WRITER'S TWO YEAR JOURNEY EMBEDDED IN AN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
By Stephen Kogon
I’m not a teacher, or a principal, or someone employed by a school district. I’m just a writer—of screenplays and books. Yeah, another one of them. In 2005, I had a young adult novel published called, Max Mooth—Cyber sleuth and the Case of the Zombie Virus. I love writing. I could do it every day. So why would I choose to embed myself for two years in a Los Angeles elementary school?
I’ll answer that in a bit, but let me take you back some. I’ve worked with children ever since I was a teenager. Back then, it was as a camp counselor. In my early 20s, it was as an after-school counselor for special needs kids. Then I spent several years solely as a writer, which led me to volunteer with an arts education program called, The Young Storytellers. I mentored with them for over five years, in which I, and a group of others, would help fifth graders write 5-page screenplays.
After my novel was published, I thought it’d be fun to set up a book reading at a Barnes & Noble in which nine children would read the first nine chapters. I found a willing participant, Palms Middle School, and spent two weeks rehearsing the chosen kids at their school library. It was there that something happened; a very specific moment, that led me on my new journey.
As we rehearsed one day, the school librarian came up to me and said, "I have to thank you."
I said, "Why?"
She said, "Two of the kids reading for you, I’ve never seen before. You managed to get them to come to the library and read. You made it special for them."
Special. That word impacted me greatly. Two kids did something they previously hadn’t done, because it was made special for them. I wondered why it was not done before and started asking her questions about literacy. Seeing my interest piqued, she suggested I check out a few websites. So, I did. And what I found was simply eye-opening.
Site after site showed research saying that if kids were not reading and writing at their grade level by the end of second (some showed third) grade, they almost never caught up. Second grade? That was seven-year-olds. And they correlated those numbers to that as many as 50-80% of those kids eventually wound up dropping out of high school, unemployed, in prison, or in gangs. Wow! I was flabbergasted. I dug deeper.
Every school had to report their test scores for SARC, the School Accountability Report Card. So I looked up nearly every LAUSD school’s language arts scores and found that 70% were below 50% proficiency (301 out of 430), and 84% were below 60% proficiency (362 out of 430). I then focused specifically on second grade. There were about 45,000 LAUSD second-graders, and only 41% of them were proficient in language arts. I was overwhelmed by these numbers. Seven year olds weren’t able to comprehend the importance of reading and writing. If the research was accurate, though, it meant so many of them would struggle for the rest of their lives. I started thinking, "What can I do?" I didn’t have an answer yet, but I knew I had to do something. During all this discovery period, the Barnes & Noble reading event with my book took place, which doubled as a book fair fundraiser for the school. Other kids at the school came and read poems they had written as well. I thought maybe doing more of these Barnes & Noble events, making reading and writing special, could be a way to address the problem. I asked the school how we could get more students to participate. The vice principal suggested doing it at an elementary school, because parents were far more involved there.
So, that’s what I did. I approached the school where I had been a Young Storyteller mentor, Castle Heights Elementary, and set up a similar Barnes & Noble book reading event with one of their fifth grade classes, led by a teacher named Mr. Feeney. He and two other teachers, Ms. Phillips and Ms. Colina, were invaluable in accommodating me in any way they could.
Since I didn’t know any of the parents yet, I partnered with a friend who worked at the school, Jim Reeves, to help organize the event. We also invited every student at the school (from kindergarten through fifth grade) to come out and read something they had written. I called the whole thing, Reading, Writing, It’s Exciting! We rehearsed the kids for two weeks prior to the event, and on the day, had a great turnout. We decided to continue doing these events with Castle Heights and Barnes & Noble, again having them double as book fair fundraisers for the school.
I thoroughly enjoyed doing this, as well as being a Young Storyteller mentor, and realized I was pretty good at helping kids enjoy writing and reading. I wanted to do more, so I sought out opportunities, and was hired as a youth creative writing teacher for the Torrance Cultural Arts Center, with the same goal in mind: make writing fun. I developed a curriculum that maximized that philosophy, which would come in handy later.
But then a bump in the road. After several years of putting on the Reading, Writing, It’s Exciting! events, I noticed something. The same kids kept participating. And, after talking to teachers, these kids, for the most part, were doing well at school, and were already pretty adept at reading and writing. What we helped them with, for which I’m grateful, was improving their self-esteem by performing their own writings in front of an audience. However, the kids who were not doing well at school never participated. This was a problem. These were the kids who needed the most help with the exact thing I was most trying to help with—writing and reading.
So I went back and looked at the literacy research. And the answer was right there in front of me: if kids aren’t reading and writing by the end of second grade, they almost never catch up. That was where I had to focus my attention. So, back to the research. What kind of programs already existed for the 6-8 year old group? There seemed to be reading programs, but nothing that really offered what I felt was my specialty—writing. So my mission became to start an interventionist creative writing literacy program specifically for second graders.
I went to Castle Heights’ principal, Mrs. Tann, and asked if I could start this program there. While their language arts numbers were at 74% proficiency, I knew there were still plenty of kids who could use more writing help, and I needed to test pilot the program somewhere. My plan was to take my youth writing class curriculum and scale it down, so that it would be effective for second graders. Mrs. Tann was open to it, and so in the spring of 2009, the nonprofit Reading, Writing, It’s Exciting Program! launched.
For eight weeks, I led a class of ten second graders once a week, for one hour a day, assisted by volunteer mentors who would help me work with the kids one-on-one. The goal was to get each student to write one story using their own imaginations. We wrote, we played imagination games, and we did our best to make it fun for them. They all finished at least one story. They all seemed to have a good time. But … there was something wrong. I didn’t feel each student had improved enough at writing to make a real difference. I didn’t want this to be some vanity project where I went home and felt good about doing something. I wanted impactful results. That’s all that would matter.
So over the summer I thought long and hard about the program. What I figured out was 1) eight weeks was not enough time to significantly help kids who were struggling, and 2) as much as I worked with kids over the years, I didn’t have enough of a grasp as to why some were struggling in the first place. So, back to the research. Again. A lot of it. Unfortunately, nothing I read answered the question for me. This was a problem. I needed to have answers or the program wouldn’t make the kind of difference I wanted.
So … there was only one thing to do. Embed myself in the school somehow. Just like a war journalist embeds with troops, I needed to have boots on the ground every single day. I needed to learn their curriculum, their homework, their teachers, their parents, everything.
So, I met again with Mrs. Tann and found that they actually had a need for an aide for the 2009-2010 school year. And so that’s what I did. That year, Monday through Friday, I worked with mainly fourth and fifth graders in a one-to-one capacity as a literacy aide, although I also worked with second and third graders in their daily after-school homework club.
Again, Castle Heights was a school where 65-75% of the students performed fairly well. So I worked almost exclusively with the other 25-35%. And all I can say is, until you actually work with a struggling kid on a daily basis, you can’t grasp what it’s like. The student I worked with the most was a fifth grader who didn’t know how to put periods at the end of sentences. He couldn’t differentiate between a noun, a verb and an adjective. He could barely even recite his ABC’s. A fifth grader! This student happened to be new to the school, and didn’t seem to benefit at all from his previous one. He was a terrific kid with hopes and dreams just like every other kid. It’s impossible not to ache for a kid like that, knowing he’d most likely face a very difficult future.
Working with him and others showed me more clearly than any research could, that by not getting the proper help before third grade, he would probably never catch up. And in all honesty, there was so little I could do to help. And remember, I think I’m pretty good at helping kids become better writers. He, and others at his level, may have improved some by working with me, but not nearly enough to help them when they went to sixth grade, which they all were going to do (it seemed nearly impossible to retain anyone). Many of you might be asking, "If you worked with them every single day, why didn’t they show marked improvement? What specifically stopped them?" I believe it was because they never developed a reading and writing foundation in the first place. Just like you can’t build a house without a foundation, you really can’t build anything else either. The walls will keep falling down. And so it was like the new things they were trying to learn were just falling down a deep bottomless pit. To learn these skills, they needed a foundation—and they needed it by the end of second grade. Especially since every teacher I talked to told me that the biggest jump was second to third grade and that writing was one of the hardest things for kids that age to learn.
I say this with great sadness, but the majority of the struggling kids I worked with that year will probably not make it through high school. Could they with continued daily tutoring throughout middle school, high school, and summers? Perhaps. But they aren’t going to get that kind of individualized attention. Once past elementary school, they’ll get less attention, unless the parents can afford daily tutoring. No, the sad fact is their writing and reading levels will most likely never move much beyond that of a third grader. I hope I’m wrong.
I asked Mrs. Tann what were the options for these struggling fifth graders to ensure they wouldn’t eventually drop out of high school? She lamented that there weren’t really any now, although there used to be with trade schools. However, they were eliminated about 15 years ago, due to the noble notion that every child should go to college one day. That’s a wonderful notion, but didn’t anyone think about what would happen to the kids who wouldn’t achieve that? Only 41% of all LAUSD elementary school students are proficient in language arts, and only 39% in math. That’s a lot of kids who probably won’t be going to college. To me, that crystallized the debate about education. Everyone is well- intentioned. Everyone wants the very best for kids. But when the results don’t match the decisions made by those good intentions, no change of course is made. We just keep plowing along. When something is as important as education, and you make big, bold decisions that change things, shouldn’t there be a backup plan just in case it doesn’t work out as expected? Is it hubris that prevents having a backup plan? Or is it the impossibly slow-moving nature of a large bureaucracy? Or financial interests? Or all of it? Or even something else? I don’t know the answer, because, to me, it’s basic common sense to have a backup plan.
Anyway, during that year, I also continued to run the Reading, Writing, It’s Exciting! program at Castle Heights once a week. We spent nearly the whole school year working with a new group of second graders. The structure and organization was a little better, and several of the kids made the kind of improvements we were striving for—but it still wasn’t as impactful as I wanted. I needed to re-evaluate. Quite frankly, I needed to do better. Results were all that mattered, and I would not expand the program to other schools until the model was perfected.
When that school year ended, I felt I had a pretty good grasp on fourth and fifth graders. I saw the results of no intervention before third grade. But my big problem was I still didn’t have a grasp of why some younger kids struggled in the first place. Why weren’t they getting the necessary foundation? That’s what I needed to learn.
Mrs. Tann retired at the end of that year, so I asked the new principal, Mr. Grass, if I could come back as an aide again for the 2010-2011 school year, this time specifically for just second grade, and he okayed it.
This is where my education of education truly took off. I sat in several classrooms, got to know curriculum, saw all the homework assigned, and interacted with all the teachers and kids. The experience was invaluable, in no other area more than seeing the district-mandated curriculum first-hand. I was shocked by how challenging they made it. For math, they were asking second graders to learn fractions, symmetry, mode, mean, and average. For language arts, the kids were expected to write test essays explaining how animals camouflaged themselves, and were given anthologies to read with some words way, way beyond their years. Then there was the brand new writing program, which emphasized structure via a system of colored flow charts that seemed to spend far more time on learning the flow charts than actual writing. Now, I have to say, for the kids who could handle the challenging curriculum, they benefited, and benefited greatly. Their minds were being challenged, and it further propelled them. But for those who didn’t get it, there was no, here’s those words again – backup plan. Yeah, there were some periodic intervention classes, but unless these kids got daily tutoring, it was mostly cosmetic. No, the problem was the curriculum didn’t allow for any deviation for the kids who were struggling. It was essentially one size fits all. It’s the exact same thought process behind getting rid of trade schools. We want them ALL to go to college. And yeah, if they ALL mastered this curriculum, they’d be in pretty good shape. Some, maybe many of you, might be saying, "Well, let’s figure out how to get them all to master the curriculum." Terrific. Let’s absolutely try to figure that out. But as we’re figuring that out, we need to have something in place for the overwhelming numbers who aren’t mastering the curriculum. Again, only 41% of all LAUSD second graders are proficient at language arts, and only 39% are proficient in math. That’s an awful lot of kids not getting the curriculum. I think it’s beyond crystal clear that a backup plan is needed.
The curriculum was the largest problem I saw, but I noticed other zany things. Here’s one that really stood out because it was so absurd. Taped to a wall in a classroom were cutout vowels put in this order: A-I-E-O-U. I chuckled to myself, because, well, in a learning institution, wasn’t the basic order of the vowels something that shouldn’t be messed up? I pointed it out to one of the teachers because I thought he’d get a chuckle out of the mistake. He did chuckle, but he also said, "I don’t think it’s a mistake. I’ve seen it in other classrooms. It’s done on purpose."
I thought, "No, it can’t be." But he checked on it, and lo and behold, it was done on purpose. The explanation given was that the decision makers felt it was easier for kids to learn the vowels this way because "E" was a tougher vowel than "I." Seriously?! You teach these kids fractions, symmetry, flow chart writing and camouflaged animals—and that’s what you try to simplify? And can anyone claim it’s actually working? Do I need to keep pointing out that only 41% of LAUSD second graders are language arts proficient?
Oh, but there was even more absurdity, courtesy of the homework. There were many instances when the questions were worded in ways that made absolutely no sense. I, and others who worked in the homework club, would often show these nonsensical questions to each other. It became our thing. "Look, here’s another one." If we, as educated adults, couldn’t figure out what a question was asking, how could we expect a child to?
These nonsensical questions seemed even more prevalent with the math homework. Someone in an administrative position told me she heard the math textbook was taken from China, and when transcribed to English, it didn’t always translate correctly. I have no idea if that’s true or not, but it’s not that difficult to believe. The mindset is to compete with China, Korea and Japan, because their kids excel in math. So we’ll use their challenging curriculum with fractions and symmetry and geometry (cones, spheres, etc.). Beyond questioning whether that makes sense in the first place, couldn’t someone have diligently made sure that it was at least transcribed correctly?
I constantly asked people at the school about the curriculum. Many of the teachers told me that they’d heard theorists who never even visit classrooms were the ones developing it, as well as other things like the vowel re-ordering mandate. Shouldn’t visiting classrooms be the one requirement that curriculum writers have to adhere to?
I point these things out, not to nitpick, but because it’s difficult enough to educate children without adding preventable obstacles.
I’ll end this by bringing it all back to what started my journey in the first place—finding a way to improve literacy. I won’t claim that Reading, Writing, It’s Exciting! is the solution, but we believe it can be part of it. What we’ll teach in our class will help kids become better writers. It’ll help provide that missing foundation. And it’ll be fun for them, because we get them to exercise their own imaginations. However, it’s the second component of our mission, providing memorable experiences, that I hope will make the most lasting impact. We want the kids we work with to always associate writing and reading with something that is exciting and special. That way, there’s a good chance they’ll start writing on their own. Right now, the majority of struggling kids don’t.
We believe we can change that. We believe we already have started. To wit, this past year, one of our students told me in our first session that he hated writing. Hated it! Would never, ever do it at home unless he had no choice. He devoted all his spare time to playing video games. Well, about five months later he walked up to me, during recess (his fun play time), and said excitedly, "I was thinking about my story last night, and I want my character to do (this and this)." He went from hating it to excitedly doing it on his own.
And for our entire group, at the end of the school year, we staged a big event in which our young writers got to see celebrities they’ve seen on TV perform their stories at a Barnes & Noble. These actors were acting their words! Take yourself back to when you were seven, and imagine how mind-blowing that might be.
I believe the Reading, Writing, It’s Exciting! model now works. All our students this past year finished at least one story and showed improvement, with some improving a great deal. Writing was no longer something they weren’t good at. It was no longer something they hated. It was what we’re trying to achieve for every one of them … special.
So with the confidence that we now have a program that can deliver results, we’re ready to expand into other schools in Los Angeles, and as the years go on, have our own after-school facility so we can have a daily presence. And then, one day, a national presence. We’ll need help to get there, but I’m very hopeful we will.