Thursday, December 16

Dismissing Superman

Voices clamoring today for accountability in American education do so with good reason: Johnny can’t read. With real-time issues of global economics and an aggressive market place, literacy is essential for personal and national success. No one is claiming it isn’t. They just can’t agree how to go about it.

Recently a Superintendent for a local school district posted an open letter to parents on his district website in response to the newly released documentary, Waiting for Superman.

He acknowledged that parents may have serious concerns about the efficacy of public education after viewing the film (which presents appalling statistics, messy politics and ridiculous red tape inhibiting effective educational achievement in America’s schools). To counter their fears, he exerted considerable energy gushing and touting the many positive measures his district had committed towards preparing their children for the future. Amazingly, he admitted he had not seen the film himself, and had no intention to ever do so.

I would like to point Mr. Superintendent in three directions:

1) To the fact that plenty of parents are hugely aware that education in America is floundering. They don’t need a documentary to figure it out.

2) To Paul Tough’s book, “Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America”. Canada is also the radical educational prophet who coined the title phrase adopted by the documentary, Waiting For Superman.


3) To the bathroom mirror: He ain’t all that.

His rather arrogant side-step and parry is surprising, because evidence abounds to the contrary! Frustration is felt in all corners, across all demographics. A smorgasbord of companies who cater to the professional development and training of school administrators and teachers are assured total job security until Jesus comes again. Literally billions of federal and state dollars, funds solicited from Educational Foundations, even Presidential mandates and all the latest “edu-speak” fads offered as the consecrated value system of the day to save Johnny - have done nothing to change the problem. Johnny still can’t read.

From personal observation as a teacher’s aide for inner-city Creighton School District in Phoenix, Arizona about twelve years ago, I casually estimated 30% of the children in my combined first and second grade and third and fourth grade classes were below grade level in reading, and as such disappeared each week to special remedial tutoring designed to help them catch-up and integrate into grade level. None of them ever did. I know, I asked the Master’s degree educator who ran the program. Hard statistics studying students in Atlanta, Georgia, reveal an even more egregious figure: “Essentially two out of every five Atlanta students heading into high school are functionally illiterate -- unable to comprehend a work as simple as Anne of Greene Gables or even complete mathematical word problems such as "Marty has 6 red pencils, 4 green pencils, and 5 blue pencils.”

This dizzying dilemma of big money, revolving resources and endless teacher trainings, regardless of the urgency or enthusiasm placed on them - appear to only sporadically and superficially effect measurable change in what are truly dismal reading and writing scores. Beyond the scoring, is the critical attitude of children who don’t enjoy learning and reading. I venture to say there are a great number of teachers who likewise do not enjoy teaching, and who have lost the vision of what it is to capture a child’s imagination and vital learning perspective.

I submit a jump-start solution that no one would dare try because it is painfully simplistic. It is not a cure-all, only a jolt to charge literacy skills into action. It doesn’t cost a penny. It doesn’t require special training to initiate, or special curriculum to get started. There are no seminars, retreats or consulting venues to calendar, no high-tech equipment to install. Virtually all the necessary elements to begin the solution today are already in place in every classroom across the Nation.

  • Lock the copy room! Throw away the key. Return at least 60% of the time teacher’s aides spend with a copy machine or waiting in a long line to use the copy machine back to real face to face interaction with children, thanks to the sound of metal on metal.
  • Shove the student desks out of “educational clusters”, and back into straight rows.
This disastrous theory of good study habits by osmosis has got to go. Relieve the few capable students from the unfair burden of shouldering their less-capable classmates like a literal ball and chain. (I once asked my son’s teacher for his paycheck as his miniature teacher’s aide). Place a strict moratorium on every so-called “group learning activity” that celebrates kids becoming hap-hazard “hangers-on” instead of independent thinkers.
  • One student, one grade. Assign meaningful projects that assure an individual student will earn an individual grade. Students must understand reading and writing is wholly a solo acquisition! It can be experienced at some level in a group, but ultimately the doing of the deed is a personal, intimate thing.
  • Be honest with children. We must reverse the great disservice of the self-esteem movement which made common-sense a dirty word on school campuses. Telling a fourth grader he did “very well” when he couldn’t sound-out “had” is a cruel lie. Call it ‘911 Reading!’ and use forthright flag words such as, “Emergency!” and “Urgent!”. Embrace motivational phrases such as, “You need this skill like you need air to breathe!” and “Triumph is within your grasp!”

There is something crucially pertinent about the cognitive process required to copy whatever the teacher writes on the black board (or dry erase board) and accurately transfer it to a piece of paper. There is magic in the raw processing of language on such a brute and tactile level.

Each word automatically becomes precious; precious because the teacher must spend time writing it, and the student must take care to see it, transfer it to paper, and decode it. There is a wealth of synaptic activity that is honed and refined by the sheer volume of the task required. Practice makes perfect is an old adage that really works. Why? Because it does.

Naturally opposition to this proposal will be fierce. Kids today crave gadgetry and all the bells and whistles to stay focused. Um, don’t they? Has anyone considered perhaps their lack of focus is because they are not proficient readers, and we don’t expect them to be? An excerpt from a teacher/parent strategy outlines the dangers of copying from the board for some children:

  • Minimize copying from the board. This seems like such a straightforward task, but can be very difficult for some students. Copying from the board requires students to keep information in their heads as they transfer it from the board to the paper. The children have to keep track of what they last wrote, keep that in mind as they look back up at the board, find where they left of, look at the next few letters or words, carry the information back to the paper, and keep it in their heads long enough to finish writing it down.
  • Request that your child be assigned a "note buddy," a child in the class who takes complete notes and makes them available for your child to photocopy.

Did you think I was making this up? Did you catch what the student is hearing loud and clear? "This is too hard for you (and we don't believe you'll ever get it) - so let's have someone else do it for you!" Whenever I teach theatre arts or public speaking, I make sure I use action vocabulary. I say, 'This is unfamiliar to you. That's not the same thing as "too difficult". Do you remember what it was like when you were first learning to ride a bike?" (See where I'm going with that?) No kid ever agreed to give up trying to ride a two-wheeler just because we knew we would probably skin our knee once or twice. Why? Because we knew it was FUN. We believed it was a necessary skill! We saw all our friends riding up and down the street, and we wanted to do it, too. The point of no return has always been the running shove; there had to be momentum for us to balance on our own. Only then could we launch off into flight, free at last!

The self-esteem hijack has effectively removed an extremely basic and highly functional incentive ~ the TRUTH: Literacy is FUN. It is a necessary skill. It is the vehicle by which we think thoughts and express ourselves. There is no such thing as a "pedal buddy" in bike riding. Duh. If someone else is pedaling, you are not riding.

Classrooms in my 1960s childhood were conducted in straight rows of desks, with a decisive emphasis on literary neatness. If we copied our notes hastily, we might do the wrong page for homework and miss a grade. It was a mistake not oft repeated. Seating in rows, the teacher could almost instantly determine who was doing their own work, and who was attempting to rob from their neighbor. We didn’t need to group together and pretend celebrate our pretend team spirit to develop a pretend healthy self-esteem. We had self-esteem because we could read.

As for the mechanics of reading (which is already in play by the manual copying of text), have you seen some of the stuff they make kids read who are having trouble reading? I have. It stinks. It is laborious. It is deadly tedious. Whatever adventure by accident happens to be enjoyed by the reader is soundly crushed and strangled by exhaustive, redundant questions and workbook activities following the story. I get it; they are designed to encourage comprehension and retention. But seriously, I ask again: Is it relevant? No, it is anti-climactic. Is it effective? Clearly, it is not. Are these workbook style reading assignments (designed by educators instead of children’s authors) filled with inspirational language? Emphatically - NO, they are not.

Jane Yolen was interviewed this week on National Public Radio in honor of her 300th published book. She is often called the Hans Christian Anderson of American children’s literature. Her wildly popular 1987 Owl Moon

won the most prestigious children’s award, The Caldecott. Ms. Yolen ought to know a thing or two about children’s literature. “I think picture books should stretch children,” she explained, “they should be full of wonderful, amazing words.” Yet even a writer of her caliber must battle editors and publishers more and more over their objection to her choice of words in her manuscripts. They tell her she is “too literary”. One of her stories revolved around a stolen diamond lavaliere. The publisher insisted “necklace” would be easier for children to read. Yolen held her ground. Later, when she and the artist were on the book tour, every single school they visited had conducted a kid-vote on their favorite new word from her new book. The winner hands-down? Lavaliere.

Literacy is losing ground in large part because adults have lost faith in the remarkable capacity of children. Of course there are many other issues at play. Administrators who can’t remember what it smells like in a 5th grad classroom after recess are often oblivious to the nuts and bolts of the teacher’s world. Society is distressed. Respect for authority is waning. Family life is much more chaotic than it used to be, even privileged households have parents who fail to read bedtime stories to their children.

In other settings, such as what Geoffrey Canada discovered in the ghetto of Harlem, there is a deep culture of parents who are generationally deprived of healthy parenting models.

We should be true to our assertion that children matter. English as a second language is an obvious hurdle. Again, the common sense remedy is English emersion. A student who can read will catch up in other subjects, and quickly. We should vow never to produce another generation of students who went from Kindergarten to high school graduation in America - without a single word in English. Ever.

Making lists of what works against effective learning is easy. Having the courage to allow teachers to teach and being able to remove bad teachers and reward talented teachers is another topic entirely.

There ought to be JOY in learning! There ought to be much, much more of exploring the written magic of words, and speaking the song that beautiful language is. There ought to be passion and excitement and flavor every time language is heard or seen in American classrooms. A fundamental step in the right direction would be to envelop a classroom with language; on the tongue, on the printed page and from the end of a pencil.

Necessary language. Fun language. Imaginative language. Challenging, thinking language. It is a crime to decide in advance the capacity of children. We should assume with confidence that children are capable, and act with anticipation.

The adventure begins with a neatly printed white board, a blank ruled paper, a sharp number two pencil - and plenty of pink erasers. And we don’t need a Superman to accomplish this.


1) “Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest To Change Harlem And America”

by Paul Tough

2) The American Spectator

“The Kids Can’t Read” by RiShawn Biddle 6.21.2010

3) National Public Radio

Author Interviews: Jill Kaufman with Children’s Author Jane Yolen

4) Sixty Second Parent

“Reading With Toddlers”

5) About.Com

“Strategies to Help a Child Who Has Trouble Taking Notes in Class”


two forks said...

how have i never read owl moon?

calizona said...

Whooo knew?