I recently read two books that don’t seem to be connected, but they are.
The first: Push. The movie “Precious” was based on this novel by Sapphire. I haven’t seen the movie; I like to read the book first. And now that I’ve read the book, I don’t want to see the movie. I’m sorry I read it. I’m sorry I read it because I don’t enjoy stories in which children get hurt. I guess in this case, arguably, it’s important for people to know that such things happen. I guess readers and or moviegoers need to be reminded not to be too quick to think ill of another human being because she’s overweight, or illiterate, or pregnant while teenaged, or unable to speak standard English, because you have no idea in which circle of hell that person has been writhing in torment. But I already knew that.
More interesting to me is the pedagogical problem presented by the overweight, illiterate, pregnant, non-standard-English-speaking teen. Precious has learned nothing in school for her whole life, because she’s been busy writhing in torment. And when you’re in high school, learning depends on being able to read. Precious can’t read or even distinguish one letter from another—a fact she hides behind the sort of behavior that might make one think ill of her.
I’ll cut to the important part. The cure for Precious’ illiteracy is this: someone teaches her to read.
I know. Duh, right? But it is not as obvious as it seems, when you are talking about one kid among many in the Educational Industrial Complex. Consider: if a widget comes off the assembly line defective, the cure would be to take it apart and reassemble the parts correctly. But the factory doesn’t work that way. Most of the widgets come out good. The conveyer belt keeps moving. More widgets are coming down the line and the workers have to keep assembling them. There is no system in place for fixing a defective widget. In fact, the system itself is an insurmountable barrier to widget fixing. Defective widgets, if they are acknowledged at all, are tossed in the trash.
High schools don’t teach kids to read. They may offer tutoring or homework help sessions, and that’s probably sufficient for the kids who need a little help. But the expectation that the student will be able to do the work at all, even with help, includes the presumption that the student can read. There is no system in place for fixing an illiterate teenager. The system itself is an insurmountable barrier to teenager fixing.
In the book, Precious winds up at an “alternative” school of last resort. She is sent there not because she can’t read (the system does not acknowledge such defects) but because she’s pregnant. There, outside the watchful eyes of the school reformers, a teacher who knows damn well that Precious can’t read or even distinguish one letter from another begins by teaching her the alphabet.
Are you still with me, friends? This is the critical point that almost no one seems to get. If you want to teach somebody something, you have to begin wherever they are. Not where you think they should be. Not where their peers are. Not where their brother was at the same age. This is true of everyone, young or old, gifted or typical or cognitively impaired. This is why large-group instruction is so often disastrous. This is why my husband can’t teach me how to use the ever-increasing collection of household gadgets—he can’t see or just can’t accept my starting point. Before you can teach someone from where they are, you have to figure out where, exactly, that is. Ninety percent of what matters is what you do before you begin.
The high school teachers couldn’t teach Precious anything. Her starting point was too far away for them to reach. There’s no go-back-and-fix-it mechanism on an individual level.
Now I’ve used up my blogging time and never got to the second book I wanted to tell you about.