Friday, August 10, 2012

How to spell "ear"

Today in class, a student asked me how to spell the word "ear." Like I always do when a student asks me how to spell something, I asked her back: "how do you think it's spelled?" "E-I-R," she replied in earnest. I told her she was close and gave her the correct spelling and she smiled and went back to her work. I am teaching high school English. This girl is going to be a sophomore in high school in the fall. She does not have a significant learning disability and while she is enrolled in a summer credit recovery program, I still have to wonder how our education system has let her come so far without the skills to spell the word "ear."

This question plagues me far too often. I have spent the last three years teaching in low-income, high-need schools in grades ranging from 6-12, but the achievement-level often starts at first grade. I understand social promotion at it's core: students who are held back are far more likely to drop out of school, so we should send them to the next grade rather than risk them quitting altogether. We need to ask ourselves though, does sending a student to second grade or tenth grade or whatever grade make sense if they haven't mastered the material from their current level? It seems a silly question; the obvious answer is "no". AND YET WE DO IT. I assume in hopes that they will catch up the next year, but that rarely (if ever) actually happens. So now, Johnny Student is sitting in second grade and the teacher calls on him to read the next paragraph. And he can't. How does his embarrassment serve to further his education? Most of the time, he isn't going to come in after school for extra help unless someone forces him to and usually, no one will (the reasons behind the neglect are varied, but in the end the reasons don't really matter). He's going to fall further behind and now in third grade, embarrassed and frustrated he starts acting out. Maybe he's the class clown, maybe he just doesn't care about school, maybe he's mean... anything to cover up that he just doesn't get it. Now he's in my eighth grade classroom and he can barely read "see spot run." Let's leave alone for the moment that I'm going to be held accountable for his ability to pass a state-wide standardized test at the same level as his on-grade-level peers and just look at him: 12 or 13 years old and 7 years behind in school already. Even if he doesn't drop out, he's not getting the education that he's entitled to.

There are many repercussions and factors involved in this story that I am not mentioning because this is a blog post and not a book, but the core of this issue is that our current system is failing students. Repeatedly and with vigor. We continue to cut funds, increase class sizes and decrease the classes that kids actually enjoy and expect not just the same results we've been getting, but better ones. We are somehow supposed to be IMPROVING our students' educations with less resources and often less class time. My second year teaching, we had 17 furlough days. For nearly every week of the school year, the kids only had school Monday-Thursday from 8-2:30.

This post is mostly a rant about the current state of education, but it's also a cry for help. The state of education is not going to change unless we take action- it is the way it is because we have let it get this bad. We (and I don't just mean educators and parents; I mean we the nation, we the world) need to stand up and say this is unacceptable. We need to take action. We need to DO something. All students deserve equal opportunities to receive a good education. No matter what.

Maybe you disagree; maybe you think that because you don't have kids or because you live in an affluent neighborhood with good schools that this doesn't affect you. Let me widen your lens: Johnny Student is an adult now. He still can't read very well, so he can't get a decent job. But his inability to read didn't stop him from starting a family and now he's on welfare. Your taxes are paying for that.

Or maybe Johnny got a job doing manual labor and he makes enough, but he's working on your house and can't read the warning on the glue he's using and accidentally starts a fire in your kitchen.

Or maybe he is miserable with his life because he has no job and he drinks himself into a stupor and drives home right when you happen to be driving home from work.

Or maybe...

You live in the same country, so I promise you that what happens to him affects you too.

So, what are you going to do about it? Until people outside of the education system start demanding change, it isn't going to happen. When I talk about it, I'm whining; when you talk about it, maybe something will get done. So please, don't let another student reach 10th grade without being able to spell "ear."


  1. How important is spelling? Does spelling help us understand one another? Does spelling promote critical thinking? Tori Spelling is gross.

    1. To a point, you're right. If you spell necessity with one "s" instead of two, you'll still be understood. However, here spelling stands in to represent a much larger issue. I could have mentioned an inability to think critically or figure out how to clearly express a complex concept, but the inability to spell a first grade word as a 10th grader is a concrete and dire example of a rampant problem.