I teach my students a letter of the alphabet each week.
Phew. I said it. I know that those are fighting words to some teachers, so I’m prepared to hear why some of you DON’T do a letter of the week. And also to respect your arguments. Here’s a little bit about why I do it.
When I got my master’s degree, I was taught to use a very naturalistic, child-centered, theme-based approach. That’s what I did in my first year of teaching, and in my second year, I had to face the fact that I had sent my kindergartners off to first grade unprepared. Sure, I’d talked about letters a lot, and we had played with letter puzzles and magnets, and we had read a ton of books, but none of it really sank in, and they arrived at first grade without being solid in the alphabet. Granted, this may have had quite a bit to do with the fact that I was a first year teacher, but I also felt that my approach was part of the problem.
The kindergarten team was made up of four women, all of us relatively new to teaching, so we used our lunch breaks and our team meetings to hash out — and agonize — over what we had been taught to do, and what was actually going to work for our students, 98% of whom lived in poverty. One woman on the team, who is African-American, started teaching her students in a more thorough, teacher-directed way, and we saw that it was working. We read Other People’s Children, by Lisa Delpit, and we visited an Afro-centric charter school that was using direct instruction, and we started to modify what we were doing. What I learned most from Other People’s Children was not to make assumptions.
What we think of as a “normal” curriculum for kindergarten or first grade, based on what teachers have been doing for years, works based on the assumption that parents do their part: read to their children daily, talk to them, listen to them, take them places, give them educational toys. Children in poverty generally don’t get these things, and they arrive at kindergarten almost completely unready for a traditional curriculum. We can’t assume that they have been exposed to the alphabet, or that those little squiggles have any meaning to them at all; we have to give them what they are missing, and what they need.
For that reason, I spend a week on each letter. I teach what the capital letter looks like, what the lower case letter looks like, and what sound it makes. We practice the names and sounds of the letters daily, and my pack of letter and picture cards gets bigger each week, so we keep revisiting the old ones. We look at a bunch of ABC books, just for the page of the letter of the week, and we compare the pictures for that letter in each book. I sing their names in our good morning song, pretending that they all start with that letter. We write it in shaving cream or we write it on whiteboards. We look at our nametags, and figure out who starts with that letter, and who has that letter in our name. I’m always looking for new ways to highlight the letter of the week, and revisit the letters we’ve already learned.