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What Sort of Family Wants Stories Like This?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Dear Extra Credit:

I am a soon-to-be stepmother to a lovely 12-year-old girl. She recently brought home a bright pink book with yellow smiley faces on the cover titled "TTYL" (Talk To You Later, in text/Internet-speak). The author is Lauren Myracle. I thought to myself, "How cute; how perfect for a 12-year-old." I flipped through thinking I would find stories about nail polish and trips to the mall.

Instead, I found the tale of three 10th-grade girls who use the f-bomb, drink alcohol, dance topless at a frat party, have an outside-of-school relationship with a teacher and can't wait to lose their virginity. Plus, it's written as if it appeared in an online chat conversation. Our children should be expanding their vocabulary, not minimizing it. Who in their right mind thinks it's a good idea for a child to read a book that's missing most of its vowels?

This book came from the Washington Irving Middle School library in Springfield with a "Family Story" stamp on it. I immediately contacted the school counselor, who forwarded me to the librarian. She said, "It's hard to find books that don't have some cursing and sexual themes." Isn't it the job of a librarian to get age-appropriate material for the children to read? Is this the best we can do?

I submitted a formal challenge to the principal, which is now in the hands of the assistant superintendent for the Fairfax County schools. Regarding the "Family Story" stamp, the librarian told me, "That doesn't mean sit down and read it with your family. It means real-life situations." I am not ignorant of today's youth and their increasingly getting-older-younger/babies-having-babies/want-to-be-sexy ways, but why would our school libraries encourage this lifestyle? Have our schools given up?

Carole Darby

Springfield

Wow. I would have reacted as you did, if I had bothered to read the book. Lazy parents like me let our kids pick the books and rarely check. The "Family Story" stamp is particularly upsetting. That says G-rated to me.

Fairfax schools spokeswoman Mary Shaw says she cannot comment on the book while we wait for the School Board to decide on your challenge, which usually takes at least 45 days. But I hope library supervisors will rethink their interpretation of that stamp. Not all of us are as conscientious parents as you are. I wonder whether others in the region have had similarly unpleasant surprises in our school libraries.

Dear Extra Credit:

My son, who is in the fourth grade in Fairfax County (Spring Hill Elementary), has been forced to go through what can only be described as a cram course focused on improving his scores on the Standards of Learning tests. My son and his classmates have been given a series of practice tests. The school system, despite what it says are budget problems, provided special books with past tests and spent weeks on this. The homework load increased dramatically and was entirely focused on the practice SOL tests.

There is no question that doing a series of practice tests will improve someone's score. However, as an educator myself (albeit at the university level), I question whether this is an effective use of time and learning at the elementary school level. I have complained to the principal, who in the past argued that the school did not teach to the SOLs but now says the school does not teach only to the SOLs.

The SOLs should reflect whether the students have covered and learned the required curriculum. They should not be the focus of what is taught or how it is taught. Elementary school is not where students should start cramming for exams. From my perspective, as a parent and educator, the true objective has not been to help the students learn the material but rather to improve their scores for the benefit of the principal and school's reputation. The principal and the school system should be ashamed.

Larry Weiss

McLean

You have kindly responded to my request for examples of test-driven teaching, but I crave more detail. Review is a healthy part of any learning experience. The line between it and grinding test prep is sometimes unclear. You said they spent weeks on this, but how many minutes each day? What exactly were they asked to do? Read summaries? Answer test questions? While parental memories are still fresh about this spring's tests, I would like to know more.

Dear Extra Credit:

Regarding backpacks, we teachers are not oblivious to the weight problem ["With All This Weight, What Student Needs an Anchor?," May 28]. Many times when I've tried to move a backpack, I've literally been unable to lift it. I always tell students that they may leave textbooks at home.

I teach European and American history and government. Students don't spend their time reading the textbook in class. On the rare occasions that I plan something that uses textbooks in class, I provide what's needed. Nonetheless, most students lug their books around.

There are various reasons. Many students have sports or are in a play in the afternoon, so they want to get the reading done. Or Mom or Dad picks the kid up after work, so he's at school until six. We put some extra copies in the library to make them available to students, but they tend to want their own book so that they can underline and annotate. Or, they might want to use a textbook to study for a quiz on Metro in the morning. There may be a solution, but I don't think it's as simple as leaving textbooks in the classroom.

Susan Ikenberry

Georgetown Day School

Thank you for this smart, realistic appraisal. If there is a solution, the students are going to have to come up with it.

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