• by Bradley Scott, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • March 2005
I wrote about Tres three years ago when he was entering kindergarten. I related an incident in an article entitled, “Reading Right, Reading Well,” in the IDRA Newsletter (February 2003). Tres, his sister Olivia, and I were having a conversation about the importance of reading and learning to read.
Olivia is now an excellent reader and a top-notch student in the fifth grade. She told Tres that what he thought he was doing really was not reading. Tres was devastated by this admonishment from his big sister.
I came to his rescue by assuring him that what he was doing was “reading” in fact, and that if he kept it up, he would become an excellent reader and would have a wonderful school experience because he could read. I remember the smile of satisfaction he showed when I told him that.
I talked to Tres again a few days ago. He told me something that stopped me in my tracks. As I was unloading my car from work, he ran up to me looking a little dismayed and said: “You know Mr. Bradley, I’m a great reader, but there’s some other stuff I can’t handle.”
I thought to myself, what “stuff” could a second grade student not handle in school? He went on: “I thought you said school was going to be great when I learned to read. I learned to read, and there’s stuff I hate.”
Tres gave me an earful. It seems that his teacher had a conversation with his mom and dad suggesting they have him tested and placed in special education because he simply cannot seem to control himself.
I thought this was strange since he always seems self-controlled. He does have a mind of his own, he is adventuresome, he is active and, yes, he gets into trouble. But none of that behavior impressed me as important enough to have him tested for special education. In every respect he seems to be a normal African American boy doing what children of that age typically do.
His mother and father saw Tres talking with me and came over to give their version of what had happened. I suggested to his parents that his assessment and placement in special education should be the last option and should only happen after they and the school explored every other possible option. In fact, special education for Tres should only be considered if it is absolutely the only way he can be assisted.
Personally, I think his teacher may have done something that seems to occur too frequently, that being that special education is seen as the first measure for dealing with African American, Latino, and other minority boys rather than the last option, unless some mental or physical impairment or other special need absolutely demands it. That having been said, I left them as I retreated into my house wishing that I had told Tres something different three years earlier.
What could I have said to him that would have produced that wonderful sense of satisfaction he displayed three years before? First of all, even though I did not mean to, I should not have lied to him. My telling him that if he learned to read, he would have a wonderful school experience was not entirely the truth. It was only partially true. How is that so?
To begin, learning to be a competent reader in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten and early elementary school helps students to read for learning beyond third grade. It is for this reason that the Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement advised the nation to put reading first (Armbruster, 2001). Being able to read produces its benefits where learning is concerned.
The National Reading Panel clarified that five areas of reading instruction build reading success for young learners: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and text comprehension (2000).
Similarly, the National Black Child Development Institute commented on the importance of the skills in each of these areas as they impact the ability of African American children to become literate and master school curriculum.
Barbarin also challenged schools and homes to acknowledge and confront the literacy gap between White children and Black children by structuring more powerful partnerships between home and school in supporting specific literacy competencies. This knowledge is not new to the field of education (Bowman, 2002).
Boyer made these same points using statistical data to show that children three to five years old whose parents read to them, told them stories, and taught letters, words or numbers to them graduated from high school and college at significantly higher rates than those whose parents did not.
There is great value in learning to read well, but that is not all there is to it. It was also Boyer who reminded the nation in the early 1990s: “In our search for excellence, children have somehow been forgotten… In our search for excellence, children must come first… The focus of our concern must be children – not just the schools” (Boyer, 1991).
Sagor noted: “Schools have been successful at providing some students with feelings of affiliation and belonging… Unfortunately, a great many other students [non-English proficient, racial and cultural minorities, and poor children] feel rejected by their classmates or experience other factors that make them feel out of place. Is it any wonder that these are the students who demonstrate the least commitment to the expectations of the school, their teachers, and the curricula? No one may be at fault. Teachers do not intend to make students feel alienated. Nevertheless, the consequences of unconscious teaching behavior, when engaged in over and over can do just that” (Sagor, 2003).
To combat this mindless regular behavior of alienation, Gloria Ladson-Billings builds a case for culturally-relevant pedagogy linking schooling and culture that has grown out of her research with excellent teachers of African American students (2002). Armington describes 15 characteristics of a learner-centered classroom, starting with a staff of teachers with passions to share and who enjoy helping children to learn to schools being a community of learners (Armington, 1997).
When Littky laid out the big picture for the real goals of public education, learning to “speak well, write well, read well and work well with numbers” was only one of 14 real goals (2004). He stated: “Over the course of three decades watching kids walk into my schools, I have decided that I want them to:
- Be lifelong learners
- Be passionate
- Be ready to take risks
- Be able to problem-solve and think critically
- Be able to look at things differently
- Be able to work independently and with others
- Be creative
- Care and want to give back to the community
- Have integrity and self respect
- Have moral courage
- Be able to use the world around them well
- Speak well, write well, read well, and work well with numbers
- Truly enjoy their life and their work” (Littky, 2004).
It has occurred to me that I really should have told Tres as an African American boy that reading is a powerful and very important thing to learn to do because it opens the door to so many good things to learn in school. And, I would say there are other things you really need to know to be successful and safe in school. We will talk about those things as well and I will help you to learn them.
This is exactly what my father said to me when I was Tres’ age. That was more than 50 years ago.
Tres is not just a good reader. Tres is a whole person who also is becoming an excellent reader. He will do well in school if the system does not get him first. My hope for Tres and all the learners like him regardless of their race, culture, language, economic level, gender and special need was captured more than a decade ago by Lisa Delpit. She stated: “If we are to successfully educate all of our children, we must work to remove the blinders built of stereotypes, monocultural instructional methodologies, ignorance, social distance, biased research, and racism [classism, sexism, and ethnocentrism]. We must work to destroy those binders so that it is possible to really see, to really know the students we must teach. I pray for all of us the strength to teach our children what they must learn, and the humility and wisdom to learn from them so that we might better teach” (1993).
I am going to be more mindful about how I talk to Tres from now on. He listens, and he remembers everything. I am going to support his mother and father to ensure that, to whatever degree I can, he will not be dumped into special education as a substitute for the proper education he deserves.
By the way, if he were to need special education, I would support his mother and father to ensure he would get the proper education he deserved. His successful education and increased life and career options are just that important to me.
Armbruster, B.B., et al. Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement, 2001).
Armington, D. The Living Classroom – Writing, Reading, and Beyond (Washington, D.C.: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1997).
Bowman, B. (editor). Love to Read: Essays in Developing and Enhancing Early Literacy Skills in African American Children (Washington, D.C.: National Black Child Development Institute, 2002).
Boyer, E.L. Ready to Learn – A Mandate for the Nation (Lawrenceville, N.J.: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 1991).
Delpit, L. Other Peoples’ Children – Cultural Conflict in the Classroom (New York, N.Y.: The New Press, 1993).
Ladson-Billings, G. “But That’s Just Good Teaching! The Case for Culturally Relevant Pedagogy,” In Denbo, S., and L. Beaulieu, Improving Schools for African American Students – A Reader for Educational Leaders (Springfield, Ill.: Charles C. Thomas Publisher Ltd., 2002).
Littky, D. The Big Picture: Education is Everyone’s Business (Washington, D.C.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2004).
National Reading Panel. Report of the National Reading Panel: Teaching Children to Read (Washington, D.C.: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, NIH, 2000).
Sagor, R. Motivating Students and Teachers in an Era of Standards (Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2003).
Scott, B. “Reading Right, Reading Well,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, February, 2003).
Bradley Scott, Ph.D., is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development. Comments and questions may be directed to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2005, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the March 2005 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]