Trout has been taking a reading class this summer, co-sponsored by the Institute for Reading Development and George Washington University. It was a hard decision to make for us, whether or not to have her take the class, because the class is VERY expensive, and has a lot of work outside of class, and I wasn't sure if I was up to it or not. However, this is one of those cases where we decided that frontloading her education was going to pay big dividends in her lifelong education, so it was worth it to bite the bullet and scrape together the money to do it now, even if it means fewer or no classes in fourth grade.
Our local schools teach the whole language approach to reading, and the way they implement it includes very little phonics education. I have an English degree and originally planned to teach secondary school English for my career. I didn't end up doing that, because life took me someplace else, but I have been able to use a lot of my education in considering what is best for my kids and in working to teach them the basic skills they need to read well. When we were focusing on methods to teach kids to spell, we learned that two component skills are necessary to be able to spell well, and to approach new words in your reading: phonics, or the sounds that letters and their combinations make, and sight vocabulary, or the way words look when they are spelled correctly. Without both of these skills, a person will be a poor speller, and have difficulty approaching new words and building vocabulary as they read. This interferes with fluency, and poor fluency impacts the reward and joy that a person gets from reading. Whole language the way our school implements it relies heavily on lists of sight words, but doesn't, as far as I've seen, include much if any instruction in phonics.
The IRD/GW class focuses on phonics skills and building fluency in reading. So our feeling was that it was best to build these foundation skills now and improve her reading proficiency over her lifetime, and therefore worth the expense.
All of this is an incredibly long-winded way of saying that we think reading is super important in this house, and to say that for the last 5 weeks, Trout has been spending two hours each Wednesday in class plus another 4 hours or so each week of homework on reading. She's really seemed to enjoy the activities and her class time, and I've enjoyed spending the time with her working on her reading. Last week, she read the book Madeline by herself, with no help, for the very first time. She read it to me and her dad, and look of pride on her face and excitement on his when she was finished made the class worth every damn penny it cost. Her little brother was so impressed that he asked if she would read to him, too.
Yesterday was her last class. There was a parent meeting at the end, so I arranged to have a sitter for Little Man and Sunny so that I could actually pay attention to the meeting, which was designed to give us instruction for continuing with the material after the class end. Trout wanted me to stay for the whole class (not sure why), so I did. I had stayed one time before to observe what they did and how she handled the material; typically, there are about 20 students and about 5 adults who attend the class each week. Yesterday, there was only about 12 kids and I was one of 2 adults. Trout picked a spot at the front table. Each table holds 3 people, and there was already a little boy sitting at the table, so Trout sat on the other end and I sat between both kids.
The first hour of class is spent with the class reading a book together. The class focused on two levels - books with few words, and Level 1 Easy Readers. In class, they do a Level 1 Easy Reader, and that's the level Trout has been focusing on in her homework (we have a booklist that we choose from for our outside reading - it covers up to Level 3 Easy Readers, which Trout will get to by the end of the school year, but can be reached anywhere from 1st to 3rd grade). The teacher reads the book outloud, and then the kids do what's called echo reading, where they repeat what the teacher has read, and she asks questions about the story, both predicting what might come next as well as processing what has already been read. We got about, oh, maybe 8 pages into a 50 page book, and I feel this pressure on my arm. The little boy next to me is laying on my arm. I look at him and smile, and he is grinning up at me with big puppydog eyes. His book is not open to the same page as the class, and he doesn't appear to be following along. I simply helped him find the correct page and pointed to where we were, then went back to focusing on Trout. A couple of pages later, I feel pressure on my hand, and he is kissing my hand, and he has scooted his chair closer to me such that we are touching. I am a little surprised, but take the same approach, direct him back to the correct page and where the class is. This probably happened 3 or 4 more times, and by this time the teacher has noticed what is going on, and so has Trout. She has scooted closer to me on the other side and started playing with my hair, rubbing it on her cheek (this has been a comfort to her since we were nursing), as if to assert her territory over her mom. When I am pregnant I really have trouble with people touching me, I want to cuddle with my kids, but in a way that doesn't creep me out, and I am definitely creeped out at this point. The teacher has stepped in and is trying to direct the boy's (I'll call him John, but that's not his name) attention to the right spots in the book. Something in the way he is behaving makes me wonder if he can read at all, much less on the same level as the rest of the class. Every couple of pages for the whole book, John needs to be told where we are and made to follow along. At break time, Trout and I switch places so that she is now sitting next to John, and he doesn't seem to be making the same affectionate overtures to her as he did to me, so Trout and I are both more comfortable.
After the break, the class listens to a CD and works in phonics workbook. John's workbook has almost no pages complete in it. This is the LAST day of class - they have been working on this in class the whole time, and his should be as complete as Trout's. After they listen to the story on the CD, they work on a few pages independently. Trout notices that John is not doing his work. They are given 3 letters, and a series of pictures, and they are supposed to identify the beginning sound for each picture, which is one of the three letters. Trout leans over John, points to the letters in the workbook, and shows him what he is supposed to do. I was proud of her for trying to help him, and for recognizing what he needed without any prompting from me or the teacher. She finishes her whole page; I think John did maybe 3 of the 25 pictures before it was time for the parent meeting. It was clear to me that John just didn't belong at that level of class, and that the homework wasn't being done outside of class.
I felt so sorry for John. I wanted to reach out and hug the poor kid, and help him out the way I help my kids. When I read with my kids (and I read with all of them, not just Trout), I put them on my lap (well, not so much right now since I don't have a lap, but at least cuddled in next to me), and we read. I talk to them about the book we are reading and ask questions, and sometimes we end up not reading at all, but just making up our own stories and talking. It seemed to me that John needed that. I looked for his parent at the parent meeting, because I wanted to let them know that he is very cuddly that day, and maybe might be feeling a little needy.
His parent didn't show up until the very end of class. The parent didn't complete the class evaluation, and didn't even talk to the teacher.
My heart broke for him. I did wonder a little bit why he was in the class at all, because as I mentioned it is a very expensive class and I do wonder a bit why someone would spend the money and not participate to get the most benefit for the class. But mostly I just felt sorry for this little boy, who it appeared to me may have been a little neglected. I am all for fostering independence in our kids, and do believe that most parents in this area get way too involved and become helicopter parents. That said, I feel strongly that at least some involvement in their schooling and learning is necessary for kids to be able to do their best. I recognize that sometimes this is a difficult balance to achieve, but for me, I'd rather err on the side of showing my kids that their education is important to me, and making sure the needs for love and affection are met so that they can focus on their school work.
I wanted to hug John. But I didn't. And I'm ashamed to say that the reason I didn't is because I was worried that his parent would show up and if not go crazy that I dared touch his/her child, at least be very uncomfortable with that. And that's sad. It's sad that I feel that way, sad that our society, especially in this area, is such that I have to worry about a hug being misconstrued. Sad that a first grade teacher needs to worry about how a parent is going interpret a hug, when first graders need hugs. Sad that there are sickos in the world doing bad things to hugs.
So, I guess what I'm saying is, hug your kids. Read to them. Snuggle them. And if you have the opportunity, and know a John who needs a hug, and know his parents well enough that they won't freak, then hug John. Please. For me.