August 1994

This Issue
Vol. 05, Issue 09

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When it comes to learning to read, researchers and educators have long known that all children do not come to school equally prepared. Some, born into middle-class homes filled with books and newspapers, may start school already knowing how to read many words or at least understanding that sentences must be read from left to right. Children from families without the same advantages, on the other hand, may enter kindergarten without a clue about how to decipher the printed word.

The fact that the same kinds of differences can also affect young children's mathematical abilities, however, is less well-known.

Waste Not ...

Nearly 78 percent of U.S. public school districts recycle used materials, and 73 percent buy recycled paper products, according to a recent survey of 406 districts conducted by the National School Public Relations Association. The material schools most frequently recycle is paper, followed by aluminum, cardboard, milk boxes, and plastic foam. The survey also found that nearly one-fourth of all paper products purchased by schools are made from recycled materials. Such products include paper towels, writing tablets, and toilet and copier paper. When asked their reasons for recycling, district officials commonly cited concern for the environment and setting a good example for students.

We do not. As teachers and as lawyers, we object to the use of corporal punishment in any form in any school, public or private.

The arguments about corporal punishment are old and well-rehearsed: Some see school as the last bastion of traditional society, where law and order and respect for authority must be taught; others see school as a center for learning nonviolence and a haven from physical danger. Proponents claim that corporal punishment works to convey important social norms; opponents assert that it is at best ineffective and at worst psychologically damaging. We know of no reputable group to endorse corporal punishment. The American Medical Association, the American Bar Association, the National PTA, and similar organizations uniformly oppose it.

August 10.

PBS presents the National Geographic Special "Survivors of the Skeleton Coast,'' a onehour documentary on the desert-dwelling animals of the Skeleton Coast in Namibia. Wildlife experts Des and Jen Bartlett travel across the southwest African country to show how a variety of animals have adapted to the harsh environment of this region. Air time: 8 p.m. (EDT).

Written during the turbulent 1960s, Jonathan Kozol's Death at an Early Age remains one of the most devastating accounts ever published of racism in the public schools. He describes white teachers at a Boston elementary school, astonishingly oblivious to their own bigotry, compelling black children to confess to wrongdoings of which they're innocent, administering punishment with sharp strokes of the rattan, and-- perhaps worst of all--virtually tutoring them in ignorance as to their own circumstances. As the roof of the school literally falls in, the students are taught poetry that is brutally banal and "uplifting.''

When Kozol, a young teacher at the school, attempts to talk to his students about slavery, he is admonished by a colleague: "I don't want these children to have to think back on this year later on and have to remember that we were the ones who told them they were Negro.''

Following is a list of resources teachers may find useful.

Throwing Away The Key On Lockers

Spurred by budgetary and security woes, a smattering of schools across the country are doing away with one of the inveterate accessories of secondary education: the locker.

Back in 1906, so the story goes, a contagious disease--one guess is whooping cough--raged through the harbor city, confining to bed children enrolled in the Calvert School, a private primary school founded nine years earlier. It also sidelined other schoolchildren and led to the quick distribution around town of a homeinstruction program developed by Virgil Hillyer, Calvert's headmaster at the time.

Ever since, the Calvert School has sold its K-8 home-instruction curriculum--the very same curriculum used in its day-school classrooms--to families all over the world; approximately 10,500 students internationally now use the highly structured program. Recently it has been winning converts at a public school just across town.

A battle is being waged over the future of American public education. On the one side are the "reformers'' who are pushing for radical changes in the system and break-the-mold schools. On the other are the "traditionalists'' who march under the banner of "back to basics'' and want to preserve schools as they have been for most of this century. It is a battle that has been fought often in the past and usually won by the traditionalists.

The story beginning on page 28 is about a recent casualty--Littleton, Colo. For nearly a decade, the 16,000-student, mostly white, middle-class district has been at the forefront of reform. Teachers have worked long hours to make good schools better. Believing their students capable of higher achievement, they were determined to shift the emphasis from seat time to active learning. Beginning in 1995, students would have to complete a series of demonstrations of their knowledge and skills in order to graduate. High standards, high expectations.

Emerson said it best: An authentic education "allows a scholar to give the world the shape of his own mind.'' But old Waldo never had to endure the 20th-century college admissions process. Harvard just said, "Come.''

I have been teaching in public high school for 28 years, and every December and April I witness the anguish that accompanies the letters from colleges that say, "Don't come.'' Given the shock and pain that accompany these letters, I have felt compelled to hold a deferral party in December for the disappointed. We critique deferral and rejection letters, make offerings to Buddha for better fortune in April, and consume endless numbers of hot-fudge sundaes, often the only true comfort in a cold world. Ironically, the party has created a sufficient cachet for the value of rejection, and one student who was admitted to her early choice told me that the only drawback to admission was missing the party.

In the early 1900s, Booker T. Washington, the African-American educator and writer, dispatched two teenage newlyweds to North Carolina. They transformed a parcel of swampland into a respected private school for blacks that has graduated such notables as the late jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, basketball Hall of Fame member Sam Jones, and Prime Minister of Bermuda John Swann.

Lee, a jazz enthusiast and avid basketball fan, might be the perfect director to tell the school's tale. His production company is interested--but then so are actor Danny Glover and entertainers Bill Cosby and Arsenio Hall.

Lou Romano

Lou Romano did the teaching profession a favor by retiring. After reading "Start The Revolution Without Me'' [May/June], I got the feeling that Romano retired years ago but just kept showing up at school.

Following is a list of application deadlines for grants, fellowships, and honors available to individuals. Asterisks (
  • ) denote new entries.

Grants and Fellowships

On the surface, the only thing that distinguishes Littleton, Colo., from thousands of other American suburbs is the spectacular view of the Rocky Mountains that rise to the west of town, above the shopping malls and streets of well-kept, middle-class homes.

Beneath its placid facade, though, Littleton is a town torn apart by a raging argument over its schools. Once the pride of the community, the school system is now at the center of a fierce debate over how and what teachers should teach, what should be expected of students, what roles parents should play, how school board members should govern, and what schools should look like at the close of the 20th century.

The trouble started when a school counselor advised student Steve Schindler that he could raise his "quality-point'' average (which gives more weight to harder courses) and overtake topranking student Alexandra Koepke by enrolling in summer and evening courses. When Alexandra and her family caught wind of this, they appealed to the district superintendent, who gave her the opportunity to accumulate more quality points by doing independent study.

Upon learning of Alexandra's arrangement, 68 teachers signed a petition demanding that the deal be rescinded. The matter eventually came before the school board, which decided that the best way out of the sticky situation was simply not to name a valedictorian.

To understand why textbooks baffle many students, University of Pittsburgh researchers Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown suggest this exercise: Take a typical 5th grade social studies text on the period preceding the American Revolution and replace such words as "Britain,'' "France,'' and "North America'' with unfamiliar-sounding pseudonyms.

The result might read something like this:

From the beginning of my career as an English teacher, I dreamed of inspiring young minds to appreciate the beauty and the art of great literature. I never gave much thought to those young minds for whom that inspiration would take a little longer: those with learning disabilities or special needs.