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Nonfiction Matters
Inside Nonfiction Matters

Urban Myths; Mirrors and Journeys

The Third Grade Story

Susan questions whether that third grade reading scores = where to build prisons story is true or one of those tales that flickers across the internet, gaining credability, or at least currency, merely because it exists. This discussion cites an official knowledgable about California as saying there is a link between fourth grade scores and plans for prisons. That changes the age by a year, but retains the same basic equation. Susan, can you point us to a counter case, this is an interesting thread to examine — to use all of our research skills to examine. 

I see three possibilities: some version of the elementary scores = prisons stories is true. If that is so, then it is a cause worthy of all of our passionate attention. No version is true. It that is so, we all need to be the articulate truth tellers, cutting down the internet kudzu. Third, a version is true but needing so much modification that the qualifiers are as important as the result. For example, which factors most accurately predict elementary school reading scores? If scores are just as index of poverty, overcrowding, single parent families, drugs, racial segregation, parents who themselves did not graduate high school, then they are epiphenomenal — the conditions that produce the scores produce the prison rates. 

Any insight all of you have would be most appreciated.

I am also pondering another question, sparked by being at NCTE and ALAN. Many authors who write books about, or aimed at, underserved kids — inner city, poor, black, Hispanic, incarcerated, abused, neglected (I realize these last two exist in all parts of society, just as there are wealthy highly educated blacks and Hispanics; this list is shorthand) stressed how often a kid was surprised and grateful to "see myself in a book." Many repeated the story of the teenager who said "yours is the first book I read on my own, all the way through." The stress in those talks was on how these books make a kid who is treated as invisible by society visible to him or herself. The book is a mirror. But I kept thinking about how, for me, books were journeys — especially nonfiction. I was a big Sandy Koufax fan because he was Jewish (and very good). I liked reading tales of Chelm because they were Jewish (and very funny). But I was also eager to read about other times, other places — to feel I had access to the world’s store of knowledge — books made me feel I could become bigger, know more, that I had the privilege to  learn anything and everything — I was not excluded from anything. 

So how do we go from the mirror to the jounrey? How do we build that bridge? Books do help kids see themselves. But they also show kids possibility, the world beyond themselves. How do we lead them from one reading experience to the other?


  1. Susan (Chicken Spaghetti) says:

    A letter to the editor of the Washington Post, following up on an article that cited 3rd grade reading score & prison-planning link, says, “The California Department of Corrections does not even collect data on reading levels. It’s time to put a stop to this urban legend.” The writer states that about 100 reasons go into determining placement of prisons and details the main ones.

    The letter is from the Deputy Director, Institutions Div., CA Dept. of Corrections. (Washington Post, July 22nd, 2004.) Search for “A Prisoner Projection Myth.” SLJ doesn’t allow me to link the piece.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Susan: Thanks that is helpful, I need to reconcile the Post article with the interivew I found.