(By Deb Lindsey/For The Washington Post)

For two decades,  Ellie Herman was a writer/producer for television shows including “The Riches,” “Desperate Housewives,” “Chicago Hope” and “Newhart.” Her fiction has appeared in literary journals, among them The Massachusetts Review, The Missouri Review and the O.Henry Awards Collection. In 2007, she decided, “on an impulse,” she wrote, to become an English teacher and got a job at a South Los Angeles charter school that was 97 percent Latino and where 96 percent of the students lived below the poverty line. She taught drama, creative writing, English 11 and 9th grade Composition at a charter high school in South Los Angeles until 2013,  when she decided to stop teaching and spend a year visiting classrooms and learning from other teachers. She is chronicling the lessons she is learning on her blog, Gatsby in L.A., where the following post appeared. I’ll be posting more work from her soon.


By Ellie Herman

I recently sat in on a class in which none of the students had done the reading. It was an 11th grade English class; they were reading a fat canonical American novel, maybe 350 pages long. And none of them had read it—at least not the chapter they were supposed to have read the night before.

The teacher, a smart, dedicated older man, stood in front of the class trying to lead a class discussion. Crickets.

As the teacher stood lobbing question after question, the kids sat at their desks making eye contact with no one, shifting uneasily in their seats and waiting for the time to pass so they could leave.

Reader, I’ve been there. Maybe not in a situation where all of my students didn’t do the reading, but often when a very substantial number did not, a situation that would inevitably put me into a panic of misery, shame and frustration. What should I have done? What was I doing wrong? If the kids didn’t read the book, how could they write an essay that meant anything?

So as I sat in the back of that incredibly awkward class, I emailed a friend of mine who teaches in South L.A., one of the best English teachers I know, asking her what percentage of her students usually did the reading. “Half,” she emailed back. “Less if the reading is especially challenging.”

I recently asked another friend, an exceptionally dedicated and motivated English teacher, how many of her 35 students in the class I’m watching probably did the reading every night. She thought a moment, counting in her head. “About nine,” she said finally.

Here’s something I’ve seen over and over and have personally experienced: if you teach in a community where kids didn’t get the enrichment of preschool, may have attended terrible elementary schools, may have stressful or chaotic home lives and often live in very crowded situations where they have no space to themselves and sometimes have to babysit or work after school—in other words, a substantial percentage of Los Angeles Unified School District students—a large number of students are reading far below grade level and often do not read the book you are supposed to be reading.

I’m not saying this as a judgment, though people outside the classroom often express this observation as a judgment, usually on the teacher, though often on the students and their families as well. I’m saying it as a situation I’ve observed over and over, an abyss of non-reading that’s glossed over in our national conversation about standards, which presumes that kids are not learning because the teacher is not holding standards high enough or using the right teaching methods.

But the situation on the ground is that many kids are coming into high school with very low reading levels that make meeting those standards close to impossible with the time and resources provided no matter how excellent the teacher is.  I recently sat in an 11th grade classroom where none of the students could define the word “entertainment” (or was willing to try and risk being wrong). How many hours will it take to get those kids up to grade level, or even able to read the books we ask teachers to assign? Is an hour and a half three times a week except in summer and over vacations really going to be enough?

As the nation begins to roll out Common Core tests, demanding that children read at high levels of complexity, when we find out that they can’t, what are we going to do about it? Assign teachers a poor rating and fire them? Shut down the schools and replace them with new ones? Or are we going to acknowledge that if our students are going to learn to read, they are first going to need the conditions in which reading can be learned?   And those conditions require resources, both material and personal:

First, kids need books. I don’t care if they’re e-books or physical books, kids in low-income communities have very little access to them, ever. Their homes don’t have books, their communities don’t have libraries, their schools don’t have books, readers or internet access. I have visited a shocking number of schools in which there are not even enough books for kids to take home the book the class is reading; due to budget cuts there’s just a “class set,” meaning kids put the book back in the box at the end of the period so the next class can read it. Really? Seriously? And we’re going to spend billions to test their reading level?

Kids need a quiet place to read.Many kids tell me there’s no quiet place at home to read. I think of Dennis Danziger’s student who discovered the power of reading only when he was sentenced to go to the library, whose silence amazed him. How are we going to ensure that kids have a quiet, safe place to read?

Kids need time. Somewhere in the day, whether it’s after school or on weekends, and certainly over the summer, kids who are behind need some kind of peaceful and supportive situation in which they can develop the habit of reading.

Kids need early positive exposure to reading. Right now there’s an astonishing amount of national conversation about whether we should fund universal preschool. Again, really? Seriously? When studies show that kids in poverty have heard 30 million less words by the time they’re four than their more affluent peers? Do we really have to be sold on this?

Kids need encouragement at homethe school I’ve seen with the most success in getting kids to do the reading is Animo Leadership, whose parent partnership is exceptionally strong. Though the program costs a parent coordinator’s salary and the full collaboration of all teachers, this 100% parent buy-in gives kids the support they need and seems to give parents a close network in order to maintain that support.

Kids need personal support from teachers and other trusted adultsas I saw in the class where the kids wouldn’t risk defining “entertainment,” kids who have low reading levels often try to hide how little they can read.   We have to stop cramming students into gigantic classes that prevent teachers from getting to know them and then pretending we’re shocked when those kids don’t read well.

Finally, we all need to be honest. Nobody has figured out how to motivate kids who are far below grade level to read at home (except Animo Leadership, so when I am education czar, my first move will be to try their strategy universally.) A teacher whose struggling students do not read outside of class will see those students only four hours a week, which is why Teach Like A Champions people get so feverish about not wasting a second, though there is no persuasive evidence showing that this is any substitute for outside reading.   Right now, we’re demanding results from teachers and asking them to raise reading levels drastically in a very short time, something nobody has figured out how to do yet. Can we admit that first? And can we then approach this as an experiment, something at which we’re all taking shots in the dark?

Instead of just raising reading standards, can we ask first what our students need in order to meet those standards? And can we stop pretending that any teacher can be excellent if those needs are not met?

(Correction: An earlier version had the wrong number of words children who live in poverty hear by the time they are 4 as compared to more affluent peers.)