Another Gift of the Magi

One of my daughters is working with the Boys and Girls Club’s SPARK program in Milwaukee, which helps struggling readers age six to nine to reach proficiency at their grade level. Many of these children have every reason to fail: For some, their only daily meal is at school; for others, their home is contaminated with lead; and crime is evident throughout their neighborhoods.

At risk is more than just these students’ reading ability. As the SPARK program points out, “studies show that children who cannot read by this age start to lose interest in school, give up on their education and start down a path that leads to drugs, gangs, and jail. In fact, many states include elementary literacy rates as a factor in forecasting future prison rates.”

Fortunately, the right intervention and assistance can make all the difference for many of these students. Personal attention, a bit of respect, insight on the instructors’ part, and repeated practice can help these children to achieve some surprising gains. Last year, for example, while only 22 percent could read at or near their grade level at the beginning of the year, by year’s end a full 64 percent had reached proficiency.

Recently, for vocabulary practice, my daughter introduced her second graders to www.freerice.com. The practicality of the exercise struck them immediately. This was not just another worksheet with no evident purpose other than memorization and testing. Instead, here was a game—a game with real consequences. No working their way to the bottom of a page just to hand it in for checking. This exercise was effectively endless, waiting to see how far they could go. And instead of a letter grade, they could see rice filling a bowl—rice that they knew would go to feed some hungry person elsewhere on the globe.

For children who themselves may eat only once a day, this earned rice has a powerful significance. That it is their own labor, their own learning, which achieves this global good, gives me a little more hope for the future. “So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

—Lester Smith

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