F. Stewart Kallinger: A Lesson for Ms. Fort

Feb 1, 2016 by

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An Interview with F. Stewart Kallinger: A Lesson for Ms. Fort

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) Tell us about your experiences teaching reading to college students.

Teaching reading to freshmen in NYC’s community colleges has been very frustrating. For example, if I assigned a chapter in a novel for homework, the lazy responses I received during the next session were, “I didn’t get a chance to read it,” or “I forgot to read it.” And the students who said that they actually did read the chapter usually couldn’t answer any of my questions. First they looked squeamish when I called on them, then they started turning the pages of the chapter very slowly, trying to find the answer; or they reluctantly admitted that they forgot what they had read in the chapter. This happened all the time.

2) When you say “reading” are you talking about reading comprehension, reading rate or fluency?

About 90% of the students in my freshman remedial reading classes still did not know all the sounds of the alphabet. I knew this because I always asked each student, during a conference, to sound out all the letters, and almost no one knew all the sounds. Because of this, they could only sound out familiar-looking words, but if any of them came across a strange-looking, multi-syllabic word, that student would stop and try almost painfully to guess, then finally gave up.

3) How do, or how can high school students get thru high school with such poor reading skills? Are they all special education students, or dyslexic?

High school students go through all four years without knowing how to read or write because their teachers are “persuaded” or “encouraged” by their administrators to constantly pass them. The reasoning, I’m afraid, is simple and valid: If a classroom has enough desks for 30 students, but 15 students in the class are held over because they are functionally illiterate, then there will be a shortage of those 15 desks when the next group of 30 students enters the room in September.

4) How do the parents and family fit into all this?

I have found that students who are basically illiterate–who don’t even know how to spell their names–come from families that are dysfunctional: one parent is usually in prison, the other may be an alcoholic, an older sibling or grandparent is raising the child; and since no one really cares about the child’s school work, why should the child? By the way, if someone at home should ask the child if his or her homework has been completed, all the child has to say is “Yes,”–because no one even checks it.

5) I see thousands of students either texting or listening to music all the time- very few students do I see reading. Is there anything the schools can do?

As far as students texting in class is concerned, NYC’s former mayor, Michael Bloomberg, prohibited students from bringing their cell phones to school, but our new mayor has rescinded that order. Because of that, I feel that very few teachers will want to confront a student in class who might be texting. I know all the defensive maneuvers students make when it comes to a teacher telling them to put away their cellphones–and believe me, it’s not worth it.

Even in NYC’s community colleges, the professors are reluctant to confront a student in class who might be texting, nor has any directive ever been issued by CUNY concerning the matter.

6) Parental involvement is crucial – but how does the average teacher or principal get those parents involved?

Getting the parents of illiterate children involved is very difficult. One possible remedy is this: Perhaps the parents and guardians of illiterate students could attend workshops on parenting conducted by social workers and school psychologists. But what can society do when an overwhelming number of parents are incarcerated? Each year, a “Family Day” for inmates is held at Rikers Island Correctional Facility in NYC.  During this time, children spend time with their incarcerated fathers or mothers–who are in prison stripes.  What kinds of examples are these incarcerated parents setting for their children?

By the way, I will never forget the student who told me in class that his father once told him never to accept parole when you are in jail. When you are released on parole, his father told him, you have to see your parole officer once each week–and it kills the whole day. So if you are ever offered parole, do not take it. Serve your full sentence. That’s the advice a father gives his son?

7) Are there really “failing schools” or is it more of a lack of administrative support?

The term “failing school” is really a misnomer. A failing school is simply a school where an overwhelming number of students are unable to perform basic skills because, again, they are the products of dysfunctional families.

Nor are the students failing because of a lack of administrative support. So-called failing schools can have the greatest administrators in the world, but the problems in the neighborhood–incarceration and    alcoholism–are so widespread that no one, unfortunately, can solve the problem. That is why I have suggested possible workshops on parenting for these families

8) Tell us about your book – Lesson for Ms Fort.

My book, A Lesson for Ms. Fort, is actually a political- and social-protest novel aimed at our country’s     political leaders, for they are constantly accusing our teachers of gross incompetence while the real     culprits in our nation’s educational crisis–the dysfunctional families who are raising illiterate children—get away scot free.

The story centers around Elizabeth Fort, a reading expert who is called back to her original school in NYC, I.S. 65, as it is in danger of being closed down due to low reading and math scores.

While Ms. Fort supports all the progressive educational initiatives already in place, such as the Standards     and Interactive Learning, she soon realizes why they are not working–and why the new Common Core Learning Standards will also fail.

Basically, I’m criticizing the above educational initiatives because they are actually doing more harm than good. They were created by our “educator-leaders” who felt that students could learn more from each other when working in groups (Interactive Learning), that classrooms should be student-centered instead of being teacher-directed.

What Ms. Fort and her colleagues soon realize is that Interactive Learning is only encouraging her     students to talk about everything except their school work; and that her students’ reading and writing skills are so poor that she has to read everything out loud to them, as well as write all their papers for them. And what do the new initiatives say about these deficiencies? Her school’s team leader says that the teachers should not make more than two or three corrections on their students’ papers because their students should be allowed to express themselves fully and in their own way.

My book ends with Ms. Fort writing an open-letter to the president at the White House in which she 1) spells out exactly why our schools are failing, and 2) lists several remedies which, if enacted, could very     well lead to an improvement across the country. A colleague at the school encourages her to write the     letter, as Ms. Fort was once National Teacher of the Year and a Distinguished Guest at the White House.     (This is all fictional.)

After I completed Ms. Fort’s letter, I took a bold move and decided to actually address the book “To the President of the United States.” I feel that strongly about our failing educational system. I now intend to     contact one of my senators to see if a number of chapters can, in fact, be forwarded to the White House.

F. Stewart Kallinger has spent 31 years teaching in NYC public schools and 6 additional years teaching remedial reading and writing to students attending the community colleges of the City University of New York. Earning a BA and MS in Education and English from Long Island University, Kallinger is passionate about bringing to light the literacy crisis, not only in New York City, but across the rest of the country as well. Today, he is retired from teaching and spends his time as a freelance writer in New York.

A Lesson for Ms. Fort [January, 2016] is available via Amazon Kindle.

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