Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Reading Comprehension and Critical Thinking


I normally don't respond to post on my blog. Over the years (my first column appeared in the Herald-Sun on July 20, 1997) I have received death threats from members of the KKK, had a slumlord yell at me over the phone, received mail from a dude warning me I would be killed while walking down the streets, been called an Uncle Tom by black people and accused of raising the race card by white people. Simply put, I have been hated by just about every segment of the population.

A couple of things ring true in evaluating those who have responded to my work. I’ve discovered that most of my critics lack sound reading comprehension. This happens on a number of fronts. There are those who don’t read what I write, but rather listen to what others think about what I write. As a journalist, I have learned to read the original document before drawing your own conclusions. Most of my detractors draw suppositions based on what someone else said about what I said. This is why I listen, as hard as it has been, to Rush Limbaugh. I dislike what he says not because of what others say about what he says, but because of what I have heard him say.

Sounds simple, but trust me when I say it gets hard reading what people say about what you say when you hold in your hand the original document. I would like to believe that most of what has been posted on my blog is the outcome of people responding based on what they have heard, rather than from what they have read. Otherwise, we are contending with a generation that lacks basic reading comprehension skills.

I’m not alone in this assessment. “I'm very concerned about the lack of basic communication skills exhibited by those students who fired off angry, reactionary messages fueled, in some cases, by the default ‘the media's out to get us’ attitude that plagues that school in particular and the DPS central office, IMO,” a local reporter responded in an email. “It was clear that some of them commented after hearing about, but not checking out for themselves w/some degree of objectivity, what you wrote!”

The reporter continued. “Some of our kids really need to have someone with patience to teach them critical thinking skills, or they'll be doomed to marginal opportunities and glass ceilings after graduation that wouldn't be there if they saw themselves as well prepared, truly educated, possibly bilingual and very curious citizens of the world...with minimal (if any) hobbled self-image generated chips on their shoulders.”

My colleagues concern for the state of critical thinking and reading comprehension led me to write this post. Most disturbing is how prevalent it is among a vast percentage of those who read my recent post. Critical thinking involves a level of responsibility that many of my readers lack. Before speaking, do the homework. Study the subject being criticized. Develop an opinion based on significant research around the subject matter. Simply do the homework.

I don’t blame the students at Hillside for lacking a historical perceptive. They’re not aware of my role in writing columns when the new Hillside was built. They are too young to remember the viscous attacks I launched at Ann Denlinger, the former Superintendent. They are too young to remember how I fought, since the inception of their school, for the promotion of all that is good at Hillside. They are too young to remember Richard Hicks, the principal who led Hillside from the old building to the new. They haven’t read the columns I wrote back in the late 90’s about Richard Hicks and the strengths at Hillside.

The youth at Hillside are too young to remember that, back in the day, there was a fight to merge the City and County school systems. They don’t know the heated battles to complete what Mayor Bill Bell started when he was Chair of the County Commission. They weren’t there to listen to the fear laced comments coming from white residents. They didn’t have to read what the paper wrote back in the day. They are reaping the benefits of having a local press that has been stripped due to the economy. In other words, if not for the reduction in staffing at both the Herald-Sun and the News & Observer things would be much worse.

This generation makes assumptions related to their school that those who came before them never had the privilege of embracing. They have the guile to believe citizens have no right to know about what happens in their schools. They pick fun at those in the press and attack them for reporting on what the public has a right to know. When guns are found in the schools, when academic performance is low, when drop-out rates are high and there are other issues in the school, people have a right to know. Why, because there is a history that predates this discussion, and it is incumbent upon those within this merged school system to prove the experiment is working.

As I’ve stated, I can’t blame the students for not knowing better. I can’t blame them for not being there, for not reading my work from the past, for not knowing the work that has been done or for making far too many misguided statements about the reporting on matters involving their school. As disturbing as all of that may be, what gets under my skin is their lack of comprehension or, and I hope this is it, not reading before they write.

A suggestion on reading within context-read all of the relevant material before formulating an opinion on the subject. Read it for yourself. Don’t take the comments of others. Let me give you a bit of history on this subject. There were two previous blogs. The first raised eyebrows after I exposed Pappy would not be returning to Hillside. In that post I discussed reasons behind his leaving. For those who missed it, the reference to the man in the nice suit was not a criticism of Pappy, but rather a statement related to the cycle implored by DPS administrators-place the job in the hands of the guy in the suit or the lady in the dress. My suggestion to the administration was to give Pappy more time. The post was not an attack against Pappy, but more of a call to action.

The second post was an apology to the students at Hillside. It was written after Mr. Pappy exposed how hurt the students were after the first blog post. It was my personal gut check. It seems that responses to this recent post failed to read the second blog, or, just maybe, they care less that an apology was made in the first place. If that is true, and I hope it isn’t, students need a lesson involving character and forgiveness.

With all of that being said, the students who have posted on this blog make some great points. Posting in this public form is one of the ways to alter any misperception. It is up to the students at Hillside, and other low performing schools across the state, to remind us all that test scores are not the only way to measure academic excellence. The students often refer to the drama department at Hillside. Hillside New Tech and the International Baccalaureate program are gems within the Durham Public School system. Great things are happening at Hillside, but beyond these obvious reminders of success, great things are happening that can’t be measured by test scores and graduation rates.

The best way to alter all of those perceptions is in how students present themselves in public space. When arguments are formed based on sound, credible evidence-people listen. Those arguments should be made not as an attack against the character of those engaged in reporting and giving commentary on the news. The best way to shift the tide of public opinion is not to engage in a war, but to raise the bar. Speak with credibility. Do your homework. Don’t make assumptions. Speak with passion, but when you do, be sure you have read the evidence before you speak.

And please keep posting. Let us know how you feel. Don’t be afraid to say what’s on your mind. This blog belongs to you. Challenge me when I’m wrong, but when you do that, do it with respect. Not because my feelings will be hurt, but because all eyes are on you and your school. This blog has given the world a chance to see you in a different light, and that light is shinning. Your school is better because of your words.

Go mix those words with truth. Read.

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  3. Mr. Kenney,
    I am not sure if you took the time to read all of the kids post, and I hope that you did. Yes, there may have been a few misguided quotes & post but overall, I think the kids felt the need to defend their reputations and school. Not all comments lack the comprehension that you refer too in this post. As I mentioned in a previous post..the tone and the implications you made have a negative feel, which is what led to the outpour of comments. I think some kids just wanted you to know how they felt about Mr. Pappy, the good he did and their school. It's hard to make kids feel that you are supporting them when you only right post about the bad things..Or those you have the intent to be good and supportive...which still take a gut shot to the school itself (which means the kids there,not the walls).I haven't seen a post about any other school and their incidents, test scores or student under achievement. I haven't seen you imply that any other kids have students or issues...the same as Hillside that also need to be addressed, at least not in the same detail or direct manner. You say the public has the right to know...and your right.. but it's not fair that these same issues go unreported by blogs such as this about other schools. Parents use information like this to decide on schools.. is it fair to only air the dirty laundry at HHS and make that school appear to be the one "with issues" when in fact.. all schools face the same teenage issues. Of course, some schools have a different client base to balance things out and keep the dirty laundry in their laundry room. Give HHS a fair chance to build a positvie reputation, make people want to apply to the IB and other programs only offered by HHS..and we may begin to receive some of the support you say your looking to drum up. People who currently just look at "that school" and turn their noses up...may gain a vested interest if their child is there. Some parents don't even know what the IB program is and what academic opportunities it offers kids in college preparation. All I ask is..report ALL the facts. give the kids an opportunity to see YOU right something the can be proud of and not feel the need to defend themselves. Show those people who think that HHS is a bunch of athletic dummies that there is a vast majority of students who excel academically, despite what previous publicity suggest. Allow someone new to the area to read about all schools and what challenges are being faced so that we aren't just written off and can be a viable option for their kids to attend. As I have mentioned before.. I am an graduate of HHS and have two children who are currently students, I also come from a long line of HHS grads, so I do know the fights that have taken place since the 90s. It is dear to my heart, I haven't had the pleasure of reading prevoius post and reports of yours..but I must say... its hard to find the love that HHS possess in your writings. I am not saying things don't need to be reported..but be fair.. be equal...give the good and the bad.. give information on all schools.

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  6. Thanks for an insightful commentary on critical reading and thinking skills. I will be sharing this with my students! I also appreciate the dialogue that you are encouraging, here. Sifting through hearsay and getting to the nuts and bolts of an issue are life skills, especially in this age of hyper-media.

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