The Temptation to Retreat

Dear Colleagues

Changing practice takes courage at the best of times.  Courage to resist the doubt monsters that nip at our heels as we give up the sight word program. Courage to work with families and explain why predictable texts just aren’t a good idea. Courage to stand in front of your bosses and advocate for giving up benchmark reading assessment and to teach systematic synthetic phonics when the classrooms on either side deliver broad instruction that might give the appearance of quicker achievement in those benchmark assessments, but leave kids on shaky ground.  

It is hard enough to have courage when times are good, but in these times of uncertainty it is even more difficult. So difficult, that it might be tempting to go for the easy option of just handing out the predictable texts and referring parents to the apps that have questionable ‘learning’ experiences for our students.

I have heard of a number of schools who have retreated from the journey into evidence-based practice in favour of the familiar.  I fully acknowledge the comfort provided by well known, and formerly loved approaches. I recall a time in my own teaching life when a lack of confidence led me to bust out the black line masters from dubious origins, even when I knew that it wasn’t the answer.

Quality teaching can’t be replicated by worksheets. It can’t be easily transferred to a series of narrated PowerPoints, as much as these tools might provide short term access to revision based content.  The craft of teaching is about the constant give and take between teacher and student, the million adjustments that are made in response to the learners in front of us as we draw on our experience and strategies to meet their needs.  Quality teaching is about active engagement in learning which is brought to life by the skill of the teacher who has learned to differentiate content and approach in response to those in their care.

Quality teaching is also about maintaining the courage of our convictions when everything we have stood for is threatened and the tools usually at our disposal are no longer available to us.  This time of distance learning is asking us to find new and innovative ways to stay the course. To resist the urge to retreat into the bad old days of sight word programs and easily accessed worksheets. 

Is there a world of work to do to make it through? You bet! Those outdated practices have had decades to be inspiration to a million Pinterest Posts and the TpT products that people are currently drawing upon.  While we have been busy teaching explicitly from the front of the class, we have not necessarily added to the online depository of resources that teachers turn to in a pinch.

I am asking us all to remember why we made the change to evidence informed practice. To honour the children who most benefit from the shift away from broad instruction.  If you have to create an online version of every phonics lesson you teach. Do it. If you have to ask your staff to take just one more step today and another step tomorrow into the unknown despite them being mentally and emotionally exhausted. Do it (and hold their hands as they do). 

If you have to once again defend your choices to change, then that is the price we pay for doing the sound and moral thing for our vulnerable learners who will be relegated to low expectations role of non-readers in our midst if we retreat from what we know in our heart of hearts to be right. I know you are tired. I know that much is being asked of you.  Let’s try and get through this time without having our children resort to guessing at pictures and getting Lips the Fish out of his bowl. Instead, be fierce like Lynn Stone’s decoding dragon.   

Find this graphic here

But in order to keep the guessing monsters away we need to continue to promote the use of strong, explicit phonics, decodable texts and leave those sight words programs in the bin where they need to stay. We need to dig deep, looking our critics in the eye and firmly say, “No. We shall not be deterred from the path we have embarked upon!”

And for the days when you don’t feel like you can, here’s a little something to get you through so that you live to fight another day!

Wishing you all the best,

Jocelyn

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