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Balanced Literacy: Being a Program-less Teacher

Elementary school teachers teach every subject, especially in states with low levels of per pupil funding.  As a result, most elementary school teachers have favorite subjects to teach: language arts, mathematics, science, music, art, etc.  My favorite, which should come as no surprise to those of you reading this, is language arts.  I was an English major in college, earned a master's degree in English, became nationally board-certification in Literacy: Reading-Language Arts (LRLA), and am certified by the state of California as a Reading Specialist.  I tell you this to explain my passion for literacy, and to make note of the language arts content knowledge I've built in my career. 

A few years ago, I joined the design team for my current school. We all agreed, with the help from some passionate, persuasive teachers and administrators, to pursue a balanced literacy approach in language arts.  Balanced Literacy is defined as a combination of small group and whole group instruction.  The program consists of: Readers Workshop, Writers Workshop, Word Study, Interactive Writing, Shared Reading, Partner Reading, Guided Reading Lessons, Strategy Lessons, and Individual Conferences.  There are a lot of parts to track and all of these components should ideally happen every day, depending on grade level.  Much of Balanced Literacy is based on your students' needs along with the standards students are expected to master in both reading and writing.  A pre-assessment is given at the beginning, and a post assessment at the end.

For most of my years teaching language arts, I used an alternate program.  When I first started, all I had was a teacher's guide and a bunch of basal readers, not even any professional development.  Then came the adoption of California's language arts framework, followed by Reading First, designated by the federal government for failing schools.  It was like going from zero to 100 mph in the world of reading instruction.  I had a teacher's guide, I had sound/spelling cards, decodable readers, student anthologies, and most importantly, a lot of professional development. 

Having a program and training was a huge step forward for me in my journey of building content knowledge, but it was also very limiting.  If it wasn't part of the program, forget about trying to do it.  If the anthology was too hard for your students to read, we were told to "frontload."  If it was too easy, then you'd have your students do research.  That program, Open Court,  gave me a solid understanding of phonics and the developmental stages of reading, which ultimately led to comprehension.  I learned a lot about instructing students through direct modeling, guided practice, and one of the most important things a teacher can ever learn - there's no such thing as a perfect curriculum. I'm most thankful for that lesson.

So now, in a way, I am program-less. There is no one teacher's guide that I regularly reference and where I find all my ready-made resources.  My students are reading across eight different guided reading levels, which require a huge classroom library to support their needs and huge amount of legwork for me when I pull together small group lessons. To hold interactive reading exercises, I must go out and find the various materials on my own. Writing instruction is a bit easier but still requires a lot of observing, note taking, and data collection.

One of the best things about being program-less is that I know my students better than I ever have before. This teaching style can be very stressful and often feels like I'm reinventing the wheel, but program-less teaching allows me to consistently approach my practice with a new set of eyes.  I wouldn't go back to a program now even if I could.  With time, I know it will become easier. For now, I find genuine enjoyment in pulling up a chair next to one of my students silently engrossed in a book of their choosing, and asking them, "Can you tell me about what you are reading today?" 

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