Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Other parents and other children, II

While I’m ready at the drop of a hat to advocate for the unmet needs of precocious children (albeit mostly blogging about those who are precocious in math, programming, and hard science), I have to admit that I don’t always find myself feeling quite so charitably towards certain of their parents.

I wrote about this earlier after engaging with a very proud dad who goes by the name of Physicist Dave--in what was one of the most maddening e-exchanges I've ever had. As I noted then, what really bugs me about this certain subset of parents is what I perceive as:

(1) a lack of sympathy for the needs of other children: children who may be reasonably intelligent in many ways, but, compared with their own kids, are (at least in certain respects) less precocious and less driven, or simply less privileged.

(2) a lack of appreciation and sympathy for the concerns of these other parents vis a vis these other children.

I aired some more of my grievances in a recent comment thread, which I’ve decided to repost here, elaborated a bit and edited for clarity:

It’s hard for parents who are gifted readers, and/or whose kids are gifted readers, to put themselves in the shoes of average or struggling readers.
It’s hard for people who have never had to worry about their own kid’s reading skills and who haven’t spent time in regular language arts classrooms in today’s public schools or time tutoring typical kids extracurricularly to see just how deficient reading instruction in schools has become and how this plays out in later grades for non-gifted readers.
It’s hard for parents whose kids are natural sponges for information and have plenty of extracurricular opportunities to learn things to appreciate that many reasonably intelligent children are different. It's hard for these parents to recognize that many reasonably intelligent kids, whether from distractibility or self-absorption or narrow obsessions or anxiety, frequently tune things out or lack the levels of curiosity that drive others to know everything about everything--or are simply less privileged and lack extra-curricular opportunities for learning. And it's hard these parents to appreciate how much more the parents of these other kids therefore depend on schools to teach them the vocabulary and core cultural and historical knowledge that becomes increasingly crucial for later reading comprehension. Not having to depend on schools to do this for their own kids, such parents can, in addition, be blissfully unaware of how deficient today’s schools are in teaching this core knowledge in ways that lead to long-term knowledge retention.
It’s hard for people whose kids read copiously on their own to see just much less other kids are reading on their own—even ones whose parents read great books to them every day and take them to the library once a week and keep screen time to a minimum and give them books, rather than video games, at every gift-giving occasion.  
And it’s hard for people who haven’t thought deeply about what goes into language comprehension and reading comprehension to appreciate the subtle challenges faced by non-gifted readers, including the many reasonably intelligent kids who have had, for all the above reasons, to depend much more on school-based instruction than their own kids have, as well as the different levels of incomplete comprehension that may slow progress or subtly turn kids off to reading.
Is my frustration out of line? Do others share it? Please weigh in.

29 comments:

Anonymous said...

I have enjoyed your blog for about 4 years. I even read your book which helped me come to terms with my schooling and upbringing. Keep up the good work.

Regarding your post, I have been substitute teaching at a local district. This a top school district, too. However, I have been increasingly disturbed by the teaching methods. I notice considerable gaps in students understanding in mathematics and reading.

With math, there's a bizarre method where they use this Lattice method?? It made no sense to me because it took longer for the students to solve the problem. They also had to use some type of multiplication chart, which means they haven't memorized their times tables. Adding and subtracting fractions has turned into using mini charts instead of finding the common denominator. I end up telling the students that I cannot help them with math because I was taught differently.

Reading is even worse. There is no structured phonetics program. It's bits and snatches of phonetics and I notice serious gaps with some students. One student I had who comes from a Spanish speaking home still has difficulty sounding letters. He looks to me to prompt him. This young child is completely dependent on the school.

And they no longer teach penmanship. I have seen 4th graders who write like preschoolers. NOT GOOD. My concern with this incoherent curriculum is these kids will become functionally illiterate adults. Schooling has become too anti-conceptual to be otherwise. Unless the parents are really attentive, which many unfortunately are not; what does that mean for the future of our country?

Scherie

Hainish said...

I've come across this same Dave's comments in other forums, and the overwhelming impression I have is that this is a person who believes that we currently live in a meritocracy.

My parents had three years of formal education in the foreign country in which they were born. They did not speak English, so whatever English I learned would have been through school (and television). They also did not have children's books in the house, so all my reading skills had to come from school. Similarly, all of my scientific knowledge came from school and the school or public libraries. (My mother, who is 83, believes that spontaneous generation is still a thing.)

Through all this, I became keenly aware of how much of a student's success and experiences depended on the families they happened to have been born into. Children of better-educated parents had access to so much more: in-home tutors and personal administrative assistants who would make sure their homework was done and projects were assembled, coaches who offered encouragement instead of telling them to not study so hard, and (most importantly) people who were willing and able to advocate on their behalf whenever the system did not meet the child's needs or treated them unfairly.

Even so, I was extremely lucky in having been taught reading via phonics and math via more traditional methods. I'm not sure I would have achieved what I have had I been a student in today's classrooms, which depend so much more on the efforts of parents that I've described above.

Anonymous said...

When I read your original formulation, it seemed clearer to me. The rewrite seems to muddle your argument with unnecessary qualifications. Is it really only "reasonably intelligent" kids with whom we fortunate parents cannot sympathize?

I agree that it's hard, as the parent of a child who reads well, to put myself in the shoes of the parent of a child who cannot or will not read. I agree that my sympathy for and understanding of children who don't or won't read is limited - just as is my sympathy for and understanding of adults who don't or won't read. My child doesn't hang out with people who don't read copiously, any more than I do. If I meet somebody and the answer to "Read any good books lately?" is "Duh," the friendship is unlikely to go far.

One thing you can be sure about is that I am not "blissfully unaware of how deficient today’s schools are in teaching this core knowledge." I'm quite aware of it and I don't accept this deficiency as appropriate. I would like it if a school could be less deficient - and I don't think deep-sixing Heaney's translation of Beowulf as too hard for the upper half of seventh grade is a step in the right direction. (Again, thanks for the recommendation - the new translation is so much more fluid than the one I remember, and my kid finds it intriguing).

A trend I notice in our schools, and one it seems you're on board with, is deciding that kids of average to above-average intelligence and curiosity should not get their learning needs met in school anymore. Instead, school should be principally the site of remedial work for children with learning disabilities, emotional problems, and mental illnesses, as well as an emergency and social work delivery site for disadvantaged and impoverished children. Our kids, if still in school at all, are most helpful in this new model as part of the delivery system of remediation for the special needs of other kids.

You'll excuse me if, given these conditions, I no longer choose to send my son to school. Once the ZPD, as you'd say, is unaddressed at school and all the learning is happening at home, there's no longer a point in wasting eight hours of his day in bullying and busywork.

I don't think my kid is a genius. I don't think he has a special level of intelligence or any prodigious talent in anything I've yet encountered. I think he's kind of lazy, to boot. And I don't think it takes anything above average intelligence for a 9 year old to enjoy reading The Hunger Games or Death on the Nile (or for a seventh grader to understand Beowulf). It doesn't even require money - books are free in any library. It just requires the leisure to read. Having that leisure does require some discretion on the part of his parents. It requires that I don't let him play video games all day and watch TV all night and then dump him at the door of a public school imagining they can do in 900 hours a year the job I won't do in the other 7,865 hours.

I like your idea for how to run a school's reading program, and I'd vote you onto our school board. That said, I hope you'll recognize that your quest for greater challenge in math class is fundamentally the same thing as the desire of others for greater challenge in reading class; the main difference is your standpoint. The sort of parent who wants every other child's education tailored big or small to their own child's lopsided needs, is a sort I lose charitable feeling for.

kcab said...

I hope my comment on the previous post didn't come across as unsympathetic to struggling or average readers; I try to keep others' needs in mind, even if I sometimes have to advocate for my child with the school.

For what it is worth, I have one child who is very good at math and a good, but not gifted, reader. Reading comprehension isn't his strongest point, though he doesn't really struggle, yet. On the other hand, my high school junior could be fairly characterized as a gifted reader. I've found it somewhat easier to deal with the schools with respect to math - there have been established routes for kids who are good at math to get higher level content in each of the schools they've attended. With reading though, it's not clear what to do. In elementary and middle school the teachers basically let my gifted reader do whatever she wanted in ELA. They could have worked on her writing, she is certainly not gifted in that area! But since she was a good reader no one paid any mind to her writing. (And she paid no mind to me...) In middle school she appeared to get A's for putting words on paper, without any concern for spelling, grammar, or organization. Now in high school, and post-move to a different district, she is struggling in her English classes. The experience of dealing with this evolution makes me think that it's a good thing if some attention is paid to the quality of instruction for the upper half of the class too.

For seventh grade reading, Beowulf seems like an excellent choice since it has adventure, monsters, a hero. There are so many translations and adaptations, I would think that a school could use one of the less difficult ones as a core text. But assigning a more challenging version, such as Heaney's, to some subset of kids AND supporting them in understanding it, seems like it could be appropriate. I'm not sure where the line should be drawn. Also - not at all sure that Sinclair's The Jungle is as good a choice. I'm sort of surprised that they're reading the whole book, not just a selection.

Katharine Beals said...

Anonymous writes ‘Is it really only "reasonably intelligent" kids with whom we fortunate parents cannot sympathize?’

Quoting from my post: ‘It’s hard for parents who are gifted readers, and/or whose kids are gifted readers, to put themselves in the shoes of average or struggling readers.’

Anonymous writes ‘A trend I notice in our schools, and one it seems you're on board with, is deciding that kids of average to above-average intelligence and curiosity should not get their learning needs met in school anymore.’

I am decidedly not on board with this. The plurality of the posts on this blog should make this clear, as does my book, as does everything I’ve written this week about ZPD.

Anonymous writes ‘You'll excuse me if, given these conditions, I no longer choose to send my son to school.’

You’re excused. I homeschool my daughter—for similar reasons.

Anonymous writes ‘And I don't think it takes anything above average intelligence for a 9 year old to enjoy reading The Hunger Games or Death on the Nile (or for a seventh grader to understand Beowulf).’

The answers to such questions, as I mentioned earlier, should be decided not by a priori beliefs, but empirically, especially given current trends in education and society, and especially since cognitive science research has established that reading ability is at least as much a function of background knowledge as it is of general intelligence.

Anonymous writes ‘It just requires the leisure to read. Having that leisure does require some discretion on the part of his parents. It requires that I don't let him play video games all day and watch TV all night and then dump him at the door of a public school imagining they can do in 900 hours a year the job I won't do in the other 7,865 hours.’

On this post I mention kids ‘whose parents read great books to them every day and take them to the library once a week and keep screen time to a minimum and give them books, rather than video games, at every gift-giving occasion’ and still don’t do much reading.’ You assume a binary childhood in which leisure time goes either to reading or screen time; in which library trips and limited screen time result in lots of reading.

Here’s how my kids—all three of them, to my regret, reluctant readers—collectively spend most of their free time: playing piano, violin and organ (solo, trio and orchestra); writing short stories and novels; drawing cartoon strips; doing art projects; doing electronics projects; programming computers; exploring abandoned buildings; playing pool, ping pong, and tennis; going on runs, hikes, and bike rides. I think of them as producers/performers of art and information, rather than consumers of it. They spend hardly any time consuming TV shows or movies; I make them consume a fair amount of literature every day, especially my daughter, whom I homeschool, but to get them to read copiously would mean playing the Tiger Mom, and my guess is that this would backfire spectacularly, particularly in the case of my children.

‘The sort of parent who wants every other child's education tailored big or small to their own child's lopsided needs, is a sort I lose charitable feeling for.’

I can certainly second that opinion!

Katharine Beals said...

kcab, your post didn't come across as at all unsympathetic. Everything you've written here strikes me as eminently reasonable.

In terms of what you write about writing instruction, one thing that concerns me is the lack of any kind of revision-feedback loop. This was routine ages ago in my junior high school, and, in my opinion, highly valuable for honing writing skills. Is your daughter ever required to do multiple (or even single) revisions that involve re-organizing, re-wording, re-casting, etc.?

kcab said...

Is your daughter ever required to do multiple (or even single) revisions that involve re-organizing, re-wording, re-casting, etc.?
In middle school - never. Ditto never in first two years of HS (in two different schools, very different styles, honors classes in both). Almost all of the writing this year is done in class; they can count on an in-class essay every third class period. I can only recall two where revision took place. There has been value in having to write essays frequently on demand.

She did get feedback and help with revision and rewrites in early elementary (2nd and 3rd grade). Since then the feedback has been less than worthless. Unfortunately, this is a kid who always takes her teacher's word over that of her parents and has refused to consider homeschooling. Those easy A's on papers with "nice job" as the feedback did not motivate her to revise or even think harder. I hired a tutor to work with her on writing last year when her grades on written assignments made it clear to her that she needed help in that specific area. The focus ended up being on organization and planning what to write, which was good to do but there was no feedback loop.

Next year she'll drop back to the regular level in English and will hope it's easier. Seems a bit sad for a kid who has always easily understood the themes and character's motivations in text. Given her SAT scores, it will look like she is being lazy, but it's not that simple.

My seventh grader has had much better writing instruction, including a lot of revision and rewriting, thank goodness.

SJ said...

Education for gifted kids is important. But there is a difference between specialised, differentiated instruction for exceptional children, and changing the curriculum so that only gifted children can derive the full benefit of the material presented.

Also many parents conflate gifted (greater potential for understanding) with precocious (reaching a milestone earlier than is typical). The American education system already places too much emphasis on doing things younger rather than better.

Katharine Beals said...

Scherie writes "My concern with this incoherent curriculum is these kids will become functionally illiterate adults."

I share this concern. I recently wrote about working with neuro-typical 3-5th graders who are unable to sound out random syllables consistently and correctly.

Along with functional illiteracy, we face declines in real intelligence, as failures in learning to read impairs subsequent reading to learn, and as much of what we think of as intelligence turns out to be a function of domain-specific knowledge.

Katharine Beals said...

SJ writes: "The American education system already places too much emphasis on doing things younger rather than better."

Very well put. In assigning out of reach texts that most students can only understand superficially and incompletely (I'll be writing a blog piece later about what I mean by "completely understanding" a text), we effectively dumb down expectations for comprehension and analysis.

Similarly, our Algebra-for-everyone/Algebra-in-8th-grade campaign has meant a dumbing down of what Algebra is: a dumbing down from true algebraic reasoning, complete with symbolic manipulation, to guess-and-check/chug-and-plug arithmetic and pushing buttons on graphing calculators.

momof4 said...

The ed world is clueless about the difference between correlation and causation and they continually mistake the former for the latter. I remember when the push for Latin and 8th-grade algebra started; in the era when only the most able and motivated kids took either (and 8th-grade algebra was honors-only). The "experts" looked at a variety of better outcomes from the kids who took these courses and jumped to the conclusion that the courses caused the good outcomes. In reality, those courses were merely proxy variables for identification of the most able and motivated kids. The same goes for debate, algebra II, chem, physics and AP courses. Of course, pushing unprepared kids into these courses doesn't lead to the same outcomes and only weakens the course for the prepared kids.

Anonymous said...

". Of course, pushing unprepared kids into these courses doesn't lead to the same outcomes and only weakens the course for the prepared kids. "

Totally agree. But, expanding access to those opportunities might catch a group of students who would not previously been identified as the "most able and motivated." I think that ed meddlers (not so much teachers, who I think actually know the kids they teach) often do mistake correlation with causation, but I also think that expanding opportunity and the difficulty of identification can be an alternative explanation for the push, to, say, offer algebra to everyone.

The problem is that we don't have good mechanisms in place for dealing with those for whom the offer is not an opportunity but a chance to get lost in the maze (especially since we don't always give good feedback on outcomes).

zb

Anonymous said...

I'm intrigued to hear about your homeschooling decision for one of your children and what drove it -- while making different choices for your other children. Have you written on this topic (of course, I understand your right to privacy and to write on the topics of your choice.)

zb

momof4 said...

It's one thing to let CERTAIN kids try an honors or AP course but it needs to be clearly understood that the pace will not be slowed and the course requirements will not be weakened. What is happening now, in the push for college-prep/honors/AP for all is a serious weakening of the classes. Kids who don't know their math facts, basic algorithms, manipulation of fractions, the relationship between fractions, decimals and percentages are pushed into algebra. Kids who read at the 5th grade level, or less, are pushed into AP English (as in being done in Prince George's Co, MD, according to one of the teachers) Kids who have no historical knowledge are allowed to take APs - insanity. APs were designed to have honors prerequisites, because they were designed for kids who had already mastered the top HS material - as is still done at my older kids' HS. Honors chem before AP chem, honors world hx before AP Euro hs etc - all APs have honors preqeqs. Jay Mathews Challenge Index rewards the idiocy - awarding points for kids taking APs even if they never take, let alone pass, an AP test.

SJ said...

Is this Anonymous going on about The Hunger Games the same one who thought White Fang was two years off from Sounder?

A Death on the Nile is a very simple book. Many children in primary school could read it. Most children will be able to read it by fifth grade. If your child is reading A Death on the Nile in fifth grade, there is nothing wrong with that, but it is not challenging or exceptional. A Death on the Nile has a Lexile score of 660, which would be at the lower end of the fourth and fifth grade range, pre-Common Core adjustment.

Most of the better children's works (Mary Poppins, Heidi, Peter Pan and the like) range from the mid 700 area to the late 800s. The Hunger Games, fwiw, is 810 (Mary Poppins is 830), but many people would not encourage it for a younger reader because of the disturbing content.

Beowulf is 1090, and frankly I think that is a low-ball estimate unless the reader is fairly familiar with earlier English history. It is generally reserved for university courses, but could be plausibly taken up by a class of astute high school students.

The Brearley School has an excellent set of reading lists by grade. They are challenging but age-appropriate:
http://www.brearley.org/library/readinglist.aspx

I am not sure what people intend to convey when they lecture that parents ought to encourage their child to read books and read to their toddlers, and if they do so, their children will of course be able to take up Beowulf at 12. I think it is impossible that anyone can live so divorced from reality as to think that this is the case. Surely even someone in a fairly constrained environment knows people who read to their children and take them to the library and yet their children do not read 5+ years ahead of grade level. I can only conclude that they know perfectly well that their child is an unusually good reader and simply want to talk about that.

The "gifted children" argument is a red herring. Gifted children deserve to be taught at a higher level. I can think of few things more torturous to a gifted child than sitting in a class where they find the text simple and easy to understand, but where no one else understands it at all and the teacher is thus obliged to "scaffold" extensively and move at the speed of molasses.

momof4 said...

My small-town 1-12 school had a very good 1-8 program, with grades 1-4 taught by Normal School grads; phonics, grammar & composition (starting at the sentence level, with copywork and dictation preceding free composition), sciences, geography, civics and history. The school was too small (grades of about 30) to allow ES tracking, although all subjects were grouped by level, and teachers were very willing to allow advanced students to do independent work and read during class (thank Heaven). The HS had general, a highly-regarded secretarial and college prep tracks. Although the math/sciences were very weak (New Math started my freshman year), the history and English were excellent. In college prep, we did do Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, Greek, Roman and British legends, Shakespeare, poetry etc, in conjunction with ancient and world history, as freshmen and sophomores. We also did lots of in-class and outside composition (although I don't remember re-writes - but we had a very solid base from ES, including diagramming sentences) and did college-standard term papers in junior-senior English and US History. The English for the secretarial/general kids also required correct composition but spent more time on business/practical formats and less time on literature. I think Charles Murray makes a good point in Real Education; the people who write/comment on ed blogs (as well as most professionals) really don't know what limitations the under 90 IQ and spec ed kids (however defined) actually have, unless they have family members, because they don't interact with them frequently - and particularly not on an academic level. Hence the "all" will "be proficient", "do XYZ" etc. standards that are completely impossible for one group and far too low for another.

Anonymous said...

All hail the magical Lexile. Everything you need to know about a text boils down to a number. Is there even a need to read the book anymore?

Thanks for the comments, momof4. I don't know that there are many schools like that anymore. They'd be too hard. And not empirically based. And unsympathetic to other people's children.

Katharine Beals said...

Momof4, in terms of literature/literacy, your small-town education sounds superb: with its ability-based grouping, advanced students allowed to work and read on their own, and a solid foundation for everyone in core reading, writing, and grammatical analysis skills, as well as in core knowledge. All this makes it quite likely that most students ended up able to read and write reasonably well and that students in the college prep track, in particular, were well-prepared for Beowulf and other classics in the freshman and sophomore years of high school.

The reason why such practices have fallen out of favor, of course, is that our education policy makers have put their certainty in their own opinions ahead of empirical data.

momof4 said...

Yes, I realize now that my k-8 school really did ensure that kids had a solid foundation across the disciplines, even though only a few parents had college degrees or sent their kids to college. I'm sure that my classmates had a better foundation entering HS than far too many kids today have at HS graduation. Of course, I went to school when severely handicapped kids never entered school, but I'm sure that some of my contemporaries would have spec ed diagnoses today - AHDH or SLDs. However, direct, explicit instruction (including phonics) meant that everyone did learn the basics. One didn't see mis-spelled or grammatically incorrect signs in town. There was no social promotion, either; half of the pair of twins who started in my class didn't make it to third grade with us - and his self-esteem survived; I played with both guys on a regular basis.

cranberry said...

In my opinion, Beowulf, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Jungle could/should all be reserved for high school.

For what it's worth, the Common Core Appendix listing of text exemplars for grades 6-8 are in line with what I would find appropriate for middle schoolers, even those who read well. Little Women, Tom Sawyer, The Dark is Rising, etc. http://www.corestandards.org/assets/Appendix_B.pdf

I do not think precocious children are well-served by being forced to read high school level texts in middle school. That isn't a better education.

As an example, yes, we could marry our 12 year olds to each other. Why don't we? (apart from the legal, moral, and ethical objections, of course.) One good reason is that 12 year olds are not adults yet. They see the world through a different lens. Rushing to force high-school level work on them is not a better nor a more advanced model for education.

My 6th grader is currenly enjoying reading "Story Time," by Edward Bloor. His view of this book is influenced by the modern experience of school testing. I don't care what its Lexile level is. I care that it's a great way to talk about the modern testing mania.

Encouraging students to write about issues they understand--such as the benefits and downsides of standardized testing--is a better way to increase academic skills than forcing them to read texts appropriate for college-bound high school students.

All of my children read well. I know some students catch up, if given appropriate instruction. When my oldest child began elementary school, that school was still close to Whole Language. (We were part of a group of parents who would show up at school meetings to plead for phonics.) Some children at that school did not learn to read. That's not appropriate.

On the other hand, recent newspaper reports on the school curriculum lead me to believe phonics instruction now extends into middle school for all students. That's also not appropriate.

The private schools our children attend(-ed) emphasize grammar. I think all children would benefit from grammar instruction. My oldest child, who had not received useful comments on her papers (good job and check plus are not useful comments) had to work to catch up to children who had had writing instruction.

momof4 said...

I agree with Cranberry on grammar instruction. As soon as we learned to write letters, numbers and our names, our first-grade teacher started us with copying from the board. Every page was headed by our full names and the month, day and year. We were explictly taught the rules of capitalization and punctuation, parts of speech and the structure of a sentence - by copying correct examples. We progressed to writing as Miss H dictated, and only then did we do free composition. ALL of our work was corrected for spelling, grammar and content (if appropriate). In 7th-8th, we diagrammed sentences. Skipping the foundational work leaves HS freshmen unable to write grammatically correct sentences or to identify the subject of a sentence with only one noun/pronoun (in a relative's affluent suburban school). It takes 8-9 years of real instruction to teach most kids how to write decently and it's not always easy, either for students or teachers. However, doing it well means that HS kids can hand-write a grammatically correct, in-class, essay or business letter, in 10-15 minutes of moderate effort. (no spell-check, auto-correct etc)

FedUpMom said...

I have never read Beowulf. (* hangs head in shame, slinks away. *)

lgm said...

>>Is my frustration out of line? Do others share it? Please weigh in.

I don't share your frustration. I do know parents of precocious children..the kind that are ahead of the area private gifted school's offerings...but they generally send their children to private schools while paying hefty school taxes and volunteering in the community's youth activities in roles that benefit those whose parents aren't able to participate. Most have had a sit down with the elementary principal, who has explained the public school is not for all children, despite the slogans...and if they want more than grade level material they need to move to private or homeschool. They get no sympathy at all, and if they aren't rich enough for private or homeschool, their kids are usually seeing a psychologist privately to cope with the slowness and violence of the included elementary classroom. Most vote with their feet and move into an affluent district by middle school. The ones that didn't regret it, because the teens are into drugs for mental stimulation in high school. All would be very happy to stay if the academics were grouped by instructional need and violent children were given help in a setting other than the regular classroom. They want all children, each and every one, to have an appropriate academic placement. Some even want to extend high school for the disadvantaged, so that they can get up to AP level before leaving.

Anonymous said...

lgm's comment is accurate to my experience. "All would be very happy to stay if the academics were grouped by instructional need and violent children were given help in a setting other than the regular classroom. "

We gave our local public schools a shot, and these reasons are why we left. During our interminable conversations with a progression of district bureaucrats, it became clear that the main focus of the district is neither safety nor academics, and people like us (people with choices) were seen from day one as expendable.

As for the Beowulf that set this whole flap off, I know I was interested enough to read it independently when I was in school (although my crappy schools never offered anything of the sort), but I remember much older translations (I suspect Moncrieff), and Heaney's translation is much more flowing and gripping. It begs to be read aloud.

When I showed Heaney's version to my kid, he could understand it fine, but was most fascinated by the facing page Old English. "It doesn't look like English at all," he said. "Anybody looking at this would think it's another language. I've never even seen that letter before." And off we go discussing the Romans, the Picts, the Danes, and the year 900, and that entry into history is one of the reasons Beowulf fits so well in a child's education.

Perhaps somebody has my number here in a way I don't. I don't believe my son is a gifted reader. I just seem him as reading normally, because he reads like anyone else in our family or any of his friends (though not as much or well as many of his peers, who at nine might be engaged by Dickens or Austen). My son's tastes are more pedestrian, as were mine at his age. Must we understand ourselves only in reference to the masses whose parents never read and who thus themselves never read? Is it even useful to refer to our children as gifted, per this comparison? Honestly, we're just talking about upper middle-class gifted, not real gifted. There's a social phenomenon at work of increasing stratification, with the schools following the ever-declining median. Kids on course to arrive at high school with the same skills as the upper track forty years ago are now "gifted" (which means there's no place for them in many schools).

momof4 shows us what used to be normal in a better school - a norm I can assure you no longer exists in our district in any track. Any child capable of success in that curriculum would surely be classified (and, for some, written off) as gifted in today's schools. In reality, they're no more gifted than the 40% of NYC kindergartners who test above the 90th percentile, let alone the 21% who score at the 97th.

Anonymous said...

I was speaking to my wife about this conversation, and she asked whether people who think Beowulf is too hard for seventh graders let their children read the Bible.

From what I can gather (a presentation written by Lexile.com, as the book isn't listed on their site), the King James Bible has a lexile score of 1400L. For those who hold tight to the numbers, that means college level. If you think that, because of the numbers, Beowulf is too hard for seventh graders, you must also think that children of any age shouldn't be allowed to read the King James Bible or the Koran (1500L) or the Torah (1500L).

Yet somehow people have shared these texts with their children for hundreds of years.

forty-two said...

There's a *huge* difference between *requiring* a child to read a book and *refusing* to allow a child to read a book.

I *let* my dd7 read almost anything she wants (and any refusal is based on inappropriate-for-her-age content, not difficulty). And she picks up all sorts of things, at all sorts of difficulty levels. And some are too hard, and those she generally puts down after a few pages (although she will tough out some). And that's the big difference - she's free to stop anything she doesn't comprehend.

Also, ime families who want their kids to read difficult-ish religious texts put quite a bit of effort into *teaching* them how to comprehend those texts, usually over several years. Often kids in those families been hearing the texts read aloud and explained since birth. Their understanding doesn't come out of nowhere.

cranberry said...

When I showed Heaney's version to my kid, he could understand it fine, but was most fascinated by the facing page Old English. "It doesn't look like English at all," he said. "Anybody looking at this would think it's another language. I've never even seen that letter before." And off we go discussing the Romans, the Picts, the Danes, and the year 900, and that entry into history is one of the reasons Beowulf fits so well in a child's education.

By my lights, this ^^^ proves that your son is not yet ready to read Heaney's text.

It's a matter of background knowledge. Being able to read a text *with* an adult is very different from being able to read a text independently without an adult tutor, make notes of important points & things not understood, and participate in a discussion with peers & teacher on the subject.

Reading independently, monitoring one's comprehension, and formulating responses to the text on the basis of one's knowledge of a topic--those are all essential academic skills. Contact with teachers is limited in school and college. Students must learn how to read a text. Assigning texts they don't understand from an early age does not help them develop the skills they need to understand age-appropriate texts.

The Common Core's exemplar texts are age-appropriate, for college-bound students. I do not know how the process will work for students who are not college-bound. It isn't as if reading Plato in middle school will magically transform a non-reader into a scholar.

Auntie Ann said...

Maturity definitely counts when it comes to reading and reading comp.

Our boy was desperate to read the Harry Potter books when he was 8-9 years old. I strongly discouraged him. The books have a lot of depth that he would never pick up on at his age--it would be wasted on him. I've always thought they should be read by older kids, but the push to be able to say "my kid read them in 3rd grade!" and often "I read them in 3rd grade!" is strong. I couldn't stop him from reading them, but I kept discussing the books with him as he read and I made him think about what was happening and see the various layers.

He recently re-read them (he's now almost 12) and I think he got more out of them this time. Still, a re-read is not the same as your first time.

Anonymous said...

Cranberry, I agree completely with you that my son is not ready to read Heaney's translation of Beowulf independently at this point. But then again he's 9 and not an unusually gifted reader. I expect that by seventh grade he'd be ready to read it, like other college-bound students. It's the sort of book that, at this point, I'm likely to read to him at bedtime. Fortunately, reading a book independently isn't the only way to use or experience a book.