Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Apr 29 2013

Missing Skills

Those of you who’ve been with me for a while may remember that my kids this year are an especially challenging bunch, with low attention spans and lower test scores. Today, 3 weeks from the end of their fourth grade year, we worked on the following concepts: story structure including conflict and climax, vocabulary words such as “despicable,” and how to properly read the word “gain.” In math, we worked on changing fractions into decimals, comparing and ordering decimals, and subtracting whole numbers.

Two of these things are not like the others…and they suck at them. Although they could analyze the story structure of Holes and even figure out the complicated story-within-a-story parts, two of my students could not read the word “gain.” They pronounced it /jin/. Then /jan/. We reviewed the G-rule, again. They didn’t remember it, again. We compared it to the C-rule, again. They only halfway remembered that rule. Then we reviewed that when two vowels go a-walkin’, the first one does the talkin’. AGAIN. And they didn’t remember it. AGAIN!

Then we worked on subtraction with fully half my kids (because only half of them could do it), and we went all the way back to basics with place value blocks. We saw why you cannot subtract 5 ones when you only have 2. They traded in the blocks for others. When trading in a tens rod, they had to physically count each block before deciding that they should get 10 ones cubes for it. When trading in a hundreds flat, they had to line up 10 tens rods to know that 10 tens equals one hundred. A couple of them had giant lightbulb moments. “You mean THAT’S why we cross out the one next door? We’re trading it in?” Meanwhile, fifteen minutes later, two of them had to take back out the place value blocks because they forgot, AGAIN, how many ones they should get for a ten.

Here’s the thing that’s ridiculous. My kids are brilliant. When you explain things to them conceptually, they can really get it. They spent half their math block today explaining the difference between 0.7 and 0.74, and how to know which was greater. They explained how they visualized the decimals, explained how their corresponding fractions were different, and defended and challenged each others’ answers. The other half they struggled to figure out why 2 – 5 isn’t 3. Half of their reading block they argued for which of two events they thought was more climactic, in the miniature story-within-a-story happening 110 years before the main story of Holes. The other half they couldn’t remember letter sounds.

My kids had no preschool because all the Head Starts in the area were closed or shut down when they were 4. I wasn’t there, obviously, but a colleague who was there told me they had a 2/3 chance of having one of the worst kindergarten teachers she’d ever seen, and then a 2/3 chance of having a first grade teacher who was either a) so crazy she was fired after that year, or b) possessed of a strange idea that if you present children with books, they will learn to read on their own. Second grade they had a 2/3 chance of having a long-term sub or rotating subs for half the year. None of these so-called awful teachers are still at the school, so I don’t know how much truth there is in these rumors, but I have heard it from multiple teachers who were there, independently of one another. Who knows.

For whatever reason, through no fault of their own, they have been left with Swiss cheese instead of skills. Some skills they really got. Some skills they seem to have completely missed. And they have spent the intervening years between when they missed them and now faking their way through it. Rather than reinforcing number sense and regrouping every time they saw subtraction again, they were reinforcing bad habits and the wrong method of borrowing. Instead of reinforcing the C-rule and G-rule when they saw words like “gain” and “core,” they were mumbling through it and reinforcing that those words said jin and sore.

And the part that kills me right now is that I haven’t fixed it. They are missing so much, and we didn’t have time to master all the new stuff PLUS relearn the old stuff (and unlearn the bad habits). I guess I can feel somewhat good that they know fractions and generalizations. But the idea of sending my kiddos to fifth grade when they can’t subtract, don’t know what sound g makes, and still regularly write only on the back of 3-hole paper (because they don’t know which side is the front) is devastating.

2 Responses

  1. Just a comment based on years of teaching Ksters how to read: for some kids, spelling patterns are really hard to internalize. (There are plenty of adults like this, too – I DID teach myself to read, and sometimes I look at sound-spelling cards and get confused.)

    For these kids, extensive vocabulary practice – ideally through reading, but that is difficult without technical skill/a big classroom library/administrative support/the time and space to get spelling and phonetic inventories from each kid) can help. Getting kids to use structural cues (Does it make sense? etc.) rather than sounding out unknown words also can be powerful.

    (When I taught in a phonics-only district, I would end up with lots of Kindergartners who decoded beautifully, sometimes at a second or third grade level, yet had no comprehension whatsoever. So you may find that you can leverage your students’ excellent comprehension into ameliorating their decoding issues.)

  2. meghank

    E. Rat made a great point about children who just don’t memorize phonics rules that well and have to rely on extensive exposure to words to learn to read them (I was also one of them). I think a large classroom library, but especially a large school library where children are allowed to check out books is a must (my badly-stocked school library doesn’t allow kindergartners, and rarely allows other grades, to check out books – but the public school library I had when I was in elementary school in the same district was amazing – we were allowed to check out multiple books every week).

    As far as the math goes, I applaud you for having your students use manipulatives extensively. I think you just have to be patient with kids when they are using manipulatives, and I think they continue to use manipulatives even after they “get” the concept, and that you should allow that. It will have much more of an impact on their long-term memory than moving too quickly to pencil and paper exercises will. I was recently tutoring a group of 4th graders who didn’t know how to divide 9 by 2 (and list the remainder). Asking them about the times tables (which they didn’t know) only got them more confused. I got out some colored mini popsicle sticks and showed them how to divide and find the remainder – they LOVED it. I hope the physical experience of dividing popsicle sticks will help them to remember not to confuse multiplication with division in the future – but, judging from their enthusiasm, I don’t think my test-prep-centric school is allowing them many opportunities to work with manipulatives. So I don’t think working with the sticks on two Saturdays is going to accomplish that goal.

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