My school district has adopted a new phonics program and has required all of us to attend an inservice this summer to learn about it. I went today.
I have to tell you - I hate programs. To me, it's a vote of no confidence in my expertise as an education professional and a reading specialist. So the district hands me a commercially prepared, "teacher-proof" program and mandates that I use it. I hate that. And I hate that our district adopts a new and shiny program every two or three years, so we have to learn and learn programs again and again. It's a grand money-making scheme for the developers and vendors of these "programs". So I'm already unhappy about taking an afternoon of my summer to attend a mandated and uncompensated training to learn about something I could have figured out myself by looking at the teachers' manual.
The training began rather harmlessly with one of those "tell me about yourself" introduction activities. I hate those, too. People never speak loud enough, and when you are almost deaf, it's pretty much an exercise in futility. If I'm giving you my afternoon for free, please cut the fluff and let's get on with it. I really don't know who designed the current and accepted format of teacher in-service, but I think that person should be punished severely for developing such a lame and tiresome model.
Then the demo of the computer software began. This is what we really came for. "What will our students be doing in this "new" program?" We fired up our laptops and keyed in the username and password to begin the demo. I knew I was in trouble when I couldn't hear anything with the headphones. They were a pretty cheap, little headset that sat on the ear, far away from my hearing aid microphone that sits behind my ear. So I took them out and opted for the laptop microphone. The trainer nearly tripped over herself to get to my place and plug my headphones back in. I explained that the headphones were't equipped for use with my hearing aids and that I had unplugged them on purpose so I could hear the demo. She apologized for her assumption of my computer ignorance and gave me one of those goofy embarrassed looks I've become so accustomed to since I lost my hearing.
People really don't know how to respond to me.
Then it began. Not all at once. But as the demo continued, I began to realize that the headphones were the least of my problems. The barrage of phonetic sounds were blasting from the speakers at what I perceived to be a rapid-fire pace. My response to this assessment would determine my placement in the "program."
The first sound I was given was "ch." So I quickly and confidently clicked on the little square marked "ch." Wrong. (It chastised me with a buzzer and highlighted the correct sound of "th.") What? While I'm adjusting to my surprise at missing the first sound, I missed the second one for not responding quickly enough. So on to the third sound, which I wasn't sure if I heard or not, so I began looking for a "repeat" button. BZZZZ! (There was none.) I got the next one. "Th." Nope. BZZZZZ! Now I wasn't confident about anything I was hearing.
I stopped and raised my hand to inquire about what the company was doing to make their shiny, new program accessible to students who wear hearing aids, are hard-of-hearing or deaf, or who may have processing problems that would make discriminating isolated sounds as difficult for them as it was for me. "There really isn't anything for them in this program." Phonics is based on hearing and sound discrimination, after all, I thought. I am a reading specialist. I knew the answer.
I faked an important text message so I could make a graceful exit before I burst into tears.
My knowledge of how children acquire reading did little to prepare me for this experience. I had learned in my reading master's classes that only about a third of our students can learn to read using phonics. The rest require an eclectic approach that uses many different approaches. Had I completed the demo, I would have been placed in the beginning reading level and forced to endure lessons specifically designed for "my level" -- lessons that would supposedly teach me things it thought I didn't know. Mind you, I can understand those sounds in words and even in sentences using meaningful context, it was the isolation of the sounds that was the problem, and those sounds are missing from my ears because of my hearing loss, not because I don't know them. THIS assessment was neither meaningful nor representative of my knowledge of words and sounds. I would be labeled: BELOW-LEVEL. The words screamed inside my head.
It hit home how frustrating it must be for those two-thirds of my students who are forced to learn to read through these "programs." They will be labeled failure to thrive and forced into dull remedial reading programs based on more and more phonics simply because their brains aren't wired for isolated sound discrimination. It is wrong. And it marginalizes who they are, not only as readers, but as human beings.
It's been four hours since the training ended. I still feel like crying. I'll remember this feeling. And I'll use it to make myself a better teacher...and a more compassionate being.