Tuesday, January 6, 2009
Bartlet: Sweden has a one hundred percent literacy rate, Leo. One hundred percent! How do they do that?
Leo: Well, maybe they don't, and they also can't count.
-- The West Wing

A few months ago, I turned down a request to teach journalism to third graders in a D.C. public school. It's a project I'm passionate about. Even if I don't think these kids will be able to become journalists in the way that the job is currently defined, if a couple of them want to become reporters, there will be a platform for their reporting.

But even more importantly than training new reporters for a new age (because let's face it kids will change their minds a million more times between third grade and twelfth, let alone after college) I still believe that journalism, in its classic sense, presents a ton of incredible life skills that can be absorbed at any age.

As a friend put it in her farewell column at our college newspaper:

" Reporting kills tentativeness, though, and then kicks it for good measure. Last summer during a scavenger hunt, I was cajoling two greasy-haired men in a Duane Reade into posing for photos in ugly plastic hats when an editor-friend who taught me loads about reporting took gleeful credit for my current lack of shame."

I too learned about lack of shame from that editor, who laughed at me when I told him that I consider myself to be naturally shy. Journalism teaches you to stake your place in the world, to demand information, to accept self confidence and assertiveness as the asset that it is.

On a more basic level, journalism teaches life long academic skills: writing clear sentences, processing and analyzing information, looking critically at the facts given to you. All of those things can be taught to third graders at an age appropriate level. And, now -- when there are two elementary school children who are in the news every day and who are breaking barriers for these Washington D.C. students just by playing at the White House--seems like as good a time as any to teach underprivileged third graders about journalism.

But I said no.

I said no, because I was worried that I didn't have the skills to teach journalism to third graders, or rather these third graders: because I am worried that they don't know how to read. Or if they do know, they are not comfortable enough to read Kids Post let alone write their own articles. I didn't know the stats at the time, but I wasn't so off: In 2007, 61 percent of fourth graders had "below basic" scores on the National Assessment test.

I volunteered to do middle school instead. So, while I looked up the above statistic for this blog post, I had an idea that literacy in this country was poor. But still, I was shocked when I read the graf below in a Slate article:

And a lot of people never do learn to read well: Approximately 40 percent of fourth-grade children in the United States lack basic reading skills; 20 percent of all graduating high-school seniors are classified as functionally illiterate (meaning that their reading and writing skills are insufficient for ordinary practical needs); and about 42 million adults in the United States cannot read.

Twenty percent of High School seniors? Who are graduating?

Forget about feeling lucky for the skills that I gained in the process of becoming a journalist, I'm just feeling lucky that I'm literate. Thanks Mom.

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Written Pyramids is a blog written by a journalist living and working in Washington D.C.

I have left my real name off of the blog so as not to imply that the blog is somehow linked with the journalism I get paid to do. (Still, I never write about my beat on this blog, and rarely express opinions about the day's news regardless of its relationship to my beat).

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Books pyramid image originally from the British website, Explore Writing.