What Literacy?

What Literacy?

Teaching, or Not, in a Business-Driven Digital Era

by Brian D. Sadie

Cambridge Public Schools underwent yet another misguided shuffle under Superintendent Jeff Young. One school survived fairly well. The others tend to suffer confused administration and poor resource allocation. Foreign language instruction is, without spoken practice, books or audio-visual materials, effectively non-existent. When permitted outside at all, children get ten minutes’ recess. Lunch is equally rushed. But maybe the worst of Mr. Young’s innovations is his enforced method of teaching.

I saw a seventh-grader’s homework after grading at a Cambridge school in need of competent direction. Twelve of thirteen answers were misspelled, grammatically incorrect, or unclear. None of the errors had been noted, let alone corrected, by the teacher, who had given an A-plus. I marked the paper with notes and corrections and asked the child to return it for checking. The teacher refused.

I looked at more material from that school. Regardless of subject, homework was often poorly-written and unclear: instructions frequently contained egregious errors – more than bad grammar, these included incorrect word use. Having met the administration and teachers at that school, I knew many enunciated poorly but also didn’t speak English correctly or well. The few that did only taught English, part-time, to children with special needs.

I asked the principal about insuring that teachers note and correct all mistakes but he insisted it was not their job to do so. He claimed that teachers are responsible only for noting incorrect answers in their field. For example, he said, math teachers don’t need to write well. When I suggested that one is expected to be competent at writing, providing instruction, and identifying and correcting mistakes, he said again that it wasn’t the teacher’s responsibility but the parents’. He added that grades at his school are based on student effort, anyway.

Literacy is defined as the ability to read and write, and that refers to competence or knowledge, meaning that understanding what is read and knowing how to write correctly and well are necessary to be literate. Unfortunately, many educational administrators, teachers, business folks, and politicians today promote notions heedless of critical thinking, understanding, and clear communication. Theirs is a literacy graded only by pasting web snippets into a PowerPoint report or slapping together an amateur video. Language, both spoken and written, is frequently hackneyed at best, garbled as the lack of thought or comprehension giving rise to it.

Since teachers have a major role in children’s deciding what’s acceptable or right, I’d like to see more of them speak correctly. Vernacular and colloquial use are fine but standard language should be taught so that students know the difference, can articulate complex thoughts and interact better in different situations. Learning can be exhilarating and, after all, knowledge and understanding do facilitate inspiration for creativity throughout life.

Calling children scholars, as they are at that school, does not make them specialists, and the odds of their becoming so are even lower when the school is unable or unwilling to provide instruction and correction. Administrators and teachers who do not correct fail to teach. Their language and, sometimes, inchoate thinking and disinterest are also poor models. Engagement in real schools where people gather for well-directed interaction and education succeeds best not only because of routine but also because inspiration and ah-ha! moments frequently occur during such collegial times without schedule. Effort, behavior, and other social aspects can be noted by teachers, too, but academic learning should not be stunted for fear of hurting a child’s feelings. Poor grades do not mean a person is bad nor do they guarantee that a student won’t eventually master the once difficult. Teachers can be kind and understanding when discussing these things and help as need arises. Meanwhile, children grow and mature, learning to adjust and acclimate.

A sense of place relative to one’s peers, when not perverted, is important and can be helpful throughout life. Grades discretely indicate one’s rank: lowering academic standards to claim administrative and political success cheats everyone and is a particular disservice to those capable of and wishing to excel. Responsible school directors and administrators ought to respect these truths. They should procure high-quality books and other materials for their students while demanding and insuring that teachers correct their students’ mistakes. It’s called instructing, and, since administrators are paid to facilitate school function and teachers are paid to teach, they should do just that.


Sunday, 3 February 2013

Cambridge, Massachusetts


About Brian D. Sadie / eloquentb

Brian D. Sadie is president of the film company Eloquent Bastard Productions. He was formerly Executive Director of The Joseph K. Foundation: On Privacy and was recruited and hired as an analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency. His writing appears in publications as diverse as The Economist, Boston Book Review, TeenLife, and Informationen der Gesellschaft für politische Aufklarüng. Mr. Sadie is often a featured contributor to educational and Ed Tech entities about education and literacy. He graduated with honors from Harvard University in History and Middle Eastern Studies and was a Pew Fellow at Boston University at the Institute of Culture, Religion and World Affairs. He is an ardent sports fan and equally ardent critic of the business of sports.
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One Response to What Literacy?

  1. tara greco says:

    As noted in the How Will Common Core Change What We Do? article (Edutopia, 2/5/13), “For the authors of Common Core State Standards (CCSS), this translates to teachers in all disciplines sharing responsibility for students’ literacy development. While English teachers might be relieved to know they will not have to carry the responsibility of literacy instruction alone, CCSS also acknowledges that the informational texts used in various subjects are complex and worthy of study. It makes sense that the best person to teach specific areas of literacy is the expert teacher of the field: scientists, historians, and other scholars. The authors believe that these skills are essential to the success of students in these disciplines.

    It doesn’t mean that a science teacher is going to drop teaching the concept of velocity and start teaching essay writing, but it does mean that writing in science, a common occurrence among scientists, will benefit young scholars.”

    All teachers should encourage and facilitate strong writing and critical thinking skills.


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