Being average is no great achievement. When we give tests that report only average achievement in Utah we are in some pretty bad company. We are not only being compared to some crime- and drug-infested inner-city schools and some rural schools that the mainstream has meandered past, but also to some respectable schools in states where school is a public priority. In the milieu we call the United States, we are only average and on English we are less than average.
It is a cliche but it offers perspective. Average is as close to the bottom as it is to the top. Average is close to a very dismal and decadent bottom that often looks more like a minimum security prison than a school. Average is the same distance from a top that some critics claim is not as good as it could be.As an English teacher, I am discouraged with the results of the statewide assessment. English scores were below average, and I teach English. I also teach some of those who will eventually teach English to elementary and secondary students.
The natural route is to blame the system. Maybe it is top heavy, or needs more money, or has misplaced priorities. The problem is that when a system is blamed then it is left to the lethargic monolith to change itself and that just doesn't happen.
I am not inclined to blame myself. I teach about 100 students each quarter and as a result every 10 weeks I read about 1,600 pages of stuff that is not as interesting as the Corn Flakes box. I'm not complaining. It's my job and I like it because of the occasional prize in the box. I can't help but think, however, that the load may have become too great for English teachers in the elementary and secondary schools where teachers live with the students all day.
The problem is that the only way to learn to write is to practice writing and to read good writing. This means that someone must read and correct what is written. Reams of purple work sheets are no substitute for a carefully written student essay that is reviewed by the teacher as it progresses through multiple revisions.
The rub comes when the extensive writing is corrected by the teacher. A middle school teacher who sees 120 students a day will have 120 compositions to read every week. If each composition only demands 10 minutes the teacher will only have to read for 1,200 minutes a week. That's 20 hours of correcting, which is like having a second part time job reading sentence fragments.
Let me suggest that teachers are not looking for sympathy; they are looking for help. Parents and others are welcome as readers at any school in the state. Adults can help by listening to students read and by responding to what students write.
Since class loads in Utah will probably always be high, parents need to assume some responsibility for their children that includes practice in reading and writing. In the future, even more than in the past, the successful student will come from a family that reads and writes together. Parents with little experience can still assure that their students get a chance to read and to practice writing.
The first thing parents can do is subscribe to a newspaper or magazine and read it. They can tell the children what is in the paper or read the story aloud. Parents can make a point of asking the kids about what they read in the paper. The idea is to discuss what was read.
Parents of successful students will go beyond magazines and newspapers and read books. In one New York experiment, non reading parents were asked to look at books they couldn't read just so their children would understand that reading is part of being an adult. The idea was to make role models of non-readers.
Parents can encourage writing by exchanging notes with their children. Leaving notes in school lunches and making a big deal out the answers that come back encourages writing. Parents can encourage thank you notes, letters to grandparents, pen pals, letters to the editor and letters to Congress. I am still both embarrassed and proud of a letter my kids wrote to the Jell-O Co. asking if Jell-O is really made of horses' hooves.
Journal writing is good practice for kids as is writing a record of a family vacation. Poems and letters composed for birthdays and other special occasions are more meaningful than gifts from the store.
Reading and writing at home can reinforce what is learned at school and most importantly can make reading and writing a habit that improves reading and writing.
- Roger Baker is associate professor of English/education at Snow College. Comments or questions about "Learning Matters" may be addressed to Dr. Roger Baker, English Department, Snow College, Ephraim, UT 84627.