Thursday, June 06, 2013


I apologize for losing the name of this TERRIFIC artist who illustrates a lot of books for children.

There are no organs of the body assigned to speech, writing, art or religion.  All these functions are improvised, emergent abilities driven by expression and/or communication and achieved by the interaction of many parts of the brain.  This is not to say that animals can’t use sound, gestures, contact, and making marks to express or communicate a desire or distress or emotion or thought-guided reaching-out or change-making.

A skill like reading is improvised by each person who may or may not use the same brain pattern and localities as the next person.  The need and ability to speak and write comes from interaction with a social context.  Children raised without ever hearing speech or forming words will not be able to talk.  There appears to be a window of opportunity at an early age when babbling forms into words in the same way that the whole brain forms categories and structures about the meaning of life, pretentious as that sounds.  Probably the two are linked.  Toddlers learn to speak the same way they learn to walk -- attempt, fail, attempt, fail, accumulate evidence, grow neurons, and eventually get the hang of it.

In English writing and reading are dependent on the skill of speaking and hearing words, since the marks that are read symbolize sounds, though the marks may be idiosyncratic and illogical.  They have only been standardized since printing was invented.  In Chinese whole word-concepts are symbolized and there is no “sounding out” of spoken language.  I have never seen a comparison of rates of dyslexia (inability to read) between the two systems, but they probably exist.

When I was teaching on the rez, the single most pressing deficit was inability to read.  I was tempted to think this was because until a few hundred years ago no Native Americans had ever seen books and therefore never evolved some small missing piece of the ability.  But later I briefly taught in a nearby white school and found they also did not have good reading skills.  Both places used non-standard spoken language, substituting t’s for d’s (“sattle the horse”)  and the like.  After the Seventies both places offered far more opportunities to watch image screens than read pages.  Many students had no desire to read or write, no concept of what books were for or what books could do.

After I had stopped teaching, I found exactly the book I had needed:  “Language Arts: Detecting and Correcting Special Needs” (1989) by Thomas A. Rakes and Joyce S. Choate.  It’s like one of those “best practices” books that pull apart what one is doing and then analyses each step.  There are four of these books, one each for basic math, classroom behavior, language arts and reading.  I only have the language arts one, but even that is very helpful in many ways, like offering a pattern of approach to problems.  IQ tests and standardized achievement tests IMHO are useless -- they only test the ability to pass the test as though that would tell you anything.

The level of insight in this book is so penetrating that it includes among the problems -- of organic function, psychological blocks, bad habits or whatever -- THIS blazing phenomenon:  TEACHER-DISABLED STUDENTS.  The student who has been taught something just plain wrong, been forced to use only one strategy that doesn’t work for them, has never been given basic information, or has been intimidated out of the self-confidence that makes learning possible.  A GOOD TEACHER IS AN ENABLER.  Some tests that need to be done are for sight, hearing, and various interfering disabilities or diseases.  I’m emotional about this, since I was very near-sighted for years before an alert teacher saw the obvious.  I know the frustration of it both in the classroom and on the playground where eye-hand coordination is the point of many games.  No one wanted me on their team.

COMMUNITY MUST ALSO BE AN ENABLER.  My embarrassed parents got me to the eye doctor and bought me glasses.  Some parents do not have the ability to do this or will not take the obligation seriously.  If the community wants to educate its youngsters, they must address that gap.  There is no use in insisting that students do something they physically can NOT do.  I would add to this list TEACHER-DISABLING-ADMINISTRATION who insist on making teachers do things that don’t work or prevent them from having time and resources to do their job.

But the community also has a lot to do with students WANTING to learn, valuing it, and having the time, nutrition, materials, sleep, emotional stability, and all the other things.  There are many subtle ways to tell kids they aren’t worth any of that.  

But back to reading.  The phrase “special needs” has come to mean some kind of inability, deficit, or stupidity, which is a shame since obviously every human being has special needs because we are each unique.  This little book is lists of strategies to explore until one of them works, plus encouragement to invent some new strategies.  The closest to this attitude that I’ve run across in the past was remedial speech coaching where the student sits across the table from the coach and works at forming sounds.  R’s and S’s are particularly hard to form, as well as sounds made in the back of the mouth, like K.  In fact, English has dropped out many of those sounds and now Blackfeet does the same, so that it doesn’t sound the same as it used to fifty years ago when I first came.  But a child must master the sounds closely enough to communicate.  The coach devises games to keep the child focused and motivated.  But they are ONE-on-ONE, not ONE-on-THIRTY-FIVE.

This book includes as “special” those kids who learn quickly and easily.  We call them “gifted” as though someone bought them something and installed it in them.  This is baloney.  Gifted kids have simply found better ways and done them enough to get good at it.  They grew the neurons and connections the same as anyone else. 

This provocative article explains why results for teaching math are so much easier to raise than results for teaching reading.  Math, esp. at the lower levels, is demonstrable, concrete, unchanging, and motivated by getting and spending money.  Immigrants and small-town folks find their niche in bookkeeping and cashiering.  Language skills, esp. those concerned with reading and writing, are far more dependent on social knowledge: stories, personality, culture -- not just the community culture but also the culture of the family.   Language skills can develop later in life but if there is no motivation, no access to books, and no example, it won’t.  Surprisingly, help has arrived not from television but from computers -- not from computers with keyboards, but from tablets that even little hands can hold and operate.  Many teaching games are showing up, something like the “speak and spell” toys we know.  Little fingers trace letters; pointing to a word will say it; eye/ear associations grow easily.  The stories are told, the motivations are explained, and those skills make it possible to expand horizons with confidence -- even joy.

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