I am happy to report that I received a lot of correspondence about the county's summer reading lists, which I wrote about two weeks ago (July 29). This discussion gets at the heart of what schools teach and children learn, and it is a good one to have. If anyone else wants to weigh in--especially students with tales of their summer reading--it's not too late.
I was appalled to read that the English coordinator you quoted thinks that everyone writes to describe conflict. What an incredibly narrow view of literature! While many authors use conflict to explore an issue, illuminate characters or move the plot along, to state that describing conflict is the primary purpose of writing literature is ridiculous and betrays a lack of understanding of literature's richness.
I understand that the usual way to plot a novel involves setting up a conflict that the protagonist must resolve. But often the author's motivation for writing is to uplift or inspire by showing the successful resolution of the conflict. I challenge the keepers of the "approved" list and the English teachers of our schools to look harder for good quality books that are also uplifting.
I know that ultimately I am responsible for what my child is exposed to. However, even as a stay-at-home mom, I do not have the time to pre-read every book that my child may wish to read. I would like to be able to trust the school system to be my partner in filtering out inappropriate material from its reading list.
But with the exclusion of titles like one of the books in the "Little House on the Prairie" series, I'm now wondering if that trust is inappropriate. I read those books many times as I was growing up, and I can't think of anything that folks would find offensive by today's standard. What was the reason for the removal?
As I recall, the reason "Little House in the Big Woods" was removed from the approval list was that one of Pa's songs was a traditional Southern song that is somewhat offensive. However, this being summer vacation time, the people with institutional memory have been away, so I haven't been able to get the definitive history. I'll keep working on it, and I promise a complete explanation soon.
Your column today about summer reading lists criticized Montgomery County's lists for an overemphasis on novels. I am writing to inform you that freshmen entering Watkins Mill High School are required this summer to read "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass."
James A. Wells
I'm delighted to hear it, although I prefer Frederick Douglass's more expansive autobiography, "My Bondage and My Freedom." It is a seminal American text, central to understanding our nation's history, which ninth-graders study. For us here in Maryland, it has the added advantage of being about a local resident with lots of detail about Baltimore and the Eastern Shore. Douglass's flourishing 19th-century prose probably takes a little getting used to for youths, but once they do, I would think most would find his story gripping. If any parents find their children resistant, I urge them to read the first couple of chapters aloud. If the youths are still not hooked, read the rest of it aloud. Kids are never too old to be read to, and it's a wonderful book to discuss as a family.
I have been reading, with much interest, your columns pertaining to gifted education in Montgomery County Public Schools. When referring to fourth- and fifth-graders who attend the four Centers for the Highly Gifted and to middle and high schoolers who attend the magnet programs, we need to keep in mind that these children are considered highly gifted, among the top 5 percent of our students.
As a Montgomery County teacher for 18 years, I can tell you that many of these students are distinctly different from their peers. Even at the kindergarten level, where I teach, these children enter school with a wealth of knowledge and the natural ability to learn at a very fast rate, often acquiring knowledge on their own that most of us need to be taught in some systematic way.
These children have interests that extend far beyond those of their peers, and often feel more comfortable conversing with their teachers or other adults than they do with children their own age.
Yes, good teachers can and do enhance curriculum for these students, but these children need to be with others like themselves, who can understand and synthesize at a very rapid pace. Most importantly, these children need to be with peers who understand them and can validate their thinking.
I'm trying to see your point of view. But, frankly, it gives me the creeps to think that we select and educate a few children, beginning when they are 9 years old, in such a way that they never again have to hang around children who aren't exactly like them. I don't think such a selecting-out system serves the children particularly well, and I certainly don't think it helps build a democratic society--which, after all, is the point of having a public school system to begin with.
Your statement, "I think as a general rule that children should take the most rigorous curriculum offered by the school," brings to mind Lake Wobegon, where "all the children are above average." But schools have developed placement options because there are differences in ability, motivation and other qualities needed to succeed. No one's interests are served if parents angle to have their children placed in classes they cannot handle.
If last year's teacher recommends against honors placement, perhaps that teacher has something to say worth attending to. But you do not even suggest talking to the teacher, let alone that she could be right. No, you say, send a note to the principal. And if the principal turns you down, appeal to higher authority.
Do Montgomery County's well-informed parents really need to be encouraged to contest every decision their child's school makes? You state, "Make sure your child is scheduled to be in the classes you want your child to be in." If I were a teacher, I would hate to have to face an "honors" class whose students were all selected by their parents.
The problem is that, at this point, Montgomery County has two different secondary school systems--a pretty good one and a crummy one. The pretty good one is offered in honors and gifted-and-talented classes, and the crummy one is offered in the others. Needless to say, I am over-generalizing: There are wonderful classes that are not honors, and crummy ones that are.
But as a generalization, I think it holds up pretty well. Clued-in parents know this and fight hard to get their children in the honors classes. My aim in this column is to let all the other parents in on that secret so that they, too, can make sure their children have access to the best curriculum the county has to offer.
After all, do you really think that parents should accept the school's judgment if teachers and counselors tell them their child is suited to be a hotel maid or janitor and should be trained solely for that function? I am using an extreme example to make the point, but I have spoken with people from across the country who hold master's and doctorate degrees whose parents were told exactly that. They are eternally grateful that their parents refused to acquiesce in those school decisions. I will add, for the benefit of teachers, that those same parents made sure their kids worked extremely hard.
Both the above questions really begin to get at why we have a public school system. Is it to sort people along a hierarchy, with some people getting a really good education and others getting a less good education, and still others an abysmal education, with the career possibilities to match?
Or is it to educate all students to a high, rigorous standard so that our society is composed of educated citizens capable of leading productive lives and making wise choices not only for themselves but for all of us?
Keep in mind that unless we disenfranchise people we believe are stupid, our lives rely in many ways on the wisdom of our fellow citizens--even those who are not highly gifted.
Homeroom is a forum for you. Send questions, opinions and issues you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, 51 Monroe St., Suite 500, Rockville, Md. 20850. The fax number is 301-279-5665. Or you can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.