Monday, February 27, 2012

Why Can't They Just Stay In Books?

Even before a child has spent a second in our classroom, their parents have heard me at least twice warn them, "We do not push letters or numbers at Woodland Park." In fact, I usually emphatically say that I will not intentionally bring letters or numbers into the classroom unless the children themselves compel me to it.

Of course, my point is that we make no overt efforts to teach them to read, or even identify their letters or numbers for that matter, we'll let their kindergarten teachers deal with that, but it's an impossible promise to keep. For one thing, most of the 2-year-olds come in already knowing that ubiquitous A-B-C song and they obsessively count everything, so there's that.

But making it even more difficult to keep my word is our school's commitment to reusing and recycling. Those darn things all have letters and numbers on them and the kids are forever pointing them out, saying things like, "That's my letter! G!" or "That's the number 2!" Arg! What do I look like, your kindergarten teacher?

If you look carefully, and children do, you'll see letters and numbers everywhere. The kids even ask me sometimes what the words mean as if they're somehow driven to figure out the strange symbolic codes of their fellow human beings.

Naturally, I blame society for its obsession with labeling everything, printing Diet Coke . . . or Miracle-Gro . . . 

. . . or Brown Cow . . . 

. . . or whatever on our upcycled "toys."

Heck, the parents even label their kids with words and numbers. To their credit they use all kinds of tricky sizes and typefaces, but the kids still know what they are.

I suppose I could deal with it if the world would limit itself to these external labels, but really, shouldn't the insides of machines be safe havens? You might have to look closely, but they've managed to sneak a 4-9-5 in there, thinking the kids wouldn't notice. Shame on them!

You would think that gardens, at least, would be a place to escape these words and numbers, but no.

They even sneak words onto the garden spades!

I often come across articles about how to make a preschool classroom into a "literacy rich environment." Where are the articles about how to banish literacy? That's what I'd like to know. Every time I turn around, there they are, letters and numbers and words all chock-a-block with meaning.

And kids interacting with them, fiddling around, unlocking their secret abstract meanings in the course of their play.

I want to do it the pedagogically correct way as a preschool teacher, leaving these things out of the classroom until the kids are developmentally ready for them, but it's too many and too much for me. The minimum they could do is avoid putting letters and numbers on things that children find exciting or interesting.

Believe me, the undersides of these vintage Matchbox cars are riddled with
vital information about their makes and models that kids 
are always trying to decipher -- truly aggravating!

Yeah sure, sometimes we need to use a few letters for things like documenting our classroom rules . . .

. . . or recording thoughts for posterity . . .

And, yes, newspaper with all its thousands of tiny words and numbers really is the best, least expensive paper mache material.

And the burlap from discarded coffee bags is useful in all kinds of contexts.

All of these things throw letters and numbers into the faces of the kids, but I'm hoping these types of utilitarian accidents of literacy education are more than compensated for by my rigorous efforts on other fronts, although I despair.

They hide and turn themselves upside down.

They manage to inject themselves onto those fragile brains from every angle and during every moment of the day. Printed, typeset, handwritten, uppercase, lowercase, they're all there all the time.

I do my best to make our school a letter and number-free zone, but it's as if they're lying all over the ground.

Why can't they just stay in books where they belong?

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Meagan said...

Lol. Out of curiosity, can you make a guess at how many of your kids have taught themselves to identify letters and numbers by the time they leave? It sounds like a surprising number would.

RobynHeud said...

That's what I love about your approach. Numbers and letters are such an integral part of a world that there is no reason to "push" them. Out of sheer curiosity children will seek to figure them out.

Jenny L said...

Love it! And I'll definitely be sharing this, but if this were a round table discussion, I would be a voice of mourning--because as much as I agree with Teacher Tom, and followed my Toddler Nick's lead in his love for movement and play and imagination and lack of formal interest in numbers and letters as a toddler, the cruel world of standardized teaching was waiting around the corner for him in all-day Kindergarten and haunts him still in 2nd grade. I don't think I regret my approach, but I do regret the rigorous and unimaginative standards that teachers are forced to push and pull these little ones through without regard for their individual strengths. Nick does fine, but I'm constantly rolling my eyes at the things he's marked down for or the ambiguous "progress reports" that we're supposed to appreciate. I am sooooo not a home-schooler, but I do sympathize with the approach because I'm growing weary of Systems teaching our children instead of compassionate teachers being released and empowered to do what so many of them are so good at--motivating, encouraging, valuing each personality. And we need more involved, supportive parents that send well behaved, respectful children that respond to respect.

We need more Teacher Toms at all levels! Unfortunately, we have politics instead.

Keep up the good fight!

Laura said...

lol. i like this one

Cap said...

I honestly can't tell to what degree this post is serious or tongue-in-cheek, but it made me laugh either way. "What do I look like, your kindergarten teacher?" haha

Aunt Annie said...

Aaaaaand now we'd better surgically remove Teacher Tom's tongue from his cheek.

Love it. So true. Let the kids do the pushing, not the adults- it WILL happen.

Anonymous said...

I love this approach. And, it nails the learning process. They will readily pick it up as soon as they are ready when these tools are available.

But, oh, if only. In Virginia, our kids are supposed to enter Kindergarten recognizing all of the letters in upper-case, most of them in lower, and knowing what sound most of them make. Early public education here is driven by reading and writing. It is scant, at best, on reasoning and cultivating a love of learning.

Wish we could have you...

Anonymous said...

I love this! Thanks so much for taking the tIme to blog. It's informing how I interact with my 15 month old who is such a curious and motivated ball of energy. Interestingly, my mum is a teacher here in Australia and when she started they didnt teach reading until 1st grade but now that has shifted to kindergarten.

Anonymous said...

Love this post!

Anonymous said...'s an interesting question. In today's world, is it a service or a disservice to preschool children to not teach letters and numbers at all? How does your answer change depending on the relative privilege of these children? Your average upper-middle kid is going to come to K knowing letters, numbers, and probably some phonics and sight words. He or she has probably been read to daily from birth. But some kids are coming from a very different environment. Do we preschool these two groups differently? I dont know the answers, btw, but I do know that the gap is already there in kindergarten, and that kindergarten starts fast and gets faster. Don't we have a responsibility to try to decrease it? It's certainly a question I ask myself. It might not matter in a school like this one, but in other places it darn well does.

ACsMama said...

Just a thought in response to anonymous above: if privileged kids have developed their reading readiness skills by being read to daily from birth, then does it make sense to take a 2/3yo who hasn't had that experience (and thus has less prior knowledge about books and the way words work) and teach direct-instruction phonics? Or is it better to read them lots of variety of books and expose them to the same kinds of materials and activities their more "privileged" counter-parts might be exposed to by their parents? I'm not really sure what the best answer is, but I do think it's a great question - by its very nature the student body in a co-operative pre-school are going to come in with different experiences and knowledge than the ones in a day-care because mom has to work to put food on the table (for example), but fundamentally they are all kids. I'm curious what others think about this.

Anonymous said...

acsmama--Definitely they should get read to, lots and lots!-- but also they should get exposed to some of the teaching of letters, numbers, colors, shapes, phonics, counting, etc that UMC parents provide perhaps almost obsessively and to excess. The kids at Teacher Tom's school probably do not need lots of stuctured "What is this" and letter and number teaching. They get too much of it as it is, most likely--they need free play and fun. But on the flip side, you have kids who have known very little structure and gotten little focused adult "teaching" attention. I worry about those kids--a lot.

Teacher Tom said...

You can ask any remedial reading instructor, there are only 3 categories of children at risk for illiteracy: 1) children whose parents are illiterate, 2) children whose families do not speak English at home, and 3) children with learning disabilities. All of these at risk children are easily identified, usually before kindergarten, and should be singled out for attention if necessary.

The rest of the kids learn how to read. There is no need to turn entire preschool classrooms over to direct literacy instruction. The ones who are drilled with things like phonics (which should only be used for those with learning disabilities) and other kinds of direct instruction against their will ARE, however, at risk for developing negative attitudes about reading, which will hurt them in the future. The average American reads at an 8th grade level (which is fairly high by world standards) because too many of them give up on reading voluntarily around that point in their lives. It's been made into work and they're tired of it. I can't tell you how many adults I know who NEVER read for pleasure and all of them say it's because they burned out on it in school. The goal should be to create life long readers. We will never get there through structured "what is this?" teaching because it sucks the joy out of it.

Megin Potter said...

I find it odd that you are a writer that seems to have such a clear disdain for the written word.

Letters and numbers, afterall, are just a form of art and viewing them as such makes explaining the letter "A" no different than examining a VCR or a Jackson Pollack painting.

Anonymous said...

Respectfully, I don't agree that those are the only kids at risk of not learning how to read well. Not that I take this as gospel, but the Annie E. Casey foundation is pretty aboveboard and this link tells us that about a third of kids are reading at "below proficient" level in third grade. Most of them are poor. ( And then, if you aren't reading at all well by third grade, your chances of dropping out of high school skyrocket, and I don't think anyone will argue that becoming a HS dropout is a good outcome. I am less focused on people not liking to read for pleasures as much as they might but on people who actually cannot read well enough to get by, hold a job, and function... and there are a lot of them.

By the way, I have a 4yo about to start preschool and I don't care at all if he gets reading and phonics instruction there--I'd rather he didn't. Hell, I would send him to your school if I lived in your city. But he's not at risk, and I already know that.

Marla McLean, Atelierista said...

Literacy is a complex layered subject. Too often folks confuse decoding with literacy. Without the connection and relationships, the symbols of numbers and letters, so heavy-handed forced on children too young mean nothing. I can read a medical journal-it does not mean I understand a word of it. Tom is teaching the relationships and connections of literacy. The letters and words , numbers and formulas will dance into spirals when it's time. (PS Children born into poverty also need these connections and relationships and sensations-probably even more, however they also need an introduction to the connection/decoding too. It still does not need to be drill and kill.) Love that you posted this Tom, even if you ruffle a few feathers!

Anonymous said...

Certainly not a fan of drill and kill or of "turning the whole preschool over" to literacy instruction--heck no. But I find this sort of terror of teaching this stuff a little disingenous. It's not needed in a cooperative preschool where parents are high-income and highly educated, no, because the kids are already getting this at home. Yet some degree of it may well be needed by other children. There is a LOT of room in between here. As for phonics, to my interest and bewilderment, my aforemtioned 4yo is teaching himself to read via the phonics he learned on PBS. Kid has a fascination. My older child was a sight reader all the way. Vive la difference.

Teacher Tom said...

Oh Megin, I don't have a disdain for the written word, I have a disdain for drill and kill teaching methods, as does almost everyone who has ever been subjected to them. Not only to they suck the fun out of learning, they have no scientific basis, whereas play in a language rich environment has centuries of evidence to support it.

@Anonymous . . . I have a lot of respect for the Annie E. Casey Foundation and have no reason to distrust their statistic. I've read many other things that link poverty with dropping out. I think the real challenge is poverty. I've spoken with dozens of middle school remedial reading teachers over the past several years. None of them had a student that didn't fit into one of the 3 categories I list which is what leads me to my conclusion. Of course, poverty is a factor in all 3. =)

Morgan said...

Love your blog, Tom!
My first son went to a play based mixed aged preschool and learned to read by October of kindy. The class after him went on to a play and Literacy based prek. They learned to read as a class on avg a month before my son's class. I know it is a terribly small sampling size. However, I wonder if that month advantage is worth it. My second son is in the prek program now.. he is doing well.. but I miss the free form of play based.
At the end of the day, they come home and engage in play that is just like what you describe in your blog--unharnessed. I love to watch them.
Thank you for the work you do here in the blog and for the children in the classroom.

Anonymous said...

Poverty is most definitely linked to dropping out--but the kids with subpar reading skills who were ALSO poor were at the highest risk of all.'s not just poverty. And since a lot of data supports the idea that the gap is there by third grade and starts very early, I do think we have to look very closely at helping kids very early. As for what would help these kids, I don't think it's drill and kill (although can we define that? Is letter of the week drill and kill?), but I also think they are going to need more than kids who come in with a lot more advantages. I'm not a fan of terrorizing kids with drilling and test prep, but man, we have to help these kids who are at serious risk, and we have to do it however it works. This looks to be worth a read:

Juliet Robertson said...

This sort of post is why I find myself drawn to reading your blog when I should be getting on with my work! Argh! I blame you (of course) for writing this. Darn those letters, words and meanings that provoke thoughts and reactions in us all!

Yesterday I was sitting down to read the evaluation forms from an EY course I was facilitating called "Whatever the Scottish Weather" about developing outdoor play. One person had written that she needed more "curriculum" ideas than she had been given on the course. The EY Officer from the local authority just looked at each other and laughed. We had created social spaces - to encourage children to talk and chat, we had put out lots of loose parts - which demand cooperative play from children, we invented pulley systems which would have got children asking and investigating serious physics, etc., etc. Amidst my portable playgrounds, I had provided some token mirror letters. I then remembered this participant was the only person who had used them during the course of the day...

... next week I'll see the same person on an outdoor literacy course. I hope they won't be disappointed by the lack of alphabet tiles and laminated letters.

Anonymous said...

Great posting! It sheds some light on the complex literacy debate. Teacher Tom is absolutely giving these children the best opportunities and experiences that are without a doubt enhancing the entire child's (social, emotional, physical, creative, and yes even cognitive) growth and development. This growth will continue as they leave preschool, based on the sturdy foundation that has already been built through the use of Teacher Tom's methods.
Now lies the REAL problem, the whole reason this topic is even debated...
When children who have received the BEST possible early learning experiences in preschool--those implemented at woodland park--enter kindergarten, we all question: Will they be prepared enough to succeed through out this, the most important and crucial, first year of their entire academic education? Unfortunately for most children the answer is no.
So if most children aren't prepared for kindergarten after leaving such an amazing preschool, then why are these methods considered correct?
The answer is simple...The "preparation" required for kindergarten is where you will find the kink in the chain of early childhood learning. The expectations required in the school system are as far from developmentally appropriate as they can possibly be. Society (well actually Gov.) wants to educate a generation of geniuses. And somehow they were led to believe that this would happen by cramming as much formal academic training into every grade's curriculum.
Well in case they haven't figured it out yet...that is doing a lot of harm and NO good. If I didn't love my job so much, I would quit and make it my mission to take on the system and get it on the right track-that actually works for the children, and not for the power-trippin bureaucrats with arrogance-based wishful thinking, that don't got a damn clue.
I, as I'm sure most (hopefully all) teachers, am extremely passionate about this issue. The system is broken and I whole-heartedly believe it is time for the REAL debate to be about how we are going to change the system that is failing our children, and robbing them of a childhood in the process.

Kristi Jackson said...

Dear Mr. Hobson,
This blog is amazingly interesting. I absolutely love your teaching style. It seems as though you are certain about what your students should learn, at that given age. In addition, with this approach makes the kids even more eager to learn than before. Even your approach to helping the environment by recycling is significant. I enjoyed your photographs as well.
Thanks for your time,
Kristi Jackson

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