Whole language emerges at Murphy

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Seven-year-old Anne Shultz opens the cover of one of her favorite books. The story is about “the biggest pumpkin,” which gets turned into a human being by a nice witch. The ending makes her laugh. “And he lived happily ever after,” she reads, “but his head was still a pumpkin.”

Meanwhile, the author of The Pumpkin, Kirsten Dobner, is working only a few feet away from Anne, for she, too, is a pupil in Ellen Meyers’ 2nd-grade classroom at Murphy Elementary School in Irving Park.

“Publishing” stories is becoming a regular part of the reading curriculum at Murphy, as primary-level teachers strive to make reading and writing more meaningful for children. The Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development is helping the teachers replace skill drills with projects.

“I can give them sheets with blanks, and they fill them in, and it doesn’t mean anything to them,” explains Meyers, who did away with phonics and reading worksheets because they teach skills in isolation. When students write a story, she says, they practice skills for a purpose.

Reading time

For Room 202, reading time begins each day at 9:15 with morning meeting. Students sit cross-legged on a rug in the corner of the room and read today’s message in unison from a large pad of paper propped up against an easel. The message—today’s first “meaningful context”—contains punctuation and capitalization mistakes for the children to correct. “Good morning happy students today is Monday, November 13 1995. It is very cold and icy outside.”

Another activity, similar to the TV game show “Wheel of Fortune,” helps students figure out spelling patterns. One girl whispers a sentence to Meyers, who draws a short line on the paper for each letter. The girl picks classmates to call out letters and fills in correct guesses until a student can puzzle out her secret message.

Morning meeting ends with a “good morning” greeting. Standing in a circle, children bow to a classmate on the left and the right, greeting each by name. “It’s part of reading,” says Meyers. “They have to feel comfortable and be part of the group in order to be learning.”

Next comes journal writing. Each student pulls out a small spiral notepad for 10 minutes of free writing. Some tell what happened over the weekend, others invent stories. Because the goal is to help children write expressively, Meyers responds to the content of these journals, not the mechanics.

“Sometimes you get a new child from a place where they had to write it down correctly.” she explains. “They sit there with their journal and look at it and can’t write anything until you tell them its OK, write it the way it sounds. Then the thoughts begin to flow.”

Reading groups take up the rest of the morning. Meyers meets with her top eight readers and hands each a paperback story about identical triplets. Students skim their books silently, then read aloud in turn. Along the way, Meyers pauses to question them. Some questions connect new ideas with what they already know (What’s the difference between twins and triplets? Do you know any twins or triplets?). Others build understanding of story structure (What was the problem in this story? What’s the solution?).

The story also provides another context for learning punctuation. “I want you to look at the word ‘baby’s.’ What is that mark?”

“Comma,” answers one girl.

“It’s shaped like a comma, but it’s higher up,” says Meyers. “It’s an apostrophe. They have apostrophe ‘s.’ Why?”

Another girl: “If there wasn’t one baby they put the ‘s.'”

“This is a little different.” explains Meyers. “It doesn’t mean more than one. It means the arm that belongs to the baby. It’s the baby’s arm.”

As a follow-up activity, Meyers folds sheets of blue paper in half for children to write and illustrate their own stories about triplets. Once again, youngsters are free to use “invented spelling.” Of three identical troll brothers, one boy writes, “… And whan thay went to school thay did not no ho was ho. So the teecher got in Idea to malk sherts with there name on it.”

The idea behind “invented spelling” is that children learn to write through trial and error, just as they learn to speak, and that red-pen corrections inhibit their thinking. To teach spelling, Meyers still relies on the old-fashioned weekly spelling list and a phonics lesson. It’s not that students study fewer spelling words; it’s just that they do far more writing. Students do edit stories they want to “publish,” but correcting every piece of writing would take too much time. Besides, she says, “Kids weren’t necessarily learning more when you insisted every word on the page be correct.”

Follow-up activities vary, and some, like a puppet show or play, may take several days and require students to reread a story many times. Students will wrap up today’s lesson tomorrow by reading their stories out loud to the group.

A quiet classroom

For 20 minutes, Meyers has hardly looked up from her reading group, as students around the room work quietly. A second reading group sits on the rug with a student teacher. At the listening center, four students with headphones read along to a taped story. Others, supervised by a parent volunteer, read with partners or play a story-writing game on the computer.

Several improvements at Murphy made this idyllic scene possible. For one, new equipment: The school recently put two computers and a printer in every classroom. Other grants paid for Meyers’ listening center and an expanded classroom library. Two, more hands in the classroom: The school has 10 student teachers this year. An active PTA and local school council also helped recruit a record number of volunteers. (Meyers gets help four to five mornings a week.)

Finally, and most important of all, Murphy decreased class size over the past five years using state Chapter 1 money. Meyers credits class size—hers dropped to 23 this year—for the change in her teaching style. The old drill books were more about classroom management than learning, she admits. “When you’re one person with a lot of kids, you tend to be much more rigid—’Stay in your seat!’—because you’re concerned with their safety.”

Reading is no longer an isolated subject in Murphy’s primary grades. Again with the help of the Erikson Institute, teachers have integrated reading with social studies and science in cross-curricular themes. When 2nd-graders study the rain forest, they read in their reading groups about rain forest communities and ecology. For daily independent reading, they select from a variety of theme-related books that match their reading level and interests.

Themes stimulate children’s interest in reading, according to Patricia Horsch of the Erikson Institute, “because they’re reading for a purpose—to gather information.” Through classroom discussions, plays, stories, letters, posters, science experiments and even writing math word problems, students pull together ideas and communicate what they know.

Murphy Principal Harold Zimmerman thinks cross-curricular themes in the primary grades have made learning more “interesting” and “relevant” to kids. In fact, he credits higher student motivation for nudging up 3rd-grade test scores over the past few years. “I want them higher, but we’re moving in the right direction,” he notes.

Meyers sees other evidence of success. “We see it in the happy children,” she says. “They’re having a good time. And it’s not just to have a good time. They’re having a good time with learning.”

For more information, contact Murphy’s assistant principal, Donna Nelson, at (312) 534-5222, or Patricia Horsch of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development at (312) 755-2250, ext. 2272.

Elizabeth Duffrin is a Chicago writer.