For more than a decade, since I began teaching the beautiful Native children of northern and western Alaska, I have committed myself to not closing, but living in (more on that later, in another post) the opportunity gap that impedes children who are marginalized from realizing their potential and achieving their personal goals. This has led me to change my philosophy and practices in radical ways.
I believe now more than ever before that the primary difference between children who do well in school, and ultimately life, and those who do not, the one thing that I can personally and dramatically impact during the one year children spend in my early childhood classroom, is their language. Language is everything. It has been used to subjugate some folks and has empowered others. Oral language is the foundation of all other literacies. I often call oral language “instruction” (there are better terms, but I can’t with that right now) the manipulative – the bear counters, ten frames, and base ten blocks, if you will – of the development of reading and writing skills.
If we ignore this critical component, if we don’t deliberately integrate this manipulative into our work with children, we are engaging in malpractice. We are perpetuating violence. I know it sounds harsh, but without the power of words, our precious students are doomed to become casualties of those of us who have mastered them, myself included.
Most teachers are well aware of the thirty-million word gap between children who live in poverty and those who do not Hart and Risley (1995) discovered in their studies. This disparity is, however, rarely considered in most school reform efforts. And when it is, the solutions are too often contrived or too heavily scaffolded without gradual release to make any lasting difference. We measure our success with computerized assessments that test a narrow range of isolated skills, never expecting children to transfer those skills from one context to another. Basically, we do what is easiest, what is expedient, what is best for us. We put a band-aid on a hemorrhaging wound and pass the victim around until it’s no longer our problem. Willfully ignorant, we perpetuate the problem. We are content to enact violence.
Yesterday while chatting with my roommate, a high school ELA teacher, and ranting about I don’t remember what specifically (it’s hard to recall when you feel like you’re in a constant state of rage, ALWAYS ranting about education policies) . . . Oh, I do remember. Cueing systems. I was ranting about teachers only teaching kids to use graphophonic cues to “read” texts. I was telling her how much it frustrates me that we provide the exact opposite of what kids who live in poverty need to experience when they come to school. I was telling her how colonization today is less visible because we are colonizing minds. And, and . . . Anyway, that led me to do some calculations. I landed on the number ten.
I have been teaching for two decades, but I still have so far to go! I have so much to learn. Because of this, I believe in questions. To the frustration of many, I question everything. Everything!
Most people are aware that one of the most important things a caretaker in any capacity can do for children is engage them in read alouds. Teachers (should) do it every day. But, after my rant, I had to ask myself some questions, “are we reading aloud with the urgency and conviction our students who experience word poverty need us to? Do MY practices reflect my beliefs, the very things I’m griping about?”
Though I read, at the least, twenty books to my kids a week, after calculating how many texts a five year old would have had read to them by the time they enter kindergarten if their caretakers read one text to them each day, I decided that I am still missing the boat. I’m not living in the gap.
Ten. That’s the number of texts I should have been reading my kindergarteners each day since the first day of school to even begin to approach meeting their needs. Unfortunately, I didn’t start on August 16, but I will begin fixing that up right now. I am challenging myself to do whatever it takes – read in the lunch line, read while we are in savasana, read all types of texts, sacrifice something less important – to read ten texts to my students every single day.
There are all kinds of nuances to consider and discuss, but I’ll save that for later. For now, I just want to make my commitment public and go on record saying that I believe in the power of books to promote language acquisition and development. I’ll document what happens next – our, mine and my students’, progress and reflections – here on Kinder Bender.