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Charles: Write-Off or Reader?

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Seeing a child as more than the sum of his sociological characteristics

Monday, March 10, was not a good reading day for Charles, an African-American boy in the 5th grade of a Minneapolis public school. Just before his reading class started, he got into an argument with a classmate about the murder of rap star Christopher (Notorious B.I.G.) Wallace. His classmate shouted that the rapper got what he deserved.

Charles does not let go of a mood quickly or easily. He simmered throughout much of the next half hour, angry and confused by his classmate's insensitivity.

Some educational oddsmakers would not like Charles' chances of passing the Minnesota Basic Skills Test in reading in three years. They would argue that he is a long shot, that the demographic cards are stacked against him. Only 18 percent of all Minneapolis 8th grade African-American students passed the test in 1996, and boys had a slightly harder time with reading than girls. Charles started 5th grade reading about half a year below grade level.

And then there are the other risk factors he has been dealt, the other barriers that stand in his way. He is in his fourth school in six years. At the school he attends, 81 percent of the students are African-American, and 91 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. His mom moved him out of the 3rd grade at another Minneapolis public school in frustration: "I was always complaining, asking him, 'Where is your homework?' But the teacher would give him stuff a 5-year-old could do."

His mom is a single parent who rises at 3:30 in the morning to start cooking at a nursing home. At around 7 a.m., she returns to their apartment in a Hennepin County suburb to get Charles and an older sister and brother ready for school. After dropping her older kids at a Catholic school, she crosses district boundaries to bring Charles to his current school. She chose this school because of its emphasis on reading: "I was amazed. I was glad when I heard about the hour and a half of reading every day."

But all of the early hours, the hard work, the chauffeuring take their toll. "Sometimes I feel bad because I don't get more involved," she says. "Last year, he would always say, 'Come to my school to see my reading.' But I was working two jobs. I was tired all the time."

And she has been called to school for other reasons. Charles is no angel. In the quaint idiom of the city's elementary schools, "He can be naughty." He was asked to leave the Catholic school that his siblings attend. His mom remembers: "I was so disappointed when he got kicked out." Last year she feared he would be "an administrative transfer" from his current school, but his teacher "worked very hard with him," she reports. "This year he's more focused." When asked to write a sentence with the vocabulary word solemnly in it, Charles wrote: "Ms. P. solemnly swore that she would keep me in at recess and she meant it."

Charles writes about Charles whenever he is required to demonstrate his command of his new vocabulary words. About his fears: "Charles was forlorn when his brother died. He didn't want to eat or do anything." About racism: "Charles walked warily down Dupont because people there didn't like people of color." About his future: "Charles didn't know what college to go to, Harvard or the University of Minnesota." About his family's possible move to Florida: "It was sultry in Florida. It was so hot that Charles almost had a heart attack."

At its best, "barrier analysis" is an invaluable tool for understanding what the playing field looks like--a kind of topographical map of the potholes and pitfalls that Charles is facing. But in its more deterministic versions, barrier analysis is not friendly to a boy like Charles. It activates fears in the public mind--like a point spread stacked steeply against an underdog.

In its more deterministic versions, 'barrier analysis' activates fears in the public mind—like a point spread stacked steeply against an underdog.

It implies that children are little more than the sum of their sociological characteristics and situations. It implies that their test scores are driven largely by their demographics. It implies that the weight of their compensating talents is negligible or unknowable when placed opposite census data on the scales of school success. In its more deterministic versions, barrier analysis leaves little room for the learning, the maturational spurts, the maternal guidance, the inspired teaching, and the disciplined practice Charles absorbs on his good reading days.

And there have been many such days this year. There was the day in September when Charles began reading Elizabeth Yates' Amos Fortune, Free Man--the story of how an African prince, brought to the American colonies in chains, earned his freedom and bought the freedom of others. It turned out to be his favorite book of the year. He learned, he says, "a lot about slavery, a lot of stuff I didn't know."

There was Oct. 10, when he employed the conflict-resolution skills he learned at school to defuse a volatile situation with a classmate. Instead of trading kick for kick he said forcefully, but calmly: "I feel mad when you kick me. I need you to stop doing that."

There was Nov. 21, when he illustrated the meaning of determined with the following sentence: "Charles was determined to go to college because he was reading like he was in college."

There was the day in December when he bugged his mom to pick him up early after school, so that he could get a library card. There was Christmas, when mom bought her children a computer.

There was the look of accomplishment and satisfaction on his face in January when Ms. P. praised him for his oral reading, even though he had struggled with an especially difficult passage. "One of the things I like about Charles is that he is willing to take some risks in here," she said. Charles beamed.

There was the day in February when he narrowed his career options to being either a football player or a lawyer. He explained that either way he would have to be a good reader. Football players, he reasoned, need to go to college, and lawyers "wouldn't be smart enough to be lawyers, unless they were good readers."

Perhaps we'll find out that he had too far to go in too short a time.

There was the day in March when he improvised while reading a passage aloud. The sentence began: "Just when I had him hooked on the idea that ... " But Charles couldn't resist the chance to show off his increasing fluency, his strengthened ability to read, and simultaneously deliver a punch line. To the delight of his teacher and classmates, he read: "Just when I had him hooked on phonics ... "

There was the morning in April when Ms. P. began to reorganize reading groups. She asked the class to write a "good-bye note" to each group member, being sure to include "one positive thing" about each student. Then she added: "And don't just write 'He or she was good or nice.' Why not?" Charles raised his hand. "Everybody always says 'good' or 'nice,'" he answered. "Why not say excellent, smart, or lovable?"

So many days. So many moments of Charles at work--slipping, recovering, forging ahead. Sentence by sentence claiming his right to read and write. Paragraph by paragraph solidifying his skills, establishing control over his identity as a literate young man. Book by book building his path to college, his road to a successful adulthood.

No doubt certain oddsmakers will scoff at these "soft," anecdotal indicators of his reading progress. And maybe those oddsmakers will turn out to be right. Perhaps we'll find out that he had too far to go in too short a time. Perhaps he won't be able to correctly answer the additional three, five, or seven questions that kept last year's cohort from passing, from getting over the Minnesota Basic Skills Test bar and moving on with the rest of their educations.

But if that sad prospect becomes a reality, will it be a story of Charles and his demographic barriers? Or the story of adults who didn't like the odds, who chose to place their bets on the weight of the barriers rather than the strength of the partnership between this boy, his mom, and his school?


John G. Ramsay is a professor of educational studies at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., and the coordinator of its Learning and Teaching Center.

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