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New York City

From the Superintendent’s Seat

Back To Basics
By Dr. Carole G. Hankin with Randi T. Sachs

A common education theme we are hearing is the question, “What about getting back to basics?” Such concern stems from identification of poor skills in communication and mathematics—the two areas that are routinely put to state standardized testing. It’s not the “basics” part of the question, but rather the “getting back” part that we should reconsider.

If “getting back” to basics means returning to an emphasis on the traditional three R’s, setting up classrooms with desks in straight rows rather than groupings that encourage children to work cooperatively, and having teachers conduct their lessons as lectures rather than as interactive sessions, I believe it’s time to acknowledge that the basics our children need must differ in substance from the basics we were taught, and our parents before us.

Communication, that is, language, is the most basic subject of all, the one that embraces every subject taught in school. Reading and writing have always been the basic skills first taught to our children, but it’s time to consider how these skills have changed and what other skills our children need to master. Spelling and reading are no longer being taught by rote memorization, but with use of phonics and literature. Social studies is no longer memorizing dates in history, but understanding world cultures and events. It’s time to acknowledge that social skills are also very important in communication. Children need to learn how to deal with situations of conflict and of confrontation, and how to make their own decisions.

Technology is here to stay. Computers are in the classroom and they very much belong there. Children need to learn basic computer skills. Along with reading and writing they need to learn keyboarding skills. We just need to make sure that we don’t push them to give up the pleasure of reading books in the process.

Relaxing with a good book is something we want to encourage our children to do. Teachers can celebrate the fun of books by allowing children to get comfortable with a favorite book, even if it means relaxing the classroom seating arrangements for a while.

The use of computers as a word processing tool is another new basic. It’s true that increased access to a word processor for writing will lessen the time a student writes by hand, and thus, practices his or her penmanship. But consider how word processing frees the student to revise and improve the quality of what they are writing. Rewriting a first, second, or third draft no longer causes writer’s cramp, and the student is more likely to make improvements to his or her work.

Our children are growing up in a global society. This means that the ability to communicate with people from other countries is getting more and more critical. The U.S. is far behind Europe and Asia in the study of world languages. (Note, that we no longer use the term “foreign language.”) In Syosset we begin the study of world languages in kindergarten and first grade. A student who attends one of our elementary schools from kindergarten through fifth grade will have studied one year each of Mandarin Chinese, French, Spanish, Italian, and Latin before they enter middle school. This comparative study of languages gives them a strong fundamental understanding of language and enhances their learning of English. They also learn about many different cultures and traditions in the world. This also must be considered a new “basic.” We have to help our children understand one another.

In educating our children, we must concentrate on moving forward rather than “getting back.” In order for our children to improve their basic skills, their education must recognize that children are active learners, who learn best by doing. We don’t need more drilling of facts into our students. We need to teach them how to learn to use their problem-solving skills, to embrace technology, and to prepare to be active citizens of the world.#

 Dr. Hankin is the Superintendant of the Syosset School District on Long Island.


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