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Literacy and Children: Finding the Magic

No Child Left Behind has accomplished what many educators predicted. It has ensured that those who usually get left behind get left more behind. It did this by requiring some schools—not the best ones—to keep their eyes on the wrong ball. It’s the quality of the teaching, stupid. Standards do not ensure good teaching and standards bureaucratically imposed can go a long way to reduce the quality of teaching.

Good teachers teach as if their students can think. Not only can think, but must learn to think better in order to be successful. Somehow in our society there has developed the notion that thinking is all well and good, but first you need to learn your three Rs, when the truth is the other way around. To learn the three Rs you have engage the brain before teaching the skill. If we want our children to be prepared for this new century, we need to teach them as if they are thinking all the time.

The National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE) has come out with Skills for the 21st Century. There are five:

  • Creativity and innovation
  • Facility with the use of ideas and abstractions
  • Self-discipline and organization to manage one’s own work and drive it through to successful conclusion
  • Leadership
  • Ability to function well as a member of a team

In his latest book, Five Kinds of Minds for the Future, Howard Gardner, professor at Harvard University and author of the useful concept of Multiple Intelligences has his own list of five:

  • Disciplined mind (expertise in a field)
  • Synthesizing mind (scanning and weaving into coherence)
  • Creating mind (discovery and innovation)
  • Respectful mind (open mindedness and inclusiveness)
  • Ethical mind (moral courage)

The Educational Testing Service (they produce the SAT) has a new Personal Potential Index, a one-to-five scale for analyzing letters of recommendation to accompany a candidate’s GRE scores to graduate school. Its criteria?

  • Knowledge and creativity
  • Communication skills
  • Team work
  • Resilience, planning, and organization
  • Ethics and integrity

There is more, but already the themes are pretty obvious, and the idea that an educated person reveals all of these skills and aptitudes is not new. Educators have known for generations that education entails all of this. Centuries, actually—when was it that Mark Twain said: “I never let schooling interfere with my education?” What is perhaps new is that, just as America is finally overcoming its general ignorance and acknowledging the reality of global warming, it also seems to be waking up to the fact that schools need to do more than just grind kids toward limited “academic standards.” (See Is No Child Left Behind Working?)  

If one walks into a school that is pursuing literacy rather than just “teaching kids to read,” you will see students doing many of the following:

  • Researching topics of interest in books of interest
  • Writing in journals
  • Sharing stories and creating puppet shows
  • Expressing themselves in artistic creations
  • Writing descriptions
  • Writing directions
  • Describing art
  • Collecting data and composing hypotheses
  • Designing letter writing campaigns
  • Reading books to other students—older and younger
  • Documenting each other’s experiences
  • Labeling everything in the room
  • Finding the stories behind words and tracking their journey through time
  • Writing their personal stories into plays and performing these plays

In pursuit of literacy, students define questions, read from a variety of sources, create idea folders, write position papers, make presentations, debate, and ask more questions. A creative teacher could even tell the students to see words as scientific “specimens” to be observed, dissected, and experimented with, using the dictionary as a natural habitat from which to gather and explore.

In one sixth grade class I am familiar with, students had little interest in the dictionary until the teacher named it “Huey.” Immediately, Huey came into constant use. Magic? Sure. But then great teaching has always been about finding the magic.

Students shouldn’t do these things just because they are fun, they must do them to become an educated person. Being literate is more than just rising on the ladder from C-A-T to Harry Potter. Literacy requires all those skills and competencies noted above. It is a manifestation of the full development of the human organism. Getting there entails everything from recess to art to algebra. It starts with a child with a voice and proceeds through the whole complexity of life, story by story, and requires that the story have meaning.

So being literate is a matter of integrating the whole thoughtful, feeling, imaginative, creative, empathetic person. At its core is the soul of the child and the search for meaning. For best results we must keep our eye on the full engagement of the student, for only then can we trust that we are maximizing their academic potential.

Last Month’s column: In Search of Wanderlust

From the Principal’s Office: Lessons on Learning, Life, and Parenting is published bi-monthly. Each column is written by Rick Ackerly, a distinguished educator with thirty years experience in middle and elementary school education, who is currently the Head of the Children’s Day School in San Francisco.

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