The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

S’il vous plait

First of all, I want to thank the newspaper “Junior Scholastic” for inviting me to present my opinions about teaching reading. Katherine Willmore was the one who asked me to write for a regular feature called “Yes and No” that offers two different opinions about what is right in a certain situation. That feature pushes young readers to think about both sides of an issue and decide which one is more valid.

Please understand that I am not talking about drowning children in textbooks. My classrooms were more like a library, with new books poring in regularly from the school library and me reading aloud just enough from those books to make students want to read the rest themselves. Of course those were the “good old days” when teachers were not bound to a fixed curriculum or students to yearly testing. Although those days have passed with public schools now tied to the“ Common Core” expectations, I still believe that wide reading is the key to student success and satisfaction. Despite the rigidity of today’s school requirements and the pressure they put on the shoulders of teachers and students, I feel there is enough time and space in a classroom for students to do what is expected and still be able to read what interests them. They should also able to talk with classmates about what they’ve read,   and teachers should be free to persuade their students to move beyond mediocrity by becoming dedicated readers.

The topic I was asked to write about was whether or not students should be allowed to read books of their own choosing or only the high quality literature their teachers selected. I was very pleased to be invited to take the ”yes” point of view, because it was my belief as a teacher that all students should have a broad experience in reading in order to become skilled readers and well educated adults.  I also feared that some students would dislike reading altogether if all they got was high class literature.

Unfortunately, my own strong feelings and opinions took over my attempts to write for Scholastic. Although I submitted three pieces over time as I tried trying to please Scholastic ,they were all rejected because my opinions did not allow for a “No” argument. I couldn’t get myself to say that there were good reasons why teachers should teach only high quality literature. After all, many students would never find those kinds of books at home or with their friends and that would be a serious mistake in their lives.

And so I missed the opportunity to become a writer for Scholastic.  Having explained my foolishness, I will now give you the opportunity to see what I did write for them, so it will not have been written in vein. I’m sure some of you will pity me and insist it is a good piece and should have been published.  


 Over the Many years I was a teacher, and later a school principal, having students become dedicated readers was my goal. Yes, I also wanted them to do well in writing, math, and science, but I believed that reading was the skill that would help them get there.

1 Comment »

Education May Be Getting too Complicated

Today’s piece is about government expectations for students in the state of Texas. I must confess that I had to read the article three times before fully understanding the situation described. But I think that readers will get my description of what is happening in Texas schools and its results.

Two weeks ago a New York Times article focused on the situation of a nine year old girl named Kristin, who had been doing very well at school. At home she also read a lot, even some books that were quite difficult. But at the end of the last school year her school gave Kristin’s class a new test called “The State of Texas Assessment of Academic Readiness” or “STAAR”, that judged her and many other students in schools across the state as reading “below grade level”. Such a marking indicated that those students had not met grade level expectations and, therefore, needed to receive “extra help” in reading the following year. The problem with that decision was that Kristin, and others who received it, would be set apart from their regular classmates for reading instruction, and might also miss their regular classes of art or music. For those children–and their parents–such a situation would be very undesirable.

As one might expect, scores of parents protested strongly when those decisions were announced and continued protesting. But the Texas Education Agency stood rigidly behind the test results, insisting that the interpretations of test scores were accurate and supported by research.

Over this school year the situation has changed for the worse. Although reading experts outside of Texas expressed criticism of the test results, saying that those students might very well be better readers than they were judged, the Texas Education Agency would not budge. They insisted that the test questions had been approved by a panel of teachers and field-tested by Texas students beforehand.

All I’ve described on this page may have seemed not worth reading because of so many details about the test given to young children and how it affected them. But the New York Times gave it a whole front page in one of the paper’s main sections. Perhaps they wanted their readers who care about educational quality and fairness to be angered by the stupidity and cruelty of the Texas system. I was. Were you?


Things I’ve Learned From our Youngest Readers

by Dr Sam Bommarito

It’s said that the very best way to learn something is to teach it. That point was reinforced for me this week as I carried out my service for parent educators in a local district. So, what did I learn?

First of all, I learned just how important the idea that reading programs should be made to fit the the needs of the child really is. Nowhere is it more critical than with our youngest readers, who are at the ages of birth through three. Are the kids that young really readers? Yes, they are. But they can’t really read, can they? Well if you take the narrow view that reading is decoding, no they can’t.  But that’s not how I learned about what reading really is.

As part of my doctoral studies I ran the reading clinic at my university for a year. I did this under the supervision of one of my committee members. Back then when we tested a child in reading it was for listening comprehension, oral reading, and silent reading.  The composite of the three skills resulted in an overall estimate of the child’s ability to read. So back then we viewed the overall ability to listen to and learn from a passage as part and parcel of the reading process. But reading is so much more than just decoding the message.

It is part of their larger experience of learning all about their world and exploring it.  The key to this stage in the process of learning to read is that young children gain the background knowledge once called “The Concepts About Print” by Marie Clay. She was among the first to realize that there is a necessary step in the reading process that comes before learning the letters and decoding the message.  It is the step in which the reader learns how print works. In our culture, print moves from left to right carrying the message.

As I talked to the parent educators, I knew I was preaching to the choir on all those points. They knew that research shows the brain of a child in that early age group is not ready to learn letters and sounds. Going through this stage lays down the neural pathways that are needed to be successful later on when the time for more direct instruction comes, which is usually at age 4 or 5. That is why I cringe when I see the advocates of direct instruction telling parents to teach their preschooler the entire system of sounding out words. Doing what he suggests flies in the face of current brain research and of common sense. The fact remains that children need the discovery stage first if they are to succeed when the time does come for direct instruction. I did remember to say “laying down the needed neural pathways” didn’t I?!?

One surprise for me was that some parent educators found that even at a reasonable age some children were still “reluctant readers”. They didn’t seem to be interested in listening to a story for very long. Fortunately one of the parents provided the answer of what to do when that happened. On one of her visits, when a parent asked her why a certain baby did not seem interested in books, that child picked up the book she’d brought and started playing with it.  We must not expect children so young to sit and listen to long and involved stories.  Instead we should focus on providing them with all the experiences of dealing with print. Listen to the written word; talk about the written word. Learn to appreciate the wonders people created when they learned how to lay down the written word, so that wisdom could be passed on from generation to generation.So for me, the biggest takeaway from that session was the realization of just how smart move Marie Clay made all those years ago.  Long before brain research, she recognized the need to create a print-rich environment and a constellation of print experiences for young children. She laid the groundwork for giving the advice we now give to all parents of young children.  They should read to them, and talk to them about what’s been read and also make the reading experience positive by reading like a story teller. Also re-read those books to children. Just as the book I referred to at the start says “I love your voice and all that you say…”i.e.

Leave a comment »

A Principal’s Dream

Today’s piece is a copy–with minor changes–of an introduction to a book I planned to write for teachers and those who were considering becoming one. Because I never completed that book, this is the first time I have published my introduction. Although I’m not sure that I made my point clear I tried hard to convince readers that establishing a good school is a marvelous–and rare–skill

When I was a school principal a young child would sometimes come into my office, sit down with pencil and paper in hand, and ask questions about my job. I always found those questions hard to answer in terms that a child could understand. But I would have had almost as much trouble if the questioner had been a sophisticated adult. A principal’s job is often a hodge-podge that defies description, and every principal does it differently.

In the beginning I had only a notion about what a principal’s job entailed and no preparation for it. So I proceeded to fill my time with minor tasks like delivering new books to our school library or stepping into a classroom for a few minutes to watch a lesson. One day when our lunchroom supervisor was absent I cleaned the tables in the lunchroom and laughed when students teased me for not doing a good job. But more often, I roamed the hallways or went down to the gym to see what was happening there.

As time went by I got to know many students by name. Several of them had got into trouble and been sent to me for punishment. Fortunately punishment wasn’t what I was good at. I tried to help each person see their situation as a chance to repair errors and restore good feelings. We also talked about the things they wanted from school and how they might get them through different behavior.

I also spent a lot of time talking to teachers personally or in small groups. I wanted to find out what pleased them, what hurt them, and what they needed to do their job well. One thing I was able to change immediately was teachers’ individual work time. The custom had always been having each teacher work alone for one period a day. But it was easy for me to change that. I arranged for same grade teachers to meat at the same time every day to share their skills and ideas

Over time our school made good progress. The turning point came when I received an award for being an outstanding principal and was asked to give a speech on that topic.  For the first time I was forced to look philosophically at the principal’s job and define it in terms that were more universal than my personal experiences.  What I came up with was a three part job description that included 1) managing school operation, 2) fostering teaching and learning, and 3) keeping the dream alive. Below I have reproduced—with a bit of editing–what I wrote at that time for my speech and later shared with parents through our school newsletter. It seemed to me that they, as much as other school principals, should know about my philosophy of seeing a principal’s job as an inter-locked three-part responsibility. Below is my speach

When a school has a dream, everyone involved, though not always consciously, knows who “we” are, what “we” do, and how “we” do it. However, principals do not “create“ schools.  That is, they don’t invent their own dream of excellence and dump it full blown on a school. Their role is to see the school in its true nature, its possibilities for excellence, and the pathways it should follow, then help others to see them too.  Principals are most successful when they bring as many stakeholders into the process right from the beginning and work to enhance their perceptions, hopes, and willingness to continue.  Having a dream makes a principal feel better, but only when everyone involved has it also, can it become a reality.

Ultimately, a successful dream becomes internalized so that everyone  recognizes what fits with it and what does not. When teachers look over a new textbook, they quickly recognize whether or not it’s right for their students. Children no longer have to check the school rules; they just know : “we don’t behave that way at our school.”  Parents know what to expect in terms of homework, discipline and teaching style because “that’s the way things work at our school.”

The most amazing thing about a dream is that when it becomes internalized by everyone there is far less work for the principal to do.  Leaders start to emerge among teachers, other staff members, parents and students. All are eager to take over some small part of the dream.  And they can be trusted to do it well.  The principal doesn’t have to keep rere-explaining the dream or making sure everyone is in tune with it.  At times there may be minor skirmishes with outsiders, but they never seriously threaten the dream. Best of all, the dream building process proceeds under its own steam, gaining momentum and making everyone involved proud and self-confident.


My Bad

Dear readers,

In case you didn’t know until now, let me tell you that I am not good at following formal instructions on a computer. Two days ago I managed to combine an old piece of writing with a new one, and sent them out as if they were connected. Apparently, many of you began reading the top part, realized that you had seen it before, and stopped reading altogether. I apologize and will try to do better in the future.


Leave a comment »

%d bloggers like this: