Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Why Diva Can't Read

Diva stood in a line of classmates, looking at the “Word Wall” board, knowing that she was supposed to be able to decipher the assembled letters in front of her—and she panicked. There was a “t” but no “h” so she knew it wasn’t “the,” but feeling the pressure of eyes upon her, she couldn’t solve the problem any further. The word might have been “went” or “to”—she couldn’t remember which it was when she told me the story at bedtime. “I got so scared,” she said, her face hidden by a pillow. “I almost cried.”

She’s 5.

That a girl so young feels embarrassed that she can’t read well enough is a reflection both of our time and of our location. We live in one of those towns people move to for the “good schools.” By “good,” many people mean that students test well. In fact, just a few years ago, the elementary school Diva attends had the highest average standardized test scores in Massachusetts. For some parents, those results are reason enough to desire this particular district in our town above all the others (and it’s not like the other schools are chopped liver).  But we didn’t buy in our neighborhood with an eye toward testing; we snapped up our condo mostly because it was the first place we could afford. Only after we moved in did we learn how “good” our school district is.

Our school earns its high marks by being fairly rigorous from the word go. Just four months in, Kindergartners are expected to be able to read and write an array of words, and by the end of the year they will be writing narratives. They’ve had written homework since week one, a practice meant to establish a pattern that will ready them for first grade, which will involve daily homework, a much faster pace of new language acquisition, and nightly reading. In theory, standards like these will help keep the children of our town statistically on par with, say, the children of Shanghai, while yielding a smarter, stronger workforce for our nation’s future. But in practice, it means that a single kind of learning—outcome-based academics— determines all things, while other modes (social development, citizenship, creativity) can be valued only insomuch as they do not impede progress in more numerically-measurable areas.

This emphasis is a problem if you are a five year-old with terrible memory. For several years, Diva grouped all her friends in categories named for the first member of each whose name she learned: all blonde white girls were Tess, all Asian girls were Emmeline,  and both her young cousins were Alice. She routinely refers to her favorite toy as “My American Girl Doll,” a moniker which is three words longer than its actual name, which she can’t remember no matter how much we use it. Her own birth date escapes her most of the time and she cannot tell a story about something that happened yesterday without first being reminded of the context. Not surprisingly, we were nervous in advance of this school year about how it would go.

Don’t get me wrong—we weren’t nervous because we think that she can’t learn or won’t read. She’s a smart, creative kid, and she’ll get there when she gets there, even if not on the school’s timeline. We were nervous only because we didn’t want her to feel badly about learning at her own pace and thus end up associating school with failure—yet there are hints that this is already happening.  In the first week of school, her class was told that none of them could ask parents for help with spelling words and that the teacher would know if they did. The idea behind this approach is that it should force the students to be more independent and to do their own problem-solving. Yet when Diva couldn’t sound out a word she needed for her initial homework assignment, she burst into tears and hid under the table.  From the beginning, then, the very theory meant to empower her to “do it for herself” instead taught her what she can’t do.

Her teachers, I must be clear, are not villains. They are neither whip-cracking fiends nor developmental alarmists.  They simply know what waits for Diva in first grade (and second and third…) in our school system, and, beyond that, the greater expectations of the age we live in. In this particular cultural moment, many teachers like hers no longer have the old-school luxury of  adapting instruction to allow for the needs of different learning styles; they must ever teach with an eye toward the quite-inflexible tests which will eventually come.  With so much federal money dependent on those tests, high scores drive the engine of public education, no matter how teachers or families may feel about it.

As Diva’s dads, we’re doing our part at home to soften the fear created by the pace of learning our daughter faces. We’ve made a memory game out of the “World Wall” words, and we let her figure out the words her own way when we play. But, even more, we’re trying to remind her that every child is different, that reading doesn’t have to be her thing right now. Sure, some of her classmates are good sight readers and some are great at math, while others are better at drawing pictures or scoring goals in P.E. We love her for who she is and want her to feel good about her own skills and talents.

But she’s no dummy: she already understands that no one but us values her song-writing ability, or the speed with which she is mastering skiing, or her fabulous pretend play scenarios.  No one will ask her to stand in front of her peers and answer a question about doll-houses or fuse beads. In her five year-old way, she’s already learning a tough lesson: her school wants one thing from her, and it’s something she doesn’t yet have to give.


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