Sunday, January 13, 2013

Catchers in the Rye

A few states have decided to make certain kids know how to read well enough before they can go on to the fourth grade.

There will, no doubt, be all sorts of mistakes made by the dozen or so states that are trying to see to it that kids can’t go on to the next grade, if they aren’t reading like they should be, in third grade. There, for sure, will be contrary, heart-tugging local TV news segments about some third grade kid who’s six feet tall and is embarrassed to have to spend another year in third grade, even if he can’t read well enough to be promoted. It’ll be endlessly debated and scrutinized. Critics will say it’s underfunded. Even champions of it will say that. All those things will happen to it that happen to all new initiatives. Sides may be chosen. I hope not. At least, not like they usually are. That’s so boring.

I just heard about it a week or so ago on the PBS News Hour. The story was about Ohio where I used to live. I found myself saying yes to it. Someone seemed to care in the way you want them to about the kids. They wanted to make sure that these third grade kids were not being allowed to go ahead in school if they weren’t ready to go ahead in school. It seemed like adults acting like adults to me. In that frame of mind I started thinking about kids and how they always need good guidance and protection. I thought of this passage from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. It’s where the book gets its title. This is Holden Caulfield:

“Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around - nobody big, I mean - except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff - I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it's crazy, but that's the only thing I'd really like to be.”

Doesn’t that touch on the essence of all schooling? Aren’t we supposed to be making sure that kids learn things from us that keep them from going over the cliff? Doesn’t the culture look to schools to instruct kids so they won’t go over? Give them the tools they’ll need so they’ll stay safe? And don’t parents believe that the schools and the teachers have learned from their schooling and training how to make sure their kids get this instruction? Isn’t it like sending your kid to basketball camp in Connecticut where they’ll get instruction that no parent could possibly give? Isn’t the neighborhood school supposed to have methods, that parents don’t have, to teach the local kids to read? Isn’t that what our taxes go for? And doesn’t New York State spend more on education than any other state?

How come in New York City, so many poor kids read at such a low level? And how come most of them aren’t near ready for college when they graduate, if they even do? There’ve been poor kids forever. Are there no methods courses in college where teachers learn how to teach poor kids to read? Is there no state-of-the-art curriculum or template that shows how to do it? Does anyone bother to tell teachers-in-training, or school-officials-in-training, that teaching their students to read well is the most important thing that schools have to do, especially if the kids come from homes where they didn’t get the head start they need?

What else are schools for? Isn’t reading almost the whole deal? Math and science matter to those kids in the class who get it, but for most of us, school is about reading and using words. (You hear people in England say they went to Oxford and read History or read Law.) There might be a few school plays and a chess club and choir tryouts and the usual team sports, but school is mostly about reading. Much of life is mostly about reading. Tony Kushner could not have written the screenplay for Lincoln if he hadn’t read book after book about Lincoln and the Civil War and Law and Race and Constitutional Amendments. Spielberg had to read a lot of that, too.

Even tweets have to be read. To let a kid go to the next grade in school before he can read well enough to legitimately be going there is to let him edge closer to the edge of the cliff. We need catchers.

You can’t blame teachers for this problem. You can’t blame the board, or the Chancellor even. Oh, maybe you could ask them why they didn’t raise their hand at one of the hundreds of meetings they’ve been to and say, hey, our kids are getting pretty close to the cliff; and nothing I do seems to keep them from it. Maybe someone should have said, why don’t we scrap this syllabus that year after year yields failure and start to focus on teaching these kids to read well.

That’s what I’d do. That’s what I hope results from my sign-holding, that someone says, yeh, that’s it, let’s teach the kids to read; that’ll do the kids more good than what we’re doing now that’s been proven by every statistic and measurement to be a failure. Let’s turn the schools into reading academies. That’s what you always wanted your school to be, isn’t it? A lot of your schooling and mine was bullshit. I’m sure it’s the same today. The teachers then knew it was too; they know it is now. They’d like it done differently too. A change has got to come. Everyone would rather be a catcher.

How long till someone in power sees that?

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