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Now I Know Just How Bad Open Court Can Be

Publication Date: 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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