Sunday, September 12, 2004

Lessons of 9/11

As 9/11 slips into history (there were memorials yesterday,
sure, but mostly it was business-as-usual around town and on the airwaves)
let us pause and examine a few telling moments before we turn the page.

The accounts of that morning now famously show the president in an elementary
school classroom during a reading lesson.  He is sitting uncomfortably
on a tiny second-grade chair at the front of the room.  Adults who
don’t work in early elementary always look uncomfortable in those chairs,
so his demeanor at this point is typical.

The president is shown a book and he holds it as the teacher conducts
the lesson. The title of the book is almost always given as My Pet Goat.That’s
what Michael Moore calls it in his film that uses footage of the school
visit.  But on this point Moore is apparently wrong.  According
to The
New Yorker
(7/26/04) it is a workbook called "The Pet Goat".

This was uncovered, as so many news items seem to be these days, by
a sharp-eyed blogger, in this case href="">Peter Smith
who was puzzled about why no one seemed to be able to locate
the book on Amazon.  He watched the classroom footage and saw the
teacher leading the students in a stylized drill.

Interestingly it turns out that "The Pet Goat" it is not a proper children's
book at all (any author interested in children and in storytelling would
call her book My Pet Goat).  It is a rote "delivery system"
for drill and practice which is part of the Direct
phonics program, one of the “research based” models endorsed
by No Child Left Behind
The terme d'art for this type of program is "Teacher Proof".

A rear-eschelon action in the Culture Wars, played out in rooms with
tiny chairs and little academic status, the Reading Wars are nonetheless
hard fought and empassioned (and when Federal dollars are invlolved, as
they most certainly are in NCLB, worth a fair chunk of change). On one
side, reading is a "skill" best developed by repeated drills.  Content
is no more important than the programmed words strung together for the
nameless protagonists in "The Pet Goat":

A girl got a pet goat. She liked to go running with her pet goat.
She played with her goat in her house. She played with her goat in her
yard. But the goat did some things that made the girl's dad mad. The goat
ate things. He ate cans and he ate canes. He ate pans and he ate panes.
He even ate capes and caps. One day her dad said, "that goat must go. He
ate too many things." The girl said, "dad if you let the goat stay with
us, I will see that he stops eating all those things." Her dad said he
will try it. . . .

Do you hear an echo of our leader's odd syntax in that last line?

The other side fights for autonomy, engagement and "higher-order thinking"
(gathering evidence, constructing and evaluating arguments, making decisions). 
Kids will want to read if reading is enjoyable and useful to them.

Now run the classroom footage forward.  See the president's aide
come in and whisper the news that we are under attack,  Watch the
president and tell me, is it important to be able to think things through,
to draw on what you know and make decisions?

And before we leave the school, let's look at the last shocking footage. 
President Bush makes his first announcement of 9/11 with the young children
arranged around him as props. (Doesn't Jesus in the Bible have some pretty
strong warning about scandalizing little ones?) That no one had enough
sense to alter the planned “photo-op” to spare the children and reflect
the gravity of the unfolding situation tells us all we need to know about
our leaders and their priorities.


Blogger Cranky Liberal said...

What a great way to illustrate one of the fundamental flaws with the current

2:48 PM  

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