Hey, I just figured out how to improve test scores among students in Title I elementary schools.
Take them to see some animals.
I'm not kidding.
Or at least read them books about animals. Or at least talk to them about animals.
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This idea came to me while reading to a couple of 4-year-olds at Davis Elementary School, which I do every Thursday morning.
I read to a boy and a girl, one at a time. When I first met the boy in his classroom, I stuck out my hand to shake his, and he grabbed my hand and held it and we walked to the cafeteria down a hallway about as long as a football field.
We passed signs proclaiming rules, and we passed posters bearing inspirational slogans, and we passed bulletin boards loaded down with things like drawings of great leaders and examples of good penmanship.
Occasionally we'd pass a stern teacher or a hulking fourth grader.
I could sense the fear in my new friend. This was a strange place, freakishly bright and clean, where everybody was supposed to be quiet and stand in line, and where you're the smallest and the youngest.
And where -- you don't know this yet -- you've been labeled "at-risk" and "non-verbal."
We sit at a cafeteria table and read books like "Silly Sally" and "Goodnight Moon." The little boy doesn't say anything.
I start asking him about animals he's seen. He just shakes his head. He's never seen a cow. He's never seen a deer. He's never even seen a dog or a bird.
But a couple of weeks later, we read a story with a snake and his eyes light up. He starts telling me about a snake he saw on the ground.
"Do you like snakes?' He nods his head furiously.
"I like snakes, too," I say.
I hate snakes. But for that moment, I like snakes because he likes snakes. The kid deserves to be excited about something and to learn about it, and to learn about other things in the process.
I also read to a girl. She's never seen a cow either but she likes hamburgers.
"Do you know where hamburgers come from?" I ask her.
She shakes her head no. I point to a picture of a cow. She makes a face.
"Do you know where chicken nuggets come from?" I ask her.
"Pigs?" she says. I make a face.
"Chicken nuggets come from chickens," I say. Here endeth the lesson.
Later a skunk appears in the story we're reading. She's never heard of a skunk, so I tell her that a skunk defends itself by shooting out a stinky spray that can shut down a city block.
"I like skunks," she says.
"I like skunks too," I say, and I kind of do, though I don't like to smell them.
Kids born into poverty are as smart and funny and curious as kids who aren't. I believe that. But without a nurturing environment, their intellect and wit and inquisitiveness fade.
That's why I read to at-risk kids. It's also why I talk to them about animals.
Any child reading and learning and talking about animals is a smart, funny and curious kid -- and a hopeful kid.
And if somebody actually took these 4-year-olds to a farm or a zoo? It would blow their minds, and it might even change them forever.
Dimon Kendrick-Holmes, executive editor, firstname.lastname@example.org