A Delicate Balance

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Silver Spring, Md.

Sitting in a jumbled semicircle on the floor around Laura Grenon's rocking chair, the 1st graders listen raptly as their teacher reads The Old Man's Mitten from a big book resting on a nearby easel.

"What do you think is going to happen?" Grenon asks her students as one forest creature after another in the story wiggles into a lost glove.

"It's going to tear up into pieces," opines one little girl. "It's too small for the bear," offers Ope.

"Who can find my short 'o' on this page?" the teacher inquires.

"Off," replies dimpled Antonio.

At the end of the book, the children discuss the outcome: The glove does not tear after all; instead, the animals scurry away when the old man comes to retrieve it. But the lesson isn't over. "Let's come up with a list of short 'o' words that you heard in my story," Grenon suggests.

Throughout the day in Room 11 at Fairland Elementary School, Grenon blends the elements of whole-language instruction with the basic skills that she and many experts believe beginning readers need.

This is the sixth year of teaching for Grenon, who thinks of herself as a whole-language teacher. Within that teaching philosophy, though, she believes "there is a place for phonics."

"Some kids do learn by phonics," she says. "Some kids really struggle. It's my job to figure out what's best for that child."

The classroom itself--a room overflowing with words--literally illustrates the balanced approach Grenon uses. On the board, she has printed a list of questions for the children to keep in mind when reading: What did you notice in the story? How did the story make you feel? What does the story remind you of in your own life? But next to it on the bulletin board, she has printed: "Can you figure out our compound words?"

Writing is a central activity of every school day. The students have daily writing workshops and conferences with Grenon and each other. They keep writing journals--even in math.

From the first day of school, Grenon had her charges write. Those who didn't know any of their letters drew pictures. Over time, she would ask them for one letter and then one word to go with it, gradually expanding their letter and word knowledge.

Today, Matt shares an elaborate tale of a trip he took to the Kings Dominion amusement park. Not every word is spelled correctly and not every grammatical convention followed, but it is a logical, cohesive, arresting piece of writing for a 1st grader.

Grenon allows her students to use temporary spellings, but eventually, they must learn the correct spellings. She encourages them to select their own weekly list of spelling words. Many pick from the word family, which contains words with the short "o" sound, that student teacher Karen Hansel wrote on the board. But others strike out on their own. Among the words on her list, Becca writes "hospetel," "oxegen," and "problem." Grenon shows her the correct spellings but urges her to replace the word "problem" because she knows how to spell it already.

Later in the morning, Grenon reads from another big book, Tough Boris, a pirate tale. "I want youto listen for exciting words," she tells them.

The youngsters pick out "massive," and she asks for synonyms. "Huge," "humongous," and "chunky" are volunteered.

"Scruffy" is another exciting word they find, but this time the synonyms they come up with don't match. "You guys had some very good guesses," Grenon says, "but we're going to look up 'scruffy."'

When she finishes the book, Grenon writes on an easel board: "My dog is nice" and asks the children for exciting words to spice up the sentence. They come up with a half-dozen or so, as well as a simile: "My dog is like an angel."

And one student proudly points out that "dog" has a short "o."

Grenon sends her charges back to their desks to write some more, this time taking care to use exciting words. After a while, Matthew reads aloud to the class his story, which makes good use of both "scary" and "growling."

Grenon divides her reading groups by ability. But the students readily move from one group to another as evidenced by all the crossed-out and added-on names on the lists.

Some children read the books from the Houghton Mifflin series the school bought this academic year. The series stresses a thematic, literature-based approach to reading but also includes skills that are supposed to be taught sequentially. But Grenon says some of the stories are difficult for the emergent reader, in large part, because they do not include repetitious words. For students who need either easier or more challenging books, Grenon selects material from a district-approved core book list.

During the day, time is set aside for silent reading, too. What's more, when students complete their assignments, they go to the bookshelves without prompting and pick another book to read.

Rachel chooses A Picture Book of Helen Keller. She can read all the words except for "Tuscumbia," Keller's Alabama hometown.

The day's math lesson is also tied into the language arts. Grenon reads Builder of the Moon, a story about a boy who rides his rocketship to outer space to repair the moon. After hearing the tale, the children cut out geometrical shapes and design spaceships. Then, they are to write about what they did and why.

But the day is coming to an end, and the 1st graders must stack their chairs atop their desks. Tomorrow, they will return to their spaceship projects and start another busy day.

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