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?


4 thoughts on “Stuck Between a Basal and Too Much Background Knowledge

  1. BJacketsFan (Julie Simmons)

    It is just my second year in first grade, and I continue to struggle with some of the very same issues you discussed in your post. I do think you hit on such an important aspect of first grade when you mentioned consistent structure and predictable framework. My literacy teaching is influenced by many of the experts you mentioned, but I believe the sisters – Daily 5 along with CAFE – have given my literacy block the necessary framework, while still encouraging independence. TIME is always the biggest challenge for me – feeling like I’m fitting it all in, and meeting the needs of such a wide range of readers and writers. You probably don’t want more ideas for expert mentors (I love that term!), but I am still going to share a few with you ~ Ginny Dowd has a literacy program that has been invaluable to me for implementing a phonics program into the literacy block. She uses chants to teach phonemic patterns, parts of speech, spelling for commonly used words, and much more. In addition, Ginny created a series of books that contain relevant writing prompts. I do not use prompts all that often – I’m more of a writer’s workshop kind of teacher, but these prompts are the most suitable I have found for first graders. And – my second expert mentor suggestion – is Jennifer Jacobsen. I love, love, love her book: No More I’m Done – Fostering Independent Writers in the Elementary Classroom. Jennifer outlines a writer’s workshop that really works for my kids. They love the quiet ten, and it has changed the writing time in my classroom. So – I guess I can’t promise you will have this figured out by Thanksgiving or even Christmas. I am a year + into first grade and not feeling like I have it figured out. But – I do know that it is so exciting to spend the day with first graders, where everything is fresh and new for the students. It is amazing to see the growth over just the first 30 days of school, and I am excited to see what comes with the next 150 or so days. Thanks for taking the time to write your post. I know it’s not easy when you so busy trying to figure out your day-to-day stuff! Good for you for taking this opportunity to reflect 🙂

  2. Okay, I will add the two books that I think have helped me the most with my teaching of first grade reading and writing. One is Growing Readers by Kathy Collins and the other is First Grade Writers by Stephanie Parsons. Both of these authors are products of the Teachers College at Columbia University (like Lucy Calkins and more). Both have helped give structure to my Readers and Writers Workshop mini-lessons. As far as my guided reading groups, I rely heavily on Guided Reading by Fountas and Pinnell. I have been teaching for 17 years but this is only my third year in first grade and I finally feel like I am getting a handle on things – there is still lots of room to grow and improve though. Hang in there, it will get easier. (I think you already know that though – it is just hard to get to that point.)

  3. I’ll admit it–having taught 3rd and 4th grades for 5 years, the idea of moving to K or 1st terrifies me for this exact reason. It’s a big job you have, teaching children how to read! I’m sure you can handle it though, you have an open mind and a great attitude 🙂

  4. Carol Keskeny

    I have taught for 32 years, I also made the move from fifth grade to first grade. That is a big step right there! I have found a lot of teacher blogs with excellent ideas to use with various reading programs that will help you stretch your teaching the way you want to. You are right that first graders need the foundation of reading, you have great resources with the authors you already know about, now you can put all those pieces together with some other teachers ideas and magic will occur. You will be amazed in January to see how many of your children are loving to read. I always feel it takes about 3 years to find comfort in teaching a new program. You are off to an excellent start!

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