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A Journey in Teaching Literacy

It’s my anniversary.

Not that anniversary. Not the kind for sharing pics of myself in a white dress and veil waiting for my beloved with all the innocence and expectation I had that day. Though that is and will always be my favorite anniversary, today, I’m celebrating the day I embarked on a new journey, one of growth, not just professional or educational but foundational and structural. Four years ago, I started a journey in teaching literacy that would alter the course of my career and my life path.

It’s kinda funny how it happened. A friend of mine goes to the same pool as Jen Petrich, a woman who is now my colleague, mentor, and friend. They got to talking about things you talk about at the pool, like name derivations and <ch> pronunciations, and my friend said, “You need to meet my other word nerd friend. You guys would totally geek out about this stuff together.”

Well, we met. And a few days later, I was enrolled in Gina Cooke’s Introduction to SWI.

Before this time, I’d been teaching ESL. I knew my function words from my content words, had been tested on my knowledge of the International Phonetic Alphabet when required to transcribe my British professor’s monologues uttered in Cherokee, and had studied the sound system of English at length. I’d taken descriptive grammar courses by linguists and pored over global perspectives and research methods. But there was one thing lacking when I tried to help a friend’s native English-speaking child with writing.

I didn’t understand phonics.

Not that I knew much about it. I didn’t. But when I started getting more and more English-speaking kiddos in my classroom who couldn’t make sense of English spelling or grammar, I did what we do. I researched. I found phonics. But I didn’t get it. It made no sense to me. Initial sounds? Yeah, okay. But what with all the sounding out? Have you asked a child to sound out the word photographer? (You have, haven’t you?) It doesn’t go well. Have you taught a child that two vowels go walking? (They don’t. Vowels don’t have legs, which is something many neurodivergent children will tell you if you try to teach them this.) So, again, I did what we do. I went back to my roots. And I taught my English-speaking students ESL. I taught them stress and schwa, and we noticed spelling patterns we found mirrored in their Spanish classes. And they saw gains and made connections. But it wasn’t enough. And they weren’t ESL learners, were they?

The summer of 2017, after my friend’s fateful day at the pool, I started studying the orthography of the English language. I’d been spending lots of my time on pronunciation and stress patterns in ESL. Now, I studied graphemes and their roles, morphology and its place in literacy education, etymology and its undeniable contribution to the meanings of English words, and when a few short months later, I had a middle school dyslexic student across a computer screen from me, I was ready. Okay, I was terrified and battling self-doubt. But I had something he needed, and I had the tools taking shape in my own mind to give it to him. And I had the absolute treasure trove of knowledge from mentors and classes and colleagues at my disposal. And I can tell you that today that boy is going on to do great things because of the seed Jen planted and watered and nurtured, her faith in me to continue its care and oversee its growth, and his own hard work and support system.

That’s not to say it’s easy. It isn’t. Sometimes it feels like we’re making ice sculptures in the desert, and the environment and the elements are against us. But we’re out there chipping and forming, and as we do, ever so gradually, the climate turns in our favor, and a glowing masterpiece emerges.

I’m still learning, and I always will be. I’ll take all the classes and show up to the conferences. Because I’m seeing kids who ten months ago couldn’t tell a noun from a preposition and are now writing pieces with subordinating conjunctions and are connecting independent clauses. I’m seeing kids log on and tell me in exuberance that they think that they know why fridge has a <dge> when refrigerator doesn’t. I’m seeing kids make the connection between what and that, where and there, when and then, not rely on their faulty memory of a pictograph poster of ridiculously unrelated homophones. I’m seeing a rising 6th-grader who a year ago struggled with knowing when a sentence was complete who has now written a very informative, well-executed travel brochure for a planet she created and already has plans for spin-off stories. (Note that there are a lot of cats on Planet Meow Meow.)

So happy anniversary to me. Thank you, Gina Cooke. Thank you, Pete Bowsers and Douglas Harper and all of my colleagues and long-suffering friends and children who nod sweetly while I talk about <-ous> and <-al>. Thank you to my friend, Mary, for getting a pool membership and for being an extrovert. Thank you to my husband for reminding me (sometimes on the daily) that I can do this and hugging me when I feel sad about the state of our educational institutions.

And thank you, Jen Petrich. I’m so happy to be on this journey with you. Here’s to many more anniversaries of growth and progress and teaching the truth about English to children and their families.

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