Nicholas Kristof schools Rich: How do children learn to read? More broadly, how do kids become literate?
In yesterday morning's New York Times, Nicholas Kristof gave a good answer. Along the way, he explained a point we discussed not long ago. He explained how a child's "socioeconomic status" is about more than mere economics.
In a lovely and instructive column, Kristof described his relationship with his 18-year-old daughter. They do a lot of backpacking together. Literacy can start like this:
KRISTOF (5/26/16): My parents took me backpacking beginning when I was about 7, and my wife and I took our three children on overnight hikes as soon as they could toddle.What does that have to do with literacy? Kristof and his daughter were conjuring, talking! He was listening to the things she said. Such talking can lead on to this:
Don’t tell Child Protective Services, but when my daughter was 4, I took her on an overnight trip on Oregon’s Eagle Creek Trail, carrying her most of the first day on my shoulders, on top of my backpack. The next morning, I bribed her: If she would walk by herself all 13 miles back to the car, I would buy her a spectacular ice cream in the nearest town.
So we set off for the car. At every rest stop, we conjured that ice cream and how cold it would be, and, fortified, we trundled on down the trail beside glorious waterfalls. When we reached the car, we were both proud of her heroism, and she beamed tiredly as I buckled her into her car seat.
When we arrived at an ice cream shop 20 minutes later, she was fast asleep. I couldn’t wake her.
KRISTOF (continuing directly): Thus began our hiking partnership, sometimes undertaken with the whole family, sometimes just the two of us. At home we’re all busy, but on the trail we’re beyond cellphone coverage or email reach and we’re stuck with each other.Kristof and his daughter are reading a novel together this year. We'll guess there was reading on the trail when his daughter was younger.
So we talk. Even as we’re disconnected, we reconnect. And on rest breaks and at night, camping under the stars, we read aloud to each other: On this trip, my daughter and I have been reading Adam Johnson’s brilliant Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Orphan Master’s Son,” and talking about what it means.
No self-respecting teenage girl would normally allow her dad to read to her, but out in the wilderness, it’s a bond we share.
This is one of the ways parents from higher-literacy backgrounds pass the culture of literacy along to their lucky-duck children. For many years, sensible people have been looking for ways to help parents from lower-literacy backgrounds understand how much help they can give their kids by engaging them in the ways described in Kristof's column.
Many parents may not know that they should talk to, listen to, and read with their kids. When William Raspberry retired from the Washington Post, he returned to his Mississippi home town to start a program called Baby Steps, a program designed to teach local parents how to convey the culture of literacy to their kids.
(For our first post about Baby Steps, click here.)
Many times, kids from lower-literacy families don't get the same advantages other children do. We aren't talking about material goods; we're talking about the advantages that are conveyed when children are listened, spoken and read to.
Raspberry was looking for ways to convey those advantages to lower-SES kids. When we read Motoko Rich's recent report in the New York Times, we were surprised by the tone she adopted, in which it almost seemed she was urging resentment against those kinds of advantages.
Without any question, higher-SES parents have always conveyed these advantages to their children. That said, consider the dark, crabbed way Rich described this ancient process:
RICH (5/3/16): Why racial achievement gaps were so pronounced in affluent school districts is a puzzling question raised by the data. Part of the answer might be that in such communities, students and parents from wealthier families are constantly competing for ever more academic success. As parents hire tutors, enroll their children in robotics classes and push them to solve obscure math problems, those children keep pulling away from those who can’t afford the enrichment.That was a weirdly dark and resentful picture of the way the culture of literacy gets conveyed to kids.
“Our high-end students who are coming in are scoring off the charts,” said Jeff Nash, executive director of community relations for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools.
The school system is near the flagship campus of the University of North Carolina, and 30 percent of students in the schools qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, below the national average.
The wealthier students tend to come from families where, “let’s face it, both the parents are Ph.D.s, and that kid, no matter what happens in the school, is pressured from kindergarten to succeed,” Mr. Nash said. “So even though our minority students are outscoring minority students in other districts near us, there is still a bigger gap here because of that.”
In Rich's portrait, no one is walking and talking with their children, then reading novels with them. In Rich's portrait, students and parents from wealthier families are constantly competing for ever more academic success.
Kids are being pushed to solve obscure math problems. No matter what happens in the school, the kids are pressured from kindergarten to succeed!
Rich painted a very dark portrait of the way kids are helped to become more literate. Raspberry wanted to pull less advantaged kids up. Increasingly, the mindset found in that portrait by Rich suggests pulling everyone down. In the process, the New York Times suggests its street-fighting class solidarity, indeed its moral greatness!
At any rate, SES isn't all about economics. SES is also about the McGarrigles' "Walking Song."
One of the greatest lyrics ever: "I'll show you houses of architectural renown..."