by Cheryl Ristow (Aggie) & Sandy Preston
Around The Block With... The New Kids on the "Block"
Sandy Preston is our guest columnist this month....
I recently received some very encouraging news. I discovered that I am a Blockhead! As a matter of fact, my school is full of Blockheads! Isn't it great?
Now, I have to admit that if the general public heard me proudly shouting from the rooftops that Brockway Area Elementary School in beautiful rural Pennsylvania was overrun with blockheads, they might be just slightly concerned about the education of the 677 children in grades K-6 who call our school home 180 days per year. But, if you are reading this column, you're most likely a regular fan of the columnist who normally occupies this space, Cheryl Ristow, and you know that "Blockheads" are actually devotees to the Four Blocks reading framework. So, I'm proud to say, "I'm a Blockhead!"
I've actually been a Blockhead for about two years. That's when I first heard about the Four Blocks right here at Teachers.Net on the Four Blocks chatboard. I wasn't formally "diagnosed," though, until Cheryl contacted me and asked me to write this column. I mentioned that I might like to talk about how the Four Blocks fever has recently caught on in our area. Cheryl said she was excited to discover that I was a Blockhead, too! Finally, a name for my compulsive need to hang up words on the walls of my classroom!
The Four Blocks fever can do strange things to a person. Just a few short weeks ago, I was attending a class on early literacy and three colleagues and I suddenly found ourselves in front of a roomful of our peers performing our own original song and dance routine about the Four Blocks. The name of our group? "The Four Blockheads," of course! Afterward, I couldn't believe I had done that, but the need to share the effectiveness of Four Blocks is great enough to make one do things she normally wouldn't do!
On a serious note, though, I am excited to see the enthusiasm for Four Blocks spreading in our rural area. As I said, I first learned of it two years ago. At that time, I had only one year of teaching experience to my credit. I had graduated college still a bit uncertain about the best way to teach reading. I spent my first year dabbling with various ideas, feeling as if each one was working for some of my students, but never finding the one method that seemed to reach everyone from the struggler to the gifted student. In my second year of teaching, a fellow second-grade teacher, Helen Newman, introduced me to Making Words and I was hooked! I remembered reading at Teachers.Net that Making Words was part of the Four Blocks, so I sought out more information. The more I read about Four Blocks, the more I began to believe that it might just possibly be the answer I was looking for.
My first step was to seek the advice of our principal, Mr. Robert Cherubini. I have to say that I, and many other teachers I'm sure, feel fortunate to work at Brockway Area Elementary School because of the freedoms we have to practice our own individual teaching styles and do what we know is best for our students. I asked Mr. Cherubini if I had to use the spelling book or word list or if I could use the word wall instead. He told me that I didn't have to use the book or the list. All I had to do was teach spelling. How I did it was up to me. That was a very enlightening moment for me. I remember thinking, "He thinks I know what I'm doing!" At that point, I wasn't even sure I knew what I was doing! But, it was definitely a confidence booster.
So, I began my Four Blocks experience with just the word block. I saw such a tremendous improvement in my students that I started to dabble in the other blocks as well. And the more I dabbled, the more excited I got. And colleagues will verify that the more I get excited about something, the more I talk about it! Before I knew it, others were saying, "Yes, I've heard of Four Blocks before, but I don't know much about it." Well, I was happy to fill in the blanks!
This past school year, I dived into Four Blocks with both feet. My fellow second-grade teachers and I, with support from our district, established a second-grade library of over 150 titles of tradebooks in sets of five. We store them on a cart, affectionately dubbed by the students "The Bookmobile," in the hallway so they can be easily shared. It has been a tremendous resource for both guided reading and self-selected blocks. I truly believe that the group of students who just passed through my room made the most progress of any group I've had yet - not because they were any brighter than my other students, but because Four Blocks truly met their individual needs and allowed each of them to reach their utmost potential.
I remember little Dylan, who, when I asked him to write a little about himself on the first day of school, wrote, "I'm a brat. I hate to write." Well, he wasn't a brat. Neither did he hate to write. He just didn't know it yet. Writing block truly brought out the best in Dylan. It turned out that Dylan just wasn't a very good speller. Well, word block was going to remedy that. But in the meantime, when Dylan discovered that spelling doesn't have to be perfect in writing block, he really blossomed as a writer. His stories went from the two-sentences I received on the first day of school to 10 or more pages of well-developed imaginative writing. Dylan is just one example of a child whose whole attitude about school was changed by Four Blocks. I could relate similar stories about children who were affected by each of the other three blocks as well. At the beginning and end of the year, I conducted literacy attitude surveys for both reading and writing. I was amazed at the difference in responses over 9 short months. By year's end, most every student in my class professed a love of reading and writing.
In the spring, a grant was available from our intermediate unit. I wrote an application and was thrilled to have it funded. With the money, we brought in Deb Smith, an awesome Four Blocks presenter. Over 45 teachers from seven area school districts attended. One of them readily admitted that she entered the workshop with a totally closed mind and left completely hooked on the idea of Four Blocks. At the last meeting of my early literacy class, I wish I had a dime for every time Four Blocks was brought up in the discussion or a Four Blocks resource book was passed around the circle. The excitement is so great that our intermediate unit has arranged to bring Deb Smith back for an "Extending the Four Blocks" workshop in August. The number of "new kids on the block" is growing!
I may have helped to light the Four Blocks fire in our area, but my fellow educators are fanning the flames. A friend pointed out the other day that I had probably helped hundreds of children become better readers through my introduction of Four Blocks to other teachers. She asked me how it felt. Well, I hadn't really thought of it before then, but now I can say, it feels good!