Thursday, February 16, 2017

Primed And Ready

Last week I shared a story from one of our five-year-old storytellers that was largely an exercise in using the word "poop" as many times as possible for comic effect. Naturally, her classmates found it hilarious and, predictably, inspirational. We have since seen an outpouring of similar stories, some of which have expanded the vocabulary to include "pee" and other scatological variations.

I've been here before with other classes. Once the "poop" genii is out of the bottle, it's not going back in of its own accord. I once tried to ride it out, but that just allowed it to grow until it reached a point that I one day read 15 in a row from the genre with no breaks for, you know, actual stories.

After a couple more poop stories yesterday that were met with universal delight, I introduced my concern with a true statement, "I can tell you kids find these stories funny, but I don't like reading those potty talk words over and over." In years past, this has prompted certain children to agree with me (probably out of wanting to be on my bandwagon more than any actual objection), which has lead to a discussion in which we agree that potty talk belongs in the bathroom or that we wouldn't use potty talk in our stories or, as we did one year, decide that we would use our own made-up euphemisms to replace the standards.

Yesterday, however, I was met with a unified front, "We like them! We think they're funny!"

After some back and forth, one of the kids suggested that maybe they should just read their own words so that I didn't have to. Now, we're a preschool, and while most of them have begun to read a bit on their own, it's not universal, nor is it something we go out of our way to teach. When I asked for clarification, citing the fact that not everyone can read, she amended her suggestion: the kids could read the words they know and I, Teacher Tom, could help them read the words they don't know. Several of her classmates objected, but I saw something promising there.

I said, "How about this? I like reading your stories, but I would just rather not read 'poop' and 'pee' over and over. How about I teach all of you how to read those words, then when I come to them, you can read them aloud instead of me?" There seemed to be consensus that this could work so I grabbed a piece of paper and wrote "Poop," "Poo poo," "Pee" and then "Pee pee," all the words they thought they'd like to know. I used a variety of upper and lower case letters as well because the adults who transcribe these stories are not always consistent.

I then committed a rare act of direct instruction, pointing to the words and sounding them out along with the kids. We did it several times, with full and enthusiastic participation. We then segued into me writing out their individual names and we read those aloud together as well. I frequently denigrate direct instruction here on the blog, mostly because it dominates the school experience for most children, putting blinders on them, boring them, and unnaturally narrowing their focus on what the adult thinks they ought to know whether they're curious about it or not. But in cases like this when there is a specific thing children really want to know, direct instruction can be the most efficient method of teaching it because their minds are already naturally narrowed down on a specific question, primed and ready for a specific answer.

I'm eager to try our new system, with the kids reading those important words aloud to one another. I have little doubt that they all can now include "poop," "poo," and "pee" in their list of "sight words."

As the children were packing up to leave at the end of the day, I was passing through as one boy was showing off his new knowledge for his mother who seemed to be simultaneously amused, impressed, and slightly appalled. He furrowed his brow in concentration, looking off into the distance behind his mother, perhaps envisioning the words as I'd written them in black marker on white paper. "P-O-O-P," he recited in a slightly halting cadence, then "P-O-O-P" and "P-E-E."

And people ask how children learn to read in a play-based curriculum . . .

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