The three R's: reading, writing, and arithmetic. Well, okay, only one of them starts with an "R," but you get it. These are the basic skills that every child should carry away after twelve-plus years in school, right? But I'm not so sure that they're touted or taught as much as they should be anymore. Okay, you know what? I know they're not.
I have a friend who is a retired English teacher, and her grandson needed a little help on his essay for his college application. I don't know what prompted him to ask her for help. After all, he'd already had a conference with his English teacher about his essay, and she signed off on it. Thank goodness something told him it wasn't quite right. My friend was shocked when she read it. "Now, it's not an AP English class," she said, as if that should excuse it.
I don't care what kind of English class it is: if you're preparing high school seniors for entrance into college, they should at least be able to write a solid essay. His was full of platitudes and clichés. After the opening sentence, there was nothing original in it, certainly nothing that would make him stand out as exceptional. He's a bright kid, full of excitement and energy, which he should have been able to impart – and which his teacher should have encouraged. Yet it was his grandmother's guidance that finally helped him write a great essay.
So I've been mulling over that, wondering where the problem lies. I remember my first college writing course, where everyone was a freshman, and at seventeen, I was the youngest by at least a year. A week or so in, my teacher grew so frustrated with how ignorant most of the class was that she gave us a quiz on basic things that every American high school graduate should know, and not just limited to writing. Questions from the names of certain presidents to the years of the Civil War to what the color white symbolizes in our culture and on and on – and the majority of students failed. I looked around, wondering what in the world was wrong with my classmates. What made me different?
I majored in English, and many people assumed that that meant I was going to teach English. That never made sense to me; if I wanted to teach, I would have gotten a degree in education because there's a lot more to running a classroom than knowing how to punctuate properly. In any case, I had many fellow English major classmates who planned to do just that. One girl, who was very sweet and wrote compelling stories, could not spell or punctuate her way out of a paper bag. And she told me proudly in her last semester that she had already been hired as an English teacher for the next year in a local high school. I cringed and told myself that I would never send whatever future children I had to that school.
Now, if you are a teacher, before you get your panties in a wad, I do understand that there are a great many of you who are excellent at what you do. Your vocation truly is a calling, and many children are blessed to have you in their lives. Some of you are in my family, and I know you have great gifts. You can't help it that some of your peers have no business working alongside you.
Nor do I think this problem is only in public schools in troubled neighborhoods. There are plenty of charter or private schools or public schools with very active PTAs who turn kids out into a world for which they are grossly under-prepared. My son attends an excellent independent school, where he gets lots of individual attention, but some of the other parents assume that if they're paying so much for their children's educations, they don't need to do anything at home.
It's complacency that we're fighting here, folks. Although the schools that hire the unqualified teachers and the schools that gave them their sub-par education to begin with share a lot of the blame, education has to start at home. Think about the days before school was compulsory. Read some of the writings of people in our nation's infancy. These were people who had to help their parents run a farm or a general store, but those same parents knew that, if nothing else, their children had to be able to read, write, and know at least the basics of math to get by in the world. Think about Abraham Lincoln, who had little opportunity for a formal education. Yet every child in the US now has access to full-time education, and more of them than ever are leaving the system ill-prepared for the most basic tasks.
As a writer, it is painful for me to see how poorly other people write. Shouldn't this be one of the first things we learn? Why are we bothering with all these ridiculous standardized tests, when the focus should be elsewhere? I take on a number of paid projects (which I appreciate, don't get me wrong) that anyone with a high school diploma should be able to accomplish. And as a bookkeeper, the math end of it bothers me, too. When I go to the store and owe $19.26, then pay $20.26 so I can get a one-dollar bill back, you would be surprised at how many cashiers scratch their heads. Really? This is about as easy as it gets. What would they do if their cash registers broke?
So this has turned into a rant. Sorry about that, but I am passionate about raising a nation of competent people. You may be wondering if I'm going to go on all day or if I might actually have some practical solutions. Well, I do. If you care as much as I do, read on.
• Read to your kids. This isn't hard. Even for busy, working parents, picking a short book to read before bed every night is an easy habit to get into and one that brings the whole family together, even if only for five minutes.
• Read road signs. Even if your child just knows the basics of the alphabet, it will be a fun game to find every letter A or B or Q on the way to and from wherever it is you have to go.
• Write with your children. It is never too early to teach grammar, punctuation, and syntax. My kindergartener can write simple sentences. He has a few sight words that he already knows. For instance, he can write "I see a" and then sound out the rest. Last night he wrote, "I see a truck," and we sounded out "truck" together. Once little things like these click, you will be surprised how quickly they pick up the rest. And when they succeed at something, they enjoy doing it.
• Teach your kids how to count money. I do this with my son when he has his own money and wants to buy something. It's also a great lesson for when your kids have a little spending money and need to learn limits. Show them how to read price tags and figure out what they can afford.
• Volunteer in a local school. This is a great one because anyone can do it. You may not have kids, or your kids may be grown and out of the house. Wherever you live, I am sure there is a local school full of kids who are hungry for that one-on-one attention. Just giving emotional support can help boost their performance in class, and then you can move on to the academics.
•Check out Starfall.com. I absolutely love this site, and your kids will think they're just playing computer games. It has everything: colors, numbers, letters, vowels, spelling games, and all sorts of activities that teachers use in the classroom. And unlike a lot of pre-school sites, you don't have to pay to use it. If you buy a year-long subscription, you will have access to more, but there's plenty to do there for free.
• For older kids, encourage them to start a writer's group. And this isn't just for future writers. I grew up with a kid who thought it was fun to research and write about different countries. That was his thing. He was interested in different cultures, so although he wasn't writing for the sake of writing, he wrote because it was about something that interested him. They could focus on reptiles or earth science or even sports. Then have a parent or older friend read over the reports or stories to give constructive criticism. And guess what? There are excellent publications written for and by kids out there. They can submit their writings or art Highlights (any age) or CRICKET Magazine (age 14 and up). Think of the boost it would give your child to see his or her hard work printed in an actual magazine.
See? It's not all negative after all. But if we don't take these small steps to encourage our kids, we're letting them down, and they'll miss so much. Don't sit back and wait for school to do its magic – the magic begins with a little push from you.