My older daughter is a grade 1 student in a French Immersion school and this year the school emphasizes reading and writing basic sight words as one of the goals for the kids. While the first four months she brought no homework, starting this month, her class will do a regular dictation exercise at the end of the week in the classroom, with additional practice as a homework for the weekend.
Me and my wife were really excited when she brought back a leaflet titled Dictation Practice Tips, with specific instructions to help parents work with their child based on their learning style! The list included tips for children with visual and aural memory, analytic children, kinetic children, tactile children, musical children and artistic children.
What a great way to empower the parents to join their kids’ learning! We’ve been given a tool to help our daughter to learn her words more efficiently and more importantly, to figure out her preference for learning so we could potentially help her in learning other stuff and not just reading and writing words!
Excited and with high expectations, tonight I decided to take the first stab at trying out few of the approaches as I was negotiating with my daughter to finish playing Animal Jam (educational and fun online game from National Geographic) on the computer and do her practice before going to bed. What happened next came as a great surprise to me!
While the tips we got led me to believe that the kids have been using different practice methods already in the classroom, the reality is that the teacher is using a very specific way of doing the practice. Despite what the tips leaflet suggests, no play-dough, singing or running is involved in the practice! Instead, each kid has a laminated sheet with defined areas for writing and correcting and they’re using dry erase markers for each practice. (At this point I should add that I am not able to say if the teacher is at all enabled to try some of the stuff suggested in the tips for the parents or if she’s simply following whatever instructions she has for the program!)
My daughter is very keen on following her teacher’s instructions — literally! I was aware of this already, but today it slammed me in my face as she started crying that she can’t do the practice at home because she forgot her laminated sheet at her after school care! She felt devastated and no attempt on my side to convince her that she can still practice on a plain sheet of paper worked. :-( I tried to bring logical arguments and explain to her that learning and practicing are not limited by the tools we use, but that didn’t seem to make any difference in her emotional state. Finally, after 5 minutes, when the crying finally subdued, she did agree to take the paper and try.
When she started preparing her paper so it resembles the sheet from school as closely as possible — matching everything, from the title and date, to drawing lines where the words are supposed to be written, to putting boxes for circling if she wrote the words written correctly (oui) or made a mistake (non) — I realized I haven’t accomplished anything to help her learn in the process! She was unhappy for not having the original sheet and by making her own replica on the paper she tried to salvage the situation and still felt terrible for forgetting the sheet. No learning was going to happen that way and it was definitely not fun for either of us!
At that point I realized logic can never deal with emotions and I had to do something drastically different from what she’s been doing at school — something that would seem outrageous as a way to practice writing words to her, but at the same time is really fun to do!
This is what we ended up doing:
I can’t explain how much joy it was to see her transition from feeling devastated to being excited! She was free to not only play with the mustard while trying to write the words from the dictation practice, but went beyond those words and added additional words, played with styling, and most importantly, had loads of fun! So much fun, in fact, that we ended up with this at the end ;-)
No real learning happens if we are not enjoying the process. Learning can and should sometimes be messy! Schools are sending mixed messages to parents if they preach one way to parents but practice another way within the school walls. If kids are conditioned to believe there is only one way to practice — the one the teacher uses in the classroom! — the parents are disempowered and need to deal with formidable challenges to make their kids try other approaches. When this happens, there is a risk that the learning within the claasroom and within the home happen in two parallel Universes in the children’s minds, as they’re afraid to bring the learning methods across.
For us, beside discussing with the teacher, my daughter and her mom have already laid plans for baking several sets of the alphabet next Saturday, in preparation of the next dictation practice! ;-)