Monday, February 11, 2013

Reading: A Solution to Society's Problems?

Can children succeed in society though reading?

Disclaimer: the views expressed in this post are my own and do not reflect those of my employer.

My last post discussed the perceived educational crisis that Jumpstart, a national early education organization that works to develop language and literacy skills in preschool-age children in low-income neighborhoods (read more at, faces. When very few people are going to contest the idea that teaching children how to read is a positive thing, both for fostering children’s future success in society and for helping them lead more fulfilling lives, then why is Jumpstart’s work so (very!) necessary in our current education system? What conditions prevent children from having access to the literacy education that seems to be an important value in our society? How does Jumpstart frame its mission in such a way to garner support?  The first post in this short series critically examined Jumpstart’s position on and role within education as an example of one particular literacy organization in the United States which both feels the need to defend its work and also to take as assumed the value of developing literacy skills, defending its work and promoting its values by pointing to a crisis in education. This crisis, which is based in the way society relies on and maintains boundaries between socioeconomic statuses, is depicted as one which can be eradicated by putting the right literacy and language resources (including the time of Corps Members) into lower socioeconomic neighborhoods. 

The Jumpstart Solution—Purposeful Play and Required Reading

In this second post, I will consider “The Jumpstart Solution,” the actual programming executed by Corps Members in preschools and community centers. [...]
The work done here ( both in marketing Jumpstart’s solution and in the actual classroom, is not defensive, but proactive.  By not only working on reading with children, but also by constructing play and activities to help develop language and communication skills, Jumpstart sessions provide a space for children in which they can learn with positive reinforcement, with a lot of personal attention, and with a specific goal—literacy—in mind. As to frequency and theme, “Jumpstart sessions take place two days per week, for two hours each time. Each session revolves around a core storybook and one book serves as the focus for two sessions. Session plans are organized in six unit themes -- Family, Friends, Wind and Water, The World of Color, Shadows and Reflections, Things That Grow” which always follow the same structure of Names, Reading, Circle Time, Centers, Let’s Find Out About It (in which children learn from the Team Leader about new concepts, ideas, or objects), and Sharing and Goodbye.

Perhaps surprisingly, the literal act of reading is only one element of Jumpstart sessions: for an organization dedicated to literacy, it would be easy to assume that sessions would be entirely structured around reading books. And in fact, even the five children in my reading group assume that what is important in the act of reading is finishing the books quickly, and to read more books during Center Time. “We’re going to win! We have to win!” they’ll shout, referring to fact that we have, for the moment, progressed farther in a given book than other groups that day. As I have pointed out to them, however, “winning” in reading is not about finishing first, or reading the most. Rather, reading is about remembering the books, understanding them and the strange new words the books often include. (Delightfully, some of the children have started reiterating this second message back to me during Reading Time). The same is true of literacy more generally: consuming books isn’t sufficient. Instead, literacy comes from knowing how to use the language skills that one gains from the practice of reading books into communication with others, in other settings, and even in mundane interactions like learning to sit still and listen. 

While Jumpstart’s solution, in the form of bi-weekly sessions doesn’t tackle any of the social problems it purports to alleviate (a tall order: unemployment, incarceration, high school drop-out rates, to name but a few) it does make a large impact on individual children. According to the website, sessions impact 50,000 preschool-age children through 1 million hours of service to these children of low-income communities. Even as it does not tackle the larger social problems involved in education across socioeconomic boundaries, Jumpstart does put the resources—energetic, enthusiastic students and community members’ time and attention—into the right place to promote success. My next post will begin to consider that individual impact, with the following questions in mind: how much can Jumpstart impact an individual child, and how can that impact on a child alleviate larger issues of educational disparities, socioeconomic boundaries, and social biases? 

No comments:

Post a Comment