ONLY ON 3: Spelling Spat Continues at School Board - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

ONLY ON 3: Spelling Spat Continues at School Board

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By David Carroll

dcarroll@wrcbtv.com

CHATTANOOGA (WRCB)-- The recent flap over how and when to teach spelling spilled over into the Hamilton County School Board meeting Thursday night.

At the invitation of Supt. Dr. Jim Scales, District Literacy Director Julie Legg addressed the Board on how spelling is being taught in the county's elementary classrooms.

Dr. Scales introduced Legg by referring to "recent reports in the media" in which the District's updated approach concerning spelling came under fire.

Eyewitness News School Patrol was the first to report the story, in which teachers' complaints to School Board District 1 member Rhonda Thurman became a source of controversy.  Thurman said teachers had told her that "some principals had called spelling no longer relevant, and had threatened to write them up if the continued wasting time on spelling tests."

Legg told the Board that spelling "is still very important, and will not be dropped from the county's curriculum."  However, she said that spelling "is not appropriate to be taught in isolation, and that she had advised principals and teachers to use their writing block to teach spelling."

She said during classroom walk-throughs, administrators "paid close attention to the use of teachers' instructional time, and we noticed an antiquated practice of having students write words five to ten times, then copy the definitions verbatim from the dictionary.  It's just busy-work and not a valid use of instructional time.  We must make an appropriate use of that time.  We have research that shows that if we engage the students, we will have increased achievement."

Thurman was the only Board member to react.  While some other Board members briefly left the room, or talked among themselves, she asked Legg, "When did we get so enlightened?  When did the light bulb come on?"  Addressing Legg directly, she said, "You look young to me, why are young people coming along saying the way we've been teaching things for decades is so wrong?  Are these the same ones who say we don't need to teach multiplication because we now have calculators?  Whose idea is this?"

Legg compared the new approach to advances in medicine, noting that an appendectomy in the 1960's was a major procedure, taking a long time to complete, followed by weeks of recuperation before a patient could return to work.  Now she says, modern medicine allows a laparascopic procedure that is much easier, but with the same result. 

Legg said that "recent brain research shows us that there are better ways for children to learn spelling than spend hours at a time on it."

Thurman questioned Legg's contention that "hours" were spent on spelling, but Legg said it was true.

Thurman retorted, "That's nonsense.  You're asking students to write papers using words they've never learned to spell.  How are they going to learn these words?  Using an appendectomy is a ridiculous analogy.  These edu-crats are always coming up with bizarre ideas on a better way to build a mousetrap.  And it's not just here, you can Google it and see that they're trying to this in other parts of the country."

Legg struck another nerve by saying, "We have studied the research that shows many experts believe the strategies we've been using to teach spelling are boring."

Thurman quickly interjected, "We are not in the entertainment business.  If we're supposed to be entertaining children, let's hire some magical clowns.  We're supposed to be teaching them!"

When Legg assured the Board, "We still have spelling tests throughout the county," District 6 representative Janice Boydston said, "Absolutely, I'm going to a spelling bee tomorrow morning."  District 3 member Everett Fairchild said, "I spent this whole morning at a spelling bee at Loftis Middle School."

Thurman replied, "You all can refuse to take this seriously, and make flippant comments, but teachers are calling me, e-mailing me, and coming by my shop, and they're upset.  This is reality folks, and it's happening under our noses in Hamilton County, and this bothers me."

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