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  • Becky Carlisle Cothern

How to Build a Better School System

Today I want to share a story with you from my personal life. As a young girl, I was taught to DREAM- that I could be anything I wanted. And what I wanted more than anything was to be a teacher- to impact the lives of hundreds of children. To make a difference through inspiration and give the power of knowledge to those without. I started this career with a pure light of hope- knowing I could make a difference. I started in a highly diverse classroom. There were no major ethnic groups in my classroom because I had students from every continent around the world. Diversity was the majority. I reached for 100% of my students to achieve and they did just that- ACHIEVED! I few years later I moved schools in the district to teach in a new program for at-risk kindergartners.

Being able to help those who really struggled was my ideal environment. I went in with the same hopes and dreams I had in my previous school. Letting my principal know my goal for student success was 100%. He quietly chuckled and asked me to be realistic. I responded, “I am realistic. If I cannot get 100% of my students to benchmark I am not doing my job.” The principal smiled and then set a “more realistic goal” of 95%. I met and surpassed that goal every year- with the most at-risk students. How is that possible you might ask? How can you take kids who can’t even talk and teach them to read? How can you take a child full of anger and violence and teach him tolerance and acceptance. Let me tell you about my journey.

The first day in the at-risk classroom was the most difficult day in my teaching career. They had not hired an assistant yet and so I was left on my own with 21 kindergartners (highly at-risk). They were homeless, parents in prison, had never seen a book, held a pencil, or given routine, most spoke no English, one did not speak at all (not out of choice but lack of ability). The students cried, yelled, escaped, and fought that first day and many other days after. I knew this was going to be the hardest task of my life. Thankfully, I had a great school system- with an amazing principal that supported me and what I was doing.

I did not have a curriculum given to me so I made my own. I assessed the needs of those students. And came up with a list of curriculum needs. (By the way, I think this is what every classroom should be doing.) Here are the basic curriculum needs I came up with:

  1. Change the “I can’t” attitudes to “I can and I will”

  2. Develop a program for teaching language in small groups.

  3. Teach reading and math using concrete, authentic, and play-based learning

  4. Repetition, Repetition, Repetition and REPEAT!

With these basic building blocks I was ready to set up a great classroom that would change the lives for not only my students but also myself.

Change the “I can’t” attitude to “I can and I will”

By the time a child reaches 5 if they are not doing simple things for themselves (eating, holding a pencil, getting dressed, etc.) They develop an attitude that they can’t do anything. I knew with this type of an attitude I would never reach my goal of seeing 100% of my students succeed. So, this was the first thing that had to change. I started with small simple tasks that shockingly were struggles for my kids. But I stayed positive and praised them every single second of the task. (It helps that I’m a fast talker.) And not surprisingly I started to see attitudes change. Kids were over joyed about cutting with a pair of scissors, drawing a picture of themselves, and finding the front of the book. I was over joyed as well because I knew the hardest lesson to learn was behind me now. With new attitudes and believing that they really could learn. I was ready for the next challenge.

Develop a program for teaching language in small groups

It didn’t take long for me to realize that language development was going to be a BIG issue for this class. I started researching the problem and although the research is relatively new I discovered that even before phonemic awareness, oral language is the earliest predictor of reading success. Since then I have learned that, not only is literacy impacted by language development but it also impacts the psycho-social and emotional development of children (Tomblin, 2010).

What was I going to use for a language program when research on language development and how it impacts the classroom was still so new? I taught language the same way I taught reading and math in my previous school- specific, systematic, small group instruction. I created 4 language centers that students rotated between (using myself, my aide, the ESL teacher, and a listening center). I called this time “Language Labs”.

I don’t have time to give you all the inner workings of language labs here, but I will definitely write another post for those of you that are interested. Needless to say results at the end of the year showed students gained 1.5 years of language over the regular kindergarten classroom. The students continued to surpass their peers in first grade where the instruction was now the same.

Teach reading and math using concrete, authentic, and play-based learning

These were at-risk students the old “sit and listen to the teacher” was not going to work. Every student, especially those that are at-risk for learning difficulties need concrete, authentic, and play-based learning. They need to learn with their hands by doing things that they would really do in the outside world, and make it fun for the kids. To do this I set up thematic units where students learned about topics they were interested in. I then intertwined reading, math, science, comprehension, and writing into the topic. So, learning wasn’t boxed in and isolated. Instead, it was connected and had meaning and purpose for those students. But it was not only fun for the kids- it was fun for me too! However, what I was not surprised to find- was in all that fun- learning was taking place and happening a lot faster than if it was taught out of a textbook.

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition and REPEAT!

Finally, you can’t just dream away the difficulties these students face. I knew ALL these kids were years behind their peers (and that’s a lot to say for a 5 year old). But I also knew it wasn’t going to get any easier if I couldn’t get them caught up NOW. So I had to make up 3 years of learning in 9 months. How did I do that? Repetition, Repetition, Repetition and REPEAT!

Did you know that there is a 30 million word gap between affluent children and children raised in poverty by the time a child is 3 years old? Imagine how much a child has missed out on by the time they are 5 and starting kindergarten. I had to make up for these repetitions that most students received in the home, but my students missed out on. So we talked and shared and read as much as possible. And of course I repeated the lessons over and over and over again so they would “get it”.

Here’s what a lesson on the letter A might sound like:

“This is the letter A. Let’s say it together…A. What letter is it?... That’s right! This is the

letter A. The letter A says /a/. Let’s say the sound together…/a/. What sound does the letter A make?... That’s right! The letter A says /a/. Class, what letter is this?... Class, what sound does it make?... (Child’s name) What letter is this?... That’s right this is the letter A. (Child’s name) What sound does it make?... That’s right is says /a/. (Child’s name) What letter is this?... That’s right this is the letter A. (Child’s name) What sound does it make?... That’s right is says /a/. (Child’s name) What letter is this?... That’s right this is the letter A. (Child’s name) What sound does it make?... That’s right is says /a/. (Child’s name) What letter is this?... That’s right this is the letter A. (Child’s name) What sound does it make?... That’s right is says /a/. (Child’s name) What letter is this?... That’s right this is the letter A. (Child’s name) What sound does it make?... That’s right is says /a/.”

This would be a 5 minute lesson using an inflatable balloon letter that would be tossed back and forth around the group of students sitting on the floor. During this 5 minute introduction students would have heard the letter name and sound 20-30 times. Now this is a long way from 30 million but it’s a lot more than stating the letter once and then showing students how to fill out a worksheet.

I not only used this key of repetition in my lessons I used it on my classroom as a whole. Assess the needs of each student, set up a curriculum plan, teach each and every student, and then repeat. This constant assessing, planning, teaching, and repeating again continued all year long until at the end students who had no language could open up a book and read. Students who couldn’t hold a pencil were solving addition and subtraction facts. And most importantly a little boy destined to be a gang banger like his dad was given another option because now he knew he could learn.

There is a better way to teach students than to place them in a desk, tell them to listen to the teacher, and raise their hand to talk. There is a better way- and it works. We can reach each and every student if we truly believe we can and then have the support and means to give them what they need. Here's how I built a better school system. How do you build a better school system in your own community? I would love to hear.

To get specific ideas on how you can make a difference in your classroom make sure you follow me on Facebook.

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