This series will highlight real stories from the front lines of education, literacy, and art. I chose Sally Brown to begin the series because we have enjoyed talking over the years and her passion for teaching beginning reading and writing has always been apparent. This interview was enlightening—her continued drive to keep an authentic and organic style of teaching alive in the schools she works in is inspiring.
Sally is currently the principal of a K-2 school. She taught the early grades for 22 years before being begged by admin to become a principal. Though she was hesitant to leave the classroom, once she realized the effect she could have on a bigger scale, she decided to stay on as a principal. She enjoys leading teachers to do their best work for the children and to keep the joy of literacy alive in the classrooms.
Kyla Ryman: How many years did you teach?
Sally Brown: I started teaching at Woolwich [Maine] in 1977, and seven years ago I became principal.
KR: So you have seen literacy and how we think about teaching reading and writing change dramatically. What do you think for you was the biggest shift? Was there a point where things really started to make sense to you? When the thing you were learning was the way to teach literacy...
SB: From the get go. My first regular education teaching job was in the first grade. Everybody was using basal readers and dividing the kids up into the reds, the greens, the blues [ability grouping]. They were basals with scripts! Teacher says: blah blah blah. Student does: blah blah blah. That would not work for me. It was not an authentic way to teach. And it was right along that time that Donald Graves was popular. Don Holdaway came to Boothbay Harbor and taught a year long course about Shared Reading, and Boothbay actually had Nancy Atwell, and all of these great people were coming there [to teach teachers]. They made sense to me! Shared reading makes sense to me. Using poetry and songs and jingles, things that kids can really get into, makes sense to me. Shared reading allows for natural differentiation, so I loved that. And "whole language" came along and I liked the whole concept of whole language. Unfortunately, too many people who didn't really understand it, were saying, "I don't teach phonics, I teach whole language." Well, dammit, you do teach phonics! Of course you do!
KR: Isn't it such a big disappointment, how it became a political issue? Because if whole language is being taught the way it is supposed to be taught, you are teaching phonics. But you are teaching phonics differentiated for each child, how they need it exactly where they are. Not just the same thing to everybody.
SB: And writing workshop, is there any more natural way to teach phonics? And kids love to write! So, that was the big 'aha', maybe I am meant to be a teacher.
KR: Since the tide has kind of been shifting away from even calling it whole language, we now have balanced literacy, right? Which to me is really whole language, taught the way it actually was supposed to be taught in some ways. Except now they want it more prescribed and "teacher proof". What do you think of the common core?
SB: It assumes that we don't have standards. I am afraid that the pendulum is swinging too far back the other way. I see it in some of the older teachers that I have. I am afraid that it is going to take away all the joy. I don't think teachers understand the common core. I don't think they understand that this is a bare minimum of what is expected of kids. The "close reading", okay, but I am not convinced. I am afraid of where people are going to take it. I hate the smarter balanced test, which is computerized, which requires kids to manipulate sentences and scroll back and forth between pages, skills that even teachers who take the test have difficulty doing.
KR: Is this in your age group?
SB: Oh no, but we are talking about changing our schools back to K-5 schools, which can be great and good for kids in some ways, but I don't want to be part of giving those tests because I don't believe in them.
KR: Cause they are not authentic.
SB: They are not.
KR: And they should be helpful to the classroom, rather than penalizing teachers.
SB: And you know the NWEA's, the DRA's, we are using those as benchmarks. That's not what they are for. They are to inform your instruction. That's it. What does this kid need help with?
KR: If you were talking to families of preschoolers, going into pre-k, kindergarten, and first grade, what do you think would be the most important thing that you would want them to know to support their beginning reader?
SB: I would hope that they would, number one, talk to their kids, because language is so important. I think that lots of the families we serve don't do that. I think that many of our families are struggling to survive. I would talk to them about how important it is for kids to come to school and to come on time. I don't think people realize that low attendance in pre-k-1st grade is a great predictor of failure in life. If they don't come to school, they are less apt to finish high school or go to college, they will make less money, maybe not even get a job. People are still stuck in, "when they get to high school, it's important then." But we know now how important the early years are.
KR: There is no overcoming issues of poverty in school.
SB: You can't, but you can form a relationship, a bond with a kid and show that kid that there is a way out and that education and being able to read and being able to write—but especially being able to read, because they go hand in hand, is the most important thing they can do. I tell my teachers that we have the opportunity to change our students' lives, that we could be that one person who makes the difference and inspires that one student to see the value of school and learning. Not everyone appreciates my passion about making sure our kids are learning to read, through analyzing data, collaboration meetings, and holding teachers' feet to the fire.
KR: Because that is the principal's job.
KR: That's what I always imagined would be one of the hardest things about being in your position, is that you are, you have to be the voice in this school. And you have to negotiate the parents, the children, the teachers, the community, the politicians. You get it from all sides. That's brutal.
SB: They all want the same thing. They all want to know that they matter and that you are listening to them and that they have a voice. You may not be able to agree with them, but they are...
KR: Like children!
SB: Yes, I taught first grade for so many years, and I said that the world is filled with first graders. Some are just taller than others.
But I can't give it up. I love the kids who come to my school. Of course we have a mix, some are homeless or they have a dad in jail. The kids who are sent to my office all the time. They are my favorites. I had a kid this year. He is in my office at least once a day. He started out, "I don't care, I don't care." At the end of the school year he would come to my office, because he couldn't stop himself from being naughty. He just couldn't. But when I would talk to him about it and ask him what happened, his eyes would fill with tears, and I knew he was remorseful, you know? He was starting to care. He couldn't stop himself from what he did, but he was sorry. I love that little kid.
KR: Thinking about kids who are from struggling families, do you think that this authentic approach to literacy works best? If so, why?
SB: Unfortunately, I don't see all teachers teaching reading the way I did, using songs, poems, nursery rhymes, fairy tales etc. on charts, and stories in big books like Mrs. Wishy Washy. I think the shared reading that Holdaway talked about and taught so many of us about, is the more authentic way of teaching reading. "Alligator pie, alligator pie, if I don't get some, I think I'm gonna die, Give away the green grass, give away the sky, but don't give away my alligator pie..." Humor, joy, the natural rhythm of language, makes us feel good, and when we feel good, we learn. I think this approach works best with all kids, especially kids who have a little of that in their lives.