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Just dropping by ... Looking beyond the mark

Yevet Tenney Published on 30 June 2014

As I have taught school for many years and raised 11 children in the school system, I have seen many programs come and go. Educators are always looking for a new way to help children learn.

I am one of those teachers. I want my children to be successful, and I learn from other teachers, but when it comes to changing the entire system, I wonder if we are looking “beyond the mark.”



When I first started teaching, I was an aide (para-professional nowadays). I worked with the first grade under Mrs. Shumway. Every morning we stood and recited the Pledge of Allegiance, sang a patriotic song, and then everyone bowed their heads in prayer while Mrs. Shumway prayed for her class.

She asked for the spirit to teach the little ones and to protect them from danger. She prayed for the country and the president. It was a sweet unrehearsed prayer that touched the heavens. Then we set to work teaching those children to read.

Phonics was the mainstay. We didn’t have many worksheets, but we used chalk that squeaked on the chalkboard and oral repetition.

If a child wasn’t paying attention, Mrs. Shumway would slap her long pointer on the desk to bring the class to attention. She was never mean, but she kept the students’ attention, and she taught them. Every child walked out of her class knowing how to read, write and do math. There was no fluff or political agendas, just the facts, the basics, over and over again.

When I got my teaching degree in 1978, things had changed. Prayer in school had become a moment of silence so that each child could pray in his or her own way. We still had patriotic songs, and we were blessed to have pullout music where a teacher actually taught the children to sing and how to read notes. Patriotism was high.


We still taught phonics, but we added sight word lists, and there was plenty of paper and a wonderful copy machine, which smelled of mimeograph fluid but it printed multiple sheets of paperwork for the children to do. Thus was born “the worksheet.”

Students could be working and learning concepts while the teacher sat at a table with a small group of children to teach them individually. We still taught the basics, but science and social studies were added to the curriculum. It was a good thing, but it took time away from the basics.

During that time, a teacher went to a workshop and learned about work centers. She spent hours building little stations where a child could sit in a corner and play a learning game. Then the student would move to the next station and play another game. It was a novel idea back then but common practice today. This year, I have spent hours making centers.

I left teaching and returned years later. The moment of silence was replaced with silence. Nobody took time to think about God. The basics had given way to cooperative learning. It was a brand-new theory that students could think for themselves and should be able to talk their way into reading and writing.

On the surface, that sounds wonderful. If you can get a child to verbalize a concept, and figure out a way to solve problems, you have it made. Phonics was abandoned for whole language, and sight words became the method of instruction. Textbooks were written, sold and used.

There was only one problem with allowing children to come up with the questions. Students ask the wrong questions. “What are we going to play at recess, and what will we have for lunch?” was much more interesting than “How do we learn to read?”


Unless a teacher was vigilant and prompted excellent questions, time was wasted and so was education. An entire generation graduated with very little knowledge of the basics. They could talk to each other and socialize but couldn’t read or do math. Of course there were exceptions, but if you were one of those students, you know what I am talking about.

I left teaching again for a while, but my children were in school, so I was very aware of the curriculum and expectations. The state came up with tests with important-sounding acronyms. ASAP and AIMS came to the forefront.

Both were state-mandated tests students were supposed to pass to be able to graduate in Arizona. ASAP went the way of all the earth in short order. AIMS is still with us but is on its way out.

I am not sure how many students have been held back because of those tests. There were exceptions and exceptions to the exceptions. And the exceptions negated the rules. Besides, the scores never came out until after report cards were sent home. I don’t know how many were flunked after the fact.

Teachers started teaching to the test so students would be able to pass. Thus was born the “pressure cooker” in the classroom. A moment to think about God was long gone. Music programs got the ax and other extracurricular programs were abandoned. It was the grindstone every day. Did it work? Did scores come up?

I took time off again and came back last year. Teaching is the pressure cooker gone berserk. Schools and teachers receive report cards. I wonder when they will start giving parents report cards. No time for God or music unless you can fit music in between the tests.

Oh, we did have a Christmas program by tradition and a patriotic program, but every other minute was used to teach a state-mandated standard. Even morning recess has become a five-minute bathroom break.

Teachers use every resource available. We teach phonics, sight words, word chunks. We use picture clues and context clues. Math is the basics threaded with algebraic thinking and problem-solving skills. We use worksheets and manipulatives. We test and test. We have reading centers and math centers while we read with students.

Computer skills are becoming more important than penmanship. Smart boards, handheld devices and computer programs are replacing traditional textbooks and reading books. Whew! It is a whirlwind.

In some ways, the rigor is wonderful. My students this year walked away with all kinds of skills they would not have received in Mrs. Shumway’s class so many years ago. They can sound out words, recognize 100 to 200 sight words.

They have at least three different stratagems to work a math problem. Most students have come up four or five levels in reading, even the resource students. Every student in my class is reading and knows that he or she can read.

What was my strategy? Hard work? Yes. Commitment? Yes, but the most important strategy was prayer. I prayed for my students. Mrs. Shumway’s technique has stayed with me, and it works. Of course, I didn’t make the national news by praying with my students, but I did pray on my knees in the privacy of my own home, and it made a difference.

I wonder, with all of the changes in education, innovations and new ideas, whether we are looking beyond the mark. Are we so caught up in academics that we are forgetting what really matters? What are our children really learning? They may be able to solve problems three ways, but will they know how to solve real-life problems? Do they have a strategy for that?

We need to go forward to the basics. We can’t go back, but we can incorporate them into the future. I am not talking about basic math and basic phonics, or new inventions or techniques. I am talking about the basics of faith and prayer. I am talking about getting inspiration from Almighty God to direct our daily lives. I am talking about moving forward to a society without the social ills Mrs. Shumway never had to face.

She never had to worry about lock-downs and gunmen. She never had to think about suicide prevention or drug dealers. She never had to keep her classroom door locked at all times. The school grounds didn’t even need to be fenced because she solicited the protection of the Lord every single day.

I wonder, if we instituted just one basic back into our classroom, what a difference it would make? I would like to pilot that program. PD