My first teaching job was in a tiny village in a remote area of Bona Vista Bay on the island of Newfoundland. Newly graduated with my undergraduate degree in history and biology I was incredibly ill-prepared for a multi-grade classroom full of children whose families were besieged by poverty and the parents suffered from rampant illiteracy. My plans were to attend a normal college after completing my university program. But just a few weeks short of my marriage and move to the pedagogy school in Stratford-on-Avon in Ontario the school unexpectedly closed down.
At the time I wasn’t sure if it was our luck or not when my future husband and I were offered two teaching posts at this school. It was with growing trepidation about what to expect that we headed off to what I considered the end-of-the earth. I’d heard plenty of tales about Newfoundland from my then husband’s family since his mother hailed from there. Although it sounded like a somewhat bucolic place their stories were also laced with situations that left me wondering if I’d be able to cope with the isolation and lack of what I considered basic necessities.
Electricity had only arrived in the area a few years before we did. Most homes—including ours—had limited indoor plumbing which was often frozen during the coldest winter months. Women cooked over woodstoves that kept the kitchens a toasty warm during the winter and a tad too hot during the summer months. Living conditions were harsh year round and even during the summer months when breakaway icebergs would find their way into the tiny bay it would bring with them cooler weather and even unexpected blizzards on occasion.
But what the village lacked in modern conveniences and temperate weather it made up for in the generosity, warmth and simple trust of the people who lived there. Like so many people I’ve met in so many other places who struggle so hard to eek out a living and yet share what little they have I soon learned that our neighbors would willingly share of their time and limited resources with anyone in need–and on many occasion I was the grateful recipient of their help.
The livelihood of most families in our little community came from the sea and the woods surrounding our tiny hamlet nestled on the gently rolling hills overlooking the bay. Although fishing and lumbering weren’t the most secure or safe work to be had-it was all they options available to them to provide for their families. Students—particularly the boys–often missed months of school when they’d be taken out to help their fathers in the woods. These on-and-off again extended absences from school were challenging for even the brightest students. Eventually, most of them permanently dropped out long before completing their schooling as the coursework became too difficult and their absences too frequent.
Newfies, as Newfoundlanders are called, have a distinct dialect. Their vocabulary is peppered with an interesting mix of words unique to their region as well as phonetic characteristics reminiscent of old Irish and a twist of Cockney by dropping and adding “Hs” at will. I well recall an exchange between a student and his teacher during a spelling dictation which he asked about one of the words: “Is that ‘is with an “haiche” sir or ‘is without it?”
Dropping and adding “Hs” was just one of the many things I grappled with as an early grade teacher. As a middle-class American I seemed as much an oddity to them in their community as they were to me. Their expressions baffled me and often left me speechless when students asked me questions and I had absolutely no idea what they were saying to me. I was a never-ending source of amusement to the locals who found my American accent and way of talking and “city” ways somewhat naive and a bit slow in their environment. But, despite these disconnects between their world and mine I was determined to teach my students. So, armed with little more than a will as strong as a mule, a lot of creativity and a desire to make learning fun I tackled my first year.
Despite my enthusiasm it was a struggle. Very few students read at grade level. Many didn’t read at all even though my students in grades 2-4 should have been reading at a basic level. Although there was a well stocked library in the school very few of the books were relevant to their lives and the students didn’t find them terribly interesting. Their leveled textbooks were full of unrealistic stories about children whose parents worked in office buildings and lived in “fancy” electric houses with indoor plumbing. They had bicycles and lots of toys to play with and wore clean clothes every day and certainly getting dirty was seen as something quite out of the ordinary. Nothing bad happened to these children—or at least if it did the calamity was nothing more than a lost doll or scrapped knee. Indeed, a popular television series about a group of people marooned on an island together—Gilligan’s Island—seemed more real to them than the sanitized stories in their textbooks. So, unversed in all the educational theories of how to teach reading, writing and arithmetic I began utilizing a repertoire of methods that worked for me and my students no matter how unorthodox they might seem to the school principal or local superintendent.
I brought my personal favorites into the classroom. I had an antique pump organ in my classroom and my students and I would spend time each day learning and singing new songs and discussing the meaning of the words. After getting to know more about them and their lives it really didn’t surprise me at all that tragic ballads were among their personal favorites. We’d draw pictures to the Bible stories we’d read (part of the core curriculum there). If we were particularly ambitious we’d spend days turning the stories into plays complete with props and host performances for the other classrooms. Fortunately, being the among the youngest students in the school their charming antics made up for a host of flaws in our productions and the older brothers and sisters—and sometimes the parents too—clapped enthusiastically to see their little ones acting their hearts out on the school stage. We took short wonder walks around the school then come in and write short stories about all that we’d seen and heard making sure to use as many words as possible to describe the few things we’d seen and heard. We’d read stories together—Anne of Green Gables, Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, Little House on the Prairie—wonderful stories that sparked their imaginations and captured their attention. It was all about words–words on cards taped to the classroom walls, words in pocket charts, words on the blackboard, words on their drawings. And we played rousing, exciting games–word and number games–boys against the girls, one grade against another. Slowly they learned; more importantly, they loved school.
Another unique feature of life on the bay was the open grazing for the horses. Many a morning I was awakened from a sound sleep by the rear end of a horse bumping against my bedroom window as it grazed in our yard. Or I would come home from school to find a herd of horses blocking the path to my door or worse yet—rubbing against a line of newly washed linens I’d left out that morning to dry. Of course, to be technically correct, it wasn’t “horses” I was seeing but “orses” that grazed in my yard and wandered along the lone road that wound its way along the bluff overlooking the sea.
One student in my class, Bonnie, was a particularly engaging little girl with enormous brown eyes that danced with delight as she’d excitedly talk about things that captured her attention. Foremost among things that delighted Bonnie were the horses. Bonnie absolutely dearly loved the horses. More often than not Bonnie would bound into the classroom in the morning eagerly shouting “Miss, Miss, I saw the ‘orses on the way to school today!”
“HA-ORSES, Bonnie,” I’d carefully enunciate. “Say it after me—HA-ORSES.”
I was determined to teach Bonnie and the other students in my class NOT to add and take away their “Hs”–indeed I’d made a pact with myself that if nothing else MY students would use their “Hs” correctly. Slowly, hesitantly, determined Bonnie would stop what she was excitedly sharing with me about the horses and carefully enunciate the word. The scene was always the same: Bonnie rushed into the room squealing with delight about her latest adventure with the horses and I would stop her mid-stream to correct her mispronunication.
It wasn’t until many years later, as I was completing my graduate studies, that I reflected on this early teaching experience. For it was only then it dawned on me that the more I corrected Bonnie on how she was sharing with me the special things in her life the less she shared with me things that were important to her. It was then that I realized the sad irony that the more I tried to make Bonnie’s language “right” the more I took it away from her.
Since my early encounters in teaching I have learned a great deal about early language development and literacy. Language acquisition is a complicated process of learning all the numerous complexities and features of syntax, semantics and a host of other linguistic rules coupled with the impress of customs, culture and peculiarities embedded in the local interpretation of that language. Learning a language– forms one of the strongest ways in which people see themselves within the vast landscape of a bigger world. It’s the most complex cognitive thing humans do and occurs through a spontaneous natural process that first begins with learning sounds, then words and finally how to form sentences. Learning language is an interplay between nature (some posit we are born with a language module sometimes referred to as a language acquisition device that accounts for the theory of universal grammar) and our environment.
The body of knowledge available about language development and how we learn to read and write has grown considerably during the past decade. We know how babies begin to discriminate the sounds of phonemes in their environment as young as 6 months of age and by the age of three language markers are already in place that significantly impact how well children learn to read and write. Long before children begin school the keys to their academic success have begun forming. Much of it rests around their listening and speaking skills which they developed before the age of four. Research also shows that children in poorer homes have a greater struggle in their language development because there is often less language exchange with parents and older siblings who are forced to work multiple jobs or carry heavy domestic burdens.
One study showed that children in wealthy homes were exposed to over 32,000,000 more words (obviously many of the same words over and over) in their first three years compared to children in the lowest income homes. As amazing as this seems when I began to think about the language we used with our children when they were small—there was constant talk, singing, reading books to them, talking among ourselves and with their older siblings as the younger ones came along. Their father, a particularly witty and wordy man, played word games and continually recited silly poems to their endless delight and my consternation. And as I thought about it more I realized that exposure to that number of words (the cornerstone of language)—was indeed highly probable. Clearly, my children were given the gift of language that so many children are denied.
Despite all the debate about how we learn language and then how to manipulate spoken language into written language—one thing is clear—children who come from language deprived environments have a harder struggle learning to read and write and are at considerably greater risk for failing to become a fluent reader. My students in Newfoundland suffered from that fate. I now know that fostering more language exchange before they come to school and using their home languages and experiences in early reading instruction is undoubtedly one of the most important components of any early grade literacy curriculum.
Many years after my first teaching job I read Sylvia Ashton Warner’s book Teacher. Her controversial approach using the life experiences of at-risk and marginalized children by writing illustrated stories with their self-identified highly emotional key vocabulary words resonated with me. I recalled all the powerful teaching and learning experiences from my own classroom overlooking the bay in Newfoundland. I remembered how we wrote stories about their lives and then drew pictures depicting their daily adventures. I remembered how they learned and their dramatic academic growth during the time I was their teacher. It worked because it legitimized them; it validated their lives; it had meaning in their world.
Today, if I could redo it, when Bonnie would rush into my room to share with me her latest adventure with the ‘orses she so dearly loved—I’d take out a piece of paper and pencil and say, “How exciting Bonnie. Let’s write your story and then you can draw me a picture.”
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