Teaching with Passion
An exemplary teacher shares strategies for teaching Grade 1 reading

By Leanne Miller

Although teaching is her second career, it’s obviously Mary Borys’ passion. Borys loves teaching small children. She says, “I’m a hugger and a hand-holder, let it be known. I firmly believe that my first job is to ensure that kids feel safe in my classroom, and I’ll do whatever it takes to create an environment that’s fun, welcoming, safe, nonthreatening and respectful.”

Her vehicle is language. “I always try to be positive with what I say. You’ll never hear, ‘Don’t do that’ or ‘You guys.’ Instead, you’ll hear ‘Grade Ones’ or ‘Show me what you did’ or ‘Let’s try this’ and ‘Is there another way to do this?’” Borys sends a weekly newsletter to her parents, using the same positive language. She paraphrases poet Bill Moore as one of her inspirations, “If your students know that you love them, you can teach them.”

Borys teaches Grade 1 at St. Paul’s School in Kitchener. Last year she was one of 10 outstanding teachers to receive the Toronto Sun Teachers of the Year Award, chosen from a field of over 1,200. Mary Borys has spent only 10 years in the classroom. Before that she was a professional sign language interpreter and instructor for the Canadian Hearing Society. In the next few years, she hopes to find time to complete her Master’s in Theology.

Mary Borys explains her philosophy: “I’ll do the best I can to meet the curriculum expectations. But the emotions and feelings and the challenge of reaching each child come first. What’s amazing is that I really can meet the expectations and make it memorable and fun for the kids.”

Mentoring Beginning Teachers

Borys believes that new teachers need the moral support of their colleagues. “We have to rally around them, sharing what works best for us and what can save them time. They need help designing bulletin boards, scheduling their day, organizing trips, sharing resources, accessing supplies, learning how to assess and evaluate, preparing report cards, and so much more. They need to learn the routine and how things are best set up; they need to learn the tricks of the profession that can’t be taught in books or at the faculty. That’s the job of every teacher to help them as much as possible.”

In return, Borys gets tremendous benefits from the interaction. “They have so much to teach me. That’s one of the best parts of this job, seeing how other teachers connect with their students.”

Borys is a lifelong learner. She’s an avid reader of educational material and says she’s no different than most elementary teachers who spend up to $1,500 a year on teaching and learning materials not provided for under the present funding formula. “These are financially difficult times for school boards, I know that. My classroom has to be an ideal learning environment and my students require books and toys and art materials that aren’t in the budget. They need these things to learn best, and these things to learn best, and it’s my job to ensure they’re available.” She praises her school council too. “They do a wonderful job at fundraising and they help each teacher cover expenses for literacy resources and special events.”

Chime In as a Reading Resource

One thing Borys spends her money on is support material for teaching reading. “Grade 1 is where they learn to read; it’s exciting to see the lights go on.” One of her investments this year was her second copy of the classic Chime In, written by Canadian Jean Malloch. “It’s years old, but it’s outstanding and I encourage experienced teachers to rethink ways to use it and new teachers to get a copy.” It’s a poetry program set to music and Borys integrates it into her language acquisition curriculum where she can. “It speaks to kinesthetic learners who benefit from music and movement while learning. I find poems that fit our topic and I tie them into our language activities.

“After the first few weeks of the kids simply listening to the poem and joining in, I move into a method I call ‘Tell me what you know.’ Before we read and chime the poem, I ask what words they already know. As the year progresses the task may be to find the rhymes, contractions, plurals, compounds, pronouns or words from the word wall. We fill the chart paper with bubbles and lines showing what we know. Kids are so proud of what they know and it’s good to build on that knowledge. As well, they love singing and acting out the poems.” She also invites students to volunteer to teach a poem from the chart to their peers.

Guided Reading

The Waterloo District Catholic School Board, like many boards, is adopting the Four Blocks of Literacy approach. Borys’ school uses the Nelson Reading Program, a basal reader. Her reading groups are homogeneous but fluid.

She says, “Each group has different needs and I want them to work with me and each other to meet their needs.” Borys believes it’s critical to scaffold each story, starting by drawing from previous knowledge and experiences. “I like to focus on one skill at a time and I work with a whiteboard and a magnetic board to demonstrate and manipulate words with markers and magnetic letters. Occasionally, I may do this with the whole group first, then work with each small group, or just with each small group. Ensuring variety and meeting learning styles and needs determine which approach I use.”

Learning Centres

Borys’ learning centres reflect the work of Irene Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell. “The centres and expectations must be explained clearly and offer a good balance between creativity and structured learning. Between reading groups, I wander the room, ensuring that everyone is on task. Students spend an average of 15 minutes at each centre. Centres may include art, a computer with a selected program and task, word work, read the room, buddy reading, a browsing box, a discovery centre, word wall work (recording words in columns on alphabetized paper), ABC puzzles and games, and reading poems with the overhead projector. The topics and approaches change to reflect the curriculum.”

At the writing table, one of the activities is a large laminated mat with the words of the week, taken from the Nelson manual and matching the week’s stories. The mat is set up in rows and columns titled “Word Work.” The words are printed in the left-hand column. In the next column, children make the words with letter tiles. In the third column, they write the words. Because it’s laminated and magnetic, it’s simple to wipe clean for each child. Children are encouraged to use these words in their own writing for that week.

Those students with a kinesthetic or tactile learning intelligence are stimulated in Borys’ classroom. She encourages them to form letters with Play Doh and she also has them form letters and words in shaving cream. “They love it and they’re learning at the same time. That’s the ideal learning environment,” she says.

Interactive Writing

Borys believes strongly in the value and excitement of interactive writing with budding readers and writers. “We share the pen when we’re writing letters, responding to topics, retelling stories, SEPTEMBER 20 02 writing reflections, making our own co-operative books, as well as when we’re brainstorming conflict resolution and problem-solving ideas. At the beginning of the year, it’s best to start with simple, short interactive experiences such as making labels for classroom materials or lists.”

“One interactive approach I use ensures that those children who are in an early developmental stage will be successful when writing for the whole group. We play a game akin to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. The child with the pen may ask for a lifeline, choosing someone to offer the next letter, blend or punctuation. The lifeline may help by pointing to the word wall or to a book with the word in it. As the year progresses, the children become proficient and independent and it becomes a student-directed activity.”

Independent Reading

Borys has modified the traditional DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) time to have more and clearer expectations. At the start of the year, she gives seven minutes. It becomes 20 by year’s end. Rules are learned for selecting appropriate material, including “I know most of the words,” “I understand the ideas,” and “I can read most of it myself.”

Reading buddies are selected and changed as necessary. Buddies select the right book and read to each other or share pages or passages. After everyone has picked the appropriate reading material, Borys offers sticky notes for those stuck on a word. Students put them on troublesome words, keep reading and get help later. At the end of the book, they are encouraged to ask questions beyond “Did you like it?” The class brainstorms buddy questions in September, then recalls them throughout the year. Students also use sticky notes to mark things of interest for sharing later.

Co-operative Books

Students work together to design and write their own books as class projects. Topics may include “Our Pets” (dinosaurs and other imaginary ones for those without one), “The Most Important Thing about Me,” inspired by Margaret Wise Brown’s The Important Book, and “Peace Begins With Me,” where the children personalize the school’s Peace Works initiative by writing about how they can bring peace to the classroom, their home and the world. Early in the year, Borys scribes, then her students complete sentences and soon, they write passages independently. Students also use the computer to write, edit and illustrate.

Students take the books home to share with their family for a night. At the end of each year, a draw is held for classroom treasures, and these books are always among the most popular. “The pride of publication is a powerful motivator,” says Borys, “The kids love writing and reading their own books.”

Independent Writing

Grade 1 students are often reluctant writers. To overcome this, Borys employs a strategy based on the work of Marlene and Robert McCracken. It teaches sight word vocabulary, left to right orientation and word spacing. Each child gets a chalkboard and a piece of 812 by 11-inch paper folded five times like a fan.

Borys explains: “We start with a simple concept such as ‘I like to...’ and the children pick an activity or sport. Their comments are recorded on chart paper. They are instructed to copy ‘I like to’ on their chalkboards and then to draw a picture of the activity. I then circulate and write each word on a sticky note and cover the picture with it. Then they copy their sentence three times on their chalkboards. Each child is then given the folded page upon which ‘I like to’ is written on the first fold. The children go to their seats with the chalkboard as a model (checked first for accuracy) and they write the sentence, with reminders for beginning point, word space and a period. A variation is to replace the ‘I’ with a blank space for the child’s name. This independent writing process takes time to master and some students may need to have it broken into two blocks, but in time, they all become proficient. Other sentence starters (frame sentences) should encompass the sight word vocabulary and could include these: I can see... I have a..., I like to eat..., Winter is..., The cat can..., Today is....

“Frame sentences can be put on strips and kept in a pocket chart for the week for a Read the Room activity.” Borys stresses that these are just a few learning-to-read strategies and she strongly emphasizes the importance of reading professional literature. Below are titles of some her favourite resources.

Mary Borys feels she hasn’t yet reached her stride as a classroom teacher. “I’ve got a lot to learn before I’m as good as those who’ve been at it 30 years. And I’ve got to keep loving the kids, because that’s what it’s all about.”


Mary Borys’ Resources

Chime In by Jean Malloch, self-published. (Poems and audio tapes on a variety of school topics.)

Guided Reading and Word Matters both by Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell, Heinemann, NH, 1996.

Guided Reading: Making It Work by M. Browning Schulman and C. DaCruz, Payne Scholastic. (Practical strategies and lessons.)

Four Blocks Literacy Model by Cheryl Mahaffey Sigman. Carson Dellosa, Greensboro, NC. (Implementing the model.)

Interactive Writing by Andrea McCarrier, Gay Su Pinnell and Irene C. Fountas, Heinemann, NH, 2000. (How language and literacy come together.)

Reading, Writing and Language and Stories, Songs and Poetry to Teach Reading and Writing both by Robert A. McCracken and Marlene J. McCracken, Peguis Publishers, Winnipeg. (Practical guides for Primary teachers.)

The Teacher’s Guide to the Four Blocks by Patricia Cunningham, Carson-Dellosa, Greensboro, NC. (A multi-method, multilevel framework for Grades 1 to 3.)


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