Symphony 70

“Anne Marie Chang has been teaching and researching reading for twenty-five years. She knows what she is talking about.”

“Maybe for some kids. Maybe for some schools, but not this one. Half of my kids can’t read, and that has to take priority over some half-baked ideas about cultural literacy. When I first started here I had all the kids at one level and half of them were miserable, frustrated, and unable to succeed. I gave them materials at their level, and they started reading. That’s the bottom line.”

“That’s your bottom line. The state’s bottom line is that leveling labels children, and those labels become so embedded in their thinking that they can never succeed.”

“Anne Marie Chang was labeled and it didn’t stop her from succeeding. Kids know what they are. If you put non-readers with readers, they just get their noses rubbed in their own inabilities.”

It was an old argument, and they didn’t resolve it; but when reason cannot solve a problem, force does. Bill told Neil he had to change his methods.

“Fine,” Neil replied. “Show me something that works and I will change to it.”

They parted on that unsatisfactory note, and two days later Neil found another note in his mailbox. This one said, “I have enrolled you in a cooperative learning seminar being put on by the county board of education on Monday. It is the only alternative to leveling anyone has been able to find. Go to the seminar, and then make it work in your classroom. I will evaluate you again in two weeks.”

Neil discussed the matter with Carmen, but neither of them could see any way out of the impasse. There were things to be said for both sides of the argument. And frankly, it did not interest them much. They both had experience enough to know that any theory is only a partial solution at best. This one was being forced upon them, so they would ride with the tide until it reversed, as tides and theories always do.

Neil continued teaching in leveled groups, hoping to get in a few more weeks of effective instruction. Meanwhile, he had more interesting and valuable things on his mind. The morning after his candy trick, Stephanie had come to him with a proposition. Her church collected cans for the needy every Christmas. She thought their class should do the same thing.

Neil thought it was a wonderful idea. He called Mrs. Hagstrom and discussed it with her to make sure that the parents would not have any objection. The biggest problem Stephanie’s project presented was identifying the needy in the community and getting food to them without putting them in the spotlight. Fortunately, Delores Zavala had lived in the district all her life and knew every adult, child, car, cat, dog, and everyone’s financial condition. She proved invaluable and Stephanie turned out to be an eleven year old dynamo. Within three days she had organized all her friends, and their friends, and their friends.  That meant every child in the sixth grade. Two weeks after the idea was born, there was a seven foot stack of canned goods in the corner of Neil’s classroom.

# # #

December was a busy month for them all, but particularly for Carmen whose mother became ill and began to take all her spare time. After two weeks Carmen was looking tired and complaining that she wasn’t getting any Christmas shopping done. Neil offered to sit with her mother to give her an evening off. Carmen accepted and Neil found, to his surprise, that Maria de la Vega spoke no English. Carmen had been so much at ease in her job, and so confident in the world she shared with him, that he had assumed her family was educated and English speaking. more tomorrow


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