so, where’s all the money gone then eh?

I don’t understand why New Zealand has this on-going issue with literacy. I have an opinion or two, but I don’t understand it.

My parents learned to read and write using a slate. I still have my grandmother’s school exercise books that she wrote when she was 8-10. There’s a message there – learning has been valued in my family for generations – or the books wouldn’t have been saved. As an aside it speaks volumes for the quality of paper in those days. Mum and Dad taught me to read and write before I went to school – I wrote and made drawings in the white space in newspapers, and on the brown paper groceries were wrapped in in those days. There wasn’t a whole lot of money in our house. I learned more words at school (the teacher used flash cards) and I was able to access more books. Dad cherished books, and would read us comics (yay) and articles from the newspaper (somehow not the same). We were given books as gifts. My parents never attended high school, however my siblings and I can all read and write. Our children (and their children) can also read and write. Could there be a gene for it?

Over the years tens of thousands (if not millions) of dollars have been spent (wasted?) on literacy. And the issue is still here – worse now than ever. I don’t have the figures to substantiate the worsened condition, however, I offer that if, after the investment, the issue exists at all then the issue has worsened. I am concerned that literacy may have become resistant to the financial drugs that have been applied.

Technology doesn’t appear to have offered any sort of wonder drug either. I’m old enough to remember when Sesame Street first aired on New Zealand tv. I recall the clapping of hands from the teaching community that – at last – we were going to see a new generation of bright, clean, literate kids in schools. Not that there’s anything wrong with hand clapping, or freshly scrubbed youngsters with reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic skills. A little later we had the Spanish component of the drug removed, and the Maori upgrade applied. And I think this was a good thing too – reaches further into our national heart and spirit.

I became involved with teaching when I discovered one of my work mates (aged in his early twenties) couldn’t read and write sufficiently well to be able to withdraw $70 from the bank. He’d had to run back and forth between a couple of branches, withdrawing $10 at a time…

I can understand people arriving in New Zealand needing assistance with practical New Zealand English. I have worked with students who’re highly educated in their own country and context – an electrical engineer with a Masters degree from Taiwan, a high court lawyer from India, a business executive from Japan, an architect from Iran, a vet with a double doctorate from Yugoslavia, and others. They didn’t have any literacy issues – they did have English issues.

When I began learning how to help people learn I was told that ‘If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught’.

I’ve often writhed with this when I’ve had students come back with less than stellar performances, leaving me wondering what else I could’ve, should’ve done. I’ve spent many an hour outside of the classroom building better resources, tuning my writing, reading texts to improve my practice – whatever I could come up with to try to get the seed to germinate and grow for the student(s) concerned.

I can remember talking to a daunting ‘guru’ who somewhat pointedly let me know it was my post-colonial attitude that caused me to blame the victims. At the end of our conversation I think we wanted me to feel guilty for every education malaise in New Zealand since the arrival of humans. Not that he had any solutions either, although I suspect he would’ve been very adept at dealing with any surplus funding.

On the one hand I don’t understand why New Zealand has any literacy issues, and on the other hand I don’t understand where the money has gone. Recently I’ve spoken to a number of people expressing my incomprehension that the issue is still with us. Not one had any better answer. Oddly, no one mentioned needing more money, or more technology. Today I finally had an inspiration. Saying “If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught’ is tantamount to saying, ‘If the patient succumbs, the doctor hasn’t practiced medicine’.

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