Monday, August 25, 2008

Why Kids Don’t Read

I don’t have this problem. I introduced my kids to literature by reading to them a whole lot when they were babies and toddlers, and they were fascinated by the sound of the written word, the delightful illustrations in children’s books, and by having their imaginations stimulated. I can remember each of their first favorite books.

Spot’s favorite book was a cutout, cardboard book with beautifully illustrated pictures on how to get dressed. It was called Teddy Dresses. Teddy had a lot of trouble figuring out the difference between socks and mittens. Spot used to laugh and laugh at Teddy’s troubles, but I noticed he also took the book to bed with him sometimes and was very carefully (and correctly) clad the next day.

Bunny’s favorite book was the timeless Cat in the Hat. She was lulled by the rhythm of the words, and enthralled by the pictures. She pored over the pictures when I was too busy to read to her and memorized the placement of the disgruntled fish, Things One and Two, and the posture of the misbehaving cat in each drawing.

Doodle’s favorite was a freebie book we got either through a school program giveaway or from some other freebie source, back when giving away kid books was a big thing. It was called Snug Bug. Snug Bug was a mischievous little antennaed fellow who played in all kinds of people places and had to be tucked into bed by his bug mom. It was a good bedtime story; he invariably wanted to be tucked into bed just like Snug Bug.

They’ve all read their way through the Harry Potter (Doodle’s first grade teacher was a good egg – she liked that he was bringing “big, chapter books” to school because it sparked a competitive spirit in her other students and made them want to improve their reading skills, too) several times; they’ve read the Eragon books (and weren’t impressed); they’ve read stories by Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, Anne McCaffrey, Agatha Christie, Nancy Atherton, Stephen King, Meg Cabot, Frank Herbert, Janet Evanovich, Lincoln Child, Douglas Preston, Mercedes Lackey, C. J. Cherryh, Diane Duane, Larry Niven… The list of authors whose works they enjoy reading for pleasure is endless. They come by it honestly because I am a compulsive reader, and I’m pretty sure it’s contagious.

One thing these books all have in common is that they are fun to read, not because they are all silly, although some of them are, not because they are all adventure stories, although some of them are, but because they are written with social, emotional and intellectual skill. They don’t bludgeon the reader over the head with ham-fisted moralizing or coma-inducing manifestos on social ills; they allude to them, assume prior knowledge, or analogize, something which seems to escape learned and erudite literary critics, who frequently seem to assign science fiction, horror, suspense, cottage mysteries, and other forms of popular fiction the automatic label of “unworthy fluff”. What these critics seem to be missing is that it takes an open and agile mind to make a point without sticking that point painfully in the reader’s eye.

What writers whose books are frequently read for pleasure understand, it seems to me, is that people read during their leisure time because they want to go to a magic show, not church. We want to be entertained, enthralled, surprised, amazed, see something new, see a new twist on something old, see something through different eyes, and we want it to be easy to enjoy, we want the escapism inherent in becoming engrossed in a book to be smooth and deftly managed; we do not want to have The Point hammered through our “idiot” skulls like a railroad spike driven home with sledgehammer obviousness.

It’s not that common literary themes are not addressed in popular fiction, it is that they are not painted in such broad strokes that they obscure the art and magic of good writing. It is as easy to understand racism from reading Asimov’s Caliban as it is from reading To Kill a Mockingbird. One is considered “classic literature”, but the other is dismissed as “only science fiction”. The former draws the reader into a world which has not yet existed, requires no additional research, whereas the latter requires the reader to learn more about a specific time period with which they may not be familiar, in order to understand The Point. Which one do you think kids would enjoy reading more?

I have yet to figure out why writing a five-page paper on the literary themes in The Good Earth or To Kill A Mockingbird is considered of greater intellectual worth than doing the same from an examination of The Mote in God’s Eye or The Dragonriders of Pern. The intellectual work is more sophisticated with the sci-fi and fantasy books because The Points are subtler. I do understand that it would not be in accordance with a standard expectation of having read “the classics”. I would argue that “the classics” need some amending. It’s not wrong to think outside the paradigm, which is, in fact, something we’d like to encourage in our children.

And, I’m not alone in my thoughts. An article by a private school English teacher in Sunday’s Washington Post, entitled “We’re Teaching Books That Don’t Stack Up” makes this argument, to some extent, as well.

Way back in the Jurassic, when I was a freshman in college, I took an introductory English class. The grad student teaching the class would habitually put a quotation on the board from some literary work – not all were from standard classics. He’d ask if anyone was familiar with the quotation, and my spring-loaded arm would shoot into the air. After a week of this, and the usual skills assessment first paper, the teacher had me come in to his office, and a few other teaching assistants and a professor or two and I conversed in a general manner while I was waiting for my TA to explain why I was there.

It turned out that he was getting departmental permission for me to go on independent study. I’ve written about this before , but what I haven’t said is that I wrote my research papers on science fiction short stories. It wasn’t a problem either; it was a joy, and it was a joy to me because I didn’t have to hack my way through archaic English, characters that didn’t interest me, situations that were insipid, painfully historical, or drenched in one or another overpowering Points. I got to read what I wanted to read, but I had to make good on that by using the skills of good literary analysis. What I read wasn’t important, how I read it was.

I suppose I didn’t understand at the time how unusual that permission and resultant independent study was in the context of English studies. I retroactively applaud that TA, and the English department professors, for being astute enough to understand what the real Point of studying literature is – to enjoy the magic show while being able to unravel the magician’s tricks right down to the equipment, props, and the foundations of the stage itself. But it all starts with the lure of the show, doesn’t it?

I sent my daughter, who is majoring in English, a link to the article referenced above. Here’s her response:

“Thanks, Mom! That was really interesting. I can totally identify with this article, too. When we read The Scarlet Letter junior year, I automatically geared myself to hate it due to past experience, and therefore failed to enjoy what I now realize was actually a really good book. So much of what we have to read for school is obviously good literature, but they make it horrible by dragging us through it by reading aloud and mixing it in with so much depressing literature that we can't identify the great works anymore. I realize now that Great Expectations really wasn't that bad, but since I went into it EXPECTING to hate it, that's exactly what happened.”


Oddball Word of the Day

appetence (AP-eh-tehns): n. intense natural desire; craving

(from the guide to MMMW edited by Laurence Urdang)

Friday, August 22, 2008

SpEd Tip #2: Keep Your Documents…and In Order

One of the first things I have my clients do is round up all their documents regarding their child – medical records, specialist records, school records, notes from teachers, standardized test results, etc. I ask them to put them in reverse chronological order, with the earliest documents on the bottom and the most recent on the top.

There is a very good reason for doing this – it creates an excellent way for me, and for the client, to review their child’s educational history and how medical diagnoses and treatments affect their educational progress. We can each read through the file, or stack, or mountain, as the case may be, from bottom to top, and get a pretty comprehensive understanding of how the child has arrived at the point where the parent is seeking special education services, and my services as well.

We can see what the school has done, if anything, over time, which teachers were on the ball and which weren’t, and we sometimes, speaking as a parent, find out that we have fallen short from time to time as well. Having the documents arranged and collected in this manner is a real eye-opener.

This also helps highlight which documents are missing, and there will be some gaps. One of the things I do, early in my relationship with the client, is a document review. I check to see if there is a full set of grades, standardized test results, documentation supporting any special ed services, and so forth. There is very rarely a complete set, and that’s absolutely normal.

When that happens, it’s important to fill in the blanks by sending the school a FERPA letter. Further information on what FERPA means and what should be in the school records is here . Here is a sample FERPA letter, which can be altered to fit the child’s specific information:

Your Name
Your Address
City, State, Zip
Home Phone


Mr. , Principal
Street Address
City, State, zip

Re: Name of student

Dear (Principal):

As you are aware, my child is a student at Uncooperative School (or “has been found eligible for special education and related services and currently has an IEP”). In order for me to have a clearer picture of my child’s educational history, please either make available for review and photocopying or send me a complete copy of my son’s entire cumulative and confidential records.

Please be sure to include copies of all evaluations and actual test scores, any electronic communications, computer records or records stored on other media, and any personally identifiable records regarding my child. If there is a cost and policy about photocopies, please let me know immediately.

If you have questions about my request, please contact me at the number listed above.
Thank you for your assistance and quick response.


, parent

Cc: Name of, Lay Advocate
Name of, Special Ed Director

This letter must be signed by the parent, and it’s important to follow up on it. Usually the school will make copies and have the parent come in and get them. Sometimes they will only make them available and the parent has to come in and review the file and ask for specific copies. Other times they may refuse to make copies, and the parent should bring a camera or hand scanner and get copies that way.

It is often the case that the first letter does not do the job. Some records may have been sent off to the regional office of education, some records are purged annually and are no longer available, and very often schools do not include the emails which mention your child. In that case, I follow up with FERPA letters to the special ed folks, the regional office of ed., and a letter to the school which mentions missing documents and asks for a further search (and copies) or which nicely asks where these items might be.

Schools will not admit to having lost documents, and are often snarky enough to ignore the letter requesting additional or missing documents. It doesn’t matter – if you’ve sent a written request for the documents and/or an explanation, you have behaved reasonably and entered YOUR LETTER into the record. If you don’t get a response within 10 days, send a photocopy, clearly marked SECOND REQUEST (and add the second request date) all in red at the top in large print.

It can sometimes take six months before you can be sure you have exhausted every possible location where a document might be stored and before you are sure you have a comprehensive list of what’s still missing. That’s normal, too. Generally, the first two letters (first FERPA and first follow up) will unearth enough information to make it possible to move forward with reasonable accuracy and efficiency.

Keep copies of all the letters and emails you send, too. This saves time in finding addresses and contacts, and makes your records the best available should legal action become necessary down the road.

This dogged pursuit of every possible document relating to your child is the most valuable thing parents can do to assist themselves, their advocate, or their attorney in getting appropriate and timely services for a disabled child. There is a real wealth of information in longitudinal educational data – charts and graphs can be made showing lack of progress, decreasing scores over time, pinpoint areas of particular concern, show a puzzling relationship between class grades and standardized scores, and so on.

I have used this kind of information with consistent success and gotten real insight into the clients’ children, finding out things they haven't noticed in the face of more obvious problems. Visual presentations of data are winners in meetings, too – it’s hard for the school district to argue with their own data showing steadily decreasing abilities and scores. They don’t do this kind of reporting or analysis, but you should (or your advocate or other helper).

Your stack of paper will become pretty large, and lots of people are surprised by the eventual size of it. Make a copy of everything, put the originals away safely, and then keep the copies, in the order mentioned before, in a big, sturdy, three-ring binder with a divider for each year. Particularly important documents can be tagged with bright sticky notes so that you can find them easily in order to refer to them. You want copies, not originals, in your “working notebook” because you must not punch holes or make marks on your original documents, if at all possible – that’s why you store those elsewhere.

Bring your big, scary binder to each meeting until you have an IEP or 504 that you think is appropriate and complete. Over time, and with successful interactions with your school district, you will be able to retire the early information, since you won’t need to refer to it much. You can reduce your working binder to this year’s and the preceding year’s information, PLUS the complete set of standardized and special ed domain tests (and your visuals) and grades (and visuals). Remember, this is ALL current information to and from the school district and education personnel – your emails and letters, doctors’ note or letters, etc.

Do not, under any circumstances, give in to the urge to purge until your child has graduated high school, or if they have extended services to age 21, until those services expire. I guarantee you that you will never regret having collected, analyzed, and kept all this information.

Oddball Word of the Day

slumgullion (slum-GUL-yuhn): noun 1. a dish of stewed meat and vegetables, 2. any weak, watered-down soup or beverage

(from the guide to MMMW edited by Laurence Urdang)

German Idiom for Friday

die Karre aus dem Dreck ziehen (colloquial): to put things right, to sort things out

zB: Mein Arbeitskollege ist wirklich unzuverlaessig. Wenn er etwas verpfuscht, muss immer ich die Karre aus dem Dreck ziehen.

auf Englisch: My workmate is really unreliable. When he bungles something I'm always the one who has to sort things out.

(from the guide to German Idioms by JP Lupson)