Whole Language, Phonics And Two Boys Learning To Read

This article is reprinted from The Field, the newsletter of Fairfield School.

There is a debate among educators regarding the best way to teach reading and writing. In one camp are the whole language proponents. They believe that reading and writing must be presented in context, working with content that has meaning. They teach children to read whole words from the beginning. To that end, in a whole language class of first graders, you could find them scribbling away, writing stories before they have learned anything else.
The other camp is populated by the phoneticians. This is the more traditional, back to basics approach. Phonics means ”of, or pertaining to, speech sounds”. So this camp stresses drills teaching the sounds letters make, such as “TH makes the sound thhh”. The next step is to work on short words that are similar like “cat, bat, sat, mat”. Most of us can probably remember learning to read this way.
I have heard tales of both disappointment and satisfaction from parents with children in the very same elementary school that has embraced the whole language technique. Why would one child learn well with it and another have a bad experience?
Could it be that the experts have missed a central truth about how children learn reading and everything else?
My oldest two children are beginning to read. They are at Fairfield School, a Sudbury Model School where self-directed learning is the core of the school experience. What motivated me to write about all of this is seeing these two children tackle the challenge of becoming literate so differently.
One of our children is interested in computer games designed for older kids and adults that are dependent on reading and some typing. From playing these games he has picked up the ability to read without “sounding out”. He read “cavalry archer” to me before I had any idea he could read a word. He obviously had been deploying lots of mounted bowmen in his games and had memorized the look of those words. When he started to read words like “Byzantine”, I really took note and started to think “what is going on here?”. Next, he started to write out whole fantasy “campaigns” with all sorts of scribbles, marks and cryptic diagrams but no actual words. Besides being unbearably adorable, this struck me as a classic whole language approach to literacy.
Now, after being able to read many words for almost a year he sometimes asks for a bit of help with phonics now and then. He is clearly well on his way to becoming fully literate.
Our other child is interested in the structure of language. He will fill pages and pages with letters and copied words. He wants to know about the rules of spelling, upper and lower case printing and so on. One of his favorite word games is to randomly print letters together and ask, “does this spell anything?” If it did, then he carefully studies the word and repeatedly prints it out. This is just beginning, but it seems clear that he will be learning to read by mastering phonics.
One thing that I love about Sudbury schools is that children not only have the freedom to chose when and what to learn, but also how to learn. While the experts debate, our children are lucky to be at a school that respects children’s innate wisdom and intelligence and supports them on the unique path it takes them on.

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Fifty Years, Front and Center!

Sudbury Valley has just begun the 2017-2018 school year – and an exciting one it is! This will be our 50th year of operation, the half century mark for what was once a “far-out” experiment. Born in the tumultuous 1960s, SVS was destined to outlive virtually every other attempt made at the time to radically change the concept of “school”.

It is worth pondering what differentiated our school from the others – why we survived when other well-intentioned people did not. More than that: to our ongoing astonishment, we have served as an inspiration to a great many others all over the world who have sought to establish similar institutions, and have become a byword among educators of all persuasions as a gold-standard model for the radical transformation of schooling.

Why did this happen?

The brief answer lies in a simple phrase: “Expect excellence”. From the beginning, the bar was set high throughout all the activities of the school. Here are some examples of the areas affected by that aim:

Clarity of the vision. We made sure to have a clear idea of our basic goals. We committed ourselves to the realization of a specific set of ideals, all quite familiar to everyone in the surrounding adult environment: that every person in the school community, regardless of age, has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and to governance through the consent of the governed for the purpose of protecting those rights. We felt that the clarity of the school’s vision had to match that of the country’s vision, and that this vision, limited to a small fraction of the general population when it was first announced, had to be expanded to embrace the last excluded group today: children.

Continuous efforts to elaborate the practical implications of that vision. All too often visions fail to be implemented due to the inability to translate them into day to day actions. History is replete with examples of lofty ideals dissolving under the pressure of the often unpredictable chaos of everyday existence. There have to be institutional mechanisms to continuously examine the practices in place, monitor their compatibility with the vision, and adapt them, where necessary, after careful consideration of all the attendant factors.

Ongoing articulation of the school’s philosophy and practices. The only way to assure the development of a sustainable culture across time is to articulate its content. Putting the complex issues that define the life of the school into words is an ongoing challenge, given the difficulty of communication and the elusive meanings of words. The only way to prevent a culture from melting into an inchoate form is to keep at this task, and involve as many members of the community as possible in it, so that there is a common understanding of its essence.

Insistence on all activities, without exception, being carried out at the highest possible level of expertise. This is not always possible to achieve, but it is always possible to hold up as an aim. Records are clean, financial matters are handled professionally, office administration is smooth and efficient, activities representing the school are carefully vetted, the school buildings are clean, the campus maintained aggressively. Since all of these can easily lapse into mediocrity and even negligence, it takes a great deal of work and resolve to keep them going as they should.

Throughout the 50 years, we have expected excellence. The expectation has guided us unfailingly, and is, I believe, what has brought us to this point. It, more than anything, has fostered a continuously supportive community, inspired by our vision and our efforts to make that vision real.

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The Many Levels of Gingerbread

The month of December always feels rushed, but in a good way. Students are more amped than usual. They are excited for Christmas, parties, and especially making gingerbread houses.

Mimsy organizes a few days to make gingerbread houses before the winter break. There is always a buzz about doing them. People ask each other if they are participating and what day they are doing it on.

It’s a lot of work, so, there are different levels of it. The beginners make gingerbread cookies. These are done with a few of the youngest students. They take about two hours with a half hour break in the middle. This year, similar to the years before, there was a student who ate way too much candy and cookies. One student couldn’t help herself and over-indulged, despite the wise advice to eat her lunch first. It was actually very funny. After being told repeatedly to eat her healthy lunch, she proclaimed, “I’m going to eat the candy first! Then, maybe, I’ll eat my lunch…if I’m hungry!” I’m not positive she ever got to it.

The intermediate phase is making gingerbread trees. This takes about four hours and involves more precise details. Students are expected to roll out their dough, which takes strength and patience to make it the right thickness. Once the dough is rolled out, they have to cut the tree pieces out. There is a lesson on how to conserve the dough to make the most of it and how to slice the pieces out. This takes a lot of concentration and the room can be awfully quiet, enough to hear a pin drop. Similar to the cookies, there is always one student who over eats and the majority have candy residue all over their mouth and cheeks.

The older and more mature students, make gingerbread houses. This is an all day affair and takes an enormous amount of energy. They need to roll out two or more blocks of dough for all of their house and tree pieces. Once everything is all baked, they are able to decorate their houses into whatever they like. This year one student transformed her house into a barn. Another person, decorated her house to have “Stranger Things” references. The finished products are always amazing and unique. With the older students, the staff doesn’t have to remind them to eat lunch. There was one student I thought was going to get sick this year. This is the first time she did a house. She’s worked her way up to this, starting with cookies when she was younger. Every year she over eats candy and ends up comatose from too much of it. I was expecting her to do this again. To my surprise, she didn’t! She learned how to monitor herself and ate only a few pieces while decorating. I asked her, “why didn’t you eat all of your candy like you did the other years?” She laughed and replied “I didn’t want to get sick”. Then we both laughed, remembering the past.

Watching the students grow and learn how to do harder tasks is a real joy. Every year, its exciting to see what creations will be made. The students have such great imaginations that every cookie, tree, and house is something to admire.

Below are a few photos of all the action!

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