A Veteran Teacher Looks At "Success For All" - SFA
by Georgia Hedrick
In the presentation of SFA:
For the first encounter with learning about SFA, during Teacher Institute Day, I went to the SFA presentation. Here's what I noted:
The chart presented in the overhead didn't make sense. As the grades went across, and the bar graph went up, the n= amount went down. It went from n=60 in Kg to n=5 in 7th grade. I asked: What does n mean?
Oh, said the salesperson, now I am embarrassed. I am at a loss to answer you.
I thought: you show a chart, brag about the chart, and then cannot explain the chart? How stupid! I thought: Who would consider such a program with stupid people.
This same person was saying how well researched and replicable this program was. So I looked at the research sheet they gave us. All the research was done by the same man who composed the program. I thought: is this some sort of joke or what?
I had this strange, but negative feeling the entire time I was there. Somehow, I felt like this thing would strangle me soon. That's when I started to do my research on this program. I began searching online for information. This was the summer before the year of investigating.
At first, SFA had a site where teachers could discuss ideas, and share things. Then it got negative. I remember the date - June 9th, 1998. I had put up a bunch of snotty remarks about how silly and useless the program of SFA was. I had also given location sites to investigate for research on it, such as the name of Venezky and the question as to why didn't Baltimore have SFA anymore if it started there and is gone.
On the SFA site was this big "BEWARE OF WHAT GEORGIA HEDRICK WRITES. She has never been to SFA training and doesn't know what she's talking about." But I had been there. I did know of what I was talking. That's when I saw that they were afraid of the truth. I was the headliner of that day.
Fred was contributing to that site as well with piercing and poignant remarks, with more calmness than I was. His concerns were the lack of technology used in it, and the amount of work involved preparing for each day to do this program at the 5th grade level each day.
About that same time, I started to get email from people - I don't really know them and didn't know them - who raged at me, called me schizoid, and dangerous and all sorts of things really out of proportion to reality stuff. They said I should quit teaching and lots of other things that were intended to hurt. Over time, they did.
Then I noticed that Fred and my remarks were being selectively erased and only positive remarks were left on the site. I laughed at their fear. Then Fred emailed me with an idea of a site to put our info on line. I had some studies gathered: Venezky, Ruffini, and the Diogenes article by Greenwall et al. I sent it to Fred. Fred was collecting scores from online from schools and posting them. In the beginning, it was part of his school site, until his Principal told him he couldn't be negative about SFA. That how alt-sfa began. I continued with research, printing up stuff, sending new stuff to Fred, and putting it out at school in mailboxes.
A girl named Penny in Arizona saw SFA as just the beginning of the corporate takeover of education. She sent me lots of stuff on New American Schools and SFA. Once the site started, lots of teachers started talking about the fear and intimidation at the school. Everyone did the lockstep march, and no one disagreed. It was strange. No one used his or her own name for fear of job loss. How could a reading program have so much power, I wondered. I had been emailing Slavin about his horrible program; but I only got one email from him saying how sorry he was that my District didn't let me transfer out. Then I started getting email from John Hollifield saying that if I just understood how wonderful this program was, I would love it. I asked him why no consideration is given to the Venezky report or the Gottfredson report. He emailed back about how Venezky wasn't yet in print, so he couldn't comment. And that Sam Stringfield was writing a response to the Gottfredson report - he even sent me a copy of the response a head of time. He said I couldn't share it because it wouldn't be printed until August. But I found the report didn't answer the questions poised by Gottfredson at all.
I found it strange that someone of the position of John Hollifield would email me at all. Hollifield has passed away since then - maybe he died of the shock of the reality of SFA. He sounded very sincere.
I was digging up more and more stuff. Slavin never had a degree in reading. Well, my question was: why are we accepting this program from a man who does not even have a reading degree? If Slavin taught, it was 25 years ago, at a school that no longer exists, and for one year.
Who gave him the right to tell teachers how to teach? More and more questions came to mind about this situation. Is someone being paid off to accept this program? Why is no one listening to outside research?
I get READING TEACHER, and I read it faithfully. I noticed that Slavin's stuff isn't to be found in Reading Teacher. I noticed also that Slavin is not part of the IRA convention each year. I read authors who suggested that "prescriptive programs" are not what children need. The message is continued by KAPPAN articles that say: "top-down programs do not reap positive change."
Then came the faculty meeting back at school. By this time, I had lots of research and info on the various reading programs. However, the Principal didn't want to hear them. He was set. When another teacher asked for my information, saying: I'd like to know why Georgia is so against SFA. The Principal interrupted saying, 'she's afraid of the SFA police coming to watch her." But I had never heard this term. I have never been afraid of anyone watching me teach. My information was not allowed. The room was so strangely silent.
Then there was a discussion about a trip to Modesto to visit an SFA school in operation. About 6 teachers and the Principal went. I was invited but I didn't go. I am also leery of one-day visits to decide a future of a school. I would do the outside reading on the research. I would give it to the Principal. And I did. None of my outside research was shared with staff or discussed. I was and am of the opinion that my Principal never read any of the research stuff I gave him.
"We will vote," said the Principal, "in a few days. We have to have 80% support for this program."
A few days passed. Then, one day when we had 10 subs in school, the Principal announced that we would vote. I thought this was odd because so many of the teachers were not there. We voted - secretly, by putting yes or no in a box and checking off our name on a list the secretary had.
The Principal did the counting. He announced that SFA had won by one vote. Who knew otherwise?
In the training procedure, here's what I noticed: The textbooks for first grade were these black and white flimsy drawing books with language that sounded like it had been translated from the Chinese. "Dad gets gas." "Dad pops up the ladder." 'sad Sam is sad." At the break, I asked the trainer: "Are these the books for the children???" She said yes. "These???" I asked, horrified at the poor quality of art, the poor way of speaking within the text. She affirmed it again.
I went to the back of the room and cried. She came over and asked what was wrong. I said, "I am watching the death of creativity in teaching and it is killing me." She said, "Oh no, you would be every bit as creative as you have always been!" I asked, "How? There is neither space nor time for me to teach. There is only the program." "You will see", she said.
I never saw.
How did "teacher-proofing" show up in my awareness? I remember hearing the woman say: put little post-it notes on the back of each page so that you will say correctly what you are to say. I said: you are supposed to say exactly what it says on top of each page. She says: That how SFA works! Fidelity to the program. Relentless fidelity.
I had a flash back to my first year of teaching when I was told to follow the teacher manual exactly until I could get my own style. When I read the manual word for word, I felt stupid. I thought then, at age 22, "If I can read a manual, why not just give a copy of the manual to each 5th grader and let them do it for themselves? If I am a teacher, I have to add something to this, surely. So, I started to do things with my way attached to the manual. I was 22 years old. It was 1962.
I was 58 when this program came into my face. I felt like this was a joke to laugh at. Then, I realized they were serious.
I thought: do the people, who built this, think teachers are idiots? Any fool knows certain basics, like: you have to know sounds, you have to recognize letters, you have to connect these things together, you do it with pictures that make you say words, and you have to recognize what a word is.
Why is this woman presenter acting as if a new element has just been discovered? Why does she act as if a miracle has just happened? A program is nothing; a child is everything. To discover the process by which a child learns is the thrill of teaching. Every child has a different process, even if ever so slightly, to learn. The fun of teaching is the discovery and the development of what is learned in this discovery.
But here is a program that is: "one size fits all." How insulting. When or if a mom put the same size clothing on all her children, some will feel bad because such clothing will not fit.
The child is everything in this teaching and learning process. The order in which you do things depends entirely on each and every child.
I thought: surely, all the teachers will laugh and guffaw at such idiocy as is in this program.
When we went back to school, only one or two teachers talked badly about the program. The rest were silent. It was as if children didn't matter in this deal, just looking good, pleasing the administration mattered. Didn't they see what I saw? Was I really that alone?
There was so much talent at this school. Instead of sharing the talent, all we did was listen to some outsider telling us how to be the same way. Children were the very last consideration in this matter.
A classroom has its own culture, its own community. Now the culture and the community would be broken apart. We would be invaded by outsiders telling us exactly how to teach, as if we were first year teachers. This was a total violation of my philosophy and no one cared. No one asked. We were told to do this. No amount of outside research would change this.
Ok, I thought. I will give it a try. I lasted one day. First, the plans didn't make sense. They were too loaded with cutzy little things to make sense. It was not in teacher lingo.
The objectives were not for the student; they were for the teacher. That was the first biggee saying that I am a dummy. I needed objectives. Not kids.
My objectives were to introduce a purpose for reading - duh! (It doesn't work that way; reading is its own joy. Kids do not need a purpose - they want to make the magic happen.)
Next objective: letter, sound of "d." But more letter 's" s are used than d in this story. Why connect the letter d to it. There were other reasons. Most poor kids don't own dogs; dogs cost too much. Hound dogs are as far away from them as you can get.
Next objective: 'stretch and read" - there's a cutsy term - for me to use for kids. It's my objective, not theirs. Then comes: "introduce - how to predict" normally this flows naturally. Last objective is to introduce a period at the end of a sentence. (But I used to do this with journal writing.)
Then I had to use a tongue twister: But how does all of this fit in? It is really too many words. Dizzy dogs dig doughnuts during December. First, the vocabulary of "dizzy" - I needed to explain. But how could dizzy dogs dig?
I would have used a child's name, and we would have written, David does well. Or Dwayne. Or some child with a D start. It's much more at home for them. It is also in the building of the classroom community. Besides dogs are said to be too dizzy to dig! How could they? Doughnuts? Did the kids know what doughnuts were? Besides, the picture in the book doesn't even show a doughnot. It shows a bun. There's no hole in the middle. When I used nursery rhymes before, no one had to worry about such explanations.
Now we are to show picture pairs. I have to assume that the pictures are drawn well. Photos would be much better. I didn't like the pictures anyway. Dropped them.
Then we had to match pictures with letters that start the name of the picture. First time review, I show a 'man' for 'm'. The whole class yells: "Austin Powers!" So much for how current these pictures are. I didn't like the pictures. I'd have the kids draw something that started with that sound and tell us about it.
READLES. Here's another cutzy name. Teachers have been using this for years. Only, it is not called their made-up name. Now I cannot remember its real name. They continue to invade my vocabulary. So I forget theirs. Next is 'share sheet" - we have to use the terminology the same so it stays the same from room to room. Dropped that. (Now they are telling me how to talk?)
Letter formation in the air. Use the cue phrase. But I don't want to; it is unnatural. This whole thing is unnatural.
Review letters. Review word wall. Keep the pace going.
SHOWTIME - another cutzy word for read together in pairs or in chorus.. Same book, over and over.
This is too much I think, and it is galling me in the gut. I am getting angry at this idiocy.
Now the lesson plan uses the 'show and tell" phrase. I personally hate that phrase. I used to have kids show me their favorite books with the best picture that would get me to wonder and if it did, I'd let them up to explain about the book, or, I'd read the story to them. They loved doing this because it was their choice of book to start with.
But now we are on to 'sETTING THE STAGE" another cutzy phrase. It's like this whole thing is some sort of game, not for real. The phoniness guts me to the core.
I am told the exact questions to ask. I don't use them.
Teacher Script: It says: "read to page 3. Read slowly, with expression." [What, I am going to race through it and sound like a computer? Oh duh no.2!]
Now I am told to ask more stupid questions about a stupid story to start with. I am embarrassed at this point. No child should have to endure such poor writing from others.
Next day, we have to sing with a tape an alphabet song, part of which move too quickly and none of which has the words put on charts. The song doesn't make sense - not for first graders.
(This whole program is starting to remind me of something thrown together, not carefully thought out. It certainly had no teacher imput.)
Now we are back to the same silly tongue twister and the same letter formations - all teacher mandated. We do the two picture match, the same two pictures, we make the d sound. We go through the mouth formation. Now we use the puppet, called Alphie, to help us.
[Man I am resenting this. I had my own puppet, called: Woofer. We called him out when we wanted him. It was a "we" room back then. Now it is a programmed room. The invasion is repulsive.]
Now we make shapes of d. On the back of another child. On the hand of the other child. In the air. [Ok. I like this idea. I would have adopted it.]
Now the kids are supposed to think of d words and say them to each other.
I would have gone on a letter hunt around the school. We would hunt for things with a d start to them. Door would be first.
Now they want the matching letters with pictures that they have given us. Once more I say, I would have had kids draw and write.
All SFA stuff stays within their equipment. Nothing is outside of it.
"Quick Erase", [another cutsy term that I hate] but the idea, I would adopt. It is basically building word families and seeing patterns.
'say-Spell-Say" - is for short word. I used to call it: see-say-spell. Now they take from me my own ideas, or so I feel.
[Geez, what an invasion this is!]
We are back to guided group reading but it is the same story. I hate the story. The kids are going to see that because I hide nothing.
Now we do partner reading - same story.
More questions of each other. Who cares?
Worksheets that SFA boldly calls "writing." Put d three times, and finish this: "I am_________________. I am _______________." However, the words above are under the picture of a duck and a picture of a doughnut, which is drawn without the hole in the middle, which means it is not a doughnut.
What will first graders write? They will write: I am duck. I am doughnut. Will they understand? Not at all. The connection is not on the page. (I throw these papers out.)
Now we do more 'stretch and count" - I know that this is for phonemic awareness but it is done in a silly way. Just exaggerate the sounds of the words. Ask what they hear.
Why? Who knows? I'd only do it if the child wanted a word and couldn't put it in his or her journal. Then they have a reason to do this, and they write what they hear.
CELEBRATION here is another word that is an SFA word. The child is to read from the same book to all the others. Frankly, my kids would pick a book from our classroom library, and when they were ready, they would ask to read what they could to the class. I would pin on them a "reading angel" pin that would show they had made it to that point.
I couldn't do this program, lockstep. It invaded my world of creativity. It told me ways to talk that were unnatural to me. I had my puppets. I had my methods. I am able to do this on my own.
The problem was: my class was torn apart to go elsewhere, allegedly on their level. I had no imput. Some aide did the SFA testing and deciding. This whole think was getting wackier and wackier. My kids" classroom culture was dying. I couldn't tell parents how their child was doing if I didn't have them. I had been through this stuff before. No one had time for my parents and my kids like I did. Then there were these new kids that I knew nothing about.
On Fridays, we let our kids out for early dismissal - that parents had nothing to say over, over which we throw their schedules into a tizzy - so that we teachers could talk. But the teachers did not talk. It was a joke. It was phony. We had a spineless wonder for a principal.
What had gotten us into this mess is the same thing that would keep us here: NO ONE WOULD TALK. Now the nightmares began. I mean, real nightmares for me at home, at night, when I finally could get to sleep. I would go to bed at 9 and lay there till 1 or 2 a.m. I would dream of arguing about the program with those in power, and fearing for the children, and being brushed off by the facilitator. I was up at 5 a.m. I had woken up hourly, and lay there wondering what to do. I knew this much. I COULD NOT TEACH SFA THE WAY IT WAS WRITTEN TO BE TAUGHT. It violated my philosophy of teaching to the core.
I saw that I was supposed to do it the SFA way. The terminology would mean nothing if I didn't use it; it had to be used. I resented it. I felt so alone. I actually felt violated. How dare they! The anger was mounting. I wanted my last year to be my best year. It was going down hill fast. I was asked to be someone else, not me, if I was to stay there. I had worked for 36 years to get to be the me I am as a teacher, and now, it was all taken away.
I felt isolated. I started to be afraid that the stress would have me go into a black-out, the sort of which I used to do when I taught upper grades, where I collapsed with no warning. Upper graders helped when it happened to me. First graders would become terrified. I was crying every night. The one joy of my life was being destroyed before my very eyes - teaching. I was being railroaded into the lockstep of some silly program called SFA. My last year was turning into all chicken bones and butter.
My last year was so different than what I had dreamed it to be. I never have won an award and I never expected to; all I ever wanted was to do the very best job during my very last year. I couldn't.
What was the turning point? When was I positively sure I had to go? When new children I knew nothing of came into my room after the 8-week assessment, and I had a child taken from me, because, they said, "he can speak English now." I knew he couldn't. I had an autistic child who only spoke Spanish as well in my room, with an aide. She worked with Marcos and this autistic child together. She was bilingual. The three were a team. Marcos was developing by helping Tony, and Tony was becoming braver by having Marcos as his friend. Then came the Facilitator to take him away. I said no. She said yes. We starred each other down. "I told her: you are really something else." She said back, 'so are you." There was no reasoning or discussion. The test said so. She took Marcos and went.
I knew then that I had to go. There was no respect for me here. I was really alone, more alone than I first suspected. I started to feel like I couldn't teach well in any way, shape or form. Some old and horrid feelings were invading me from long, long ago. Back from leaving the community, the convent, back from the days when back then I was at a crossroads of conscience, too. Alone. Abandoned. Worthless. Useless. And all because I couldn't tow the company line.
I attended only one visit by the SFA people. I was silent. I didn't do SFA when they came by. They, in the meeting, really said very little. I just stared. They asked me what I had to say. I just said: "You really don't want to hear what I have to say." They seemed uncomfortable. I left.
But the worst was yet to come.
In tears I went to the regular physician and asked him if he could write a letter for a medical leave for me for depression. I was not sleeping. I cried most of the time. I worried. I was at a crossroads of conscience. He did and he said I needed some counseling. He sent me to the psychiatrist: Dr. Altinson. I also went to Dr. Dapra, my neurologist. I asked him if this sort of stress could cause a seizure. He said that it could. He also wrote me a note requesting my leave.
Dr. Altinson put me on Paxil and trazadone. That was back in January of 1999. I went monthly to see her for a year. I cried a lot. I felt that I had been drummed out by something ever so poor in quality. If something that poor in quality had the power to get rid of me, just who was I? What a sad, sad way to end the most fun thing I have ever done - teaching.
I had 200 days of saved sick leave. I used 87 of them that year all at once on medical leave. I gave up some $9000 in payment for unused sick leave. But there was no other way for me to survive, in conscience.
Beyond that, every night, every single night, and to this very day, in October of 2000, I dream I am still teaching. At first, it was the little kids, and it was all arguing with teachers, it was losing control of the class, it was helplessness and hopelessness. Now, it is taking teens on trips, or decorating for their dances. But it is always with the teaching world.
I left my teaching world, unfinished. I guess it is up to my dreams to finish it.
I don't know how long that's going to take.
At first, I laughed at the poor quality - I kept remembering Michaela Joy in the Seminary saying: "You must be joking!" And then laughing hysterically over some order or custom we had to do, like, we had to wash and hang up our own handkerchiefs, we only washed our hair once a week, we took a bath twice a week, we wore fishus on top of our nightgowns to bed and we never flushed toilets at night..."you must be joking!" I could hear the voice of Michaela in my mind's memory. That's pretty much how I felt about SFA at first....
Then, came the shock at the realization that this was for real.
Then came the silence, the isolation,
then the resentment for the invasion,
then the anger,
then the fear that I cannot do what I wanted, what I knew I have done for so many years, so well.
Finally the depression and tears and helplessness and sleeplessness.
I kept thinking of King Lear's words:
"You think I'll weep, but I'll not weep! This heart will break into a hundred thousand parts or ere I'll weep! Oh, fool, I shall go mad."
So I did the weeping to prevent the madness.
- Georgia Hedrick, First grade teacher, Reno, NV
34 years teaching experience