The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

There’s More to Education than Reading,Writing, and Math

Last week I read an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer that seemed to be a copy of others I had read before. It told the story of a teenage boy shooting and killing a school classmate because he had insulted him. As you might expect, the results were family heartache, the shooters’ arrest, and his punishment. Although most people think that restricting gun ownership is the only way to prevent more of such tragedies, I see other ways to stop kids from shooting each other and instead work happily together. And so, I will describe some of them here today. *****************************************************************************************************************

Basically, I believe that schools should be places where students feel safe and see themselves as successful and likable human beings. If things don’t go right many of them may be headed for trouble instead. Only when schools recognize students’ personal needs, along with their learning needs, and aim to meet both of them, will there be educational success. Students will see their schoolwork as reasonable and beneficial, themselves as winners, their teachers and classmates as friends, and education as a good time in their lives.

What kinds of learning activities do I suggest for schools? Well, where I was principal we chose ones that were beyond the classroom but appropriate for the ages, interests, and abilities of students. In our lower grade classrooms we provided plants, flowers, and small animals that needed regular attention, and gave students the responsibility to take care of them. For our middle school students the opportunity to learn adult jobs seemed appropriate, so many of them were tought to serve school lunches, clean up and re-organize the school gym after games, and collect daily classroom trash. Our upper school students were assigned to work inside and outside the school. A few of the smartest ones went through classroom trashcans every week in order to take out any articles that were re-salable. Because of their efforts the school earned enough money to buy worthy school materials every year. As a result of their out-of-cllasroom activities most of our students felt successful inside and outside the classroom, and learned skills and adult behavior that would benefit them in the future. I hope with all my heart that all of them succeeded.

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Teach Reading as Pleasure, Not Punishment

Although I don’t usually remember or quote aphorisms, I’m haunted by one written by John Holt in How Children Fail: “If we taught children to speak, they’d never learn.” Watching children in classrooms struggle with flashcards, workbooks, and other paraphernalia for reading instruction, I can’t help thinking that we’ve trapped them in a forest of systems, diagnoses, and prescriptions that keep them from “seeing the trees”–which in life are reading and writing! Of all the things we expect children to learn in school, reading has the strongest motivating power because it’s a useful and pleasurable activity. Yet many of our young children are still stuck in the mud of being unable to read much beyond their own names. How can we help them

Formal school instruction turns kids off to reading by taking enjoyment, adventure, and usefulness out of it. Mainly, it regiments the reading process so that learning is allowed only in a proscribed and measured sequence. For instance, reading is taught by barring most of the significant forms of print, such as comic books, cereal boxes, and advertisements. When occasionally, the real print world does creep inside a classroom, many teachers act as the literate interpreters of words so that children don’t have to face the need to read.

Also, by emphasizing “decoding skills” in the classroom we divert children from reading real stories and messages, and instead have them work out silly puzzles with letters, syllables, and strange words. We ask questions about symbols, rather than stories. We expect them to decode a page of print on which they recognize only a fraction of the words. We have them practice identifying words on flashcards that have no context. We may even give them rules to memorize that don’t hold true, such as: “When two vowels go walking the first one does the talking” (How ironic that the only word in that rule has two vowels together–“does”–is an exception). We divert children from reading real stories and messages in order to work out silly puzzles with letters, syllables, messages and large words. We make them interrupt their understanding of a story to sound-out unfamiliar words that remain meaningless afterword. And finally, we expect them to decode a page of print where they recognize only a few of the words. With all the rigamarole of reading instruction teachers forget–even though many children need to discover– that every printed page is supposed to make sense! Instead we should write messages to each child from time to time and expect them to write back to us, their classmates, and their parents.

In addition we use formal instruction that turns ease into drudgery with reading tasks that are boring, meaningless, and painful. We divert children from reading real stories and messages to working out silly puzzles with letters, syllables, and words: Write in the missing letters in the words below so that each one rhymes with “game.” We ask questions about styles rather than stories: “which word in that sentence begins with a consonant blend? We give them rules to memorize that don’t hold true: “When two vowels go walking the first one does the talking” (but the only word in that rule that has two vowels together –Does– is an exception to that rule.

Actually, learning to read is easy– certainly more so than learning the grammar of one’s native language, which almost all children have done by the time they enter school. It’s just a matter of cracking a 26-symbol code that corresponds to the language they already speak. If kids can recite nursery rhymes, figure out what Mom and Dad are spelling at the dinner table and put together a jigsaw puzzle in 30 seconds; reading should also be a cinch for them. Why then are so many of our schools unable to turn children’s natural motivation, speaking experience, and learning ability into reading competence? The answer is that most schools use the hard way to teach what is really very simple. With all the rigamarole of reading instruction teachers may forget, and children never discover, that a printed page is supposed to make sense!

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I was Wrong Then, But I Think I’m Right Now

About two weeks ago I read an article in CNN on-line that described recent changes in Arizona’s public schools as a big success. And because I was strongly impressed by it, I praised the same things in my next post to you. Soon afterward, however, I began to see things differently, and decided that what was described as success could very well turn out to be a disaster. So, today I will do my best to identify the hidden problems in my previous post and predict what I now think is likely to happen if our federal government does not reverse its decisions.


What has happened in Arizona over the past few years is a significant change in American school operations. First, because that state was unwilling to raise school salaries, it lost 3,000 teachers in a single year, many of them moving into jobs in local businesses where they were offered significantly higher salaries because they had science degrees and experience. Nevertheless, those facts didn’t seem to worry the state or national officials because they had already created what they thought was a good solution to teacher revolt, and were certain it could be instituted nationwide. Their solution was to replace revolting American teachers with job-seekers from the Philippines, who had earned science degrees, demonstrated their teaching skills, and were eager to come to Arizona for salaries that were better than the ones at home. In addition, some of them already spoke some English.

However, once Philippine teachers take over their work in Arizona schools they will be likely to have some serious problems; specifically “culture shock”, poor English speaking, and unfamiliarity with regular classroom procedures. But the article claimed that most of the new foreign teachers would be able to deal with those problems and do a good job of teaching American students.

What was not made clear in the CNN article was the fact that the rules agreed upon by both countries are restrictive. They say that Philippine teachers may stay in the United States for only two years. Also, whether or not they will be replaced by new teachers from the same country seams to be undecided so far.

Apparently, our national officials believe that having one year of outsiders teaching in our schools will be enough to persuade revolting American teachers to return to their original jobs and salaries. Does that mean that what is likely to happen in Arizona is also bound to happen country-wide? I think it does. It looks like our federal government is determined to persuade all American teachers to quietly accept low salaries and disrespectful treatment as their lot in life, and then all our eduction problems will be solved.


All That Glitters Is Not Gold

At last I found a newspaper article I can respond to today. Although I’ve been writing regularly over the past few months the topics I have covered have been nothing new. My problem has been that I couldn’t find anything new about education, only the same old complaints about low test scores. But a few days ago I stumbled upon an interesting article involving education that I wanted to write about. It told the story of an area in our country where many teachers have left their schools in order to get better paying jobs in businesses.

Recently several southern states have suffered a severe shortage of high school science teachers who left for better paying jobs. In Arizona for instance, there were 7,000 school vacancies because teachers’ salaries were significantly lower than what they could get in various science and technical industries.

In order to fill the open teaching jobs many schools have sought teachers from other countries. And for this year, at least, they have been very successful in securing well-trained foreign teachers who are satisfied with the low salaries American schools offer because they were better than what they would earn at home. Even though many of their families would be left behind for a long time, it still seemed to be better for them to work at jobs in the U.S. than in their home countries.

Unfortunately for us, however, our education problems are not solved. For one thing, not all the new teachers have standard teaching certificates or speak English well enough to communicate effectively with our students. But even more significant is the fact that our federal laws do not allow them to stay indefinitely or become citizens. After two or five years, at the most, their credentials will expire and they will have to leave this country. Also. many of those workers who can stay legally prefer to go home and be with their families once more.

As I see the situation, the scarcity of American teachers in certain areas has not been solved. In fact it has only been delayed, and is likely to increase and spread as time goes on. Eventually, our country will see a significant scarcity of all kinds of teachers in all areas because we pay them inadequately and treat them badly. My intention is to describe and explain those educational problems I am aware of in my next article because it is too large and complicated to explain here and now. Hang in there! I promise to describe and explain my views next time.

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Catchers in the Rye

Because school started last month I expected to be able to write about current happenings– good or bad– in in our schools. But I’ve had no luck so far. Nothing of the kind is appearing in the newspapers or other sources I read. Like you readers I want to know about education today, and I strongly resent being held in the dark. Because I believe that public education is a basic component in our country I must continue to write about it even though the newspapers seem to consider it an issue of the past. For that reason I am posting a piece today that I wrote and published in 1994, long before I had begun writing this blog . I have chosen to post it here today because I believe it is as significant now as it was back then, 25 years ago.

When I first read J.D. Salinger’s novel, “The Catcher in the Rye”, it struck me as a clumsy story written to justify a meaningless title. Would any real teenager see himself as the rescuer of endangered children, as the boy in that book does?

Today, even though I am still cynical of Salinger’s novel, I find his catcher image poignant and real. There are so many children in this country who are physically, economically, socially, or psychologically in danger. Even though statistics don’t tell the story of children’s tragic lives, we as educators see the evidence day after day in their anger, apathy, self-destructiveness, and resistance to learning. Because we are where children are, because they will drive us crazy if we do nothing, and because we care, we must be today’s catcher in the rye.

I have no magic formula for child-catching. Each rescue must be worked out in personal terms that fit the catcher and the child. Probably it doesn’t even matter if our ways are sophisticated or crude, gentle or tough; as long as one sensible adult is looking after the welfare of each child.

I do believe, however, that there are conditions that are are essential for child-catching to succeed. The framework of operation must be small, physically close to children, and flexible. Forget any plan for recruiting 500 teachers as catchers, training them, and setting up a schedule for patrolling the rye. To succeed we need small schools or ones divided into small community units; reasonable classroom time and space, personal relationships, and classroom legitimacy for play and conversation. Also, authority should be in the hands of front-line practitioners, and educational visions unclouded by political pressure to cover academic ground, raise test scores, or produce workers for industry.

Within such a framework educators are able to catch children who stray too close to the edge. They know each one as an individual and become aware of what is happening to him. They also find time to teach children about the world, and without having to”implement” or “assess” any current practices make exceptions to rules, change foolish ones, and act differently from past mistakes. Ultimately, when the behavior of children or bureaucrats becomes intolerable, teachers may even stamp their feet and shout, “This has got to stop!”

Although a legal permanent rescue is a slow process and an imperfect one, catching often shows quick and dramatic results. I credit those results to what I call the “wort theory” of education. In essence it states that children’s problems are like warts: if you can destroy just a few of them, the rest may get the message and go away. Children who are carrying intolerable burdens of family dysfunction, bad learning habits, or social ineptitude may shake them off in a few weeks when a caring teacher takes the time to talk through a single problem with them or tutor them in one new skill. In essence what I am saying here is that good teachers are the people who must decide and act on what is best for their students, not experts who are far away, bound by countless rules, and have no personal understanding of an individual’s problem.

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