Stuck Between a Basal and Too Much Background Knowledge


This is my first post in what I hope will be a series reflecting on my transition (and growth) from a fifth grade environment to first. Admittedly, it has been a very rocky start (though I don’t believe either the students or the parents are aware-thankfully). I do believe the students are learning; I KNOW I am. I have been wanting to write some of my thoughts down since day one, but wasn’t sure which one topic to focus on. Interestingly, I woke up this morning knowing exactly what has become my biggest problem: too much background knowledge.

Six years ago I was hired into my current school as a fifth grade teacher. I had no idea where to begin. I truly wish I could say that my experiences through the teacher training program ultimately prepared me for this event. To their credit though, I did learn how to do research…so that is what I did. Ironically, I learned of a book study of Debbie Miller’s book Reading with Meaning. Not a perfect fit for me as an intermediate teacher, but a great beginning. The biggest lesson learned was that students need both choices and ownership. Those two facts have guided many of the decisions I’ve made throughout my few years of experience.

My first year, we had a fairly loose Language Arts program. Making Meaning and literature circles were at the core, partnered with a district spelling list (words didn’t correlate with any specific content), Write Source writing program, and no evident independent reading or grammar requirements. In many ways, this was a great environment for me to grow. I had to find myself and my program through the many pieces. I feel I actually had an advantage walking into the district when I did. I had no expectations of a canned day-to-day program, so creating my own (highly influenced by others) both taught me a ton about what best practices really means and fostered a desire to keep learning. Learning by doing, isn’t that what we want of our students?

I quickly learned the district was thinking of heading a new way. The majority of the teachers in the district were frustrated by the lack of structure (upon reflection…I believe it was the lack of genuine professional development that led to most frustrations). I really liked what I was doing, and was correctly fearsome the district was going the basal route. So I instantly did what any overly-idealistic new teacher would do…I volunteered to be on the curriculum adoption committee (read with sarcasm :)). That committee…what a committee…what an experience… My biggest lesson learned: though our philosophies may differ, reading is one topic we are all passionate about. I quietly listened, I really did not have the educational life experience as the rest of the committee. I heard what they were saying. I went home and I read. After consulting my experts, Laura Robb Ellin Oliver Keene and Susan Zimmerman, Regie Routman, Fountas and Pinnell and Katie Wood Ray, I finally found my voice. Fortunately, I found my voice before it was time to choose materials and write the final draft of the curriculum document. Having these authors behind me empowered me; they offered me the research and the vocabulary to sound like I knew what I was talking about even though I had only two years of experience in the classroom.

We ultimately went with the Reading Street basal program, of which I am very satisfied. The hefty basal itself, is filled with familiar authors and wonderful artwork. But the selling point for me was The Guide on the Side: For the Adventurous Reading Teacher, a handbook composed of routines and pacing charts which align the guided reading teacher to the teacher across the hall using the basal only. When teaching fifth grade, this was the permission I needed for continuing what I was doing only with more purpose and structure. It was perfect!!!

But now, I am a first grade teacher. I am lost. All of my expert mentors are still in my head. I know what I want to do, but I feel like I’m all jumbled. With fifth grade I could take bits and pieces of everyone’s advice, blend it with my own creations and I felt confident my students were all moving forward. My data proved it. First grade, I am learning, needs a consistent structure and a predictable framework. Changing my mind on the drop of the dime doesn’t work, and a whole day can be lost when things plummet downward. My easy road would be the day to day basal structure, but the “adventurous teacher” in me tells me that is the wrong choice for us all. I have added The 2 Sisters to my ever-growing list of co-teachers, but as I move forward I am even more confused as to how to make it all “fit”. I know we will get there. I am already seeing huge progress, I just know I need to put more work in and set a course for this year. Please tell me I can figure this out before Thanksgiving (or Christmas)! Is it a bad thing to want an easy solution and not want THE easy solution?