Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Reading writing ... equals literacy

The recent article I wrote on my blog, Our Educational System, spurred me on to re-examine how this system affects our young students and their skills. As a social worker who worked in our system in public high schools with teens from 13 to 21 years old for 16 years and then worked with pre-k children for another 5 years, I’d like to share what I learned about our children and their skills. This necessitates a comparison.
Back when I was in school we had five classes per grade, beginning with the number 1 class and proceeding to the number 5 class. Thus, there was 1-1, 2-1 etc. Logically speaking one would have thought that the 5 class would have been the slowest and the number 1 would have been the fast learners, however in my school, the 1 class was the “quick learners” and the number 2 class was the "health education class," which included wheelchair bound children and very slow learners. What really was strange was that everyone knew how to read albeit some read more slowly than others. Also everyone eventually learned to write as well. The slower learners weren’t as good with grammar and spelling and for many of the slower learners, spelling and grammar problems remained. I was always in the number 1 class as I was very precocious and generally learned anything to do with reading or writing very fast. My deficits were about where things are, so maps and map memorization was a problem for me. There were always more than 30 children in each class. In those days, my neighborhood, Washington Heights, (now called Hudson Heights by all the realtors) had many foreigners. The difference is that they were from many places, not like now when there are a handful of Russians and mostly Dominicans. There was a great influx of Puerto Ricans and Greeks to my area, and people from Russia and other Slavic nations (the nations now have since changed names). From the time when I was very young, all my teachers complained that I couldn’t keep quiet. Any foreigner was seated next to me and usually learned English quickly as I would share my notes and help them. This situation also seems unique now.
The first 5 years I worked with pregnant teens in high schools, I learned that over half of our students could not write a proper sentence. About half could write within two years of their grade level. About another quarter could write with many spelling and grammatical errors but the words would make sense. And the last quarter or 20% could not logically string one sentence to the next to write a cohesive paragraph on any given subject matter – even on one they know about. For example, if they were asked to write a paragraph on who is their favorite rapper and why, only half of them could do this successfully. I was dismayed to observe how poor their writing, reading and comprehension skills were. Teenagers 15 years old were writing at what I judged to be a second or third grade level. At this time, some of the high schools I worked at tried to get around this issue by teaching their youngsters to think and to argue out a point verbally. The principals applied for waivers from the state so the children could do a series of oral defenses and speeches instead of taking regents, where they learned to argue a thesis from beginning to end. I was impressed by what I saw but still, again, there was at least 40% who could not keep up to the regiment or structure and this was in spite of the judges trying hard to be very lenient. I wondered why our society had changed this much from the time I was a teen to now and I still don’t have an answer. I have met writers too who are good writers, and they cannot spell and don’t know proper grammar. Professional agents and book companies have told me, that they feel basic academic writing skill is unnecessary and unimportant. They say, what is important is that the person write well or rhyme well. I can round this out by adding that they will further say that's why they hire someone like me to do the editing and clean it up. And the weird thing here is that I know how to make street lit sound street lit enough and put in enough modernisms to make it a go on both sides too. White people and everyone else in the public schools now write Ebonics if they write at all. Proper writing is a dying skill today.
A few years back, a young man was sent to me from 9th grade. I was told to find out how he had gotten to this grade and couldn’t read or write at all. I did as I was told and apparently, he was such a sweet personality, that no one had paid attention to the fact that he couldn’t read an entire sentence. Even when given a children’s book for 5 to 7 year olds, he could barely read any of the words. OK, I admit this is unusual, but not as unusual as it seems. I have also met special education students who could barely write, but who could spout beautiful rhymes instantaneously apparently effortlessly as well.
I grew up without a television. Our radio broke when I was about 6 and wasn’t replaced for a few years. Books was my only entertainment, without which, I would have suffered even more than I did. As I tell everyone, my childhood was fraught with anxiety and despair. My mother was diagnosed with cancer when I was a few months old and the first year of my life welfare sent a series of caregivers to care for us so my dad could go to work. My mom was in hospital for about 6 months. We were have-nots in every way. I had two dolls which I had been given after I’d turned 6. I washed my own clothes and ironed them at 7 years old. Sorry, I wish I knew what childhood meant. One sister liked to play teacher and I learned to read and write to please her originally. I was reading and writing at 4 years old. I read and wrote for love.
Obviously I have no idea where this dilemma of our literacy is headed but one place it is headed is to put the entire onus for literacy on the teachers in the way of statistics like I described in the previous article. I also think that perhaps our society is going to return to a previous age when letter writers got paid and people got paid to read to others too. In the middle ages there was a particular class of people that were paid to perform this service for the general populace. Hey if I live long enough I can be one of those people. I urge you to talk to our teachers about this, talk to each other – you’ll see I’m not exaggerating.

Also check out this fascinating stuff:
John Taylor Gatto and his official website