From Language to Loss of Liberty

In his book, Wisdom Made in America, Criswell Freeman introduces his section on Education:

Where does real education begin? It begins with a burning desire for knowledge. If you want to teach, then first kindle the will to learn. And if you want to learn, find something that profoundly interests you. When you do, the education will take care of itself.

This assessment contains many key elements, but if we are to successfully teach skills and basic knowledge, then proceed to actually educate anyone, we must first lay a foundation by nurturing the growth and development of language. Children, as well as illiterate and low-verbal adults, must skillfully use the mother tongue or its substitute in order to make educational progress. Without facility with language, the brain is limited in what kind and how much information it can store to later pull into use for the thinking process.

Persons bereft of language skills will be left behind despite any presidential mandates or edicts. To think otherwise is to blow smoke rings — short-term achievements of little substance, anchored to nothing, circling a void, lacking sustainability.

Without a foundational language base — the desire for knowledge; the will to learn; the following of profound interests; and the hope that education will take care of itself, will simply not be realized. Without skilled use of the mother tongue, individuals will be severely and permanently diminished in their ability: to communicate; to think; to learn; to become whole persons.

Many think that my primary focus in the education of children is math. It is not. Others see me primarily as a teacher of reading. I am not. True, I do teach those and other subjects, and I teach them well, but the key to my success in educating children is the fact that I am first, and foremost, a teacher of language. I am first a language teacher because I was first a teacher of the deaf.

From a very young age, I watched my mother spend hours, usually every evening after supper, teaching language to my brother, Reed. I saw firsthand how the lack of hearing, but more so the lack of language, prevented Reed, a very intelligent person, from learning easily and gaining a full education. I saw the vital importance of the most basic of human needs and that — the development of language — is and has always been the primary focus of my teaching career.

These early observations were repeatedly confirmed during many years of teaching the deaf. I taught language all day, every day, using every subject, every experience, every picture as fodder. It was not enough! The children and I had been set up to fail when the child, in the mother’s arms, could not listen and so learn the mother tongue. It is impossible to hand teach words as rapidly as hearing children, in language-rich environments, naturally soak up words, ideas, phrases, concepts.

Deafness is a terrible, devastating disability, usually unpreventable. The miseducation of a hearing person, however, creates unconscionable handicaps. Such crippling is preventable, but purposeful.

I began my writing career by crafting pieces that I hoped would encourage parents to discover ways to encourage better language development in the home; teachers to create ways to better teach language skills in the classroom. My goal then, as now, was to turn the tide of illiteracy in hopes of stemming the tide of inadequacy.

I wrote Buy Your Calendars Big to provide ideas for teaching language that will orient children in space and time.

I wrote Conversations Held and Stories Read to explain the importance of using stories from family history to teach children language while at the same time helping them develop a sense of belonging; an understanding of their place within the continuity of the generations.

I wrote of The “Who What Where When Why” Award to share its relevance to the need for children to have a language of curiosity.

Three short pieces on the need for, and the power of, skilled use of one’s mother tongue. Three ideas taken from my own teaching that I hoped would serve as catalysts to stimulate teachers and parents to better meet the language needs of their students and children.

I believe that teachers can develop better lesson plans, using their own creative ideas, than any written by textbook curriculum writers; better than ones that misguided and unconstitutional federal legislation may demand; better than any written by committees involved with time-wasting, agenda-hiding, standards and benchmarks.

I can be confident about the failure of such groups to anticipate the needs of children, because I, myself, never know from one day to the next what any of my lessons will actually cover. It is impossible to write appropriate lesson plans because most language deficiencies are unseen handicaps until exposed when a child’s eyes and reactions express confusion, incomprehension. At that point, skilled teachers change the direction of the lesson to meet the immediate needs of children, risking the censure of administrators for deviating from the mandated lesson plans on file in the office.

For example…recently I planned a spelling lesson on words with closed syllables (If a syllable ends with a consonant it is considered closed, so the vowel says its first, or short, sound.): happy, rapid, comment, traffic… My students, now fairly adept at decoding, were reading the list with fairly good accuracy — until they came to the word rapid. Suddenly my ear detected a /t/ where a /d/ sound should have been.

I immediately stopped that lesson and shifted my thinking from teaching spelling to teaching language. “What does the word rapid mean?” Every child responded, “You wrap a present.” I stressed the pronunciation, “No, I didn’t say wrap it, I said rapid.” They neither heard a phonetic difference, nor knew the word I wanted them to define. Further questioning exposed similar problems with other words on the list. We could not continue until those deficiencies were remediated.

It is foolish in the extreme to believe that any person sitting anywhere but in my classroom, standing anywhere but in my shoes, could have any idea of the language gaps that prevent my students from being taught. The most skilled curriculum writer could not anticipate and write the lesson plan I needed that day. I did not need No Child Left Behind or any other federal or state legislation. I did not need unrelated professional development workshops that waste time and discourage teachers.

What I did need was what I had developed through experience — the ability to do diagnostic teaching. I needed a trained ear for detecting subtle speech errors. I needed intuition and experience to aid me in analyzing the breakdown in language skills. I needed to rapidly pinpoint the problem then rapidly create a mental lesson plan for meeting the needs of the moment. (Teacher education programs could teach such skills instead of sending teachers into the schools with toolkits devoid of tools!)

NCLB; UNESCO agreements to teach for globalization; state dictated/federally manipulated standards and benchmarks; excessive, needless paperwork — none of these can meet the language and educational needs of students. In fact, all of these harm, if not totally prevent, any chance of a once-free people being appropriate educated to live, protecting their freedoms and liberty, in this Republic. The flaws in the system are so obvious, so damaging, that one can come to no conclusion except — they are so purposeful.

So, where does real education begin? It begins in the home with parents providing language experiences for their children. The once natural process breaks down when the parents, miseducated in the same public school system, are language deficient, themselves. Such parents fail to teach language; fail to correct word usage errors; fail to encourage clear, precise, grammatical speech.

Children from these homes begin school as incomplete beings — lacking both the receptive, and the expressive language skills necessary for interacting with and gaining from an educational setting. How can anyone “kindle the will to learn” in students who neither speak nor comprehend what once was considered standard English for this nation? How can a culture heal itself when weaknesses in using the mother tongue, thanks to decades of public schooling, now exist in more than one generation?

Shall we send NCLB workers into every language deficient home and call it Homestart when we already know that children coming from Headstart programs still lack language skills and are unprepared for school? Shall we shift wasted tax dollars from the preschool program to a more intrusive, more expensive, and surely ineffective home program? I think not!

We face, in our culture, a problem of immeasurable breadth and depth. I do not know how to solve a problem of such magnitude. I can only encourage those with ears to hear, and the common sense to act, to make your homes and classrooms as language-rich as possible. I can only weep for the millions of lost children and adults; worthy human beings who will live compromised lives, raising compromised children, in a compromised America — all victims of the intended consequences of purposeful global planning.