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Nourishing A Desire To Learn

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By the end of the school year, these students will have met the school's stated goals for 1st graders: mastery of the alphabet, common consonant blends, and standard rules of spelling, grammar, and punctuation. But they also will have learned that the knowledge they gain from reading is just as important, and that writing involves communication, not just memorizing rules and completing drills.

With the day's journal writing finished, the children share what they've written. They scramble from their seats and sit on the carpeted area of the floor with their backs to the teacher. In a large chair in the center of the sea of youngsters sits a freckle-faced girl who reads aloud a journal entry about Indians.

After she finishes, arms shoot up, and the young critics explain what they liked and didn't like about the writing. They ask for clarification, give suggestions, and discuss the material until both the writer and her audience are satisfied. This kind of cooperative learning is an essential part of most whole language classrooms; students often work together and turn to each other for constructive criticism of their work. The teacher oversees the exchange, but she rarely needs to direct the dialogue because she has created an environment where the students respect and seek each others' opinions.

When one critique is complete, another child eagerly takes the hot seat. The boy opens his blue construction-paper book and starts reading a lengthy entry about whales. After the children's comments, Klein asks the boy whether he is ready to publish the piece. The boy grins and says he wants to add a few finishing touches.

Once a story meets classroom standards, Klein types it and binds it with a wallpaper cover. She corrects the invented spelling but leaves the student's punctuation and grammar intact. This helps students make the transition to conventional spelling. Later, the children use the corrected work as a reference when they need to check the spelling of a word they've written before.

After lunch, the students read independently or with a partner. They sift through the gold mine of books displayed on tables, piled on shelves, and tucked in plastic tubs. This moment of choice demonstrates how the whole language approach works: Students are eager to read because the teacher unleashes their natural desire to learn more about things that interest them.

Some students choose to work with books above their reading ability because they want access to the information the books contain. In another 1st grade whole language classroom across the hall, one boy repeatedly chose an adult book on airplanes. The teacher, Linda Niskanen, assumed he was mainly looking at the pictures and wanted him to read during reading time, so one day she asked him to choose a book to read to her. Instead of selecting an easy book, he opened the adult book and promptly read a profile of a jet plane that included words like "operation,'' "catapult,'' and "mission.''

Klein's students also help shape the curriculum in other ways. As part of the mandated curriculum for 1st graders, she must teach her students about animals. But instead of dredging up notes from years gone by or following a prescribed unit, the teacher turns to her class for guidance. The students tell her what they know about the habits and habitats of particular animals, and together the class decides which animals they need to learn more about. Klein also takes cues from her students' writing: When seven out of 22 students wrote about sharks in their journals, she knew her class was ready for a unit on sharks.

Once students are hooked on a theme, it pervades the classroom for days and sometimes weeks. They sing songs about animals, compose songs about animals, and read books and write stories about animals. Even in arithmetic, the word problems include vignettes about snakes and zebras. When Klein's class launched into a class project on penguins, her students compiled and illustrated 40 facts about the bird from their reading. They made paper rulers displaying the heights of various types of penguins and hung them on the wall. Each lesson emphasized the subject matter-- penguins--not the specific math and reading skills the students were learning.

As the year progresses, the lessons and activities change with the students' abilities. "In the beginning of the year,'' Klein says, "children come in and just draw or label pictures. Now, you don't see as many pictures because they support the details in writing.'' Niskanen pays close attention to her best pupils to make sure they are challenged by classroom activities. "If they get itchy and start to walk around,'' she says, "I can tell they are beyond what I have to offer at the moment.'' Both teachers are astonished by the number of 1st graders who are ready for more advanced "chapter'' books by the end of the year.

The children's progress can be attributed, in part, to the sheer volume of reading and writing they do during the year; their journal writing alone fills two large crates. In the process, they learn to sound out words, spell, and punctuate sentences. Klein says she teaches skills "when the children actually ask for them, when they need to know something in order to move on.''

For example, a child working on a journal story who wants to know how to spell the word "made'' but doesn't see how it would be different from "mad'' would get a quick lesson on the silent "e.'' If a number of students had difficulty reading contractions, their teacher might pull them together for a small group lesson or try to work it into a full class discussion.

In whole language classrooms, skills are the means to an end. Niskanen's whole language 1st graders practice handwriting just as students in traditional classes do, but instead of copying rows of Bs or Cs, they copy their favorite poems into a book to take home. Students strive to write neatly, not because the teacher demands it but so they can read the poems on their own.

Whole language teachers use every opportunity to have their students practice counting, adding, subtracting, and writing. The secretary who collects hot-lunch and milk tallies from Niskanen's room recently noticed that the totals were no longer written in the teacher's graceful script; instead, they were printed in pencil by one of her 1st graders. Students take such real-life exercises seriously because if they make a mistake, someone may go without lunch or milk.

Children pick up some skills without a formal lesson. By the end of the school year, many are consistently using correct punctuation and spelling. "They notice that the word 'what' doesn't look quite right in their journals, so they'll go look for it someplace,'' Klein says. "Once they have it right in one place, they refer back to it.'' One day, while Niskanen and her students were reading a poem from a chart, some children noticed that certain words had silent vowels in them. "We got into a discussion,'' Niskanen recalls, "and three children said the longvowel rule in their own words.''

One reason the whole language approach is so successful is that students learn by participating in activities that they find meaningful. "These children know how to take information and make it their own,'' Klein says, marveling at her students' ability to open a factual book, take notes, and make a report.

And once the students "own'' a piece of knowledge, they are quick to share it with their peers. In fact, Klein doesn't always answer her students' questions; often, she'll tell them to ask a friend. "It makes them realize that I'm not the only teacher in the classroom,'' Klein explains.

This collaborative atmosphere has been a boon for two handicapped students in Niskanen's class. The Down's-syndrome students, who are involved in all the classroom activities, "have learned as much from the other kids as from us,'' Niskanen says. They have also benefited from being totally immersed in words and books. One of the special education students learned all the lowercase alphabet letters, even though the class never once did any rote work on them. Says Marty Rounds, a special education teacher who works with the two students, "Whole language has dispelled the myth that the only way retarded kids can learn is to repeat and repeat.''

Klein and Niskanen admit that the whole language environment may take some getting used to for some students. Klein noticed, for example, that one child who joined her class midyear from a traditional classroom seemed ill at ease at first. A whole language classroom has a different feel than a traditional classroom and, in a way, demands more from its students. Both Klein and Niskanen's classes have a routine and rules that govern the students' behavior, but most activities are open-ended. Students must exercise some initiative in their learning; they are given choices and the responsibility for making choices.

Neither teacher worries about her students' eventual transition into a traditional classroom; both are confident they will adjust. What's most important, Niskanen says, is that her students leave 1st grade "literate people,'' ready for whatever else comes along.

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