The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Welcome to The Treasure Hunter, a blog by Joanne Yatvin

ButterflyJYThe purpose of this blog is to highlight the good things now happening or possible in public education.  Although I will write pieces as often as I can, I welcome contributions from others who are aware of positive happenings in schools  or have good ideas for change.  My hope is that this blog will become the loudest voice in support of our schools, teachers, and students.


How Children Learn to Read

Looking at my usual sources of inspiration this past week I didn’t find anything I wanted to write about. So instead, I decided to write about my experience in teaching reading and that of several teachers I worked with over the years when I was a principal . 

Whenever I was able to spend time with my five year old grandson I would play a game with him that he loved. While we were sitting close together I would read him a story, but also stop at different places and ask him to read the next word. Without hesitation he was able to do that almost every time. Although he was not yet reading whole stories on his own, he became a good follower of my reading and capable of naming most of the simple words I chose for him. He was on his way to becoming a reader

The key reading skill for children is not only being able to identify words but also to do it promptly without struggling. They can’t spend time sounding out a dozen or more words and still enjoy-–or fully understand—what they are  reading. That’s why using phonics to determine the sounds of words is a difficult process for young children and one that often discourages them about learning to read.

What children need are strong roads into becoming successful readers and materials that satisfy their interests. Below I will suggest some teaching plans for primary grade classrooms that work to make both those things possible.

  1. At the beginning of the school year teachers should read aloud frequently, demonstrating how they make word pictures visible to students and stopping at times to explain words or actions in the story that may be difficult for children to understand.
  2. Once a month accomplished upper grade readers should be invited to read aloud to small groups of beginning readers in elementary classrooms. For a normal size classroom three or four readers should be enough to give a small audience the opportunity to see pictures clearly, comment on story events, or ask questions.
  3. Once a week children of different abilities should be paired to read a new story together. The stronger reader can help the weaker one by reading a word or a sentence that is giving the other one trouble.
  4. Children may also be asked to turn a story into a newspaper comic strip. They will draw the story’s characters in action in a series of boxes with spaces for their words or in circles coming from their mouths.
  5. Groups of students who are good readers may be invited to create a play about a story they have read, and discussed as a group.

Of course there are other ways to help young children learn to read. I would be pleased to hear about any good methods readers are aware of and would publish them here next week.



Where is Last Year’s Coaching Program Now?

In searching  for topics to write about at this quiet time for public education I forgot a few topics I had put aside last spring because they were more than I could handle at that time. But because I think there is value in knowing some of what was happening then–and where it stands in many school districts now– I write today about the coaching of teachers, which became popular last year for the purpose of helping teachers improve their teaching and comply with recent changes in school curricula.

Early last spring 60 studies of the effectiveness of having coaches observe and advise in school classrooms determined that positive results were minimal. What they showed was that large programs with coaches who had little training and no experience produced poor results.

As I read through the reports on the various types and sizes of programs, I felt that the data I looked at did not get to the heart of the problems or ways to overcome them.Why were many coaches in large programs not as well trained or dedicated as the ones in smaller programs? In addition, why were many teachers who recently received coaching to help them improve their teaching not pleased by the help they received, and why did they not feel a personal attachment to their coaches who had devoted so much time and effort in teaching them?

I chose to describe this particular article because I saw some problems locked into the situations but not explained. Why were so many coaches being appointed in the first place? Were they given special training for this job? If so, why weren’t more coaches successful? And  why did so many new teachers not appreciate the efforts of their coaches or feel close to them?

The answers to those questions were not apparent in any of the studies I have looked at. One significant reason not mentioned in most studies is that the majority of the new “coaches” were former teachers who resigned their jobs because they feared the changes that were happening in all schools at that time. They also felt dishonored by the new  requirements which seemed appropriate only for beginning teachers. Although many  resigned from their jobs rather than endure the new situations, others stayed on as coaches because they needed the salaries they were still entitled to and the time that would carry them to point where they were able to retire with a pension.

Another reality was that many of the current schools needed experienced teachers to help the newly hired people who were taking the jobs from them. Young teachers were not familiar with many of the recent changes in teaching methods and the importance of students earning decent yearly test scores.

Many long career teachers sensed that the failure of new programs to solve school problems was at hand. School districts were feeling the heat of many problems all at once: large student absenteeism, inexperienced new teachers, stagnant test scores, high expectations for test scores, and increasing numbers of emotional problems among students. Neither today’s school leaders or their teachers have the resources to handle so many of them.

What I see in this huge project begun in the previous school year is an unnamed number of schools in unnamed states. It seems to me that all those questions should be answered for the people involved and the rest of us who will be paying the bills.



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The Case Against Textbooks

I have never been a fan of textbooks.  As a student I resented carrying several of them back and forth to school every day, reading long, dull chapters and searching for the answers to stupid questions. Inside the covers of many of my textbooks other students had written things like, “In case of fire, throw this in.” Although those were meant to be jokes, I think they reflected the feelings of my classmates at that time.

Much later, as a beginning teacher, I was asked to substitute for another teacher who was very ill. When it became clear that she would not be able to return to her job, I was invited to stay for the rest of the school year.  Almost the first thing I did was to collect the textbooks in students’ desks and store all of them in a classroom cabinet. Non of my students complained when they saw those books were missing, and a few actually cheered.

Several years and a few jobs later, I became the Chair of the English Department at a newly built high school. When our school district decided to purchase new English textbooks for us, none of my teaching staff was pleased. The only textbooks they needed to teach were the poetry collections we already had; and the teachers felt that obtaining new and popular fiction would be more beneficial for students. In all my later jobs as an elementary school principal we also opted for paperback copies of modern literature instead of textbooks and workbooks. Having a wide range of inexpensive materials at hand enabled teachers to use books that were appropriate for the reading levels and interests of all their students. In addition, they felt they could use a number of the books purchased to teach history, geography, or even some aspects of science.

The  problem with one-type-fits-all textbooks was–and still is–that they are developed by non-teachers who are attempting to serve the levels and backgrounds of all students everywhere with one book. And the results for students are boredom and assignments that do not serve their needs or interests.

In all those actions our purpose was not defiance toward our superiors, but a firm conviction that the materials teachers chose were better for teaching and less expensive than textbooks. In all the schools where I have been a principal we were able to amass large numbers and a variety of paperbacks to serve teachers’ preferences and students needs. We also found that paperbacks were more inexpensive than leather-bound copies. Their covers strengthened with Scotch tape lasted just as long, if not longer. And if the books lost their appeal after a year or two of use, we could through them away without  feeling we had been reckless.


Which Kind of School Do Students Need?

Today, I am posting a section of an article I wrote thirty-one years ago as part of a review of the book “McDonogh 15; Becoming a School.”* All I have done this time is change some words to bring school practices up to date.  I am posting such an old piece because I believe that the main issues I cited back then are still important.

Some schools are successful in raising student test scores; others concentrate on students developing good lives for themselves. What is the difference between their practices?

A school labeled as successful identifies student learning as high test scores and good grades for assigned work.  It does not take into consideration students’ abilities to solve personal problems, develop social skills, or explore new ground.  It does not differentiate between dynamic and inert knowledge or temporary and lasting skills; and it ignores student motivation.  In contrast, a school considered “good” mirrors the realities of life in an orderly adult society.  It is rational and open to change, a practice ground for the things adults do in the outside world.  It focuses on learning that grows through use, such as communication, decision making, exploration, craftsmanship, and group interaction.  It makes children think of themselves as mature people who find strength, nourishment, and satisfaction in each bit of new learning.

Students who cover a traditional curriculum in order to “master” as much of it as possible are not taught to be initiators, builders, or seekers.  They are, at best, reactors.  The knowledge they dutifully acquire is not often broad based or useful. It is taught because it is likely to appear on a test.

A realistic school,  on the other hand, has a broad-based and practical curriculum with subject matter chosen for its relevance to further experiences and opportunities in the outside world,  but also family and community membership,  It uses teaching practices that simulate the ways adults operate. Its students are actively involved in productive tasks that combine and expand their skills. They initiate creative projects, make their own decisions, enjoy  learning new tasks, show off their accomplishments, and look for harder, more exciting work to do.

A school becomes  realistic  when its principal and teachers make connections with the outside world. It creates a sense of community that encourages personal expression within a framework of  social  responsibility. It operates as an organic entity–not as a machine–moving always to expand its basic nature rather than to tack on artificial appendages.

A realistic school is like a healthy tree.  As it grows, it sinks its roots into its native soil; it adapts to the surrounding climate and vegetation; its branches thicken for support and spread for maximum exposure to the sun and rain.  It makes  its own food; it heals its own wounds; and in its season, it puts forth fresh leaves, blossoms, and fruit.


*If You have not read this book, buy it or borrow it from your library.  You won’t regret it.

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Family Wealth or Poverty Shows Up in Students’ Test Scores

Because so many readers have been interested in the piece I re-posted about the serious problems in expecting young children to understand how language uses inflections to alter the meaning of a word, I decided to go one step further and re-post a piece by Dr, David Berliner who annualized compared student test scores in the United States to those of several European countries.  When I read his report on how the different demographics in  various countries affects students’  test scores I was persuaded that he was right

Recently, Dr. David C. Berliner decided to examine closely the PIRLS* test scores of American students as compared to those of students of other countries where they appeared to be much better. As he explains, “Standardized Achievement Tests are quite responsive to demographics, and not very sensitive at all to what teachers and schools accomplish.”

What he found in examining the 2016 average scores of students from several countries was that the US students had a score of 549, while those in Singapore scored 576, in Hong Kong 569, and in Finland 566. Although those scores looked bad for the U.S., Berliner felt that it was important to consider the different demographics in each country before making a judgment.

One significant thing he looked at was the percentage of American students on Free and Reduced Lunch in a school. When those percentages were low, students’ test scores were higher than in the other countries mentioned above. In fact, the lower the poverty rate was for an American school, the higher were its test scores.  Berliner asserted, “it’s our social and economic systems, not our schools, that cause lower scores than is (sic) desired by our nation.”

Ultimately, Berliner concluded, “If we want better scores on such tests, we need to get off the backs of teachers and schools. Our teachers and schools are presently educating a high percentage of our kids to very high levels of literacy. But that is not true for another high percentage of our kids. What we need to do to help those kids is to exert a lot more influence on our nations’ politicians to give us the equitable society that will promote higher achievement for all our citizens.”

The only thing I have to add is “Amen”.


* “The Progress in International Reading Literacy” is a test given to 4th graders in several countries. Since 2001, PIRLS has been administered every 5 years. It documents worldwide trends in the reading knowledge of 4th-graders as well as school and teacher practices related to instruction.


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