SATURDAY, MAY 21, 2022
A, B and C, long ago: Long ago and far away, we were teaching fifth and sixth graders in the Baltimore City Schools.
We started in the fall of 1969; we left in the early 1980s. We came for the draft deferment, left because the time had come when we pretty much had to.
Along the way, we spent seven full years teaching fifth and sixth grades. We also spent two full years teaching junior high math, with time off for research endeavors.
In the grade school years, we generally taught the kids who were judged to be farthest "behind." Some of these kids really were far "behind." In some cases, we didn't know how they'd received that designation.
In some of these cases, the kids in question had already repeated one or two grades. They were fifth or sixth graders by designation, but they might be eighth graders by age—and they might be reading on (something like) "third grade level."
(You can't measure a child's "reading level" the same way you can measure her height. Also, test scores are higher today.)
These kids hadn't grown up in "high-literacy" homes. As a general matter, they hadn't had the types of reading experiences which are enjoyed by children from higher literacy homes—experiences which may begin before the new-born child even comes home from the hospital.
One of the interesting things about growing older involves the surprises you may experience as you remember the people you've known along the way. Somewhat oddly, we remember some of those fifth and sixth grade kids as some of the best people we've ever known.
In the past, we've mentioned three girls—A, B and C—who we taught for both fifth and sixth grades. By this time, we had come to believe that the best way for kids to learn to read and write was by doing a lot of reading and writing, so we would spend time, every day, just letting everybody do that, in whatever manner they chose.
Often, they were reading paperback books we had bought ourselves, generally six at a time. These were books about more mature subjects written on accessible "reading levels."
In the past, we've described some of the things we saw during those sessions. For example:
We would see A, B and C sitting together in a small circle, gravely listening to one another as they took turns reading aloud from one of these high-interest books. (A readable biography of Florence Nightingale comes to mind.)
A few years later, B asked us for help with a terrible personal matter. (As it turned out, there was nothing we could do, or at least that's what we decided.) Some years after that, A telephoned us out of the blue, telling us what was going on with other kids from that class.
When we look back on A, B and C, we can still see them sitting in their reading circle, having the kind of experience, at age 13, that other kids have at much earlier ages. Especially in the case of A and B, we think of them as two of the best people we've ever known.
It's odd to think about people so young in that way. But our memory breaks through to let us know what we actually saw way back then.
Due to our nation's brutal racial history; due to our nation's unfortunate class structure; some kids grow up having a bevy of reading experiences. Other kids do not.
Except for the kids who lose their way, they're all good, decent kids. Similar good and decent kids are found all over the world.
At the New York Times (and elsewhere), our tribe doesn't pay a lot of attention to the interests of these good, decent kids.
At the Times, they produce highly performative front-page reports about the interests of the top few percent. Good, decent kids like A, B and C rarely make the cut.
When a new mayor suggests a new plan to address the needs of those kids, the Times assigns an inexperienced non-specialist to report on the mayor's proposal. Little experience or expertise is brought to bear in reporting the new mayor's new plan.
(This isn't that young reporter's doing or fault.)
Our tribe is convinced that we're the good, decent, very smart people. The Others are known to be deplorable, irredeemable—racist, misogynist, stupid.
According to legions of major experts, this is a classic human mistake. According to experts, our brains are wired to produce such beliefs at times of tribal conflict.
How bad is the "literary crisis" the new mayor's plan is (said to be) designed to "turn around?" Also, is there any serious reason to think that the new mayor's plan could or will accomplish any such task?
At the Times, you'll never find out! The New York Times [HEART] the kids who might get into Stuyvesant High, then move on to Yale.
The Times shows every few signs of caring about kids like A, B and C.
Unless they can posture about "segregation," the New York Times doesn't ask us to think about the needs of those millions of kids. The Times likes to perform about "segregation"—and it likes kids who might end up at Yale, especially if they aren't of Asian descent.
A, B and C weren't headed for Yale! B, who is no longer living, spent her (somewhat shortened) adult life as a home health care worker.
Back when she was in sixth grade, she was eighth grade by age. She was bigger than a lot of the other kids and she was a Jehovah's Witness.
She took a lot of teasing. This badly hurt her gentle sensibility.
Also, she sat in a circle with A and C, listening gravely as three girls took turns having a series of belated reading experiences. Those three girls were very good people.
How bad is the crisis in New York City? How do kids in New York City compare to their peers from around the state of New York? To their peers from around the nation?
You'll rarely read about such boring topics in the New York Times. Next week, we'll show you the data from the 2019 Naep and we'll answer as best we can.
Our tribe doesn't much care about A, B and C. Also, very few members of our tribe are aware of this ongoing fact.