Thus, I had not taught in a classroom in over four years, and what experience I had before was limited to college students. There is a huge difference between teaching political science classes to adults versus teaching reading to children. I needed all the training that I could get to prepare for two years in an elementary classroom.
The Peace Corps set up Model School to give us the experience we would need. Actually, it was advertised to the local students as a summer reading camp—a fun activity for their first week of summer break. Hopefully, we helped some young readers improve, but the real purpose of this week was to make us better teachers.
The students were divided into groups so that a master teacher and four Peace Corps trainees would spend the week with them. There was a set schedule for when we would solo teach the main segment (one day), team-teach the second segment (two trainees pairing up to give a lesson—there were two instances of this during the week for each of us), and daily work with the students in small groups. The children would not be graded, but the performances of the Peace Corps trainees were closely scrutinized. Of course, the biggest “exam” was when it came our turn for solo teaching.
For my solo teaching day, the letter “L” was the letter of the day (we had previously identified the five letters that had caused the most problems for our students on the assessment test). I decided that I would also talk about poetry as part of my day of teaching. I wanted to let the students see how changing the “onset” (the initial phonetic sound) can often result in a rhyming word that can then be used in poetry. I knew that there were a lot of “L” words that could be altered by merely changing the onset, and that these could be used for the vocabulary list we were building. I quickly began to compile rhyming “L” words.
Rather than creating the typical “word wall” vocabulary cards that my colleagues were making, I needed to utilize a different design. Initially, I thought about writing the rhyming word on the back of the vocabulary word card and flipping it over. However, it dawned on me that I could create a “hinged door” vocabulary card to enhance my lesson.
First, I completed my vocabulary list of appropriate words that began with the letter “L” but had another word that could be created by changing the onset. I pared the list down to my 22 favorites. Then, I acquired some of the seldom used legal size paper from the supply room, and cut it in half longways. Towards the right side of this narrowed, blank sheet of paper, I would write a vocabulary word that started with the letter “L” (note that I always used a curved tail on the bottom of my lower-case “L” letters, to emphasize this St. Lucian tradition that looks a bit like a backwards “J”—which I explained as part of my introduction of the “Letter of the Day” at the start of class).
With the under-utilized left side of this slip of paper, I folded it over so that the letter “L” would be covered, but the rest of the word could easily be seen. On this “hinged door” I wrote the onset that would create a rhyme with the “L” word underneath. Whether the door was open or shut, it was easy to read the both of the words (for example, lap-map, list-mist, loot-boot).
When finished, all 22 vocabulary word cards were stored with the doors closed. This allowed me to introduce a word for them to sound and blend, and then open the door so that they could then read and pronounce the rhyming “L” version of the word. The students seemed to be genuinely intrigued at the “reveal” process (as the door swung open) of creating a second, different word from the first.
This also produced 44 rhyming words (half of them beginning with the letter “L”) that could be used in the poetry worksheet that I also produced for this lesson. It included a four-line poem I wrote about Caribbean pirates with a blank at the end of each line, for them to fill in with words from our word wall. It also included four blank lines that we used to create our own ending to the story.
Although I've only touched on the highlights, I believe my solo teaching day about the letter “L” went well (did you notice that “L” and “well” rhyme?). My two days of team teaching in pairs also seemed to be successful. Even though the preparation as well as the implementation were both intense and strenuous, I feel that the experience I gained during Pre-Service Training has prepared me to work in a classroom when school resumes in September.
Prior to this training, I probably would have guessed that teaching college students would be more difficult than teaching children, because of the higher level thinking skills of college students—and I had accomplished that successfully. With children, the teacher is so much more advanced than his or her students that I thought it would make the job less demanding. After all, it should be easier to teach a simple topic like phonics rather than a complex and often nuanced topic such as Marbury v. Madison—or so I thought.
I quickly realized that I had underestimated how challenging it is to teach a child to read! I have a whole new appreciation for my college friends who majored in elementary education, as well as all the other elementary teachers whom I have met over the years.
Learning to read is so vital, especially in today's technology driven world! It is truly the gateway to a successful and satisfying adulthood. Without reading skills, it is virtually impossible to advance in life, especially on an economically challenged island. Helping children transition from non-readers to beginning readers to proficient readers is SO IMPORTANT!
A side benefit of this training was that it made me aware of a few talents that I had underestimated, such as my calligraphy skills. I have always been able to write legibly, and incorporate different “fonts” into things I needed to decorate. For example, during my years in Student Government at college, I often was in charge of making posters for various events (back in the dark ages before computers). My master teacher was amazed at the neat handwriting I used on the chalk board that week. I can now see how this ability will work well in an elementary school classroom, especially in a region with limited resources for their schools.
I think I also demonstrated my creativity with several products I made during model school week. Whether it was the hinged door vocabulary words, the “pirate poem” worksheet, the accordion-folded poem (designed to pop down from the top of the chalk board), the paper airplane idea (utilizing the six “sides” of the airplane to write their name and five vocabulary words—in order to get “clearance for take-off” during our flight contests, they had to come up with a sentence using one of the words on their airplane), or the giant flip-chart book that I wrote and illustrated, I think I proved that I have some creative design skills that will be useful in the classroom.
Finally, model school week (as well as our previous school visits) made me aware of how many students think I look like Santa Claus. Back home I never had many people equate me with Santa Claus (more often it was Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead, or sometimes actor Richard Dreyfuss). However down here, with few white folks and fewer still with a full white beard and a bit of a paunch, it happens frequently with school children. I hope I can use this to my advantage in the classrooms here (“You better behave or you'll get a bad mark on Santa's list!”).
[By the way, this will likely be my last blog post written on St. Lucia. This is a beautiful island filled with wonderful people who have been very welcoming to all of us. I am grateful to have spent these seven weeks in training here, but I am headed to my new island home of Dominica soon. I will especially miss my host family, who treated me great!]