, the truth is, it is not about the standards or any one published curriculum, but about the TEACHER. A classroom environment, methods, activities, differentiation, individualization and knowledge of child development are the factors that make education appropriate for all children. With this preface, I will comment on the Reading and Writing Workshop Approach.
First, it is important to note that Reading and Writing Workshop is an approach, not a program. It includes, with purpose, great flexibility and reliance on the teacher to use appropriate activities with all students. In fact, it is built on a constructivist approach, building individual stamina in each child depending on his/her abilities and developmental levels. This approach is embedded with great research in literacy instruction. The focus of the approach include phonemic awareness, independent reading and writing using developmental (inventive) spelling, modeling, small group instruction, one-on-one conferencing and instruction, and concepts of print. One of the most important components is student choice in writing and expressive language. The approach is open ended and the result is children who desire to share their thoughts and feelings in age appropriate ways. The developmental continuum is built into the program allowing children to read and write as they develop: pictures, dictation, modeling, developmental spelling, use of phonics, and eventually conventional spelling. This allows children to develop as readers and writers in their “zone”. The mini-lesson template also lends to teacher modeling at individual levels and student engagement, which is the key to further interest, confidence and growth.
In regards to PLAY, and time spent in play in a Kindergarten classroom, this has roots back to my opening statement of chronological age entry into Kindergarten, as well as social play experiences previous to school entry. I would agree that time needs to be devoted to play in Kindergarten; however, there are many types of play included in a developmentally appropriate Kindergarten environment. With our focus on the Reading and Writing workshop approach, play is embedded including child-initiated expression. Children are encouraged to pick their own books and writing topics. Methods include rhyming, movement, singing, self-expression, and acting out and drawing ideas and feelings. Play takes on many forms, and teacher involvement, scaffolding, and organization of time in the classroom are the key. Speaking of TIME, this approach also places the responsibility on the knowledgeable and professional teacher to organize a schedule and timeline to meet the needs of their students.
A very positive development in the field has been a renewed focus on critical thinking and self-regulation skills at every level of learning. Two relevant resources are John Hattie’s books on Visible Learning, as well as the Harvard Graduate School of Education Project Zero or Visible Thinking. These approaches encourage learning beyond content knowledge and help educators to understand and have the tools to promote higher levels of thinking in learning processes. Early childhood environments have always focused on these skills, but now they are being brought to primary and secondary education programs as well. This is a wonderful development, and one that is included in new standards at every age level.
In summary, it’s time to move on from the days when educators blame a set of standards or certain curricula for developmental inappropriateness or asking children who are not ready to do too much. We have the resources, the knowledge, and the responsibility to make it developmentally appropriate for all children. It’s a TOUGH job, but we CAN do it.
Erin Akers, M.Ed.
Director, National Lecture Staff
Gesell Institute of Child Development