Free Schools
..free.gif....
by Jonathan Kozol 
Chapter 6
Hard Skills: Reading: Bad Jargon
and Unexamined Slogans
 
 
More Free Schools go to pieces over the questi n of the "teaching of hard skills" - and the teaching of reading, in particular - than over any other issue that I know. I would like to try, within this section, to say what I have come to believe in this regard. In the back pages of this book I will give leads for those who may, in differing degrees, support or take exception to my views. In my own experience, within the cities and in the suburbs, too, there are often as many as ten or fifteen children out of twenty-five or thirty who learn to read in much the same way that they learn to tell time, navigate the streets of their own neighborhood, or talk and play games with each other. It seems self-evident that for these children a rigid and regular process of repetitive instruction, such as any formal reading method generally entails, is just a total waste of time and only tends to mechanize and to devitalize the child's sense of words as symbols of his own life and of his own imagination and creative powers. I say this so that the rest of what I say will not be misconstrued.
 
The rest is this: For an awful lot of children, for as many as one quarter or one half of the children in a Free School situation, it is both possible and necessary to go about the teaching of reading in a highly conscious, purposeful, and sequential manner. This is the kind of square and "rigorous" statement that you do not often hear within the Free Schools. It is, however, the sort of thing that needs very much to be emphasized right now, because there has been too much uncritical adherence in this movement to the unexamined notion that you can't teach anything. It is just not true that the best teacher is the grown-up who most successfully pretends that he knows nothing. It is not true, either, that the best answer to the blustering windbag teacher of the old-time public school is the Free School teacher who attempts to turn himself into the human version of an inductive fan.
 
To keep the record clear, and in order that my own views will not be misunderstood, I believe today as strongly as I did in 1964 that all education should be "child-centered," "open-structured," "individualized," and "unoppressive." It is on this basis that we carried out our struggles for reform within the Boston public schools. It is also on this basis that we set out to begin our own schools. There is no question now of turning back to a more circumspect position. There ts a question, however, about the ways in which some of the people who first come into the context of the Free Schools often seek to force their newfound orthodoxies in between the teeth and down the throats of black and Spanish-speaking children and their mothers and their fathers. Many of the young white people who come into Free Schools straight from college are incredibly dogmatic and, ironically, "manipulative" in their determination to coerce the parents of poor children to accept their notions about non-coercive education. In Thomas Powers's book about Bill Ayers and Diana Oughton, there are some interesting passages on this subject. Ayers was the founder and one of the central figures in one of the original Free Schools in this country: a school that he started in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1966. The school went to pieces for a number of reasons but, most of all, according to Powers, on the old issue of the teaching of hard skills. "The single most important failing of the school, and the one on which it foundered in the end," as Powers writes, "was the fact that no one learned to read there."
 
Ayers believed, according to the standard jargon, that the children would "ask" someone to teach them to read as soon as they "really wanted" to read. In the three years of the school's life, Powers says, "that time never seemed to arrive." In another pasage, Powers makes the observation that the life of the school ended on a bitter note, partly because of the official harassment that had plagued the school but, more important, because of rejection by the blacks. Ayers and his friends were committed to helping the black children, but "rejected the terms on which the black parents wanted their children to be helped." Later on, people would tend to blame the school's collapse on the harassment of public officials. In fact, however, the school failed because parents were taking out their children.
 
The process here, in all its details, seems to me a classic sequence. White men and women who come in to teach and work alongside black and Spanish people in the kinds of small, committed, and exciting Free Schools that I have in mind, have got to exercise their ideologies and their ideals in dramatically different ways depending on the situation they are in and to perceive these differences with great sophistication. It is a bitter pill for many young white people to accept, but in a large number of cases those rewards and skills and areas of expertise many of us consider rotten and corrupt and hopelessly contaminated remain attractive and, in certain situations, irresistible to poor people.
 
It is, moreover, often a case not of material greed but of material survival. There's not a lot a poor young kid fourteen years old can do in cities like New York or Boston if he cannot read and write enough to use the telephone directory or to understand a telegram or to read a street sign. It is, too often, the rich white kids who speak three languages with native fluency, at the price of sixteen years of high-cost, rigorous, and sequential education, who are the most determined that poor kids should make clay vases, weave Indian headbands, play with Polaroid cameras, climb over geodesic domes.
 
It is not necessary, in speaking about reading, to adhere to either of two irresponsible positions. It is as much an error to say that learning is never the consequence of conscious teaching as it is to imagine that it always is. The second error belongs most often to the public schools: the first to many of the Free Schools. The truth of the matter is that you can teach reading. Lots of people do. I have taught children to read on a number of occasions, and I have done this in situations where they very likely would not have learned to read for several years if I had not assumed a clear initiative. George
Dennison has done the same. So too have the teachers and the parents of the Highland Park Free School. So too have the people at the Southern School out in Chicago. It is true, as I have said above, that it is frequently not necessary. Where it is not necessary, it is obviously ill-advised. Where it is necessary, but where the in name of joy and freedom it is not undertaken, then I believe the mothers and fathers have very good reason for their anger.
 
Many of those children who enter the Free Schools after a number of years already spent in public school come to identify the printed word with so many painful and intimidating memories that they are, in a sense, shell-shocked and numb in any situation that has to do with books and with black ink. The consequence of this, especially if it should be the situation of a child who is already ten or twelve or, as in cases that I know, fourteen years old, is a complete avoidance of all contact, all possibilities, and all inclinations in the direction of a piece of written matter. The child is often almost literally "frozen" in regard to reading. If he is ingenious and sophisticated, as many of the fourteen-year-old street kids in the South End are, he may be able to disguise his fear of words to a degree that will successfully deceive the young white teachers. "He's beautiful," as the young utopian volunteers will characteristically remark. "He just likes cinema and weaving more than books. When he's ready for books . . . when he senses his own organic need . . . he'll let us know."
 
The horrible part of this is that the volunteers in question really mean this and, moreover, often believe it with a dedication that denies all possibility for self-correction. I have seen this happen sometimes four or five years in a row. Children can get messed up very badly by that foolish and insistent obviation of the simple truth that they are in real trouble. It is too much like looking into the windows of a mental hospital and making maniacal observations on the beautiful silence of the catatonic patients. Children who are psychologically shell-shocked in regard to reading are not "beautiful" and are not in the midst of some exquisite process of "organic" growth. They are often in real trouble; they are, in the most simple and honest terms, kids who just can't do a damn thing in the kinds of cities that we live in. There must be a million unusual, non-manipulative but highly conscious ways of going about the task of freeing children from this kind of misery. There is only one thing that is unpardonable. This is to sit and smile in some sort of cloud of mystical, wide-eyed, nondirective, and inscrutable meditation - and do nothing.
 
In the back section of this book there are a number of specific references on reading. Many good ideas are offered inThe Lives of Cbildren, by George Dennison [q.v.]. In the now familiar and, by now, somewhat dated books of Sylvia Ashton-Warner there are several ideas that I have found successful. James Herndon and Herbert Kohl both make a number of specific recommendations about reading. I have had the most success with a combination of approaches: in one case even making profitable use of a square, sequential, rather rigorous, old-fashioned phonics method, but tying it in with a lot of intense and good discussions about the struggles and the needs and longings that the kids in question lived with in their homes and in their neighborhoods. From these discussions came many of the words that seemed to the children to be most highly charged with intellectual voltage or with a kind of sensual exhilaration. Certainly words like sex and cops and cash and speed and Eldorado are likely to awaken the interest of the fourteen-year-old children I know a good deal quicker than postman and grandmother and briefcase. I also find that many children who think they cannot read and must begin from zero are excited to find that GTO, GM, GE, or even CBS-TV are, at the same time, words and letters that they already understand quite well: indeed, so well they do not think they have the right to call this reading.
 
Some of these ideas are elaborated in much greater depth, and within the context of a logical sequence and consistent pedagogic framework, in the very important books and essays by the Brazilian scholar Paulo Freire. It is difficult to summarize Freire's position and his practice in a single sentence or in a single phrase. The heart of his approach, however, has to do with the recognition and identification - on the part of the learner - of a body of words that is associated with the most intense and potentially explosive needs and yearnings in his own existence. Freire speaks of these as "generative" words: first, because they generate the thirst, the love, the passion, the motivation of the learner; second, because out of these words - out of their syllables and phonic units - new words can then be generated. It is not clear to me or my co-workers that Freire's views can be applied in direct fashion to our situation here in Boston or New York; for one thing, much of his approach is tied to methods of syllabication that are workable in Portuguese and Spanish, less so in English. The ideological and pedagogic basis of his method is, however, brilliantly adaptable and is ideally suited to our situation and our struggle.
 
Freire's writings are listed in the back pages of this book. They are, to me, among the most intelligent and inspired unteers will characteristically remark. "He just likes cinema and weaving more than books. When he's ready for books . . . when he senses his own organic need he'll let us know."
 
The horrible part of this is that the volunteers in question really mean this and, moreover, often believe it with a dedication that denies all possibility for self-correction. I have seen this happen sometimes four or five years in a row. Children can get messed up very badly by that foolish and insistent obviation of the simple truth that they are in real trouble. It is too much like looking into the windows of a mental hospital and making maniacal observations on the beautiffil silence of the catatonic patients. Children who are psychologically shefl-shocked in regard to reading are not "beautiffil" and are not in the midst of some exquisite process of "organic" growth. They are often in real trouble; they are, in the most simple and honest terms, kids who just can't do a damn thing in the kinds of cities that we live in. There must be a million unusual, nonmanipulative but highly conscious ways of going about the task of freeing children from this kind of misery. There is only one thing that is unpardonable. This is to sit and smile in some sort of cloud of mystical, wide-eyed, nondirective, and inscrutable meditation-and do nothing.
 
In the back section of this book there are a number of specific references on reading. Many good ideas are offered in The Lives of Cbildren, by George Dennison. In the now familiar and, by now, somewhat dated books of Sylvia Ashton-Warner there are several ideas that I have found successful. James Herndon and Herbert Kohl both make a number of specific recommendations about reading. I have had the most success with a combination of approaches: in one case even making profitable use of a square, sequential, rather rigorous, old-fashioned phonics method, but tying it in with a lot of intense and good discussions about the struggles and the needs and longings that the kids in question lived with in their homes and in their neighborhoods. From these discussions came many of the words that seemed to the children to be most highly charged with intellectual voltage or with a kind of sensual exhilaration. Certainly words like sex and cops and cash and speed and Eldorado are likely to awaken the interest of the fourteen-year-old children I know a good deal quicker thanpostman andgrandmotber and briefcase. I also find that many children who think they cannot read and must begin from zero are excited to find that GTO, GM, GE, or even CBS-TV are, at the same time, words and letters that they already understand quite well: indeed, so well they do not think they have the right to call this reading.
 
Some of these ideas are elaborated in much greater depth, and within the context of a logical sequence and consistent pedagogic framework, in the very important books and essays by the Brazilian scholar Paulo Freire. It is difficult to summarize Freire's position and his practice in a single sentence or in a single phrase. The heart of his approach, however, has to do with the recognition and identification-on the part of the learner--of a body of words that is associated with the most intense and potentially explosive needs and yearnings in his own existence. Freire speaks of these as "generative" words: first, because they generate the thirst, the love, the passion, the motivation of the learner; second, because out of these words--out of their syllables and phonic units-new words can then be generated. It is not clear to me or my coworkers that Freire's views can be applied in direct fashion to our situation here in Boston or New York; for one thing, much of his approach is tied to methods of syllabication that are workable in Portuguese and Spanish, less so in English. The ideological and pedagogic basis of his method is, however, brilliantly adaptable and is ideally suited to our situation and our struggle.
 
Freire's writings are listed in the back pages of this book. They are, to me, among the most intelligent and inspired writings that I know within the field of education and of reading in particular. His methods are, of course, inherently political in their character. I do not believe that they can be applied without immediate repercussions in the public school. They are, however, ideal materials for discussion and for possible application in the Free Schools.
 
Back to the bookstore.