According to the latest pendulum swing, that was all wrong. Students who were segregated into “dumb” classes were given a stigma from which they could never escape. They would never have the opportunity to hear what good students sound like, and would have no model to emulate. Worst of all, gifted students would be reading literature while remedial students were reading Dick and Jane. Literature and a common cultural base are the rights of every student.
It all made sense, stated that way, and it was a fine goal to aim toward. But when it came to the reality of the individual classroom, the Pedro’s and Sabrina’s of the world were forced to face their incompetence on a daily basis, building up a mountain of failure from which they would never recover.
Doubtless, the pendulum would swing back. It always did. But for this generation, it would be too late.
# # #
The immediate solution to Neil’s problems in reading came in a conversation with Pearl Richardson. He asked her what she would do in his position, and she had tossed the question back to him. “What would you do if this problem came up in freshman literature?”
“It doesn’t come up; that’s why I have no experience to call on. I couldn’t teach freshman literature if the kids couldn’t read. I would have to back off and teach them reading first.”
“Okay, Pearl, I’m dense today. What do you mean ‘precisely’? Precisely what?”
“If you couldn’t teach in a literature style to freshmen who couldn’t read, how can you teach in a literature style sixth graders who can’t read? Do what teachers always do when a new system doesn’t work; go back to the old system and keep your mouth shut about it. Go out to the bus shed. It’s never locked. Go through the cardboard boxes that are stacked beside the bathroom and you’ll find old textbooks. Get something the kids can read.”
Neil just shook his head at the simplicity of it. He said, “Is that what you do?”
“Hell, no, and I don’t want to. Thanks to Gina and Carmen, I have always gotten kids who can read. I teach literature and always have; I didn’t need an edict from Sacramento for that. And I don’t want to start teaching eighth graders how to read, so you go solve your problem! Please!”
# # #
Remembering the “keep your mouth shut” part of Pearl’s prescription, Neil waited until well after school before going out to the bus shed. There he found more boxes of books than he had imagined possible. He was seduced into spending an hour longer than was really necessary, exploring the possibilities. Eventually, he found suitable books. They weren’t literature. In fact, they weren’t particularly good, but they were better than what he had, and there were books for several levels of readers.
His plan solved some problems and created others. Carlos Ruiz took one look at the new textbook, slammed it closed, and said, “This is a fourth grader’s book. It says so right here on the cover.”
Dixie Margaret Trujillo said, “I’ve already read this book. I read it in Mrs. Jamieson’s class.”
“So have I.”
Neil said, “Let’s try it, anyway, and see how things work out.”
He had his ten very slow readers clustered around him in the back of the room while the other children did seat work in language. Nine of them reluctantly opened their books, but Carlos sat with his arms crossed and stared out the window.
“I’m not reading out of no fourth grade book.” more tomorrow