The Treasure Hunter

A blog by Joanne Yatvin

How I Became a Teacher of Reading

In the year 2000 after retiring from being a school teacher and a principal, I worked part time for a few years as a supervisor of student teachers for Portland State University and also spent much of my own time visiting classrooms in several schools. Unfortunately, most of the teachers I watched were using commercial materials that emphasized the technical components of reading, such as phonics, speed (fluency) and vocabulary. Largely, getting meaning or pleasure from reading was not emphasized in the classrooms  I visited.

I especially remember observing in a classroom while a 1st grade reading group went through a story titled “Eve Sees an Eagle” without showing any personal response to the story.  Actually, that was no surprise because the story had no charm or interesting information. It was filled with words in which the long “E” sound was conveyed by different letter combinations. As I watched the children read through the story I could see that they found no pleasure in what was essentially a phonics lesson.

I had begun my own teaching career in a third grade classroom in a rural school where several students were not yet reading competently. Although the only preparation I had for teaching reading was a one-summer university course, I knew what good stories or poems could do for readers. My own experience with reading had begun when I was about three years old and my mother read poetry and fairy tales to me every afternoon before I took a nap. Reading captured me then and has never let me go.

In the short time I had before my first teaching job began, I searched my classroom, the school library, and my home for books that I thought students would understand  and like if I read them aloud. I started my classes every day by reading aloud for 5 to 10 minutes, and then stopped at a place where I was sure my students wanted to hear more. I told them I would continue the following day, and then put my book down. Most of the time some kids would go to the book afterward to look at its pictures and try to figure out what would happen next.

Later that year I was able to buy some used books and I begged other teachers for books they no longer used.  After my students had read a section of a book, I would ask  a few of  them to act out what they remembered, using a set of puppets I had bought. They loved doing that.  If we had been reading a poem instead of a story, we recited it again afterward.

I stayed at that school for only a year because my husband got a new job elsewhere.. Over the years we moved several times for different jobs, and I taught different grades, most of them with more and better books than my first class had.

Much later, as the Chair of a high school English department, my team and I turned down the opportunity to buy new English textbooks and chose to buy copies of high quality fiction and nonfiction instead.  A few years later I went on to a job as an elementary school principal, and encouraged my teachers to teach reading as I had done. We used no textbooks or workbooks, just paperbacks that were appealing and well written.

By the time I had been principal of that school for several years, we had accumulated enough books to fill a storage room. That allowed teachers to choose the ones they thought best fitted their students at the time. Teachers of higher grade classes often  chose to use books about American history or life in a foreign country in order to relate student reading to other things being taught in a classrooms.

Over time, I served as the principal of two very different schools where student test scores were high every year. That was not unusual for the first school which was in an upper middle class community, but very unusual for the second school which was in a rural area with lots of poverty and very few parents who were college educated. I attributed our success not only to our teaching practices, but also to the extra efforts of my teachers, who reached out for self-improvement continually. They were always ready to read interesting books to their classes that they had found in a library or purchased with their own money.

Throughout my long experience as a teacher and a principal I worked against one-size fits-all commercial programs and reading work books. I much preferred to persuade children to become life-long readers by surrounding them with pieces of reading that were interesting, imaginative and satisfying.  Over time I had grown  accustomed to seeing kids wrapped up in stories that amused or amazed them; ones they re-read because they enjoyed them or wanted to use them as the basis of their own writing.  After reading “Hansel and Gretel” my youngest son, who was only in first grade at the time, wrote a book that he named “The Witch Who Eats Children.” I still have that book in my home and close to my heart.





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I Say it Again: Teachers Should Not Be the Ones to Carry Guns in Schools

I couldn’t help noticing that many people who were not my regular readers came to this blog to read a  particular piece I wrote a month or so ago. I wanted to persuade readers that teachers should not be the ones to carry and use guns to protect their schools and students. For that reason, I have revised the original piece somewhat to make it better–and more frightening. In addition, I want to thank all those readers, whose names I do not know.

Can you imagine what a teacher with a full class of students would feel if she just got a message from the school office announcing that a man with a rifle had stormed into the school and was on his way upstairs where her classroom was? Of course, her students  also heard the message. Already, most of them were up from their seats, yelling at each other and trying to figure out where was the best place to hide. There were several closets in the classroom, but those in the school library down the hall were much bigger. The only problem was that they might meet the guy with a rifle in the hall.

Right then, the teacher called for everybody to be quiet and sit down, while she fumbled with the desk drawer where her gun was stored for safety. Unfortunately, most of the students didn’t listen to a word she was saying. Several of them left the classroom and headed for the library, while others hid under their  desks. Only two boys who had learned a lot about guns from hunting with their fathers stayed with the teacher and tried to help her open the drawer. They had watched her do it before in  practice sessions and felt that they knew the process better than she did. They were probably right, but she was too shaky to follow their instructions now.

About one minute later the classroom door swung open and a tall skinny boy barged in with a big gun pointing ahead. “I thought you guys would be here”, he yelled. “Remember me? You used to grab my lunch box in the cafeteria and eat the good stuff. Now you can have a taste of my bullets instead”  Next, he swung the gun around the room and let the bullets fly.  The first person to fall was the teacher because she had been standing at her desk. Several kids who had been standing up also fell to the floor. The shooter looked around the room, but no one  was standing, making any noise, or moving  “Goodbye guys and Miss Teacher” said the shooter. “I have more work to do elsewhere.” Then he left the classroom, slamming the door behind him.

Because I was a teacher for a long time it was easy for me to imagine how all of us would have acted. The kids would have been running in circles and yelling at each other.  I would have been so nervous that I couldn’t control the students or remember how to get my gun out of the desk drawer. Even if I had finally pulled the gun out, I can’t imagine myself holding it still and actually pulling the trigger.

Putting aside the discussion of the bad things that might happen in a school under attack and how best to handle them, I think it is more important for teachers, school officials, and parents to focus on making all schools safer in the future. Although the schools I have worked at or visited looked clean and neat, none of them had any ways to keep outsiders from entering the building and walking around freely. If a person was well dressed and acted confidently, he or she could roam the halls and peek into the classrooms for as long as he wanted,without being questioned or even noticed.

Moreover, the technology needed in most schools’ main office is old and unreliable or missing altogether. Not one school I’ve been in has had a camera at the main entrance or a switch to lock the front door automatically. In addition, systems to send messages to classrooms were often old and their messages were hard to understand. Worst of all, there were times–especially during the lunch hour– when the office was left open with no one there to take care of any problems.

What we Americans still believe, almost universally, is that local schools are parts of our  communities and we are part of them.  After all, we pay taxes, vote, attend school meetings, contribute our time and money, and put our children under schools’ care for several years.  What we have not yet figured out is that those schools and our children may be the targets of a very sick and angry person who wants to punish us for not treating him or his family members right. We have the same responsibility to protect our schools and their students as we have for our homes and families.

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Does Everyone Need to Learn Algebra and Science?

Today’s piece originated from my own experience as I grow older. Like many others my age I have strong opinions about what younger people should know and do, and lots of scorn for the no-nothings running our schools today.

Watching a TV show called Jeopardy is always a humbling experience for me.  Although I am an educated person who still reads a lot, I can’t answer most of the questions posed on that show, even ones in my own field of English literature. Sometimes it is a matter of recalling too slowly, but more often it’s drawing a complete blank about things I should remember.

Even though I’m used to my Jeopardy incompetence, another experience a few weeks ago really jolted me.  While helping my grandson with his homework, I realized that I can’t do algebra anymore, a subject I studied in both high school and college and earned decent grades for. All I can figure out is that since Algebra has not been part of my professional work or my personal life, it has slipped out of my mind to make room for the skills and knowledge I still needed to use.

Strangely enough, what bothers me more than my own memory loss, is that most of today’s young people will eventually find themselves in the same boat for the same reasons.  When you consider all the time and effort they put into math and science in high school that loss is a disgrace. Not to those students, but to the high schools that never give them a choice of different classes that would have been more appropriate for their abilities and interests.

Every excuse I’ve heard from school officials is that math and science classes are necessary for clear thinking and success in the world. They don’t recognize that those courses were instituted in American schools at times when only the children of wealthy or powerful families went on to high school in preparation for college. Many political leaders also feel that our schools must continue to compete with Europian schools where those classes are still standard .

While writing about my own opinions I also stopped to read some articles by math and science experts to see what they would say about those school courses.  What I found was that most of them disagree with me because they deeply value the knowledge and power that grow out of such courses and still believe that all students  should  acquire them.

Despite those viewpoints, I am convinced that the courses should be electives. Vast numbers of  people live in a different world from the scientists, doctors, and planatarians. Just as some people grow food or raise animals, others write, create music or poetry, and many others work to keep the rest of us warm, informed, and safe.  We all have important roles in our lives and are as much  needed as those who work with numbers, telescopes, or chemicals.  Our world operates on the knowledge and skills of many different types of people, and when any of them falters we are the worse for it.


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How to Protect Schools in Times When They Are Popular Places to Get Revenge: Part Two

Listening to today’s news about a new school shooting tragedy I decided to revise a piece I wrote after the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School   shooting and post it again today. It certainly appears that all schools need full time protection.  But I am not advocating locking everything down or having a crew of armed police just inside the school door.   I think there is a better, less extreme way to protect any school.  Please read my suggestions below.

In these times when so many people have guns and so many schools are vulnerable to attacks like the one in Florida, it seems clear that any large school needs a full time Security Guard. Such a guard is necessary not only to confront any invader, but also to be familiar with students and teachers and gain their trust. In addition, principals, teachers, and students need to learn how to recognize anyone who might attempt to attack the school and the importance of alerting the guard.

The intelligence, persistence and likability of a Security Guard are extremely important. He or she would need those qualities to be the one who hears about any threats to a school’s safety, investigates them, informs and advises the principal, alerts the local police department, and perhaps, if others are slow to respond, takes action. Yes, it is a big job, but a guard is the one most qualified to do it.

When you look at the history of school attacks over the years, you will see that some students were aware of the others at school who were angry or depressed and might become dangerous. Although most attackers appear to be ordinary people on the outside, inside they are deeply damaged and willing to sacrifice their lives and the lives of others who happen to be handy. Many of them are also willing to reveal their feelings, and even their intentions, to family members or friends at school just as Nicolas Cruz did.  When that happens those who are aware of  possible dangers would be inclined to tell what they know to an adult who they trust and believe is the most capable person to protect them. I see that person as the school guard.

In preparing to write about my views of a school tragedy and how it might best be averted in the future, I did some research on attacks in schools in the past. The article that I  found most informative described school shootings that took place over the past two centuries and the present one so far. Not only did it list how many people were killed or injured each time, it also made clear the shooters’ motivations and their willingness to die rather than “forgive and forget”. The title of the article is “List of School Shootings in the United States” and it can be found under:





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“A Nation at Risk” Was Fake News

No, this is not a new piece from me.  Better than that it is a very important article posted today by Diane Ravitch and written by Marc Tucker.  Although I don’t usually post other people’s writing, I feel that this one is a worthwhile exception.

In his regular column at Education Week, Marc Tucker cites Anya Kamenetz’s incisive reporting on “A Nation at Risk” and agrees that the report was fake news. The commission agreed in advance that American education was in decline and cherrypicked facts to prove its conclusion. His column is behind a paywall.

Tucker says that achievement was not in decline at the time the report was written. The American people, he says, were lied to. He cites a contemporaneous report by Daniel Koretz, now at Harvard, then at the Congressional Budget Office, which “showed that there had indeed been a decline, mainly in high school performance, that had begun in the 1960s.  But he reported that this decline ended with the cohort of students that entered school in the late 1960s.  As that cohort wended its way through the grades, they continued to do better than their predecessors, and those that followed also did better.  Further, Koretz reported, the poor and minority students whose test performance was analyzed showed no dip in performance in the period in which the performance of virtually all other students of all ages was falling.

“Put this picture together and you will see that the American people were lied to.  Their children had not been falling off an educational cliff right up to the day the report was released.  Instead, the performance of American students had been doing better and better beginning with the cohort of students who had entered school in the late 1960s, FIFTEEN OR SO YEARS before the panel sounded its famous false alarm.”

Tucker notes that at least one observer thought that “A Nation at Risk” was beneficial, but he does not agree.

”At the end of her story, Kamenetz quotes Jim Guthrie, now a professor at Lynn University, who has held many prominent positions in the American education establishment.  She asked him what he thought about the lack of evidence presented by the authors of the 1983 report. “My view of it, in retrospect,” he says, “is seldom, maybe never, has a public report been so wrong and done so much good.”

“Let us leave aside the question as to whether the end justifies the means to consider, for a moment, whether Guthrie is right.  Is it true that A Nation at Risk has done the United States a world of good?  What’s the evidence for that?

“Once again, there is none.  For as long as there was a long-term version of NAEP (that is the version in which the items in the assessment did not change over time, permitting valid comparisons over the long haul), the scores of high school students changed only very slightly from the 1970s, when the survey was first administered.  The 1970s, you recall, was the decade before A Nation at Risk was released, so this data shows no change in high school performance since the report’s release.   From the time that PISA, the international comparison of student achievement administered by the OECD, was first given in the year 2000, to the present, the scores of U.S. students have been steady to slightly falling, while students in a growing number of other countries have been doing better.  PISA also surveys high school students.  So there is good reason to believe that there has been no improvement in the academic performance of high school students since the release of the report.  Guthrie might have been referring to the maelstrom of “reforms” instituted in the United States since A Nation at Risk was released in 1983, but reform is not improvement, and there has been precious little improvement.”

He writes that the negative tone of the report “delegitimized the teachers and school administrators in our public schools and ushered in policies based on a profound distrust of the very professionals on whom the improvement of the system would depend.  The subtext of the “reforms” so much admired by Guthrie and his colleagues is the charge that it is the regular public school teachers, their unions and the school administrators who are responsible for the alleged failure of the country’s schools and reform should be about circumventing or at least weakening their control of the system…

“The attitudes toward teachers and teaching, and the actions that flowed from those attitudes, have led to a steep decline in the number of high school students deciding to be teachers, the long slow relative decline in teacher compensation, the early retirement of many capable teachers, the steady decline in the average tenure of school principals and superintendents and the rise in employment of unqualified teachers. William Bennet, President Reagan’s Education Secretary, famously declared school administrators to be “the blob.”  While the United States was busy attacking its education professionals, the countries whose students are now outpacing ours were working hard to raise the status of the profession of teaching by improving compensation, raising standards for entering the profession, creating incentives for the most competent professionals to share their expertise with others and instituting myriad other measures, all of which can be characterized as investing in the profession.  Not one of these countries chose to improve their education system by implicitly attacking the competence and commitment of their education professionals.  A Nation at Risk set the tone and provided the rationale for all of this.”

He adds:”Kamenetz closed her report with another observation I have made in this space.  She wonders whether, rather than painting a picture in which the report produced important gains in American education despite the failures of American educators, it might be more accurate to paint a picture in which we see American educators succeeding despite the attacks on them stimulated by the report.  In this view of the world, one that I think has a lot of merit, we need to see the steady scores of American high school students since the 1970s as a victory.  Why?  Because they held steady in spite of a substantial increase in the proportion of students living in poverty, recent increases in school segregation by socio-economic status and race, a decrease in the equity of school funding within states and an increase in the spread between teacher compensation and the compensation of others with the same amount of education.“

Tucker closes by saying that our education system needs vast improvement to keep up with a changing world, not by looking to the past, but by looking to a different future to meet new challenges, a future in which all must be well educated.

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