Saturday, September 6, 2008

Earliest Beginnings

Soundabet first began more than 40 years ago when, in high school I served as a volunteer teacher in East Palo Alto's Saturday School. Gertrude Wilks started the school to help primary students who were falling behind in reading and math.

I did not know how to teach reading.

I remember two things quite clearly. First I remember the opening assemblies that kicked off the day. They felt almost like a church service: a sermon and some singing. Everyone gathered to hear a pep talk delivered by Ms. Wilks expressing her faith in the power of education followed by a rousing sing-a-long featuring "We Shall Overcome" "Down by the Riverside" and other anthems of the Civil Rights era.

The second thing I remember is the confusion I felt as I tried to help my third grade boy.

Saturday School didn't train us to teach reading. It was assumed, reasonably enough, that if we could read, then we could teach reading.

The confusion on his face ... was painful to see.

First-hand experience, however, taught me this: Knowing how to read and knowing how to teach reading are two entirely different things.

I knew I could read. I knew I did not know how to teach reading. I remember trying to explain to my poor student that the letter "o" made the short u sound and the letter "f" made the v sound in the word, "of." The confusion on his face as I tried to explain this to him was painful for me to see.

At that point, I thought that it was simply a matter of me learning the skills of teaching reading. In 1967 I would not have guessed that there was a good deal of disagreement about how people learn to read. I could not have known then that over the course of my lifetime much would be discovered about what's going on in brains as they learn to read.

Back then I didn't worry too much about any of this. Back then I had no idea I'd spend a good part of my life working on this problem.

Next Saturday I'll talk about the earliest days of my teaching career.

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