The Hounds of Budget Cycles

January 29, 2012

As School District 61 begins the cycle of community input and consultation on the budget submission to the Ministry as required for 2012-2013  , this blog features a guest blogger, Sharon Hoddinott, for many years a literacy expert and Reading Recovery Teacher Leader in Alberta and British Columbia.

As a former public school teacher, I know the immense value of Reading Recovery in bringing positive change to young lives. I had the privilege of being a Reading Recovery teacher for nine years in School District 61 Greater Victoria.

Kudos to past Boards of Education in Greater Victoria  for supporting this intensive one-on-one 12 – 20  week specialist-taught program with supplementary funding for those elementary schools that want to have it as an effective learning support for struggling children in Grade One who already feel discouraged as peers quickly pull away from them in literacy skills.

Many school planning councils from Greater Victoria schools have completed a survey document that included a section for desired increases in expenditures and a section for where we could cut.

The general assessment is, there is nothing left to cut, after years of valiant attempts to deal with a structural deficit brought on by provincial underfunding. Joan Axford, as Secretary-Treasurer of SD61 Saanich, made a presentation to the Vancouver Island School Trustees’ Association in 2010 that explains how the underfunding has persisted at the Ministry level over many years : Learning From the Past.

Trustees in Greater Victoria hope to see significant community participation in this budget cycle. Public education, a foundation of democracy and a significant component of Canadian social justice, needs your help and support.

And thank you, Sharon, from bringing back to mind all the fun I had reading Wodehouse years ago. Once I started, I could not stop before reading them all.


The Importance of Being Literate: Sharon Hoddinott

“I was, in truth, a horrible child. Not much given to things of a booky nature, I spent a large part of my youth smoking Number Six and cheating in French vocabulary tests.”

This admission is from Hugh Laurie and of course there is much more detail in the biography from which this came. But Hugh became an accomplished actor, author, and comedian and currently he is well known for his role of Dr. Gregory House on the television series House. What were the influences that changed the course of direction in his life? Read on.

“It all turned out to be a tale of redemption when around his 13th birthday, a copy of his first Wodehouse novel, Galahad at Blandings, entered Hugh’s fetid world and things quickly began to alter. Reading the opening sentence (while, of course moving his lips), he felt his life grow larger and larger.” There had always been height, depth, width and time, and in these prosaic dimensions I had hitherto snarled ,cursed ,and not washed my hair. But now, suddenly, there was Wodehouse, and the discovery seemed to make me gentler every day. By the middle of the fifth chapter I was able to use a knife and fork, and I like to think that I have made reasonable strides since.

From Hugh Laurie, The Biography by Anthony Bunko

Many of us today are not familiar with the writings of P.G. Wodehouse. He is still considered to be the funniest writer ever to have put words on paper. His artful use of language with beautifully constructed sentences that verge on being verse profoundly influenced Laurie on many levels. It touched his soul altering the course of his life. This is the power of being literate. Laurie could access this source because he could read.

What about people who cannot read well enough to have this door open to them? What are their choices? Which doors are closed? How does it feel to go to school with literacy skills that are far from adequate every day for 12 or 13 years? What are the long term effects?

The need to be literate in terms of practical things like career and employment opportunities or the development of language skills and critical thinking or the absolute joy of reading is obvious. But for me, I’ve been witness to the damage to the soul, the feelings of despair or lack of self esteem that children feel as they are unable to keep pace with their peers. Damage to the soul is damage to the very essence of what it means to be human. It is a loss of connectedness to one’s culture and creative spirit. The sense of failure endures and has the potential to permeate one’s whole life.

This doesn’t need to be. We do know how to teach most children how to read. This situation of social and academic injustice does not need to persist when a data driven effective intervention already exists. There are many interventions available each of which can help to some degree. However, Reading Recovery, developed by Dame Marie Clay over 4 decades ago in New Zealand, has the power to change lives. Its goal is to reduce the number of children who are struggling with learning how to read and write in grade 1 and prevent long term difficulties with reading and writing.

Since its inception, Reading Recovery has served over 1 million children in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, The United Kingdom and the USA. It has been developed and researched to be effective in English, French and Spanish. This intervention, proven to be successful with children in Grade 1 who experience the most difficulty in acquiring literacy skills, is not available in all elementary schools.

I consider this to be an issue of social injustice that begs to be addressed. In this, the 21st century, why do we need to continually debate the efficacy of teaching all children to become literate? It is just that children who struggle with the acquisition of early literacy skills receive an education that meets their needs. Adopting the principle of educational equity in a school system means the funding will need to be allocated to all schools. We seem to have the funding to fight wars but not the funding to provide a quality intervention, taught by highly trained teachers, to our most vulnerable students. All children, and their families, have a right to expect to receive an education that will help to prepare them for life in a complex, literate society. For children who have the most difficulty learning how to read and write, this includes access to an effective literacy intervention that has the research -supported potential to lift their level of functioning to grade level.

“None too bright, said Miss Fluelling, who had watched his lack of progress from age seven. A boy who read and wrote laboriously, grindingly, though memory work was no problem. Poems and songs he recited without effort and numbers in his head were a snap. But they all did a strange soft-shoe when he wrote them down. He survived because so many others were behind too – children who arrived not knowing English and were removed at regular, arbitrary intervals to help with the seeding and harvesting. He survived because at recess he ran and ran and shook off the hounds of learning.”

This quote is from Elizabeth Hay’s novel, Alone in the Classroom (which is set in 1929 in Saskatchewan)Is this what we want children to feel about their education? Our knowledge and practice of how to teach children to become literate has changed significantly since 1930, the temporal setting of the novel. We know how to support the learning of most of the children who struggle with literacy. One last thought, also from Alone in the Classroom:

“But already he was prey to the thought that would plague him for the rest of his days. What would my life have been like if I had been good at school?”

~S. Hoddinott

About Diane McNally