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To 'Pete,' Who's Lost in the Mainstream

Posted: 2009-03-29

I am provoked to post this old Commentary from Education Week by these remarks by Herb Kohl in the preface of Reading, How To that got posted to a Fair Test offshoot: "There is no reading problem. There are problem teachers and problem schools. Most people who fail to learn to read in our society are victims of a fiercely competitive system of training that requires failure. If talking and walking were taught in most schools we might end up with as many mutes and cripples as we now have non-readers. However, learning to read is no more difficult than learning to walk or talk. The skill can be acquired in a natural and informal manner and in a variety of settings ranging from school to home to the streets." Later, in Chapter 2, he writes, "If a youngster fails to acquire the skill or comply with the rules of learning, he or she is considered retarded or criminal, that is, in more polite school language, a learning or behavior problem."

I wish Mr. Kohl could have been a fly on the wall to all the "natural and informal manner" strategies I employed with Pete. I considered him neither retarded nor criminal. I regard our note exchange as a triumph of sorts but certainly it was not enough. Now, I wonder just what Herb Kohl would have done. I also wonder what he's doing now to fight the destructive elements of NCLB. I hope he signed The Petition to end NCLB.




September



Dear Pete,



Welcome to the Middle School. I hope you have a good year. I will write you a note every day, and I hope you will answer.



I went sailing a lot this summer. Did you do any fun thing?





Your friend, Mrs. O





DeaR Miss Mrs. O. I DieD Niet Have a NiCe SumRe The eND





Dear Pete,



You got a haircut! I like it! I cut my husband's hair. I'm very quick. And he is very nervous. He says "Be careful!" a lot.





DeaR Miss MRs O



iM Going To See nay ukce thats iN PRiSeiN Thaes WKaNDe





October



Dear Pete,



Answer this, OK? I miss hearing from you.



[insert 'No' with sad face drawn in 'o'.]



Dear Pete,



You did good work yesterday. Keep it up!





THAnK yOu. ThE ENd





November



Dear Pete,



What do you like to do when you are not in school?





SeliPe





Dear Pete,



Sleep? That does not sound very exciting. How many hours a day can you sleep?



Did you eat a lot on Thanksgiving? We are still eating turkey. Even my cats are getting tired of turkey.





geT OFF mY BaKe





Dear Pete,



No, I won't get off your back. Sorry. I am here to teach you to read, and I will do it.





geT oFF mY bak. OLeny Kidye



Pete Smith



Dear Pete,



I know. You are quite a kidder. But even if you're only kidding I'll be on your case every day. That's the way teachers are.



WRITE me every day. No kidding.





Mae be mae be noT





December



Dear Pete,



I hope you have a good Christmas. I'm getting my cats some catnip. They will be happy. I'm getting my husband a book I want to read. That's the way it goes.





YEs I will HaVe a gooD ChriStmaS yR por HUsbN





March



I dont winte to do the note to day



Smith. p.



Dear Pete,



That's OK. I have days like that too. And you have never heard anybody complain about writing letters the way my husband does. Good thing he's not in this class. He'd have a fit if somebody told him to write a letter EVERY DAY.



You are doing pretty well. Look at all these notes. It would take me six weeks to count them all. I'm proud of you.



May



Dear Pete,



My cat sits on top of the refrigerator, and it makes my husband MAD. He yells at the cat, but the cat doesn't care. He just does it again.





Sam thaing wetha my dog But He sits on the kioscue [couch]





Dear Pete,



Pets are tricky. They like to get their own way. Do you know any kids like that?





Yaw me and my barther





June



Dear Pete,



I hope you are not too sad. There is no school Friday and no school Monday. Be brave, Pete. Don't cry!





I'm too happ





Dear Pete,



Happy? Well, I know you will be sad soon. Just think--all summer I won't be around to bug you.





Mrs. O



I hop you ar her nathyer [next year] becase iT wont Be no Fane Weth out you PLes com bake



freNd Pete



[Note: Pete could not read any of the teacher's notes. They were read to him and then he wrote the replies.]





Dear Pete,





I'm not sending this letter to you, because I don't know how to say goodbye, and I don't know if you would understand me when I say I'm sorry.



I reported on the very first day of school last September that you were in critical trouble. The people who heard me asked, "How can you tell so soon?" Apparently, a teacher is not supposed to notice until the third month of school that a 7th grader doesn't even know the alphabet. I kept insisting that you needed special attention, though, and after a month or so your name was put on a list.



Every time your name was mentioned, school officials moaned, "Why wasn't something done about that kid in elementary school? How can a child get all the way to 7th grade without being able to read?" People checked into your background. Your mother's prenatal emotions are crucial in the evaluation process. I kept asking, "Why don't we do something about Pete's problem now?" But one cannot rush the bureaucratic process or leapfrog any step.



In November, an administrator announced to the Committee on the Handicapped that, like Rockefeller and Einstein, you are dyslexic and will never learn to read and that I should get a tape recorder. That administrator has never met you, Pete. And that's no solution anyway. I announced that someday when your parents got wind of this pronouncement and sued the district, I would testify on their behalf. So then I received an administrative memo ordering me to teach you to read. I also received a tape recorder. It's called administrative privilege. And cover your ass.



There was talk by some administrators that the problem would be solved if we could just get you labeled emotionally disturbed. After all, nobody expects those kids to read. And you did get in a lot of fights, Pete. You were always in the office. But you know it's better for people to think you're mean than dumb, right?



I kept telling people that you aren't psycho, aren't loony, aren't even mean. You are a big, tough kid who is desperate about not being able to read. I begged people to get you some individual help, to take you out of so many academic classes. By the time you got to me--the last period of the day--you were exhausted, mostly from playing the tough guy all day (so nobody would notice you can't do the work).



Administrators insisted nothing could be done about your academic schedule until we heard from Community Services. I wonder who those guys are and why we think they should solve our problems.



Every week on my lesson plans I stated that I was not meeting your needs and would like an administrator--any administrator--to come to our class and help me organize a program for you. Of course, I knew they didn't know the first thing about meeting your needs, but it was a way to keep putting on the record that you needed help. And nobody came--not even for an official observation. I think they were scared of both of us, Pete.



In April, we finally heard from Community Services. They had misplaced your file in November but found it again around February after we bugged them daily for three weeks. But in February the neurosurgeon quit and nobody could find the eeg he had done. So you had to be wired up again, and you weren't thrilled. I remember you joked about how people thought you were nuts, and I didn't know how to deal with your pain and frustration.



After your second eeg, a nice lady from Community Services finally told us that three physicians, a psychologist, and a social worker had examined you and reached the careful diagnosis that you don't read so well and have never liked school. Now that was news worth waiting for, wasn't it, Pete? Their prescription was that we should be kind to you and work with you individually. Now, I've been pretty darned nice to you, Pete, except for that time when you threatened to punch my face in. That day I yelled a little, but you didn't throw the chair at me after all and we both calmed down. And we really haven't had much difficulty since. Except you still can't read. And you're angry all the time.



School officials are happy because now you are labeled "special ed.'' and they won't be held responsible if you don't learn to read. They can insist that teachers give you a passing mark. This year I've refused. That seems ironic, doesn't it? The teacher who wore her heart on her sleeve for you all year is the only teacher who gave you a failing grade. The authorities asked me to give you a 65. Well, Pete, they came pretty close to making that an order. But I refused. I said it would send a false message to your parents. Worse, it would be giving you a false message. If I said you passed language arts, I'd be saying you had done adequate work.



But I know and you know, Pete, that it just ain't so. You enjoyed the books I recorded and you enjoyed our notes, but you refused to do anything else. I can think of all sorts of complex psychological explanations for your refusal to cooperate. I can understand your curses and your threats, but I care enough about you to say, "No way, kid." The buck stops here. It's not easy, but I can't just look the other way.



This class is about as individual a program as possible: two teachers and 14 students each period. And it's the only class you failed. You passed every other academic class, regular classes with 30 students. I wish that meant you did well in those classes, but I know the truth: Some teachers would rather not rock the boat.



I asked for permission to give you an Incomplete, but the principal said the computer can't deal with that. The computer can't deal with that and we can't deal with you, Pete, so what's next?



I admit I was tough on you, Pete. My toughness was an expression of my hope and faith in you. I don't give up easily on kids, and you are definitely an okay kid. I figured we had one more year to work (and fight) together. But I have just been informed by an administrator who has a way with words that my program has been "liquidated." Two teachers for 14 students is not cost-effective. So you can't come back here next year.



The people in charge assure me you will do fine in a regular language-arts class now that you have the special-ed. label. You won't fail, Pete. You are guaranteed to graduate on schedule. You can look at the pictures in the book, participate in class discussions, or put your head down and go to sleep. Nobody hassles mainstreamed kids just so long as they are quiet and don't cause trouble. Mainstreamed kids don't have to pass tests. They can go to the library and watch filmstrips.



People tell me I worry too much about teaching you to read. I know: Rockefeller and Einstein and Edison and Da Vinci. Even if I could believe 10 percent of the claims, I don't see that it has much to do with you. People keep telling me that if their own kids were "special," they'd want them in all the regular classes. That's what mainstreaming is all about. It's called "least restrictive environment," Pete. Mainstreamed kids aren't in academic classes to learn content or skills; they are there for something called socialization. I've never quite figured out just what that is. I wonder how sociable it is for a kid to be faced all day with work he cannot do, surrounded by classmates who can.



I brought your name to the Committee on the Handicapped because I wanted you to get relief from a heavy academic schedule. I had hoped you'd get an alternative program, one that would build on your strengths and provide you with more specialized help in reading. I thought a special-ed. label would do that for you, Pete. I was wrong. These days, a special-ed. label invites the people in charge to wash their hands of your special needs. They can shove a 12-year-old boy into the mainstream, tell him to socialize, and give up entirely on teaching him to read.

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