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Now I Know Just How Bad Open Court Can Be

Posted: 2009-04-23

April 24, 2009
Here is an inside description of just how bad
things are--for kindergartners and for teachers
forced into professional development workshops
aligned with the basal programs.

Now that my son is in kindergarten, I understand

just how bad Open Court can be. It isn't just the

program itself, but the attitudes toward teaching

children to read/write that develop at a school

and in a district when Open Court is the only

thing being used.

The ONLY thing my son has done in

kindergarten this year is sit at his desk and

fill out worksheets. Language Arts is taught to

the whole class- everyone together, doing the

same thing no matter what individual needs exist.

If the children rotate groups during language

arts it is literally to go from one worksheet

group to another. The students are expected to

have something like 32 high frequency words

memorized now and they are reading decodables.

Parent volunteers tell me that students who are

struggling just cry or withdraw. These are

kindergartners, and there's no understanding that

some children might not yet be ready to read

decodables and memorize high frequency words.

Then there are students like my son. He

happens to be reading end first grade/early

second grade level. When he comes home from

school he loves to read his dinosaur books. I

watch him use reading strategies and monitor for

meaning--and draw pictures of cars and dinosaurs

and pirates and write about his pictures. I was

thrilled at the beginning of kindergarten when I

noticed him start to consistently use vowels in

his writing. What a big developmental leap! I

went up to his teacher and told her, thinking

we'd talk together about how exciting it was. She

looked at me like I was crazy. It took me a

while to understand that she didn't know or care

because they NEVER write in her class- NEVER.

The children in my son's class are never

encouraged or even given the opportunity to write

anything. There is no celebration of children's

writing--no understanding that some will be

drawing a picture and writing using only

consonants, others might be experimenting with

long vowel spellings. I think they should all

have paper or journals at their desk to write and

draw in.

My son brings home the Open Court decodables

with his homework (worksheets--some that even

say, "test practice" and have bubbles to fill

in!), and promptly gives them to his three-year-

old brother. "Here's a book for you, Eric." He

tells me, "Mom, look at this book- 'Matt sat.

He sat here.' Isn't that ridiculous mom?" Then

he gets out "Fox on the Job" and re-reads the

chapter where Fox gets a job at a haunted house

and laughs about what Fox says with his brother.

What is all of this teaching my son about

school? When I ask him how he feels about school

he tells me he just gets through it until recess.

Sometimes it takes a really long time to get to

recess, but he loves recess. He sits at his desk

and colors the pictures that start with the /w/

sound, even though that isn't really appropriate

for him, and he waits for the recess bell to


Kindergarten is no longer a place to learn

about yourself and others, listen to stories, do

shared reading, sing, draw, and write (at

whatever developmental stage you happen to be

in), do art, do hands-on learning, learn about

things in your world with a teacher who has

passion and an understanding of the different

levels of the children in his/her class. Now

it's about using a scripted program and meeting

the standards. Assessment is no longer about

understanding the instructional level of a child;

it's nothing more than a list of the standards

s/he is supposed to have met.

I talked to parents who were in shock after the

parent/teacher conference at the beginning of the

year. I was in shock too. My son's teacher went

over his report card and told me how he did on

all the asssessments. "He can supply rhyming

words (2 out of 3), he was able to identify the

letters, he could only count up to 20--I'll hold

him accountable to count to 30 by the spring...."

etc. I wanted to tell her, "I'll be holding you

accountable to TEACH him by the spring!"

I realized that there is no sense at my son's

school (after talking with parents who have kids

in other grades) that the purpose of assessment

is to inform instruction. It is very different

to say, "this is what I've observed and also seen

on assessments--this is how I'm going to change

my teaching to meet your child's needs", or

"these are the things I'm doing to teach your

child on his/her instructional level". Instead,

the standards are like a meaningless laundry list

of things students are supposed to know/do and

they better get it from the whole class

instruction, or they get a bad grade. Even in

kindergarten! I wanted to ask my son's teacher,

"Do you know why you want him to supply rhyming

words? Why is that important?" etc. There is no

longer any thought to why--why is this important,

what does this really tell me, how does this

affect the way I'm teaching? All of that seems

to be lost. Instead it's: students must meet

the standards even if we don't really understand

the purpose of those standards.

The day I observed in my son's class I was

really depressed. I wondered how he or the other

students could deal with the boredom. If they

finished their worksheet early they were expected

to sit there with nothing to do. No one had a

book bag with books s/he could read--because

there are no books in the classroom on different

levels. It's decodables or nothing. You'd think

they could at least have a decodable book bag!

I've been in kindergartens as a literacy coach

where all the students had a book bag- some had

books with a picture and one word (mom/friend/

teacher), others had books with one sentence on a

page, others were reading early first grade level

etc. All the students could come to me and

proudly show me what they were reading.

Kindergartners are thrilled to draw a picture and

write something about it--or dictate something

for an adult to write. They are naturally

curious about everything and passionate about

learning. My son's kindergarten doesn't have an

ounce of passion in it. There is nothing in the

classroom that is from the children-- nothing

showing what is important to them, what they

want to learn about, what are they curious

about, what they love.

I talked to the principal about my concerns

and asked about professional development for the

teachers. She told me that teachers get "tons"

of professional development, it's just what they

do with it. Yes, I guess that's the point.

Unfortunately, there's no vision at the school,

no vision from the principal to do anything about

the problems I've noticed.

I walked up and down the halls last week and

looked on the walls at my son's school, hoping to

see any evidence of something else going on at

the school. Every hallway bulletin board in the

entire school had worksheets stapled on it- Open

Court worksheets.

And Open Court has done nothing for my son's

school--they have an API of 1 out of 10! That's

not exactly an endorsement for Open Court.

Unfortunately, it isn't just Open Court. My

district adopted Houghton Mifflin over Open

Court. Since I was a reading teacher I was

required to go to the reading institute. It was

terrible. I had just finished my Reading

Certificate and had some incredible professors so

it was doubly awful having to sit through five

full days of the "institute."

We sat around and practiced "phonemic awareness

cheers". There was never an intelligent

discussion on phonemic awareness: What is it? Why

is it important? What do we accomplish with this

cheer? etc. We filled out worksheets and, of

course, drew pictures on chart paper with markers

(draw a picture of 'phonics is to reading as

____________ is to ________________).

At the end of the institute we were supposed to

do a required amount of extra hours. We could

read books to fulfill some of the time. The

women doing the institute told us we were not to

read anything that didn't agree with the Houghton

Mifflin authors. Absolutely not! For instance,

if we read something by Marie Clay that would NOT

COUNT! She does not agree with the Houghton

Mifflin authors!

I was horrified. First of all, we are college

educated professionals. Shouldn't we be reading

different view points and discuss them--something

called reading critically? Second of all,

Reading Recovery has tons of phonemic awareness

in it (Elkonin boxes etc.). How could they say

reading anything by Clay would be reading

something that didn't agree with the Houghton

Mifflin authors! Scary.

At this same time I went to several ESL

workshops and was told by the presenter when she

reviewed her bibliography with us, "Don't read

Krashen! Just cross him off the list! I only

have him on here because I referenced something

he wrote to show how wrong it is. Don't read

anything by him!" Again, I was horrified and

couldn't believe what I was hearing.

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