I'm fighting a inner battle between philosophical differences with reading instruction this year. Our district uses the Houghton Mifflin reading series starting in first grade. Coming from four years in preschool and kindergarten, this is the first year I've had to use a series like this. There are things I appreciate about having a scope and sequence created for me, but I also have many "issues" with the series.
To begin with, I don't agree with the idea of all students reading the same thing, especially at these beginning stages of reading. The range of reading abilities in my classroom is huge. My highs are not being challenged by the ease of the reading material, and my lows are trying to read something that is simply too hard for them. I feel uncomfortable knowing that I am not meeting the needs of my students during the times we are reading these stories.
Also, I worry that, in many ways, the "extra stuff" (phonemic awareness and phonics activities, writing activities, and (ugh....) worksheets) is not motivating and inspiring my students to become better readers and writers. I believe in accessing student interest; I also believe in creating authentic reasons to read and write. When my kiddos are able to write a story of at least 8 sentences about something that happened to them to share on their blog, it just seems silly to me to give them an worksheet on which they write a new ending to the story we read in one sentence. The whole one-size-fits-all mentality of the series is a concern with this "extra stuff" too. Most of my students could, using inventive spelling including long vowel sounds, write the word "sprayer," yet the phonemic awareness and phonics activities for the last three weeks have solely been focused on CVC words. Certainly I have a few (two maybe three students) who still benefit from this practice, but the majority of them need more of a challenge.
I'm doing my best to consider what I know about best practices in literacy instruction to supplement this reading series. We don't do all of the worksheets (to be completely honest, we typically only do about one a week), and I try to include some phonemic awareness and phonics activities for my higher-ability readers. My students are well established into Daily 5 now, and we're quickly adding to our CAFE menu. They know how important it is for them to read and to write in order to become better readers and writers, and the power of their own choice of what to read and write has proven to motivate my students to do so. I have been working with small groups on specific strategies, and my goal for this week is to beef up those strategy groups and to really start into conferencing. My conferencing notebook is ready to go, and I'm ready to fill it with notes and ideas.
My whole point in all of this is that I'm really feeling to disconnect between certain state and district expectations and what I know to be best practice this year. As I was writing my plans for next week, I kept telling myself that whatever I do I need to do it confidently. I have read the research on Daily 5/CAFE, and I believe it to be true. Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer and Reading in the Wild echo this same research. Giving students the time to read and write is a powerful use of time. My job is to fill in around the edges; I'm the scaffolding. By staying true to what I believe, I know my students will improve.
Already, I'm seeing the impact of the message of Daily 5/CAFE on my students. On Friday, a parent joined us for lunch. During recess (inside because of rain) afterwards, I walked into the classroom to see this kiddo showing his mom the CAFE menu. He was reading the strategies to her and talking about what they all mean. Bless his little heart! He made my day! Another example of this impact happened a few weeks ago. I had taken the class down to the library to check out books for home. One of my kiddos had forgotten his books at home that day so he couldn't check out new ones. He was discussing this with me when he said, "Yup. I'm going to bring them back tomorrow so I can get new ones. That way I can get better at reading!" Score one for me! The cherry on top of everything though has been watching two specific students read to each other. They almost always choose to read together, and they are typically reading a Pidgeon book. One of these kiddos can be difficult to motivate, and our reading block, especially writing activities, can be a challenge for him. With that in mind, watching him read to his buddy is the neatest thing! He smiles and laughs, and he is completely focused on the book. He is experiencing the true joy of reading and it's amazing!
Sometimes it can be difficult to go against something that has been established for so many years. I often find myself in arguments with my mother-in-law about this exact thing. If it used to work, why not continue using it? My challenge is this: what if something works better than what used to work?