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.


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