Why Ask Learners Like Precious To Write

Give Precious a Calculator read the lead in to the article "Why can't kids in movies ever do the math?" This was Jennie Yabroff writing in a Newsweek Web Exclusive (wha?) from yesterday. (I'm not going to link because there's a pop-up ad associated with it: I'm sure you can Google it.) She goes on to say

Early in the movie..., Precious tells the audience how much she likes math class. She even shushes another student when he interrupts the math teacher. But then Precious is kicked out of school for being pregnant. Eventually she winds up at an alternative school, where her teacher encourages her to write daily in her journal. Math does not appear to be on the curriculum.

At film's end, Precious is living in a halfway house, raising an infant and a toddler with Down syndrome; she's also unemployed and HIV-positive. She is reading and writing on a seventh-grade level. It's possible, of course, that Precious will go on journaling her way to middle-class security. But watching the film, I wondered why her teacher kept insisting Precious write, write, write, instead of add, subtract, multiply. If Precious aspires to financial security and gainful employment, she's a lot likelier to get it as an accountant than a poet.

I agree with Yarbroff that the idea "every underprivileged young adult harbors the soul of a Rimbaud is a favorite trope of popular culture." I mean, I wouldn't have written that tripe about poetic souls, but I know what she means, and I doubt I'll ever be able to watch Freedom Writers without wincing. I don't know what to make of her rather snarky "Anyone who has taught adult-literacy classes knows that inexperienced writers' efforts are more often clich├ęd, vague, and confusing than searingly original and profound." But I would cry "Yes!" to her musing that "writing in her journal allowed Precious to conceive of a better life for herself and her children; maybe creating a persona on the page enhanced her self-worth." (And began a visioning process that, with a different facilitator er... screenwriter might have led to different choices. More on that below.)

On the other hand, I have to disagree with her claim that "the world does not reward self-expression as readily or consistently as it rewards a good head for numbers." That's just... rhetorical bunk. It's also - in the absence of any hard numbers - a lovely example of an argument that proves itself false just by being (let my words convince you that words have less power to convince than numbers).

Now, thinking that Hollywood (or cable television) is going to portray anything realistic about adult literacy is like, well, taking seriously something written in Newsweek. Still, I thought it was worth dropping off a comment on this piece. After all, I belong to that "Anyone who has taught adult-literacy classes" group she defers to. Alas, Newsweek wanted me to pre-register, and there was that pop-up, and I thought, "Naw, I'll write this on my own blog instead."

So, back to the question: "why her teacher kept insisting Precious write, write, write, instead of add, subtract, multiply?"

The answer (besides the obvious "it said so in the script") is because math is easy and easy to escape into. Math is typically non-reflective and a-contextual. Math can be taught - it's all about sharing information (you add fractions like this for this reason). Math is a sensible domain for teachers and students. But, beyond basic numeracy (which she apparently has) adult literacy is about a different skill-set entirely.

You see, writing can't be taught: it can only be learned, and by someone willing to become a learner. And we're facilitators helping people become independent learners, not teachers instructing students via a curriculum toward financial security.

As well, writing is a faster means of (at the same time) raising one's reading and speaking vocabulary. Never mind being an accountant: right now we're worried about Precious reading her bills and explaining herself in court. (I promise, as soon as Precious really is ready to learn to keep books, we'll move her out of the adult literacy class and into a GED prep or workplace essential skills program. Er... assuming that's what she wants. We believe in self-directed learning too.)

And, finally, yes, writing provides opportunity for reflection / discussion that might help adult learners make more effective life-choices outside the classroom. Sounds like Precious could use some of that as well.

So, yes, I agree that the merit (and beauty) of mathematics is rarely captured by Hollywood. Even a supposedly "isn't it cool to be good at math" movie like Good Will Hunting said math is not enough. So what if you're good with a hammer, and enjoy and excel at math in your spare time. Until you join the worthy class of managers, scientists and professors, says the screenplay, you're just one more unlucky working-stiff wasting your life away.

But if you're talking adult literacy - which is what the article talks about, I can't speak for the movie - then there's no substitute for the learning-power of writing.

On screen or off.

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