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WHY RUBEN CAN’T READ! Today, we ask a basic question: Did Ruben ever have science books? // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, MARCH 30, 2006

MORE ON THIS BIZARRE TIME: Yesterday, we commented on Monday’s New York Times report about the 1/31/03 meeting between President Bush and Prime Minister Blair. Quoting a detailed memorandum about the meeting by Blair aide David Manning, Don Van Natta describes a peculiar suggestion which Manning attributed to by Bush:
VAN NATTA (3/27/06): The memo also shows that the president and the prime minister acknowledged that no unconventional weapons had been found inside Iraq. Faced with the possibility of not finding any before the planned invasion, Mr. Bush talked about several ways to provoke a confrontation, including a proposal to paint a United States surveillance plane in the colors of the United Nations in hopes of drawing fire, or assassinating Mr. Hussein.

Those proposals were first reported last month in the British press, but the memo does not make clear whether they reflected Mr. Bush's extemporaneous suggestions, or were elements of the government's plan.

This account of this plan to “provoke a confrontation” has been widely reported. But as we noted yesterday, we haven’t seen anyone try to explain the logic of this proposal. How was this plan supposed to work? Frankly, we were baffled (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/29/06).

We’ve received ideas from several readers. For the record, about half our suggestions go something like this:

“The logic of the proposal? I thought you said it came from Bush!”
Easy to be hard! On the other hand, we’ve received several responses which do seem to outline a possible logic—including a logic we wouldn’t have thought of. We’ve asked for a bit of clarification, and we’ll post tomorrow if things pan out. But we’ll continue to stand with Peter Daou. On the surface, this strikes us as a remarkable memo—and it’s getting absolutely no play.

MORE DETAILS: Here’s a later part of Van Natta’s report which returns to the paint-job proposal:

VAN NATTA: Without much elaboration, the memo also says the president raised three possible ways of provoking a confrontation. Since they were first reported last month, neither the White House nor the British government has discussed them.

''The U.S. was thinking of flying U2 reconnaissance aircraft with fighter cover over Iraq, painted in U.N. colours,'' the memo says, attributing the idea to Mr. Bush. ''If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach.''

It also described the president as saying, ''The U.S. might be able to bring out a defector who could give a public presentation about Saddam's W.M.D,'' referring to weapons of mass destruction.

A brief clause in the memo refers to a third possibility, mentioned by Mr. Bush, a proposal to assassinate Saddam Hussein. The memo does not indicate how Mr. Blair responded to the idea.

In theory, how would that U-2 paint job have worked? We may have suggestions tomorrow.

Special report—Why Ruben can’t read!

VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Why is Ruben a below-level reader? Read each part of our series:

Part 1: Ruben takes reading class three times a day! See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/27/06.

Part 2: What is Ruben actually reading? Or is just doing cheap drills? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/28/06.

Part 3: Are there signs that Ruben is learning? See THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/29/06.

Today, in Part 4, we wonder about the way Ruben was taught in the past:

PART 4—DID RUBEN EVER HAVE SCIENCE BOOKS: We’ll start with a recollection—a recollection from the seventh year that we taught fifth grade here in Baltimore. (We also had some sixth-graders that year—kids we taught for two years.)

By this time, we had gained a fair amount of experience teaching deserving, delightful kids who happened to come from low-literacy backgrounds—kids who had had a fairly tough time in school, right from the earliest grades. In fact, we were teaching a lot of kids who were reading at second- or third-grade level. (Some of them, having repeated a grade or two, were seventh- or eighth-graders by age.) By now, we had come to see that the Standard Old Drills didn’t always do a lot for these kids. And we had learned to run a classroom fairly well; this meant that we could try approaches we couldn’t have managed before.

And by now, we understood something quite basic—routinely, kids who are years “behind” are asked to read books which they simply can’t read. Because we were tired of watching kids fail, we had spent a lot of time (and money) searching for books which were more appropriate—books which would interest 12-year-old kids, but were written at a level our students could handle. We’d buy five or six paperback copies of such fare, then cover them in clear plastic and make them available. Some of those high-interest books were biographies. One was a biography of Frederick Douglass, the brilliant-beyond-brilliant historical figure who had come of age right in this city.

Two recollections:

First, we recall three girls (call them B, L and P) sitting together on little chairs, taking turns politely reading these books aloud to each other. (The chairs seemed little because two of the girls were fairly large; they were junior-high kids by age.) Doing this might have struck them as babyish, but they clearly took delight in what they were doing. Our impression? Their middle-class peers had sat in such circles, reading books aloud to each other, when they were in the earliest grades. (Often, they had done this at home; these kids hadn’t.) Now, even at their relatively advanced ages, B, L and P were politely proceeding, doing something they hadn’t done at the “normal” juncture. Our general impression? Often, kids who are “behind” in reading get pushed ahead too fast in school. As a result, they experience constant confusion. They never really get the chance to just sit there and sort it all out. Yes, these girls were doing this a few years “late.” But in the process, they were becoming real readers.

Second recollection: During the bicentennial year (1976), we somehow got ourselves hooked up with pen pals in a Los Angeles grade school. As it turned out, this school was in the Westwood section; some of our pals turned out to be the children of UCLA professors. At one point, one of our read-aloud girls (call her P) wrote her pen pal to tell her that she was reading that bio of Frederick Douglass. Since this book was written on an easy-ish level, we wondered what the kid in L.A. would think if she looked at the book in the library. But her letter came back, and we’ve never forgotten it. “You must be very proud,” she wrote, “to be growing up a in a city where a great man like Frederick Douglass once lived.”

Those three girls sat there and read fairly easy books, as their middle-class peers had done earlier. And as they did so, they were turning into readers—years too late, but readers all the same. They plainly enjoyed their time together, and they kept wanting to do it again. And this brings us back to Ruben Jiminez, who probably wouldn’t have wanted to sit there and read those books aloud with those girls. In fact, he likely would have preferred to torment them; as we learn from Sam Dillon’s report in the New York Times, Ruben wants to chop up a frog, as many boys do at his age:

DILLON (3/28/06): Ruben Jimenez, a seventh grader whose father is a construction laborer, has a schedule typical of many students at the school, with six class periods a day, not counting lunch.

Ruben studies English for the first three periods, and pre-algebra and math during the fourth and fifth. His sixth period is gym. How does he enjoy taking only reading and math, a recent visitor asked.

''I don't like history or science anyway,” Ruben said. But a moment later, perhaps recalling something exciting he had heard about lab science, he sounded ambivalent.

''It'd be fun to dissect something,'' he said.

Ruben said he doesn’t like science—but it would be fun to dissect a frog. And any teacher would know where to take that. You’d want to give him a book about frogs—and if he read that one, you’d give him another. (If he read the twelfth book, you’d go for thirteen.) And if his school had an organized science curriculum, you’d probably give him a reading assignment about what he had seen when he did his dissection, from some part of his science textbook. Duh: Traditionally, science class has been one of the places where middle-class children learn how to read. Science class has always been a place to gain reading skills and experience.

Why can’t kids like Ruben read very well? In part, here’s why (we’ve explained it before): If Ruben was several years “behind” by the third or fourth grade, it would have gotten harder and harder for his teacher to give him those books about frogs—to give him real reading experiences. Books which are written on second-grade level are usually written for second-grade kids; it’s hard to find books which will interest kids like Ruben written in ways he can understand. And, because finding such books gets progressively harder, the kid who needs reading experience the most end up getting it the least. We described this process long ago in the Baltimore Evening Sun. We’ll bore you with that again:

SOMERBY (2/9/82): [I]n grade after grade, for topic after topic, [Baltimore teaching] guides recommend textbooks which are clearly too difficult for most city students to work from—books which are completely inappropriate for children who may be several years below traditional grade level in reading.

In the first semester of fourth grade, for example, the two most commonly cited textbooks are Daniel Chu’s “A Glorious Age in Africa”—a textbook with a measured eighth-grade reading level—and Frederick King’s “The Social Studies and Our Country”—Laidlaw’s sixth-grade textbook.

Few fourth graders anywhere will be able to profit from textbooks as difficult as these. In an urban system like Baltimore’s, this selection is particularly surprising—and dooms any attempt to teach the social studies curriculum in a rigorous, systematic way.

As we’ve said, few systems will have courses of study as problematic as Baltimore’s was. But as we continued, we described the way poor readers were getting poorer. We’ll guess that this sort of thing still occurs in most systems which teach kids like Ruben:
SOMERBY: The results of this situation are all too predictable. Baltimore teachers find it difficult—indeed, impossible—to find readable textbooks with which social studies and science can be taught to their numerous below-level readers. The result may be that such children are not taught social studies and science at all.
Most likely, it would have been hard for Ruben’s teachers to find those readable books about frogs. And we’d love to know if King Junior High actually owns seventh-grade science textbooks which children like Ruben can actually handle. Does anyone want to place a small bet about what the answer might be?

Ruben says he doesn’t like science (although he likes frogs)—and Ruben isn’t a very good reader. Here are questions we would ask about the way he’s been taught:

Questions:
When Ruben was in the third and fourth grades, were his classrooms full of appropriate library books—books he could actually read and learn from? Could his teacher give him books about frogs?

When Ruben was in the third and fourth grades, did his classes have science textbooks he could actually read and understand?

If Ruben were placed in a science class at King Junior High, would the school have any textbooks he could actually read and understand?

When kids like Ruben took science at King in the past, did they get regular reading experience? Or was it all filmstrips and yakking?

Somewhat oddly, Ruben doesn’t take science or history; instead, he takes reading three times a day. This is odd, because science and history have always provided the subjects (Frederick Douglass and frogs) which kids are inspired to read about. But what’s happening in Ruben’s three reading classes? We don’t know; Dillon didn’t say in his front-page report. But if Ruben is sitting in those classes, suffering through three hours of “drills,” we’ll guess that, in part, it’s for the reasons we laid out in the Evening Sun long ago. In our day, kids got cheated out of reading experience every day because there were no science/social studies books they could handle. This was how the poor got poorer. We’ll guess this: If Dillon checks into how Ruben has been taught, he might find it’s like that today.

Did Ruben ever have science books? Did he ever get normal reading experiences? The problem we’re discussing here is correctable. But uh-oh! We’ve tended to ignore this correctable problem for the past—how many?—years.