John Spevak: Readers respond

March 28, 2008 

I see that my e-mail bag is starting to fill up, so it's time to give the readers of this column an opportunity to present their thoughts.

The first letter to the columnist comes from a person who included his name but asked that I not mention it. He is responding to several columns about education, first those in which I talked about a book by Jonathan Kozol, and later those in which I printed a response from reader Rob Bassinette. Dr. Bassinette disagrees with Kozol's views, especially about the "whole language" approach to reading which Kozol espouses.

Dear John,

I usually do not respond to educational articles or hot political topics. But I cannot resist the temptation to give my opinion on this. This has been a burning issue with me for a long time. I was schooled in the era when phonics instruction was given top priority as part of early elementary instruction. I have seen this approach work over and over throughout the years.

In the late 80s when I was a principal [not in Los Baños], I "gave in" and allowed the whole language method to be used in our school in grades K-2. After three years of this type of instruction, the third and fourth grade teachers started complaining that the kids they were getting could not decode words properly and larger numbers of students were struggling with reading. We went back to our phonics based system and things gradually improved.

So, I have a strong bias. I support the rebuttal from Rob. I heard Kozol speak a couple of times at conferences, and he makes a convincing argument for his approach. You can find educational studies that support both sides of this issue. I suppose it boils down to how you were taught.

I don't think the vast majority of parents know the difference in approaches being discussed, and I wouldn't be surprised if many teachers do either.

Thank you, Anonymous Reader, for your response. In the book I was reviewing, "Letters to a Young Teacher," Kozol doesn't bring up his views on "whole language," although he does say that having dedicated, enthusiastic teachers is more important than having elaborate structures and testing mechanisms.

Local teacher Darryl Barger expressed his opinion on the teacher-versus-structure issue by saying, "If you don't have compassion for your students, you can't be a good teacher."

I agree with Rob and the anonymous reader on phonics, but I agree with Kozol and Darryl on the importance of dedicated teachers. I do understand, however, that all teachers need to be well trained and achieve the appropriate learning outcomes from their students. I also agree with Rob on the need to examine the research on educational effectiveness.

Interestingly enough, I came across an article written by Marie Carbo, originally published in a periodical of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. She wrote that research shows "students who voluntarily read for their own pleasure improve their reading skills and their test scores at a much faster rate that those who do not."

I believe a dedicated and enthusiastic teacher will have a much better chance of showing students that reading is one of the great pleasures of life than any curriculum or test can.

Speaking of education, I received a letter from a familiar name about my acknowledgement of Los Baños educator Jack Klinoff, who recently passed away.

Dear John,

I wish to thank you so much for your ending paragraph in a recent column where you talked about my husband Jack. That paragraph was read in talks at both of the celebrations of his life. I hadn't thought of his influence in that way.

He and I volunteered in a small primary school here in Tucson until two years ago. We would take the very limited second and third-graders and help them with gaining confidence to speak up in class. Jack really enjoyed that.

Thanks again for your kind words.

Iona Klinoff

Thank you, Iona, for your email. It doesn't surprise me that Jack (and you) continued to remain dedicated to teaching, even after retirement.

Another reader, from a city in Washington state, responded to the column about Los Baños' new waste collection system that provides three different garbage containers (gray, blue, and green) for garbage, recyclables, and yard clippings:

Dear John,

You should live up here. We really do it up well. To demonstrate: we have (1) a brown bin for newspapers (2) a tan bin for all other paper and cardboard (3) a green bin for cans and glass (4) a regular garbage can for all other waste, which for us is usually almost empty (5) a great big blue bin for yard waste, with a smaller brown bin if the blue one is full. Yard waste is picked up alternate weeks and all the others weekly. All this costs us $43.87 every two months.

We feel lucky we live in such an environmentally conscious community and state and don't mind complying at all. There are also centers for toxic waste and wood waste, with extra charge, of course.

Don't know what people who are color blind do.

Cheers, Diane Willems

Thanks, Diane. I'm glad you're able to keep all the containers and colors straight. Here in Los Baños, I still don't know who sorts out all the different stuff that goes into our recyclables can or how they do it. Every time I put newspapers, milk cartons, plastic soda bottles, glass beer bottles and junk mail into that blue can, I can't imagine how it all gets sorted before it gets recycled.

And finally, a letter in response to the column about the passing of Gary MacKenzie:

Dear John,

I would like thank you for telling everyone and anyone the facts about my cousin Gary. A "Life Force" indeed. We grew up together in Sioux City, Iowa. He and his brother Brian lived with my family for a year until my aunt could get back on her feet. Even though it seemed like the house was a little cramped, it was only cramped with LOVE! That was one of the best years of my life.

Mark E. Hanna

Comments on the writings of John Spevak, a regular Enterprise columnist, are encouraged and can be sent via email to

Comments on the writings of John Spevak, a regular Enterprise columnist, are encouraged and can be sent via email to

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