Symphony 46

Neil said, “Don’t prompt. Raul would have figured it out if you had let him.” But privately, he wondered if he would have. It was depressing to teach this way; he could only imagine what a torture it was for the kids.

” . . . he invited Peter to go with him. Once they were out under the shade of the oaks, they ran as fast as they could to the river.”

Actually, the words had been, “Once they were out of the castle and under the shadow of the elms, both boys ran as quickly as they could to the river.” At least Raul had the gist of the story; Neil did not have the heart to correct him further. He called on Tasmeen Kumar, and once again the story flowed forward smoothly for two minutes. Then it was Pedro Velasquez’s turn. Some days Pedro could read a few words, and occasionally he could read a whole sentence. Today he just stared at the book and would say nothing. After a minute of gentle badgering, Neil moved on.

It went on that way until the bell rang, and no one was more relieved than Neil when it was over. The children poured out of the room for their break. Neil sat quiet and depressed.

It was a lousy way to teach reading. In fact, it was a crime. He was teaching his poor readers that reading was painful. He was teaching them to hate reading.

He could complain about the working conditions, about the textbook, and about the fact that the children’s abilities ranged so widely. Every complaint was justified; in the best of all possible worlds none of those things would have been true. But these were the conditions he had to deal with and what he had done so far was not working. It was time for a change.

# # #

The first part of the change was painful. When the children came back in expecting spelling or writing, they found that they had to read again. Neil had set up a scale of one to ten as a mental yardstick, and made notes on each individual reader. Once again, he was struck by how well — and how poorly — faces matched up with abilities. Brandy Runyon, puffy eyed and staring, looked as dumb as a post — and was. Stephanie Hagstrom looked as bright as she was. Oscar Teixeira, on the other hand, hid his intelligence behind a mask of indifference, and Martin Christoffersen, who looked like a young computer whiz, could barely add and subtract.

He made an accidental discovery. He was walking among the students as they read, and when he came to Lydia Ruiz she suddenly lost all ability. It took Neil by surprise. He looked at her, puzzled, until she blushed and lowered her eyes. Then he saw that Lauren Turner was also upset.

He walked away, mulling it over, and ten minutes later he asked Lydia to read again. This time she read with adequate fluency. Neil watched her from the corner of his eye while pretending to follow the textbook, and the mystery was solved. Lauren was coaching Lydia. For four weeks Lydia had been “reading” materials she could not understand at all.

And Neil had missed it!

The first step in making things better was a full appreciation of the problem.  Based on test scores and his observations, he categorized his students into excellent readers, readers who were at about grade level, poor readers, and those who could barely read at all. The result was appalling. In the first period class, he had six excellent readers, eight who were about grade level, and eight who were quite poor.

He had ten who could barely read at all.

When he considered the matter by race, it was even worse. Of his top readers, only Duarte and Oscar were Chicano. Only two of the readers who were at grade level were Chicano, and only two of the poor readers were not. Among the children who could hardly read at all, only Brandy, Martin, and Sabrina were not from Spanish speaking homes.

The message was clear. These Mexican-American children had needs which were not being met. They had started school with a language handicap and they were not catching up. more tomorrow


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