For Pete reading equals exclusion and pain

Chapter Three: Pete and Sally

       The year before I did my little stint as music teacher, I decided to spend some time at the school helping a kid that was having trouble reading. Pete’s parents were divorced. He was really having a struggle. His teacher told me that Pete’s troubles reading stemmed from his home life. After only a short time with him, I could see that Pete’s problems were not his home life.  The public school was stifling his natural curiosity and smothering his self-esteem.

       We set up a time that Pete could read with me for a half hour. We met every Tuesday in the library. He brought a book with him that his class was reading. He was hopelessly behind. This was a good chance for him to catch up, at least in this subject. We opened the book and I listened as he stumbled through the words. He took so long to get through a sentence that it was impossible to keep track of what the sentence was about. Sometimes he would get frustrated enough to start crying.

       After a few visits, I told him to shut the book. Looking around the library I found a book about animals. I brought it over to our table. He protested, saying that he wasn’t allowed to get books that were out of his “reading level”. I told him it would be OK since I was the one getting the book. We opened the book right to the middle. It was full of beautiful pictures of exotic fish.

       “Whoa!” he exclaimed. “Cool!”

       “Let’s read.”

       “I can’t read this.”

       “Who says?”

       “It’s out of my ‘reading level’. I can only read books with green stickers on them.”

       “This isn’t a test, or anything. Let’s just read about fish, you know, for fun.” Pete looked at me suspiciously. It hit me that the idea of reading for fun was foreign to him. “Go ahead, start reading.” And he did.  I had never heard him read so smoothly and coherently. But why? This book was way beyond his “reading level”.

       After experiencing exotic fish, our reading time went a completely different direction. We did precious little reading in his “reading level”. Some of what we read was actually fun. We laughed and learned.

       Let’s beat up the “reading level” program. Pete takes a test on the computer, which assesses his reading proficiency. A teacher doesn’t have to bother with being involved personally; the computer does that for her. It is very scientific and efficient. With just a few short questions a “reading level” can be assigned. Each book in the library has a colored sticker on it designating its level. There are five or six levels. Now that doesn’t sound too sinister, does it? There’s no chart, right? Wrong. The students carry their chart around with them in the form of a little colored sticker on their book. It has the very same effect, in the very same way, for the very same reasons as the “50-in-a-minute” chart. There are some aspects of this program that I think are even more harmful to kids.

       When Pete finishes a book, he must pass a test on the computer for that book. It is a short test of five to ten questions. So each answer is important to his score. If Pete misses three, he’s done for.  Nearly half way through with the fourth grade, Pete is only on the second level. That’s about where most second graders are. Why? Is it possible that he was just that much slower than the rest of his class? Yes it is. But I know that this wasn’t true. I have seen for myself how thoughtful and bright Pete is.

       First of all, Pete doesn’t believe he will pass the test because the Public School and willing parents have taught him to believe this way. If he is stressed he might not pass the test, he will be impaired. Do you think he gets stressed? If he is looking forward to the disparaging remarks from his teacher when he fails, he will be impaired. I heard his teacher do just that. If he is worried about his classmates putting him down when he fails again, he will be impaired. Any one or combination of these situations would paralyze an adult. Pete is just a fourth grader. He will likely face all of these situations every time he takes the “reading level” test. No wonder he looked at me like I was nuts when I suggested that reading was fun!

      That’s not the worst of it. The “reading level” program effectively shuts out the whole library to Pete, or any other student that isn’t in the highest level. All those books, all those possibilities are before the students and they can’t even open them if they don’t have the right colored sticker. What on Earth will happen when Pete enters a world with no stickers on books? Actually at this point, that question has no meaning. Pete won’t be reading much after Public School. For him reading is an exercise in humiliation and labeling.  I’ll bet school staff and administration can as confidently predict no change for Pete as they could for Tory.

       What happens when a kid reads out of all the levels available? Too bad. The top level is the cap. What if a book they want read isn’t in the library. Too bad. If there isn’t a test for the book, it can’t be in the program. And guess what? The school has to buy each test. Yes, buy them. Where do they get the money? From you. And this might shock you: there isn’t enough money to stock the bookshelves let alone buy tests for the “reading level” program! But all that’s for a completely different book. Let’s return to Pete.

       Pete’s parents gave up their right to teach him to an organization that is denying him the basis of learning, the ability to read. He hates it. He associates it with exclusion and pain. We’ve covered some of the pain; now let’s talk about the exclusion. There is a point system attached to the books. The more difficult the book, the more points it is worth. The points for the book are awarded if the “reading level” test for it is passed. If the little person does very well, her name will be posted on the library wall as a member of the elite 100 point club. What purpose is served by making any aspect of reading in a school elite or exclusionary? It gets better.

       The kids get to use the points they’ve earned as cash in the Accelerated Reading Store. This “store” is set up in the library. Fun little toys, erasers and the like can be bought with the points. Pete doesn’t think he can read. Does he get to buy anything in the Accelerated Reading Store? Is that Pete’s fault?  What if a little person is a great reader but is intimidated by taking the “reading level” test on the computer? Will he be able to buy anything in the Accelerated Reading Store? Nope. What does the little person learn if he is a good reader and is able to buy things from the store? Should he be striving to read well so that he can have an animal eraser for the top of his pencil? What happens when he gets out of school and there are no animal erasers? Should good reading become an exclusive club with entitlements that others cannot share? How does a little person’s mind convert reading into money? The whole thing is so twisted that each question begs another question. It’s wrong on so many levels that it is hard to identify all the ways it mixes up the kids.

       Mom, how would you teach your little one to read? Would the process be a complicated web of tests, awards, exclusion and coercion? Would you take the chance of using reading to humiliate him? Or would reading be as natural as speaking and walking. Would you like your little one to love reading for the sake of reading and learning? Then consider carefully before giving him over to the Public School.

       When Pete moved on to the next year of public education, his teacher was one that was popular with students and parents. She was devoted to doing her best to reach her little inmates. She was dynamic and energetic. Pete’s problems did not just go away because he was in her class. He had been taught for over five thousand hours that he had behavior problems, stemming, of course, from his home life. He had been demeaned and confined. Every aspect of learning was threatening to him. Pete’s new teacher also felt the pressures of the Public School bearing down on her. The day came when she lost her temper with Pete for not taking his homework home. In a fit, she overturned his desk dumping everything out on the floor, and then she threw the desk into the corner and shoved him into it. The very person that Pete had to depend on turned on him. He was completely alone. Again.


"Well, Sally, we can't be winners all the time!"

       At the end of the year the school has a recognition assembly. This would be my last day as the temporary music teacher. I sat in the gym watching the teachers and little people with relish; I really had come to love them all. The principal got up to announce the awards. Guess what the first awards were for? “50-in-a-minute”! True to the last, the school would give its last stamp of approval to the chart. If the children had any doubts about what the chart said about them before, they didn’t now. Along with the sparkling stickers and the attending glory, applause from the whole school would now be added. A shiny medal and certificate made the program complete and legitimate to all involved.

       The next awards were given to the kids in each class with the most…can you contain the suspense? Yes! “Reading level” points! Congratulations and a handshake from the most prominent figure in their life (no, not the moms), the principal, are given. Add applause and a shiny medal to an already twisted program and the damage is complete.

       The next award was given out for that most noble of human achievements: perfect attendance!

       Before we are finished, medals are handed out for the track meet. At least these victors had the choice to compete.

       Amid the cheers and applause, the calling out of winners’ names, the handshakes and awards, my eye caught the little blond head of Sally. Sally was a happy girl. She was always willing to help a classmate that had fallen from the swing. She helped anyone behind in their “timeses”. She was confident. She played the piano. Her report card is covered with A’s. Yet there she sat with her head in her hands.

       I watched as her teacher noticed her lack of breathless celebration. For some reason Sally was not caught up in the excitement.  The teacher pulled her close to speak to her over the din. I saw the little head shake “no” then a “yes”. Then Sally leaned toward the teacher’s ear. I could only guess at what was being said between them.

       Then the teacher sat straight and told Sally in a voice I could hear now, “Well, Sally, we can’t be winners all the time.” She turned attention from Sally back to the celebration. The little blond head nodded “yes” again. With a new perspective, I looked around the room and found many more that were not among the joyous.

       If you choose to put your little one into the Public School, he could either be lavished with awards and praise for things that will not improve him, or bewildered and sad. He would receive no award for being good, working hard, being honest or kind. What’s heart breaking is that you would likely never even know about the awards assembly and what it taught your little one.

      Just like the other well-intentioned programs in Public School, the awards assembly has the opposite effect. It stifles natural curiosity and smothers self-esteem.