Elementary, my dear…
Remembering the Weekly Reader

For more than eight decades, the Weekly Reader was a classroom staple for many American public school students. Editions covered curriculum themes for lower grade levels and news-based, current events and curriculum themed-issues for older students.

Yesterday was the first day of school for most kids here on the Peninsula — at least for all those enrolled in the Ocean Beach School District. Even though I retired from teaching sixteen years ago, I felt a little twinge. After all, when you’ve spent most of your life in school classrooms — for me, 20 or so as a student and another 39 as a teacher — you probably never completely get over that first-day-of-school feeling.

The student in me remembers that surge of anticipation that was once attached to wearing a new school outfit and to looking forward to finding out who my teacher was and to the excitement of seeing my friends after the long summer vacation. For the leftover teacher in me, the anticipation was more reminiscent of stage nerves — not would-I-remember-my-lines as much as would our classroom interaction today set the tone for nine months of success. Would our teaching/learning experience be the best yet and would the year become one to remember?

I thought a little about what I’d be teaching if I were once again headed for school and looking forward to teaching a group of first/second/third graders. Reading, writing, arithmetic as usual, of course. But what social studies unit would I start the year with? What about science? And what about current events? I’d miss that old standby, the Weekly Reader. I think it was a staple for most of my school life.

If you grew up between 1926 and 2012 (and didn’t just about all of us?) and if you went to public schools in the U.S., chances are you, too, remember the Weekly Reader. It was an educational magazine with editions appropriate to various grade levels — topical stories, great pictures, and even a puzzle page in the elementary school editions. In my own student days, ‘Weekly Reader Day’ and ‘Current Events Day’ were synonymous and I remember them as the highlights of each week.

But by the early 60s when I began teaching, the Weekly Reader was not always readily available. Perhaps school budgets were shrinking. More likely, though, our teaching days had become over-burdened with curriculum “musts” — topics that had to be covered, no matter what. The Weekly Reader, like art and music classes (and even P.E. until President Kennedy got into the act with his Council on Physical Fitness and Sports) was suddenly looked upon as an extra or a luxury. Even if we teachers found the news magazines in our mailboxes each week, we were hard pressed to make time for them during our busy days.

Often, we sent them home as assignments for students to read and discuss with family members. I don’t remember much about follow-ups to those assignments. Surely, not every kid had accomplished that homework assignment with the family. Even back in the 70s, there were all kinds of competing after-school activities to say nothing of both parents working and everybody off on their own projects. Too, we were realizing that students and their families rarely sat down to dinner together anymore. So … a family homework discussion? Not very likely.

It’s probably no accident that 2012 was the last year of the Weekly Reader. By then, the demands of No Child Left Behind act had segued into the teach and test and re-test syndrome. And, besides those heavy demands placed upon students and teachers, suddenly there was that old bugaboo ‘divergent beliefs’ to consider. Because Public K-12 education standards in the US are set at the state level, our country could have as many as 50 different sets of standards for learning.

Presumably, that allows subjects that are politically polarizing to be taught differently in different states. In American science education, for instance, “the two topics that arouse the most discontent and controversy are climate change and evolution” according to Glenn Branch, the deputy director of the National Center for Science Education.

So, in my first-Day-of-school-2017 reverie, just what would the front-page article would be featured in those once-upon-a-time Weekly Readers? Would it be Hurricane Harvey — the wettest tropical cyclone on record in the contiguous U.S.? Yes, probably. There would be dramatic photographs and graphs and charts to do with the floods that inundated hundreds of thousands of homes, displaced at least 30,000 people, and prompted more than 13,000 rescues.

How would teachers handle questions about why this happened? Would the Weekly Reader have a companion article on climate change? So far, only 19 states and the District of Columbia have signed up to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards, a set of goals that unequivocally link human activities to climate change. I was happy to see that Washington was one of the states. Even so, there would undoubtedly be kids in the classroom whose parents disagreed, just as there were parents years ago who asked that I teach creationism alongside evolution. That time, too, it was the Washington State curriculum standards that came to the rescue.

And then there’s the matter of all those statues that people are lassoing and pulling over and protesting about. Is Gen. Robert E. Lee an important part of our history or not? What about our founding fathers and their attitudes about slavery? Will we be looking at the rights of artificial intelligent beings soon? It was still dark out yesterday morning as all these thoughts went careening through my head. I did what any sensible retired person would do — I rolled over and went back to sleep, mentally telegraphing good luck thoughts to teachers everywhere. And kids, too!

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