AMONG THE many myths of No Child
Left Behind is that schools are in charge of literacy. I got
an early inkling of the fallacy of this as I listened to black
teenagers conversing in our DC neighborhood in the 1960s. As
a writer, I was struck by their use of metaphor - trading insults
while "doin' the dozens" - and by their clear acceptance
of language as a weapon of survival in life. Yet these were the
same kids who had already been largely assigned to failure by
the schools and others.
Why the disconnect? I mentioned
this the other day to an educator friend, David Craig, who soon
returned with two academic articles that shed fascinating light
on the topic.
The first, from the American Psychologist
in 1989 by Shirley Brice Heath, dealt with shifts in the oral
and literate traditions among black Americans living in poverty.
Heath pointed out that both cold
stats and warm culture had changed dramatically among the black
poor since the 1960s. This was a period of migration from the
rural south to the urban north. Even the ghettos in the north
changed. Instead of primarily two family dwellings or small apartment
houses "with the 1960s came high rise, high-density projects,
where people took residence not through individual and free choice
of neighbor and community, but through bureaucratic placement."
By the 1980s, not only did nearly half of all black children
live in poverty, but "the proportion of young black families
with fathers fell drastically."
Among the impacts: a loss of adult
contact. Describing the earlier culture, Heath wrote, "Male
and female adults of several ages are often available in the
neighborhood to watch over children who play outside and to supplement
the parenting role of young mothers." In the later urban
inner city this was no longer the case.
And, of course, the more adults
that are around, the more language is used in both quantity and
"Children take adults' roles,
issue commands and counter-statements, and win arguments by negotiating
nuances of meaning verbally and nonverbally. Adults goad children
into taking several roles and learning to respond quickly to
shifts in mood, expectations and degrees of jest."
Further, in these earlier communities
families were far more likely to be involved in other organizations,
not the least of which was the church:
"For those who participate
in the many organizations surrounding the church there are many
occasions for both writing long texts (such as public prayers)
and reading Biblical and Sunday School materials, as well as
legal records of property and church management matters. Through
all of these activities based on written materials, oral negotiations
in groups makes the writing matter. . . The community values
access to written sources and acknowledges the need to produce
written materials of a variety of types for their own purposes,
as well as for successful interaction with mainstream institutions."
Now jump to the 1980s:
"Young mothers, isolated in
small apartments with their children, and often separated by
the expense and trouble of cross-town transportation from family
members, watch television, talk on the phone, or carry out household
and caregiving chores with few opportunities to tease or challenge
their youngsters verbally. No caring, familiar, and ready audience
of young and old is there to appreciate the negotiated performances."
Heath got one mother to agree "to
tape record her interactions with her children over a two-year
period and to write notes about her activities with them."
During "500 hours of tape and over 1,000 lines of notes,
she initiated talk to one of the three preschool children (other
than to give them a brief directive or query their actions or
intentions) in only 18 instances. . . In the 14 exchanges that
contained more than four turns between mother and child, 12 took
place when someone else was in the room."
I have just been pouring over this
years' dismal NCLB results for DC public and charter schools.
As I did so, I wondered whether the experts with whom we have
entrusted America's children's literacy are aware the sort of
factors that Heath noted:
"In a comparative study of
black dropouts and high school graduates in Chicago, those who
graduated had found support in school and community associations,
as well as church attendance; 72% of the graduates reported regular
church attendance whereas only 14% of the dropouts did. Alienation
from family and community, and subsequently school, seems to
play a more critical role in determining whether a student finishes
high school than the socioeconomic markers of family income or
Heath wasn't too optimistic: "For
the majority of students that score poorly on standardized tests,
the school offers little practice and reward in open-ended, wide-ranging
uses of oral and written language. . . Yet such occasions lie
at the very heart of being literate: sharing knowledge and skills
from multiple sources, building collaborative activities from
and with written materials, and switching roles and trading expertise
and skill in reading, writing and speaking."
Of course, the danger in all of
this is that such occasions also encourage critical thinking,
little valued by NCLB or by the establishment that created it,
an establishment far more interested in compliant drones than
in independent minds.
Once, talking to a large group of
DC public high school students, I was struck by the fact that,
concerned as they were about drugs and violence, they were unable
even to phrase the questions they wanted to ask. I mentioned
this to a friend with long experience in the DC public schools
and she replied with sadness, "But they are not meant to
ask questions; they are only meant to answer them" - perhaps
the best summation of NCLB I've heard.
The second article came from a 2001
edition of Reading Research Quarterly, written by Susan B Neuman
and Donna Celano, who had gone out and examined four Philadelphia
neighborhoods of different ethnicities and economics to discover
how much written material was easily available. The poverty rates
ran from 0% to 85% and the percent of black residents ranged
from 5% 82%.
It was a highly detailed and academic
study but over and over again - examining different factors -
the mere access to words seemed to play an important role. They
considered signage, public spaces for reading and books in child
care centers, libraries and drug stores.
The poorest neighborhoods, for example,
had 4 stores selling children's reading material while the better
off neighborhoods had 11 and 12. More dramatic was the number
of titles visible in these stores: 55 in the poorest neighborhood
(most in pharmacy and Dollar Store) vs. 16,000 in the wealthiest
[including Borders) and 1597 in the second wealthiest. Signage
was far more equal: 76 business signs in the poor neighborhood
vs. 77 in the richest. But the content was different. In the
better off neighborhoods "children could conceivably read
their environment though these signs, with pictures, shapes,
and colors denoting the library, the bank, and the public telephone."
In the poor neighborhoods, signs "were often graffiti covered
and difficult to decipher."
None of this really surprises me.
After all, I learned to read and write - despite my parents'
prohibitions - with no small help from a massive number of comic
books. It seems perfectly obvious to me that the easiest way
to learn the word "deviation" is to read it in a balloon
above the head of a mean looking Nazi officer shouting to his
frightened mignons, "I will stand no DEVIATION from my orders!!!"
The story-telling and the silent translation of the art combine
to make one of the best reading aids of all times.
And at least one academic study
"There was no difference in
frequency of comic book reading between a middle class and a
less affluent sample of seventh grade boys. For both groups,
those who read more comic books did more pleasure reading, liked
to read more, and tended to read more books. These results show
that comic book reading certainly does not inhibit other kinds
of reading, and is consistent with the hypothesis that comic
book reading facilitates heavier reading."
But comic book sales have diminished
and with them another door to literacy is harder to open. Now
instead of Captain Marvel, we have No Child Left Behind, a program
that gets reading off to a bad start by even lying in its title.
Among my other untested contact
with matters of literacy:
- I was blessed to have been a parents'
association president of an elementary school that understood
the importance of quantity in teaching words. The school realized
that the shortest route to good writing was to do it. The kids
were always writing something: diaries, plays, stories, speeches,
advertisements. There was also an emphasis was the arts, particularly
drama and music, which among their other virtues offer the opportunity
to sing or say words over and over until they become a part of
- Starting out in journalism, I
had to write nine radio newscasts a day for a while. You won't
find that suggested in any writing manual or school curriculum
but I still recall trying to come up with new ways of saying
the same thing just to keep from being bored.
- As an editor, I have often offered
a standard cure for writers' block: just write crap and don't
worry about it. Then go to bed and retrieve the good parts the
- My own list of unauthorized literary
aids would include memorizing Burma Shave signs, devouring Ogden
Nash poems, reading under duress from the Book of Common Prayer
at Holy Communion, learning jokes, listening to Edward R. Murrow,
following instructions on how to build an HO gauge model freight
car and absorbing the lyrics to endless popular songs.
Make a list from your own life and
the virtues of constant exposure to words in sound and print
without regardless of their purported quality will become clear.
Above all is the need to enjoy what
you're reading or writing. The greatest sin of NCLB is to make
what should be a lifelong joy into a tedious, bureaucratic exercise
- making words far harder to learn and infinitely harder to love.
Kids need more words in their lives
- and fewer tests.
ORAL & LITERATE TRADITIONS AMONG BLACK
AMERICANS LIVING IN POVERTY
ACCESS TO PRINT IN LOW-INCOME AND MIDDLE-INCOME