Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Crime the Schools Are Committing to Our Children

by Anthony Pellegrino, respected CNMI community leader, educator and founder of the Northern Marianas Trades Institute, also widely known as a highly successful entrepreneur in bottled water and aquaculture.

The new school term has begun. For many students it will be a nightmare. They know that they will be returning to a dreary day of sitting in a classroom struggling for five hours to read and to write. For them the printed word and the written word remain a mystery. As they glance around the room, they silently envy the other students that have little difficulty in those activities. These are the students that many teachers and school districts have written off as “school failures.” These are the students who cannot read and write on their grade level. But whose fault is it that they are in such a dilemma?

As these students approach the legal age of 16 for school drop-outs, they learn to tolerate abuse both silent and verbal heaped upon them from the teachers and fellow students. They realize that college is only a dream for them. Only poor paying jobs or welfare awaits them. Is it any wonder they feel frustrated and want to run away?

Other students who also have low reading and writing abilities somehow manage to get into a college. There they spend the first year or perhaps two years taking basic reading and writing courses before they are capable of tackling the regular curriculum. Does it have to be this way?

What if educators decided to wrestle with poor readers and poor writers when they first notice them in early childhood? Would it cost so much more money to train these students to read and write by the time they graduate from high school? Wouldn’t it be worthwhile spending extra time or a different approach to assist these slow learners? Is it better to worry about the majority of the students and forget that we are creating potential social dropouts and candidates for violence and welfare candidates?

All students study the same subjects in the same grade and are treated in the same manner. One size is supposed to fit all. But what if we sorted out the slow learners and gave them extra attention? Keep the same five hours but change the courses to fit the individual student’s ability. When a student shows difficulty in reading or writing, change the approach.

Instead of forcing the student to take the usual English course, he should be placed in a remedial class. The same should be done when the student shows a lack of writing ability for his age level. Instead of feeding him a block of knowledge that the curriculum spells out, deviate from it and concentrate on his deficiency. Would we feed the body the same food and medicine when the child is sick? No, we would adopt the food and medicine to fit the illness.

I am not trying to tell professional educators how they should teach or what they should teach. But when a student is not grasping the basics of reading and writing, why do educators insist that the one size must fit him or he is cast aside? Don’t they realize what they are doing to the student? They are silently branding him as a loser in life.

We should judge educators on their success rate of how many students can really read and write, not on how many students they pass along. With all the new technology and with new teaching techniques, educators must eliminate or at least minimize the number of poor readers and poor writers. This achievement should be the true measure of success for any school system.

To solve the problem, extra money is not needed, extra teachers are not needed, extra space is not needed. What is needed is a determination by the school staff to eliminate or at least greatly minimize poor reading and writing habits of slow learners. It is a matter of arranging classes and schedules. Make the system flexible instead of a rigid one based on one method must fit all.

I strongly feel that the elementary and middle grades are to be used to teach how to study and how to read and write. Only when a student reaches high school should facts and concepts be taught. Instead too many schools insist on trying to make students absorb meaningless facts without the ability to read and write about them.

How gratifying it would be if more students were motivated to read and write instead of being shoved along because the system demands it. When will educators realize the crime they are committing by allowing students to go through their system without the ability to read and write? Think of all the minds they are wasting! Think of all the future social problems they are creating by not correcting these problems now!

In conclusion, if educators are truly interested in improving the education of children, educators must develop new ideas to remedy these chronic problems. They must motivate slow learners to improve their writing and reading abilities.

To me the phrase: No child left behind—means he or she must be able to read and write on his grade level. By the time the student leaves high school he must be fairly proficient in those two skills. Forget teaching useless facts. Teach skills of reading and writing and the facts will come later with meaning.

Stop wasting young minds! Stop condemning students to failure in life! A student saved is a potential contributor to our society. Where there is a will there is a method!

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


Attitudes toward autism have gone through many changes. In my first twenty years as an occupation therapist, I had two clients with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They were considered exotic birds, their rocking, spinning and hand flapping were called “self-stimming,” and their behavior was blamed squarely on the coldness of their “refrigerator moms.”

Now, these once atypical children are common in my caseload, and self-stimulating behavior is more accurately acknowledged as self-calming. Instead of being blamed, their moms are honored for their ability to cope with their sensitive children.

The jury is still out on the cause of autism, but what is apparent is that the brains of these children process information differently. Now that we understand the plasticity of the brain, modern therapies are aimed towards helping these children connect the dots in ways that other children do so they can better fit into our world.

There are even people nowadays who propose that children in the spectrum and with sensory processing disorders (SPD) are more advanced rather than less than their peers. A growing awareness of autistic savants, with genius mixed into their social differences, adds some muscle to that theory.

It’s an interesting thought. I think of Reggie, one of “my” kids. I was watching him blow bubbles recently and saw him mesmerized by the way the light refracted off the iridescent bubbles. If you really pay attention, bubbles are amazingly beautiful and Reggie was just as delighted and appreciative of the fortieth bubble blown as he was of the first. (Talk about being in the present moment!) Reggie’s ability to notice details also makes him the only one in his pre-school class to know the names and sounds of every letter in the alphabet. I envy his contentment in solitary play and not seeming to care or notice what others think of him.

What would it be like if kids like Reggie were just seen as one in a variety of human possibilities? I won’t be surprised if sometime in the not too distant future, it might be considered "cool" to be autistic or to have unique ways of processing the world. Terms such as Sensory Processing Differences will be used instead of Disorders and we all will learn to be sensitive to our needs and how to regulate and calm our systems.

Meanwhile, we parents and therapist and friends who love these children can make them feel welcomed and find ways to help them acquire needed skills. One way will always be playing. Play is the brain’s way of learning and our way to enjoy our lives and to give love to each other. Daniel Tammet, an autistic savant whose skills may make "Rainman" look like he had memory problems, points out in his book, Born on a Blue Day, that what made his childhood miserable were the children who couldn’t accept him as he was, but what made his development flourish was his parents who did.