The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Every Community Has its Own culture

A while ago a newspaper article I read about poor school attendance touched on a view of education very different from the one that predominates in government, business, and the media today. While the Common Core Standards and the states that have signed on to them are calling for more rigor in K-12 grades and college or post-high school training for everyone, their message is falling on deaf ears in many places. For lots of American students and their parents attending school is just not that important.

Because of its significance I decided to re-publish this piece today.

The town featured in the article was a small rural one in Oregon with a high rate of student absence that can’t be explained by illness or poverty.  Last year 40 per cent of first graders were chronically absent, and 70 per cent of highschoolers missed enough days to equal five weeks of classes. When school officials and teachers were questioned about  those absences they came up with some interesting answers. For example: family hunting trips, a scarcity of local doctors, dentists and other medical services made it necessary for students to skip school. But the answer most often voiced was that the town’s families didn’t really feel  that regular school attendance was important.

In that town the majority of adults–who have no college education or not even a high school diploma—are working at jobs they like, earning adequate wages, and living social lives that satisfy them and their families.  One mother who was questioned defended her son’s absence for a recent three day hunting trip by citing family values: “What they are getting out of that experience outweighs the time at school—The bonding, the experience—what it takes to deal with a dead animal–is not something that will change for families like ours”. To the teachers and school officials that response seems more reasonable than many others they hear when parents are told that their children are missing too much school. Those answers boil down to “So what?”

Without examining the student absentee situation in other places, I’m convinced that there are many cultures of attitudes, customs, and beliefs everywhere that influence people’s behavior more strongly than any government message. Take a high poverty area in big city, for instance, where most adults have limited education, low paying jobs, and no savings. Typically, they do not expect their children to live lives any different from theirs. On top of that, the local schools are crowded, rundown, and tough on misbehaving or truant students. When a couple of kids in the neighborhood decide to take a day off, others think, “Why shouldn’t I join them? It’s a lot more fun than going to school.” Some parents may object, but their kids do it anyway. Other parents don’t know what’s going on; and still others figure it’s just normal kid behavior. That’s the culture of the community, and it’s hard to argue against it.

High poverty communities are not the only places where culture rules, however. There are towns and whole states that cling to the traditions of the past and see the world in terms of their own environment. For most people school is okay as long as it fits with their own values and customs.

For the present, I don’t see much of a chance for changing cultures. America will have to evolve into more of a melting pot than it is today. But I believe it is possible to make all schools more attractive and relevant to local populations without diminishing quality. Almost always there is an overlap between the local culture and the national vision of educational excellence that, if emphasized, would lure students and their families back to school. Let me describe, briefly, some things that could be done within that overlap.

First, provide more high school electives, especially courses related to the jobs available in the area, but also ones in the arts and crafts. At the same time, reconsider the widespread practice of requiring all high school students to take multiple courses in math, science, and a foreign language. For many young people such courses do not serve their current interests or their future aspirations.

Next, make community interests and activities part of the classroom curriculum. Young children can read–or listen to teachers read– descriptions of local events, then write about them to get others interested.  Older students can be encouraged to get involved with community service projects in their free time.

Building a distinct school culture can also be important to students. They can tend a school vegetable garden, “Adopt a Road,” organize an in-school recycling system, or form a crew of “safety partners” to protect young children from being bullied by walking them to and from school.

A school culture can also provide a variety of after-school and evening programs for students and parents by opening up the school in the evening for recreational activities such as swimming, table tennis, and Midnight Basketball. A school can also encourage community groups to meet at school for activities that interest them, from break-dancing to Bible study.

In addition, a school library can be converted into community service when a public library is not accessible. By keeping the school library open one evening a week or  Saturday afternoon, expanding the range of books, or scheduling book readings and discussions for different ages and interests the school library will draw in adults and children of different ages and interests.

For some communities, like the one mentioned earlier, having medical, dental or social services at school on certain days would be a powerful draw-in.

Finally, and most important, it would be wise to return school districts to local control. That means empowering the community school board to set student standards, determine the school calendar, select textbooks, and choose the types and frequency of student testing. With a return to local control the state’s major role would be to provide a variety of choices and assistance as needed.

To many readers the changes I am suggesting look too difficult or expensive for a small community. But having just one of them from time to time may open doors that would bring people together and strengthen their feelings of school importance.

Wounded pride, more than a concern for America’s place in the global economy, has brought a series of ineffective changes to K-12 education and produced a vast chasm between national policy and the needs of individual communities. After some 20 years under a barrage of school “reforms,” we are left with nothing more than failed policies, stagnant test scores, a growing hourd of “opt-out” parents, dis-enfranchised and demoralized teachers, and too few high school graduates prepared for quality jobs.

Ask yourselves, “Is this democracy; is this quality education; is this common sense?





Leave a comment »

Learning is a Personal Decision

Today’s piece is the reposting of an essay I wrote two years ago–with a few changes. As I mentioned before, friends and family members are visiting at this time of year, so I have little time left to write.  Because I think that many readers have little time to read for similar reasons, I don’t feel guilty right now.

I am sorry to have to say it, but the formalizing of students’ actions and behavior is a waste of time for students and teachers. What I am referring to is the teaching of grit, mindfulness, resilience or the switch to “personalized learning” that has become so popular recently.  Why don’t trained educators recognize the fact that all human beings– including young children—choose how they behave and what they learn?

Although we adults may influence children’s actions by our own actions, we cannot force them to like and retain all that we teach.  One strong example from my own experience is the weekly spelling lists that we practiced daily and were tested on every Friday. Although most of us wanted to get good grades in spelling, we did not care at all about retaining the correct spelling of the words taught.  Our motto every Friday was ” Forget the old words so we can learn the new ones”.

If we want students to like being at school, put effort into their assignments, and enjoy what is being taught we’ve got to make those things meaningful and worth working on in their eyes. And, we have to recognize that much of what is taught in schools stays with students only temporarily, not for the long run.

Let’s consider for a moment our adult use of school learning. Can we still speak or read the foreign language we studied in high school? Do we use algebra to solve our personal math problems at home? Do we remember why the War of 1812 was fought and against which foes? Which place became our 49th state?  Can you explain what is a gerund, a transitive verb, or a reflexive pronoun?*

The kinds of knowledge and skills solidified in school are the ones that are important to us personally, such as cooperation, kindness, listening and art, music, and sports.  Those are the kinds of things that good teachers practice regularly in the classroom, and by doing so, teach their students well.

We have a big problem in this country because the officials advocating for traditional education do not realize how shallow and ephemeral much of it is. Over the past twenty or so years what we have heard most often from the decision makers at the national and state level, and the critics, is that the standards for American students must be raised. Why?  “So we can compete with other countries,”they say. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean we should be giving health care and free college to all American students.

In this blog I have written as often as possible about the good things I see or hear about in schools, and I wish every day that there were more. What I appreciate most is that my readers are realists who know the difference between fads, pipe dreams and the lasting things that can be learned in schools.

*Don’t feel bad; I had to look up most of those things. I didn’t remember them.

Leave a comment »

Reading Aloud to Children Creates New Readers

Summer is the time when many people travel or are visited by friends and relatives. Although I am not traveling this summer I am having the pleasure (and hard work) of entertaining relatives and friends that I see rarely because they live so far away.  The other side of the situation is that I’m so busy with visitors that I have very little time to write.  Right now is one of those times, and I feel guilty about it. So I am selecting peaces I wrote in the past that appeared to be popular with readers. Here’s one of them.

Rick Joseph, who teaches a grade 5/6 class in Birmingham Michigan, has a personal love of reading that he shares with his students and other children he comes in contact with by reading aloud to them as often as possible. Not only does he choose books that he enjoys personally, but also ones that will be new and inspiring experiences for young people.  For example, in selecting “The Junkyard Wonders” by Patricia Polacco as the Official Book chosen by “The “Michigan Teacher of the Year” in 20i6, he hopes to spread the book’s message that all people are geniuses in their own way and should use their abilities to make the world better for everyone.

Joseph believes that all people love stories and benefit greatly from reading them or hearing them regularly. He says, “Our stories have always helped us not only to communicate, but to make sense of our world and realize our place in it.”

From his viewpoint as a teacher, he also believes that reading aloud to children is a strong factor in increasing their learning: “Stories expand children’s vocabulary, improve their ability to learn to read, and—perhaps most important—foster a lifelong love of books and reading.”

Joseph also recognizes that reading is only one element competing for attention in the lives of children. Every day they are free to choose from a number of recreational experiences is a true gift, so it is essential that children think of reading as a pleasure rather than a chore. Teachers can do a lot to encourage this belief by reading aloud to their students on a regular basis.

In addition, Joseph recounts a personal experience when he read to a 5thgrade class at another school. When he returned the next day, a number of students greeted him eagerly, holding their own favorite books and asking if he had read them. He felt that his single episode of reading aloud to them had created a bond between him and those students that would last and encourage them all to read more.

In many ways I wish I had written this essay myself. I also wish I had read to my students more often when I was a teacher or a principal. I agree completely with Joseph’s beliefs and would go even further by exhorting teachers at all levels to do what he has done. Even high school teachers and college professors could read aloud to their classes once or twice a week. Their key to getting students to read more of those books would be stopping right before an exciting event in the story, then telling students where they could find another copy of the book.

All too often parents and teachers believe that reading aloud to children should stop when they can read on their own. They do not realize that there are strong reasons for continuing this practice, even if it must be less frequent. Because I believe as strongly as Rick Joseph in the benefits of adults reading aloud, I will list the ones he mentioned below in more formal educational terms, and add a few more that I believe in and think he would agree with.

Teachers and parents should frequently read aloud to children of all ages in order to–

Introduce them to books they would not choose on their own

Broaden their range of reading

Build their vocabulary

Increase their knowledge of unfamiliar people, places, and experiences

Encourage the belief that reading is an enjoyable everyday activity

Accustom them to various literary structures by reading short stories, poems, novels,  and other types of literature appropriate for their age

Improve their knowledge and use of proper grammar and sentence structure

Help poor readers get the information and skills other students have acquired through reading

For now, we should all take off some time and read a new book.


One response to “Reading Aloud to Children Creates New Readers”


Thank you so much for affirming the power and importance of reading aloud at all ages and stages. I deeply value your insight, experience and wisdom. LuAnn McNabb sent me the link to your blog. Keep advocating for literacy in all its forms!

Rick Joseph

Leave a comment »

%d bloggers like this: