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A ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH — IN READING

It was a day to be remembered—a day to give one hope that America’s best years are not gone. The setting: Ron’s Barn, set by a lake in Evergreen Memorial Park. Outside roamed Ron Lewis’s herds of buffalo, elk, and deer. And the snow was beginning to fall.

For over an hour, third-graders and their parents, teachers, librarians and principals, had been arriving, the kids surreptitiously peering around the corner to make sure those precious books were there waiting for them.

Five mountain communities just west of Denver were represented: Deer Creek, Elk Creek, Marshdale, Parmalee, and West Jefferson [Conifer], each with its elementary school.

For us members of the Conifer Kiwanis Club, it was our ninth reading celebration in as many years. We exist as a club for one reason only; indeed, after the invocation and pledge of allegiance each week, together we recite our mantra:

Kiwanis is a global organization of volunteers—dedicated to changing the world:

one child, one community, at a time. . . .
Kiwanis is for kids here, there,
everywhere.

Children of Deer Creek Elementary School

And here in this venerable barn (reconstructed from five historic barns Ron Lewis had found and transported from remote sections of Colorado to this lovely mountain valley), was our reason for being. Appropriately, Ron’s first order of business was to welcome the several hundred attendees to his barn, to tell them the story of Jessica, a buffalo Ron had raised from birth, personally feeding seven times every 24 hours—not surprisingly, he considers Jessica (now a venerable 22 years old), to be his daughter. He told us how Jessica, after breaking a leg, would normally have been butchered for her meat, but “how could I let that happen to a daughter?” Had that happened, Jessica could never have given birth to a bull that reigned as champion of the Denver Stock Show, selling for $85,000. Then we all sang, “Home on the Range,” about a place “where the deer and antelope play.” Following that, Ron took batches of third-graders out to see Jessica. Meanwhile, those still in the barn queued up at the book-signing table.

In preparation for this event, during the last two months, I had made two visits to each of the five elementary schools, telling the third-graders about the upcoming reading celebration and showing them copies of each of the first seven books in my “The Good Lord Made Them All” animal series: Owney the Post Office Dog and Other Great Dog Stories (Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2004), Smoky the Ugliest Cat in the World and Other Great Cat Stories (2005), Wildfire the Red Stallion and Other Great Horse Stories (2006), Dick the Babysitting Bear and Other Great Wild Animal Stories (2007), Spot the Dog that Broke the Rules and Other Great Animal Hero Stories (2008), Amelia the Flying Squirrel and Other Stories of God’s Smallest Creatures (2009), and the newest one, Togo the Sled Dog and Other Great Animal Stories of the North (2011). I then sketched out for them the essence of each book’s lead story, left a poster depicting all the covers, and a permission slip for each parent to sign if it was OK with them if I gifted the child with the specific book the child chose.

Inscribing a book to one of the children.

Each child received first at our book-signing table a Certificate of Reading Achievement (with a gold seal), signed by me and by Barry Sweeney, former Kiwanis Lieutenant Governor. Then, as each child reached me, I was able to find out about his/her reading habits before I personally inscribed the chosen book.

At 2:00 p.m., we all gathered together for the other main event: After speaking to them about the program, I encouraged the adults in the room to seriously address the problem of our community’s boys (an issue I have dealt with in several earlier blogs). They were sobered as I pointed out that boys across the nation are bailing out of the educational process at such a rate that the ratio of female to male on college campuses across the nation is already 1.5 to one, and threatening to reach two-to-one.

I relayed a message from the local CEO of the Intermountain Rural Electric Association (the most faithful corporate backer of our program). He declared that reading ought to be one of our highest priorities in Colorado. And that, when he looked back over his life, he was most proud of—not his own career—but having a daughter who so loves reading she recently read 35,000 pages researching her masters in English.

Afterwards, I called the group up to the front school by school. After awarding each $1,500 check, we had the principal, teachers, and librarians tell us how they used last year’s money. Apparently, this is the only known instance where all our mountain elementary school personnel get together to compare their reading programs.

Turkey kiss. Photo by Barbara Ford -- Reprinted Courtesy of Evergreen Newspapers.

One report was especially intriguing: The principal of Parmalee Elementary School, Ingrid Mielke, seeking ways to motivate her students to read more, rashly promised to kiss a turkey if they collectively read for at least 100,000 minutes during a two-week period. They were so motivated they read for 192,423 minutes!

High Timber Times reporter Barbara Ford chronicled what happened next: “At the end of the school day on Tuesday, students gathered outside and got their first glimpse of the Duncans’ bird gobbling as he strutted around the cage. Mielke approached the giant gobbler as Duncan’s husband, Graeme, held the bird closer than a forkful of white meat on Thanksgiving. Mielke closed her eyes and swooped in for a swift smooch on the turkey’s neck. Students cheered.” (Dec. 1, 2010 issue).

Afterwards, it was time to resume inscribing books. By now (being it’s the ninth year of these reading celebrations), I’ve discovered a real pattern: If a student admits to poor reading habits, rarely is s/he expressive. There is a glazed look in the eyes (typical of the media groupie’s bored expression having to do with all things educational). Not so, the child who loves reading: here, the eyes dance, the child clearly filled with wonder about the magical worlds contained in books. A number of these came by my table. To each of them, an author like me was almost a subject of awe.

In those few, I sensed the birth of a new beginning in America. If we as a nation can somehow reverse decades of plunging reading scores, it will be because we finally pull back our children from the brink of mental, physical, and spiritual pulverization by excessive exposure to electronic imagery, and in its place, restore that serene world our children once had four generations ago—a world where their dreams may germinate. . . . And reading will flourish again.

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LITTLE BOY BLUE REVISITED

We’ve had a lot of responses to our series of blogs detailing the grim picture for boys and men in America today. Now columnist, educator, and former First Lady of Colorado Dottie Lamm has picked up the torch in “Our Boys Are Falling Behind in Education” (Denver Post, April 18, 2010).

She begins with this preamble:

“What’s the next battle for an aging feminist?

Boys.

Granted, the battle for women’s rights and equality has not been completely won, but the new reality is that in the future, it will be males who are most endangered.”

She concurs with the findings in one of my earlier blogs: That since by 2017 (only seven years from now) the ratio of female to male graduates will be 1 ½ to 1, we’re already in the midst of a terrible crisis, and notes that though women have lobbied for generations for their rights and talents to be recognized, they most certainly weren’t lobbying for a complete role reversal, where they’re predicted to “reign supreme in all fields but the sciences.”

And women, she feels, have not even begun to internalize the fallout from such a seismic shift. So she poses this rhetorical question: “How many college-educated women today would want to marry a man with such low educational achievement skills or ambition that he would be permanently relegated to the role of full-time ‘homemaker’—not by choice, but by default?”

Then Lamm turns to causes, and refers to issues I’ve spent most of my adult lifetime studying. Both of us are convinced that we’re now paying the price for forcing our kids into reading and verbal exercises at an ever earlier age. We used to wait until they were seven or eight, but for several generations now we’ve been forcing them into early-learning kindergartens before they—especially boys—are ready for it. Lamm points out that, generally speaking, “the verbal parts of boys’ brains do not develop to capacity until fourth or fifth grade.” Furthermore, brain-scans reveal that the language area of 3 ½-year-old girls mirrors that of 5-year-old boys.”

We both agree: What results from immersing boys into verbal instruction at such an early age is that we set them up for almost certain failure. When girls their own age can run circles around them in classwork, the wounds to boys’ sense of self-worth can be so deep and long-lasting that they just plain give up, convicted that they’re just plain dumb; that nothing they can possibly do will be enough to enable them to reach performance parity with girls. Quite simply, it’s the Dunce Syndrome all over again: Tell a child enough times that he’s dumb, and it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Studies have also shown that small children’s eyes find it difficult to focus on print. On the other hand, boys are wired for action from birth on. That’s why the best thing we can do for them is let them roam the great out-of-doors free of regimentation during the first seven or eight years of their lives. Instead of Gameboys and videos, they ought to be outside climbing trees, wading in creeks, playing in a sandpile. Our own son Greg, just turned seven, was not quite ready for first grade work, so we pulled him out until he was almost eight—by that time he was so ready he raced through two grades in one year.

Studies have shown that children who are force-fed too soon (many are pushed into reading as early as three or four so that they’ll get a head-start over the others) invariably are passed later on by those who were permitted to begin schooling at a later age. Furthermore, those who start too young get burned out earlier than those who wait.

Lamm notes that “boys are far more likely to be held back a grade in fourth grade and then again in ninth grade, an action that promotes a suspension rate for boys that is twice as high as that of girls. This in turn leads to a male dropout rate of 32 percent compared to 25 percent for females.”

And let’s face it, girls remain considerably more mature than boys through college and later. I had 34 years of classroom experience in which to compare the two genders. Believe me, it was no contest: the average coed was about three years ahead maturity-wise, far more ready to tackle serious issues such as marriage and long-term commitment than were the males. But males do eventually catch up—usually by the late twenties or early thirties.

Lamm feels it’s almost criminal that we as a society have failed to do a thing about a problem of this magnitude, pointing out that the U.S. Department of Education “has yet to launch a single probe into the gender gap.”

Lamm concludes with these revealing words: “If a man’s movement develops for boys, I’ll join it. And, as an aging feminist, I’ll still fight to take big chunks out of that glass ceiling for women. But as a grandmother of three young boys, I’m going to do my darndest to keep young boys from sinking into that academic mud floor.”