1999-11-27 / Columnists

School Scope

by Howard Schwach

Just a note to all of you who send your kids to Brooklyn for middle school because it provides a much safer atmosphere than MS 180 (its new official designation). Just last week one of the more popular teachers at the Bay Academy (yes, That Bay Academy) was arrested for carrying seven glassine baggies of heroin in a subway station. What’s that you say, it could happen anywhere. You’re probably right, but as far as I know, it never happened at MS 180, or at any other school in Rockaway. The Spanish teacher, Myrna Lichter, had been in the school since 1971 and students interviewed said that she "was always hyper," and "she had a bizarre reputation." One student said, "Everyone always said that she was on something. She forgot everything. She forgot people’s names." Sure sounds like a school where I would want my kid.

I know I’m going to get lots of letters from you people who spend all that money on buses and things and whose kids spend hours traveling just to get away from "them", but I couldn’t let it pass without comment.

While Lichter isn’t public enemy number one as far as education is concerned, I think that I have a candidate for that slot.

Her name is Lucy Calkins, and she is the director of the Reading and Writing Program at Columbia.

She and her group are the progenitors of all the programs that have mortally injured the educational process.

She has moved education away from phonics, grammar and drill to whole language and the writing process.

Students in the writing process write free form pieces of work. They are never graded on grammar, because that might "stifle the student’s creativity." They are taught that every idea is as good as any other and that any subject is as worth writing about as any other. They spend time writing lists of what they know and what they would like to know rather than learning how to research an important topic. They are not taught any grammar "until they are ready for it." All of the primary editing is done in peer groups as if the other kids in the group somehow know how to make the writing better.

It is no wonder that Johnny can’t write. He was never taught to write correctly and he never will as long as the writing process has anything to do with it.

Mark Goldberg teaches English at SUNY’s Fashion Institute of Technology. He writes about a girl named Samantha who turned up in his remedial writing section one year. She was surprised that she had failed the university writing test since she had always received A’s in Language Arts and had written for her high school’s magazine. Her first writing sample, about the play Oedipus, The King, went something like this:

"Since Oedipus is in powder he want no one to judge because is the king he treat everyone like is children in the city. And is male egle was realy get to him."

This is a girl who always got A’s in a city public high school. She got A’s because she was never asked to write about anything but last weekend’s date or the latest rap CD. She got A’s because her grammar was never questioned. She got A’s and was now in trouble because we failed to teach her how to write.

You can blame that on Lucy Calkin and on other colleges that picked up her ideas. You can blame that on Lehman College, because they are doing the same thing right here in District 27.

Goldblatt writes some good advice for parents:

"If your child is in intermediate school or in high schools, and isn’t bringing home sentence-skills exercises and writing assignments corrected line by line, then your child isn’t in an English class–despite what his or her report card says. English proficiency will not suddenly, magically dawn on students through composing fragmentary free-verse poems or reading dialect-laden popular novels—which serve only to reinforce the idea that effective writing need not be mechanically sound."

The new standards in English Language Arts include a standard that is slugged E4a. That standard requires kids to use proper grammar when writing. It is about time. The writing process has duped an entire generation of students, and those students will probably never be able to write adequately.

The new ELA test in the eighth grade has a grammar component as well. Our students in District 27 did poorly the last time around and that is no surprise. They did poorly because grammar has been a district priority in only a few, scattered school classrooms – those rooms where the individual teacher realized that the only way to learn to write is to do it and be edited by somebody who knows what good writing really is.

When I first started writing professionally for Xerox Education Publications (Weekly Reader, Current Events, etc.), I thought I was a hotshot writer because they had hired me. My editor was an old newspaper hand. He told me to do "a take" on the electoral process. I did not even know that "a take" meant one sheet. I did the story and proudly handed it in.

"This isn’t a good story," he told me. I asked him why and he told me that it wasn’t even good enough to go over.

I did that story a dozen times before he said that it was time to sit down and talk about it. He then took out the red pencil and went to work. I learned to write because he taught me.

I may not be a recognized expert on writing education like Sharon Rosenberg (the district’s writing process teacher), but nobody has had as many books and articles published as I have, so I guess that I learned something.

The same is true for reading, the most critical of all skills.

When the system moved away from phonics and drill, and moved to Whole Language at the behest of the "experts" such as Calkins, most teachers look askance at the process. The district offices, however, loved it and ordered that everybody move to the new process.

Kids stopped learning to read.

Today, schools are paying large amounts of money to move back to drill (the call it scripted education today). The Success for All program and the SRA Directed Reading Program are only two of the myriad of such programs that are making a comeback. It is about time.

The teachers know that those programs work. They can see the advance their students make each day. Unfortunately, the gains made through the programs don’t show up immediately on standardized tests.

While teachers love them, Lucy Calkins does not.

"The name, Success For All, is an enormous promise which hasn’t proven true," Calkins says. "Like anything else, it provides some success for some students."

Other states are reading the handwriting on the wall as well. California has moved away from the "holistic mathematics" usually called "new math." It is going back to drill. Kids who graduate from the third grade, for example, have to be able to recite the times table through 12 times. In New York City, that is a no no. Instead, kids take tests where showing the work is worth more than getting the right answer.

That will help when they get out into the work force.

Well, Mr. Jones, I didn’t do the taxes right, but I tried and you can see where I made my mistake, so you should give me a raise."

Sure, we are educating our kids for the real world.

So, if you are looking for somebody to blame poor education on, forget the teachers, forget the administrators. Look at Lucy Calkins. She should get most of the credit.


Return to top

Email Us
Contact Us

Copyright 1999 - 2016 Wave Publishing Co. All Rights Reserved

Neighborhoods | History



Check Out News Podcasts at Blog Talk Radio with Riding the Wave with Mark Healey on BlogTalkRadio