Catching the kids we let fall
Teachers mend what never should have been broken.
Seattle Times staff columnist
It's almost always better to prevent a problem than to have to fix it later.
Doug LeClair tries to address reading problems in his classroom at Renton's Dimmitt Middle School, and the difficulty of that task is evident.
I've always read that schools teach reading in the early grades, then after third grade reading skills become the primary tool for learning everything else. But it doesn't happen that way for every child, and educators are trying to rescue students in middle school, high school and even college for those who get that far.
LeClair and a paraprofessional, Nancy Martin, work with students who haven't passed the reading part of the state Measurements of Student Progress, MSP. I sat in on some classes Tuesday at his invitation.
LeClair and I first communicated a few months ago after he read a column I'd written about poverty and education. He wrote because he doesn't think people know how hard teachers work to help students learn. He said all he ever reads is that schools are letting kids down.
In the classroom, he is energetic and enthusiastic, bouncing from table to table asking questions, prodding students to think analytically, methodically about what they are reading. Tuesday he had the 13 first-period students read a short article, "The Power of Niagara Falls." In their clusters of two or three, they take turns reading paragraphs aloud, helping each other past unfamiliar words.
Afterward, some have trouble identifying the main idea. LeClair asks if there were any clues, like maybe the title, or a caption under a photo of the falls that mentioned its power. Anyone who has acquired the skill knows right away, it's that the author says Niagara Falls is the most powerful falls in the world.
His students can read the words, but not all of them can pick out what's most important. It's not as natural as we might think. That's why they call it a skill; it has to be learned and practiced.
Besides teaching reading, LeClair and Martin spend a lot of time keeping order, making sure everyone is paying attention when someone speaks, and that everyone is working, not just sitting. First period is all sixth-graders and they're easier to manage in that way.
A couple of seventh-grade boys come in for special attention during second period. They are not brimming over with enthusiasm.
LeClair carries his perky style into a class of seventh- and eighth-graders in third period, but they don't all seem to respond well to it. A girl and a boy rest their heads on a table. One boy spends a lot of time just looking around the room. A girl at one table talks and sometimes sings through most of the period. But she does it relatively quietly. LeClair tells me she's having a good day, for her.
LeClair has been a teacher for nearly 23 years. The first 15 years he worked in the Snohomish School District teaching elementary school. Because of some family and job changes, he decided to switch schools eight years ago and went from what he describes as Caucasian middle-class students to a diverse mix in a school where most students are from low-income families.
"I had lots to learn and to relearn every day," he said.
The students in his classes are there for a variety of reasons. English is a new language for some; others never got a good foundation. "We get students who can't pronounce words," he said. "That still happens, and it shouldn't. "We're trying to unravel years of faulty learning," he said.
People expect too much of teachers, who have to deal with students who have so many deficits, LeClair said, and give them too little credit for their successes.
I've been guilty of that myself. I still have high expectations for schools, but I also have been influenced by the mountain of recent research on the overwhelming importance of what happens before a child reaches kindergarten.
Early intervention with parents, high-quality early education for all children, those are the keys to the best outcomes.
LeClair's class is a safety net. That's good, but helping more children avoid slipping would be better.
Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or email@example.com.
About Jerry Large
I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
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