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The Story of Jonathan

I learned to read by way of phonics in the first grade. First, I learned the individual letters and their sounds; from letters and sounds, I moved to individual words; from words, to sentences, to paragraphs, to pages, to stories. I learned to read by building up the parts; bottom to top. Reading specialists would say I was a parts-to-whole reader. Some would say that phonics gets the credit. I slowly and carefully put the puzzle together piece by piece. In school I read every assignment, every chapter, every set of comprehension questions at the end of chapters, every spelling list, every grammar assignment. I read everything I was told to read; I got good grades and graduated at the top of my high school class. One problem: I hated to read. I read only the exact number of pages assigned; I never took a book home to read for pleasure. I went to college and continued the same pattern. I spent every free moment in the library, got good grades, graduated with honors in literature, and yet I still hated to read.

When my children were babies, I started to read to them. The baby books said I should, so I did. With our first child, Dawn, something started to change: I loved the big black-and-white checkered book, The Real Mother Goose. I thought Winnie the Pooh had been written just for me. By the time we got to Charlotte’s Web, I was hooked on books. I used to secretly read The Secret Garden even when Dawn was asleep. With our son, Bo, I broadened my literary base. I probably have read The Three Little Pigs several thousand times, and I still huff and puff with vigor. Pecos Bill was the highlight of Bo’s preschool years at home. From there he moved on to BMX magazines, and we both became authorities on racing bikes. After BMX magazines, he moved on to motorcycle books. From there, he jumped right into Stephen King and left me far in the dust. It was at this point in my life that I had to find my own books to read. I was probably about thirty years old.

When did Dawn and Bo learn to read? I have no idea, but it was before kindergarten. One day Dawn came home from kindergarten crying because the librarian wouldn’t let her check out The Secret Garden. The librarian said it was too hard for kindergartners and only third-graders could have it. The same librarian would only let the students check out one book at a time, a rule that Dawn hated. One day she checked out her one allotted book, shoved three more inside her T-shirt, and headed for the exit. She had detention for a week. (This meant that we all had detention for a week, as we lived in the country an hour away from school.)

Dawn and Bo learned to read the opposite way that I did. Reading specialists would say that they were whole-to-part readers. They looked at the picture of the whole puzzle first and then put the pieces together. Do they love to read? Yes. Do they read for pleasure? Yes.

When I first started to notice all of this, it seemed like a contradiction. How could my kids possibly learn to read if they didn’t do the same thing I had done? Didn’t I need to teach them the sounds, the letters, the words first? However, it was clear to me that they were not interested in the parts. They wanted the whole story again and again and again. Since that time, I have been very interested in the various ways that children learn to read and read to learn. This is what triggered my interest in holistic and critical teaching and learning. It seems that many kids who were read to as little children, learn to read and love to read. Homes with books and ideas and love seem to produce kids who love to read – except for Jonathan, who is a 12-year-old contradiction in my educational space. From Jonathan I had to unlearn much of what I thought to be true. Jonathan taught me that one-size-does-not-fit-all when it comes to reading and teaching and learning.

Jonathan comes from an enriched family. He has food, love, and lots of laughs. His dad is an lung specialist; his mother is the best-read person I know; and, his brothers and sister are great kids. Now that I am at a point in my life where I philosophically understand why kids with books learn to read, I must still be alert to the exceptions. I listen to the whispering of the juxtaposition.

Jonathan spent two years of preschool in a two-way Spanish-English immersion where 50 percent of the students were English speakers, and 50 percent of the students were Spanish speakers. His two oral languages grew rapidly. Jonathan flourished as he ran and played in this bilingual context. When he spoke to the English role model teacher, he used only English. When he needed something from the Spanish role model teacher, he switched to Spanish without hesitation. In class and on the playground, he used either language with his peers.

Jonathan entered kindergarten and was able to continue in a two-way immersion program. This program had been well established years ago. The first group of students had already graduated from high school and were now bilingual college students. Some of these students were European Americans; some were Mexican American, but they all were biliterate and all were continuing to achieve academically.

In this program Jonathan had the best of everything: the best teachers, pedagogy, field trips, fish bowls, crayons, and curriculum. Jonathan’s prior experiences and this school setting could not have been better. We were ready for Jonathan’s emergent literacy to begin.

He didn’t read in kindergarten; we waited. He didn’t read in first grade; we waited and started to worry. He didn’t read in second, nor third, nor fourth, nor fifth grade. I called reading specialists in several states. I read every book on reading I could find. The message consistently was: read to him; talk with him about ideas; love him; give him success in other areas. We did it all. Jonathan’s applesauce won a blue ribbon at the state fair. He became an avid photographer and joined a senior citizen’s photography club where every member adored him. In his neighbor’s garage he developed an interest in and ability in carpentry. Still he couldn’t read. We worried more and tried everything: stories, phonics, print-rich environment, dittos, sandpaper letters, Cool Whip words, more stories, more love. With each passing year, we became less philosophically grounded and more eclectic. We tried everything I believed in and everything I didn’t believe in, and I don’t like to admit this to you.

Jonathan’s two oral languages and knowledge continued to grow at a rapid rate. He knew so much, but he couldn’t write about it, nor could he read.

Tests. Tests. And, more tests. Jonathan knew every specialist in the district. Jonathan soon began to feel very bad; his self-esteem suffered. His family, his neighbors, and his teachers continued to focus on what Jon could do, and not what he couldn’t, but we were all in agony. The special services division of the district assessed Jonathan with every test available. Jon and his parents suffered through interminable student-study-team meetings where each time new well-meaning strangers offered new advice based on yet another test.

Finally, in the summer of his fifth grade, his desperate parents enrolled Jonathan in a private program that focused on auditory discrimination deficit, a problem that several tests had ruled out long ago. The teacher of this program said it would be different. It was. It was prohibitively expensive; the students had to focus for four hours at one sitting; Jon would have to go every day; the parents had to commit to a minimum of 40 hours.

I was the least optimistic of all. This program was everything that I knew wouldn’t work. This was a wreck waiting to happen. I understand why Jonathan’s parents were willing to try, but I was confident that this would only do more harm to Jonathan’s failing self-concept. He did not need another failure.

After his initial visits, Jonathan called me long distance and excitedly asked me to come and watch him read. I jumped in the car and drove several hours and arrived in time to attend the next session with him. We entered the living room, which had been transformed into a type of reading laboratory for Jon with pictures of tongues and mouths in various positions, manipulatives, cards, and a board that reminded me of a 3-D Monopoly game. Jonathan sat down and focused on the instructions and the sounds he was to make. He knew where his tongue went for every sound. He proudly explained the difference in sounds and talked excitedly about “lip poppers” and “lip tappers.” He knew the difference between “fat” sounds and “skinny” sounds; he didn’t confuse the “coolers” and the “tongue coolers.” By breaking down words into very, very small parts, Jonathan was able to break through the decoding barrier.

“Now, I am finally starting to read, Joan,” he proudly told me. For years I have studied the debate regarding whether we learn to read from whole-to-part or from part-to-whole. Does it help us to have a picture of the puzzle before we start to put the puzzle together? Yes. Does it help us to know the story before we begin to read each page, each paragraph, each sentence, each word, each sound? Yes. If families love reading and spend wonderful times reading to their children, will the children begin to read and love to read? Yes. Except for Jon.

In the first edition, Jonathan was reading and writing in the sixth grade. He struggled with spelling tests. I remember when he tried to memorize the word, aboard. Jonathan did not know this word; had never used this word, and could see no need for it in his life. He said to his mom, “Even if I learn to spell it by Friday, I still won’t know it next Monday.”

“Let’s move on to social studies,” his mom replied, recognizing that he understood far more than how to spell aboard. The two of them began to talk about the various people who live in the world, as part of the social studies assignment. Suddenly, Jonathan became very excited and said to his mom, “People. People, now there is a word I could really use. I’ll learn how to spell people, and I’ll always know it.” He knew it on Friday, and he knew it the following Monday, and he still knows how to spell it.

Jonathan is the whispering of the juxtaposition for me. He is the voice of the other. Jonathan teaches me to keep learning from the opposites of my beliefs. After writing this story, I sent a copy to Jonathan and his mom. Jon was delighted to read about himself but disappointed with me.

“Mom, she didn’t get it,” he groaned.

“What didn’t she get?” his mom asked.

“She missed the whole point. The reason I’ll always remember how to spell people is because I need to know it.”

No, Jonathan, I didn’t miss the point. I get it.

The Journey of Jon Continues.

Since the first edition, the journey of Jonathan continues. He is now 15 years-old and 6’4”. Simply put: Jon is a joy. He is a terrific citizen of his school, church, and community. His literacy development continues to raise subtle questions which can often be a prelude to relearning and unlearning for me.

For example, Jon makes me relearn that meaning matters. Jon has begun to write notes to girls. Usually, Jon does not worry about his less-than-perfect spelling; spell-check works fine for assignments. However, when it comes to note-writing (one of the most underrated literacy activities of adolescents), Jon wants it perfect. Suddenly, he is self-conscious about his spelling and asks his mom to check his notes. However, he always gives her clear and concise instructions: “Don’t READ it, just check the spelling.”

Jon’s family has always had great expectations for him, so when, as a freshman in high school, he was assigned the classic by Charles Dickens, I listened intently. I wondered if Great Expectations would be meaningful in his life. Jon’s middle name is Dickens, and it seemed that this might in some mysterious way “empower” him to decode this old English novel. As it turned out, his mother finally read it aloud to him. I think Jon will remember the hours spent with his mother as she read, and I think he will remember a story she told him. Dickens was paid by the word when he sold his stories in serial form. “That might be the reason why he devotes so much into describing how someone cut and buttered a piece of bread,” Jon replied. I am wondering if you and I have such abiding memories of our high school experiences with Charles Dickens.

At the same time that Dickens was required reading in school, Jon found a Dennis Rodman book at the local book store and I received a phone call from his mom.

“Joan, Jon wants to buy a Dennis Rodman book, and he has saved his allowance for it,” his mom began.

“Nancy, you are the mom who ONLY wanted your son to read,” I responded. “Let him read.”

From Dickens to Rodman in the same week initiated more unlearning about literacy for us. It seemed a safe and far-way time, when his mother and I worried about sounds or whole stories. There is no one- perfect way to literacy. Families and teachers need to do whatever is necessary to lead kids to books; the power of literacy will open the door to the great diversity of thought. Books will tell Jon about the “other.” I have every confidence that Jon will continue to read the word and the world very well.