Thursday, May 15, 2008


I love words. I can't imagine not being able to read or write. There are people who can't. They never learned. Sometimes this is the fault of the school system. In the mid 90s I took a course in literacy as part of a graduate program in education. I did practicums in first and third grade classrooms. I read a lot of books and articles on how children learn to read and write and what educators and parents can do to encourage reading and writing. I thought about the socio- economic divide in our culture and how it affects children's education. At this time educators were divided as to how to help children from all socio economic backgrounds become readers and writers. Classrooms in the city I lived in were confronted with children of immigrants whose parents(collectively) spoke over twenty languages. Children were not on the same page when it came to language in school.
The how to teach reading and writing debate was in some ways like the present divide between candidates and parties in our present presidential race. The old ways didn't seem to work so onto the new.The Whole Language method of teaching was a "new" way to bridge the divide .
The whole language proponents say that teaching students grammar and mechanics in oral and written language was less important than teaching content-process, meaning. But was that true? The linguist James Gee’s book "The Social Mind" supports a different view. He uses ideas from psychology, sociology, and linguistics to support his belief. He looks at how people come by the discourses they are members of. He makes a distinction between acquisition and learning. Acquisition is what we learn from modeling our discourse (values, talking, actions) from those people and situations we are exposed to. We must learn a discourse to function in our lives and create a place for ourselves in a group. Learning is more conscious, formal, reflective. What needs to be known is broken down and analyzed. Reflection and meta cognition as well as formal teaching are parts to learning.

For minority or low-income students who have not acquired mainstream discourse but the discourse of their group, success in school and life can be unattainable. Since schooling cannot make up for acquiring a discourse, Gee suggests that schooling that teaches the superficialities or surface aspects of a discourse, the grammar and mechanics and meta cognitive skill can help students make do enough with a discourse to give them more of a chance in life to succeed in mainstream society. It is the small technical aspects of language that separates language insiders from outsiders. Racism or classicism will not be eradicated but opening the doors to mainstream discourse is a positive way to start changes in society.

I believe what Gee writes is important. Children who are taught how to speak and to write mainstream will do better in testing which unfortunately our culture values. Children who are given meta cognition skills have power. I saw this in a first grade classroom. Ms. A’s first grade class demonstrates this power of shaping and expressing ideas and feelings. Her children are from a mixed ethnic background in this inner city school and many of them exhibit verbal skills that surpass some older mainstream children I have seen at other schools. It is the critical thinking skills I believe that make the difference, thinking about thinking leads to reflection on what you know. Not all the children in Ms. A’s class exhibit success in language and thinking but quite a percentage do. They are young enough to acquire some skills through Ms A’s modeling, but I am sure the discourse of many of their homes is different. Parents from all different socio economic backgrounds were able to choose this school for their children. They probably chose the school because they have a common set of values about doing and saying and aspire a “successful mainstream life” for their children.

I believe as does Gee that partial acquisition “coupled with meta knowledge and strategies to make do” is better than leaving these non mainstream students in a classroom where there is no explicit teaching of mainstream discourse. If educators and politicians really want to improve education they need to be realistic. You cannot expect people with different discourses to enter school and talk the same language. The language of the classroom needs to be made more explicit! Ms. A gives children this explicitness. She says we are now doing critical thinking questions to the children. What is the name of these 3 letters that slide together? The children are learning processes.

Sheila Tobias whose interest is math and science education describes in her article 'Tracked to Fail" how children are divided through standardized test results into the smart and “dumb” and are put in ability groupings or tracks that have different curriculums; higher level thinking skills are encouraged for the intelligent children, rote memory for “dumber one." These tests scores once meant the child needed to try harder. Today they have come to mean the child can’t learn. I think the use of standardized testing to group children is very harmful. I still remember being in the lowest college preparatory track in junior high and how I always felt I just made it and really belonged in the general track. This placement effected my self-esteem.

The idea that one child’s is brighter than another may have some initial truth but once a children are labeled why should a child try to learn, they are not smart anyways or they are so smart who needs to study.

Levin’s idea of accelerated schools* appealed to me. At first I was not too crazy about the idea but when I looked at if from what standardized testing can do to children’s self esteem and our society as a whole, the idea of Levin’s model seems a constructive hopeful alternative. Schools besides teaching have to undo a lot of the damage teaching has done to children’s belief in their ability to learn. The idea of a product standard is a great way to teach and assess learning at the same time. It is truly authentic assessment.

I became aware from my readings and observations that the self-image problems low achievers have are the same as students who cannot use English or Standard English because they did not acquire the language as children. It really appears that these children are being sorted out as the failures of the future.

I can hear people saying that children from different cultures should not have to become immersed in the dominant culture's speak. It is the assimilation thing vs. keeping your own identity. I agree no one should have to assimilate and loose their heritage. School is a public institution where education is free. Schools are social organizations. The dilemma of how to deal with differences and have learning occur is complex. The bottom line is that no matter what culture you are from you need to be literate to be able to read and write and understand that language will shape your life. Diversity presents a whole lot of challenges.

I am through with my rant.


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