Leaving Our Children Behind: Literacy and National Standard

Our government suffers from the same malaise as most of us. They want to buy their innocence with someone else’s guilt. If our nation’s children are not reading, it is not their fault. The 2001 Bush II administration, Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as the No Child Left Behind legislation, claims innocence for our constantly declining educational system. This legislation, like many that came before it, and many that will follow, is this administration’s magic bullet answer to falling achievement in our public schools. Their plan: ratchet up testing, primarily of literacy and numeracy skills, and penalize schools that do not show adequate annual achievement. The irony of this and all punitively-based educational legislation is that the very schools that exhibit lower scores are not infused with extra funds and resources to support higher achievement. They are penalized. The result is that schools are now hyper focusing on bolstering student’s tests scores, for a ‘national standard,’ in hopes, that after the ‘test’ dust settles, some authentic education might take place within schools. Let us examine the obvious fallacy operating here and look to the storytelling classroom – an educational model that actually works for teaching literacy.

            Ron Paul, a 2008 candidate for the Republican presidential race has noted: “A better title for this bill is No Bureaucrat Left Behind.” National testing will inevitably lead to a national curriculum as teachers will teach what their students need to know in order to pass the mandated assessment…There are continuing disputes about teaching all subjects, as well as discussions on how to measure mastery of a subject matter.” These tests, primarily multiple choice, and created out of a single office and standard, are basically irrelevant.
What we have learned, as educators, from Piaget and Eric Erikson is that cognition and emotional well being are deeply intertwined and a growth industry. Larry Kohlberg taught us that moral reasoning and development emerges from the cognitive and emotional levels of development that we have reached. Every stage of development and learning is based on the structure that precedes it. The knowledge of facts, those things needed to pass compulsory state and national tests, are much like the bricks in the Tower of Babel. The tower goes straight up, with no supporting structure, and is easily toppled. A fundamental education that leaves students with the ability to think and reason and act emerges from a much broader base of accumulated skills and experiences.
Teachers understand that they must teach from the current knowledge base of the child who is journeying on any path towards knowledge and mastery. Forced to fulfill a national standard that dictates that every child, by the 3rd grade, must read at a standardized 3rd grade level (President’s NCLB introductory speech) is absurd. It is only at this age that many learning disabilities begin to surface, that teachers are coming to grips with the best way to teach students whose learning skills do not respond to traditional classroom approaches, and that children coming from other languages and cultures are beginning to find a foothold into this system. Punitive national standards simply don’t work, and disempower teachers, who know that in order to educate a child you must start where they are, cognitively, curricularly, and culturally, and create pathways into this mainstream of learning. Compulsory standardized testing will not improve education. Empowered, well funded and locally based schools will. This is where the storytelling classroom‘ can serve as a brilliantly adaptive tool to meet the needs of students and the objectives of teachers. 
In the teaching of literacy, possibly more than almost any other subject, true learning emerges from speech, and speech emerges from the immediate world the child inhabits. Thus, each student’s road to literacy will begin in his/her home and community. From urban NYC, to an Iowa corn field, to a Texas border town, a child’s experience of his/her world is a unique starting place for literacy acquisition.
One of the elementary schools that I have worked with in California draws a large percentage of its population from Spanish speaking homes. I was hired as a storyteller-in-residence, sharing stories in public elementary and middle schools. It became clear, after finishing my first session to a polite, but blank faced auditorium of students, that the material I used so successfully in my native New England had no resonance for these students. That night, I reshaped the program, pulling up stories from my repertoire like La Cama Grande (The Big Bed). This tale is about el nino piqueno (a little boy) who was allowed to leave the bed he shared at home with his tres hermanos (three brothers) and go spend the night with (su abuela) his grandmother. Thrilled, he arrived at her casa (home) and would be allowed to sleep in la cama grande, solomente (in the big bed by himself), which turned out to not be the heart’s desire he had anticipated. As his grandmother kissed him goodnight and shut the squeaky puerto (door), he found himself distressed by images of ghosts, and monsters and bad guys. This story was a huge hit. There was enough Spanish language used in this story to create a bridge of understanding into the English language. The details of the tale were grounded in the cultural experiences of the listener, and the theme spoke on their developmental level. The group participation (which was orchestrated to sound like a creaking door, a howling ghost, a monster’s yell, a bad guy’s shout, and a little boy’s frightened scream) allowed them to be active participants in an English language experience. Once this tale was complete, they were engaged in the process of active listening, because I began where they were. I was able to embark on journeys to the border of their world and then outside it. The students were ready travelers, willing to reach for the unknown because they felt safely grounded in the known. Teachers reported that their own storytelling was rife with parallel experiences from this initial story.
This is why there can be no one national standard. The learning must come out of the children’s experiences. Storytelling has the flexibility to reflect almost any population’s social and cultural experiences of language (both oral and written), and can be built into their literacy program.
Oral language precedes reading and written language. For a learner of literacy, this initially means that appropriate and inspiring models of language usage and access to describing and understanding their lives and world, and a listening for it, is the expressive context of storytelling.
Jane was a kindergarten teacher in Brookline, MA. Every day she told her young charges a story. The school principal, trying to reinforce the school’s distinguished academic reputation, questioned her use of time for this activity. Jane had been telling the story of Snow White to her charges, who had asked to hear it multiple times. She led the principal to the window to overhear the children during their outdoor recess play.
“Look out. You’re gonna fall and get a black and blue, as dark as ebony.” The principal was floored that a five-year old was using a word far above her average vocabulary, and using it correctly. The principal never again questioned the time required for storytelling.
In a classroom, there is generally almost no time for a child to verbalize a narrative to the attuned and receptive hearing of their peers and teacher. There is one instructor, 20-30 students, and 43 minutes to cover a topic. You can do the math. Yet, we have learned that literacy rests in the child’s ability to create verbal pictures of their world. Using storytelling, not only as an instructional tool, but in peer coaching sessions, enables children with the gift of expressing their images and stories, as well as having their stories heard. In an MIT study, Virtual peers as partners in storytelling and literacy,** the power of story modeling and listening is explored. A computerized storytelling buddy, Sam, was devised. Sam looked much like the preschoolers he was interacting with, telling stories collaboratively with them. Accessing the child’s use of language, he “tells” stories in a developmentally advanced way (for the individual child), modeling narrative skills important for literacy. “Results demonstrated that children who played with the virtual peer told stories that more closely resembled the virtual peer’s linguistically advanced stories: using quoted speech and temporal and spatial expressions. In addition, children listened to Sam’s stories carefully, assisting him and suggesting improvements.” What this study does not begin to look at is the empirical understanding we gain on the importance of being listened to and heard.
Now we venture into a world that no national standard wants to even acknowledge.  That human growth and development (literacy, in this instance) is not only about the cognition. As Piaget and Ericson, and Kohlberg have all shown us, human beings do not develop fully in single categories such as the cognitive or curricular, while the emotional and social aspects are voided or abused. We are whole beings, and storytelling addressing that wholeness, inspiring literacy through all avenues of human development. This gift of the storytelling classroom is unquantifiable, but essential to nurturing humanity. It is the element that those of us who ‘grow’ children cannot, and never want to ignore.
A few years ago, I helped develop a grant proposal for work at a school in Lawrence, MA. Following are some of the beautifully-flowered prose I assembled for that application.
A majority of the student population (80%) represent learners whose primary/home language is not English,
The teacher population is not familiar with the culture of origins of most of the student population,
This particular student population reads English significantly below standard levels,
This particular student population has been slow to acquire social and communication skills necessary for school success,
We propose a storytelling residency which will focus on language acquisition and communication via tales from the indigenous cultures of the student population. Bla bla bla bla bla.
Completed by the principal and myself, this was all well-intentioned and accurate. Then, I arrived at one of the schools. The old brick schoolhouse resembled the tale Always Room For One More‘ as children seemed to be oozing out of and pouring into every nook and cranny of the ancient structure. The office was a tiny room jammed with the secretary and principal’s desks, and three children at various levels of distress. “Oh sure, we’re expecting you honey,” calls the secretary. “If you can find your way in here, you can hang your coat on the rack next to the desk and I’ll try and find Sherry” (the principal). There were, in these moments before the day officially began, what felt like hundreds of kids running around, hanging out the window, packing the hallways, in a building that was so over burdened there was no gym, cafeteria, or auditorium.
I saw the principal at the other end of the hall with a child under her arm, and I mean literally lifted under her arm, as if she was carrying a large board. The boy, seven or eight years old, was screaming, and spitting, and pinching at her. She, meanwhile, continued down the hall waving enthusiastically at me and greeting every child in both English and Spanish as she passed.
“This is my buddy Diego. He’s having a bad morning.” She put her hand gently on his head and lowered him to a standing position, his arms and legs still beating at anything nearby. She talked to him soothingly in Spanish, but he was not to be dissuaded. I stuck my tongue out at him and began making weird faces and strange sounds. He jumped track to hone in. We started playing a finger game. “Thanks,” Sherry said without his hearing. “Part of it is neurological and he needs to have complete dissonance in order to change response. The other part is that he’s just plain angry.” It turned out that his father had just finished a jail sentence in the Massachusetts prison system, but would not be returning or even visiting home because he owed some time to the New Hampshire prisons. This seven-year-old with wizened, hardened features was thought to be angry about not being able to see his father between the two sentences, and it was difficult to consult with his mother, a junkie whose communication skills were not optimal. During this explanation a few other students passed. Not one of them got by without Sherry riffling their hair or touching a shoulder gently, and offering an introduction. “This is Maria. She is a very good reader.” “This is Pablo. Wait till you see him running on the playground. He has feet like wings.” “Jose, come meet the storyteller. Jose is a math genius.” No sooner did she complete her explanation of Diego’s issues than the sound of flying furniture was heard from a nearby first grade classroom. “Un momento,” she said and was off to douse another fire. What made me think that our little plan, which outlined exactly what would be accomplished in each classroom session and how, might require some flexibility?  
It turned out that I would be working intensely with Diego’s second grade class. The principal told me that he spent a lot of his classroom time sleeping, which was something he did infrequently at night. When he wasn’t sleeping, he was more often than not causing havoc in the classroom. Any little thing could take him from an average day on a train track to one headed down death gulch. A look from another kid, a perceived slight hunger, and he would go from a pleasant, engaged kid to a very violent one, throwing chairs at windows and knocking over desks. Since there was no counselor’s office, this student spent a lot of time at a desk alone in the downstairs hallway.
I am preaching the perks of storytelling so often that I forget it’s real. One day on my way to lunch I saw Diego at a little desk in the hallway carol pretending to read a book on Michael Jordan. His face, a tighter network of rage, was more than any seven-year old deserves to experience. I looked at the book.
“Hey man, what ya reading?”
He was barely audible and didn’t look up.
“Michael Jordan.”
“Hey, he’s the man isn’t he? Find out anything interesting? Hey, what’s that?” There’s a sketch book on the table. “May I take a look?”
Diego nodded.
“Wooo. These are great drawings. You do them?” Another nod.
“Cool!  What’s happening here?”  And he started to tell me about a kid climbing up a building to escape and how the guards are trying to shoot him, and that’s what the zig zag lines are. “But there’s a really bad man in there and the kid has got to get away.”

“Hey, want to hear a story about a really bad man?”
You bet he did, and without knowing exactly why, I launched into Bluebeard. Sitting in the basement hall with kids, adults, lunch aides, traipsing back and forth, his attention was riveted in that little sphere of energy that the story created between us. I had barely finished when the principal (by all reckoning, a woman soon to be sainted) appeared with Diego’s mother. I wanted to tell her what an important part he had in the classroom story we were acting out (he was in “The Chili Plant” class), but my Spanish was much too halting and she was feeling diffident because he had disrupted his classroom . . . again. He was taken away. The next day while once again sitting in the hall, Diego called me over.
“Hey, storyteller lady.”
“Hello, my man. What’s up.”
“I want to tell you a story.”
I pulled up a chair and hunkered into the intimacy of our circle. He took out his sketch book, opened it to the same picture we were looking at the previous day, and began.
“This here is a castle and a really bad man lives in there. He has a black beard, so I call him Blackbeard. See this kid climbing the wall? He is super kid and he is climbing in to save a girl from Blackbeard . . .”
He feared his father, but through the story he’d heard, he recreated his life and he was the hero saving his mother from this man.
He went on until school life imperatives forced us to break the circle. The circumstances of Diego’s life will only be deeply affected by a new trend in social, political, and economic justice. I’m not holding my breath. His ability to see himself as a hero rather than a victim in his world can be affected by storytelling. I pray that this slight switch in vantage points will give him strength in his world.
Storytelling is not a panacea, but in terms of a tool that can be personalized for any given population, it offers a wonderful model of language usage, encourages that usage and addresses the whole life of a child. It is a tool that every classroom reaching towards literacy might well choose to employ.

**Journal of Computer Assisted Learning (2003) 19, 195-208
. 2003 Blackwell Publishing Ltd 195
K. Ryokai, C. Vaucelle & J. Cassell