What We Can Learn From Third Graders

What We Can Learn From Third Graders

I’ve been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals about President Lincoln and his cabinet. In every chapter, it seems, there is an account of a long speech by a public figure that drew a thousand people or more—often in towns no bigger than Boyce or Millwood. The speeches captivated audiences by clarifying complex ideas in a point-by-point fashion that’s rare today.

The speeches were reprinted—in their entirety—in hundreds, even thousands of newspapers throughout the country. And people read them!

Literacy rates were somewhat lower then. But what people did with those skills was a lot different. Soldiers of modest means wrote eloquent letters home. Writing in diaries was common; the entries in them are an important part of how we understand history of earlier times. People had long conversations about the issues of the day.

Contrast that to today’s sound bites. Elections can be decided by random remarks posted by bloggers from cell phones.

A lot has changed.

It’s easy to blame the media’s penchant for pithy phrases, or the internet, or cell phones. Or to point the finger at kids who communicate with text messages instead of conversations—sometimes when they’re in the same room.

No, it’s not the media, it’s not the kids, it’s not our mobile devices. It’s us. Heck, I send or receive 50 or more texts a day in the shorthand that passes for language today: R U crzy?

All this is preamble to an item that landed on my desk: the Ninth Annual Black History Dramatic Reading Contest, February 16, at the Josephine School Community Museum in Berryville. Third, fourth, and fifth graders will read from a selection of Black literature and authors. Awards will be given out for each level. How cool is that.

We adults are buying into sound bites and busily posting driveling diatribes on social media, then come the children to teach us how to read in public and give a speech—or, maybe more importantly, to listen to one.

In this spirit, on the cover of this Observer is Fanny Jenkins, a longtime teacher at the Josephine School. The photo was published in Images of America, Clarke County by Maral Kalbian.

She and the school are part of a complicated story. There is no celebration for an age of forced segregation. But who knows? Maybe one Clarke County kid giving a dramatic reading will grow up to be the one who reignites a passion for letter writing or fosters an America at ease with complex ideas, in which we all try to understand the points of view of people with whom we disagree.

How cool is that. In texting parlance: awesome!