The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

Learning to Read

Today I want to teach everyone some simple facts about about learning to read. These days teaching phonics to children is very popular, but it isn’t the best way for students to learn new words. Here’s why.

In order to be able to read anything you must first be able to speak lots of words and know what they mean. Just sounding out such words as “Germaine” or “indiscrete” wouldn’t be enough. You would have to know their meanings beforehand.

Sentences that give you a hint about the meaning of a new word help you to read with understanding and identify the word. Here’s one example with three new words! “Although my friend made a serious offense by selling cocaine, he shouldn’t have to spend the rest of his life in purgatory.”

When young children are read to regularly they rarely have any trouble learning to read at school. Learning comes quickly when a child is able to see and hear the words his parent is reading to him.

Learning to read by teaching phonics is difficult because you need to the know the sounds of all letters and their variations.   For example the ordinary sound of  the letter C is “ca”, but it could also be “ch”, “ic” or “k”.

I’m having trouble with this computer and may have to have it fixed or buy a new one. If you don’t get any messages from me by next week, send pennies!


How Can We Know What a Good School Is Today?

Every morning I look to see how many people are reading my post from the previous day and also which pieces I wrote in the past are still popular. Amazingly, the consistent winner over a long time has been “What Is the difference between a good School and an effective school”, which I posted some years ago. Not only does that surprises me, it also shames me because what I said then has no relevance today, and I have failed to update it.

The reason I no longer express my opinions about school quality is that I’m retired, and no longer have a chance to visit and observe in school classrooms. The only opinions I’m now aware of are those in newspapers, and they vary widely. I can’t stop wondering if that is because schools also vary widely or because those who express their opinions are not qualified to make valid judgments.

At this point, I feel that the best thing I can do is to ask the opinions of my faithful readers. If you have had any recent experience with a school, or if you know someone who has, tell us what you know. For instance are the school classes of a decent size; are homework assignments reasonable; is their good student behavior; does the principal do a good job; are parents’ opinions or requests taken seriously; and most important of all, are your kids learning and liking to be in school?

If you, like me, are no longer involved with a school, but know someone who is, please give him or her my message. We all need to know the truth about school operations today and not just swallow what the bosses tell us. All the kids now in school are our children or grandchildren who deserve high quality education, fair treatment, and our support.

I want to hear your experiences and opinions, and I will post them here!

P.S. If you are interested, the article I wrote earlier was published on August 26, 2017 and you should still be able to find it on this blog.



Although I wrote this several years ago, I think now is a good time to post it again. As we begin a new school year we should remind ourselves of the invisible problems that many children bring to school.


I have never doubted the truth of the school reformers’ slogan, “All children can learn.” But that slogan doesn’t tell us whether children will learn what their schools think is important or concentrate on how to get a new smart phone and be popular in their neighborhood. What makes the difference for children living in poverty?  Maybe it’s the large number of potholes and roadblocks they meet on their way to getting an education. Or it may be the meager amount of support given to overcome them.

To understand the nature of potholes and roadblocks and the damage they do, consider the situations of poor children who make up almost 25% of our nation’s K-12 students and largely populate the schools deemed “failing” by the government.  For them  “potholes” are the adverse conditions in their personal lives, while “roadblocks” are the school practices that don’t serve their needs or interests.

Most of us recognize that the biggest potholes for poor children are malnutrition or outright hunger, the lack of adequate medical and dental care, and family economic instability. But there are other potholes just as dangerous and less visible. For example, research done in the 1980’s showed that the oral vocabularies of young children in poor families lag far behind those in working class families, and even farther behind children of professional parents. Recordings of language interactions between pre-school children and their family members revealed that children of poor families heard almost 1,500 words fewer per hour than children of wealthier ones, and rarely engaged in conversations with family members. As a result, many of them enter school disadvantaged, which proves to be a big pothole of learning to read, write and understand teacher directions.

Another language related pothole is the difficulty poor parents have in supporting their children’s education. Again, research shows that there are few, if any, books in the homes of most poor children and that their parents do not read to them regularly.  Those facts should not be surprising, since buying books is not a high priority for adults who are working to pay the rent and put food on the table; neither is finding time to read to your children when you are working two jobs.

Clearly, one more big pothole is not having a stable and livable home. According to a report from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, 2.5 million children are homeless in the U.S. today. In an Oregon elementary school I visited, 25 % of the student body was counted as “homeless” in 2016. But even when parents have jobs and places to live, they may need to move frequently to follow those jobs or find cheaper living quarters. It’s no wonder that many children living in such unstable conditions have trouble managing their schoolwork.

Outside the home there are new potholes. Young children want to look and act like the strongest, most daring, kids in the neighborhood, and hope that one day they will actually be them. Besides, if they avoid the neighborhood stars and their followers, they may instead become targets of bullying. No internal deficits lead poor children to skip school, join gangs, or experiment with drugs; it’s the presence of social potholes in the streets and the difficulty of stepping around them.

Those people in charge of running high-poverty schools are not blind; they see the potholes for poor children just as clearly as we do. But too often they choose “remedies” that turn out to be “roadblocks”. For example the usual strategy today is to work at changing students from the outside-in. So they prohibit behaviors considered dysfunctional, and replace them with a set of “right ways” to learn and behave, plus a body of “good for everybody” lessons. However, children may not respond positively.

We see such approaches in the classrooms of many public and charter schools where desks are lined up in straight rows facing front, walls are bare of children’s writing and art, and bookcases hold only the prescribed textbooks. There teachers stand in front of the class “delivering instruction” and ordering “all eyes on me.” We also see it in teaching methods that feature only facts and algorithms, consider learning to be only memorization, and ask questions that have just one right answer. Above all, we see it in the endless test-prep exercises that are not so much the practice of the skills taught as they are indoctrination in how to respond to test questions in ways that will please those who score them.

Ironically, many supplementary and remedial programs, such as “Response to Intervention” and “English language Development” often turn out to be just another roadblock. Although they are good in theory, they turn out to be disruptions to the continuity and consistency students needed. When high-needs students leave their classrooms to receive instruction from a specialist who may be meeting with up to a hundred students a day, they miss the regular work that everyone else in their class is doing and the support from the one teacher who really knows them and their needs.

The final and deciding roadblock for many poor children is harsh school discipline. Under the banner of “No Excuses” or “Zero tolerance,” children from diverse cultures and dangerous neighborhoods, are expected to adopt the norms of traditional American middle class society as soon as they walk through the schoolhouse door. Those who fail to make the prescribed changes in dress, demeanor, and language are likely to suffer repeated detentions, suspensions, and, perhaps, expulsion. What many children learn from those punishments is not only to hate school but, also to hate themselves.

Unfortunately, a major effort to fill in all the potholes and remove all the roadblocks for poor children would be a long and expensive process; plus, one that many education policy makers and legislators will not support. Still, I believe that the efforts of many non-profit organizations and parent groups to improve the home situations of poor children will make a difference. And, I also have hopes for the increase in wrap-around schools that provide many of the health and social services poor children need. As a career-long educator, I will continue to write about the futility of the current school reform practices and suggest, if I can, more effective and humane ways to educate all children.

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When I was a Principal in Madison Wisconsin

Although I was a principal in Wisconsin before becoming one in Oregon, I didn’t plan to write about my experience there until yesterday. Because several readers had responded to the description of our Oregon program, I decided to add the story of our earlier program, which was a school store conceived and managed by a classroom teacher. I think readers will appreciate all the hard work she and the students did and and the strong lasting results.


When I had been the principal at the elementary school in Madison Wisconsin for about a year, one of our teachers came to me with an idea for creating a special student program: a school store. When she described her plans to me I loved them. They sounded like they would be easy too carry out, benefit many students, and not cost the school any extra funds. Her plan was to use an empty first floor classroom that would be open only one day a week during the noon hour, and sell student made products to other students and teachers. I also agreed to free her from some of her regular responsibilities and allow her to use that new time creating and managing the store. Her job would be to advise and assist students who wanted to make and sell products, and also to supervise the store operations.

The first part of the teacher’s new job was to advertise the store’s opening and the opportunities for students who wanted to create items for the store and work there. Next, she would advise those who were interested about the practicality of the things they were planing to make and the prices they should charge for them. Right away many students from all grade levels responded, appearing eager to make products and set their prices at home, then sell what they made in the new store.

Happily, during the store’s opening months many of the most desirable items were produced and sold. The most popular ones were greeting cards, sculptured jewelry, constructed games, embroidered handkerchiefs, and small rocks with pictures painted on them.

As time went by, the gift makers and the items they produced changed, but the store continued to be popular. The workers never tired of producing desirable products, and the shoppers never tired of buying them. Because the most popular items continued to be decorative rather than useful ones, sales of woven bracelets always exceeded the sales of workbook covers.

After some years as the school’s principal, I left there to move to Oregon wit, where my husband and I had been offered new jobs. Nevertheless, I continued to communicate with the teachers in Portland who told me about their work, school events and the activities of the school store. Although the school workers and the teacher who led them changed over time, the store continued to operate successfully for several years afterward.

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When I Was a Principle in Portland Oregon

When I was a school principal my greatest pleasure was helping teachers implement their ideas for school improvement. The first suggestion I remember receiving came from a teacher who wanted to create a school store in an empty classroom. It would be a place where children could sell items they had made to other students and their teachers.

Her plan was that the store would open for business only one day a week during the noon hour. Students would line up in the hallway outside until there was room enough for them to enter the shop and look around inside.

The new store had two tables displaying the products students had made. One student guided the students who wanted to shop, and another one stood ready to take money for the items selected. In addition, the teacher who created the store was on hand to assist if any problems occurred.

All the items for sale had been created by students at home and approved by their teachers at school. The most popular ones turned out to be greeting cards, wooden games, decorative magnets, sculptured jewelry, embroidered handkerchiefs, and painted stones because most shoppers were more interested in decorative items than useful ones.

When the store closed for the day, the workers and the teacher counted the money received, and brought it to the school office. Later those funds were given to the students who made the items sold. There were small differences in how much students received, based on the size and quality of their products.

A good school project like this one is a positive addition to any school and should be allowed. Although strong classroom teaching is the most important element of a school, an additional program outside the classroom that is fun– and educational– is also of great value.

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