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Gregory Michie

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If a Parent Who Reads to Her Child is "Good," is One Who Doesn't "Bad?"

Posted: 02/10/2012 8:29 pm

If I'm in Chicago, then I'm in Illinois. I'm not in Chicago, therefore I must not be in Illinois.

In the field of logic, that's an example of what's called "denying the antecedent" -- a logical fallacy that assumes that because a implies b, then not a implies not b.

The fault in the logic is obvious in the example above, but the reasoning underlying such fallacies is not so uncommon in our daily lives.

Many of us would probably agree, for instance, that parents who buy organic food products for their children must care a great deal about their kids' health and well-being. So do we believe the opposite to be true as well? I've heard parents say they would never feed their children any non-organic dairy product, and the unspoken implication seemed to be that a parent who would is bordering on being unfit.

But on the southwest side of Chicago, where I live, you have to go on a bit of a wild goose chase to even track down a gallon of organic milk. And if you're a parent struggling to make ends meet for your family, you're probably going to choose to spend $1.99 for a gallon at Aldi rather than $6.99 for organic at Whole Foods. Does that mean you don't care as much about the health of your child as organic-buying parents do?

Similar logical fallacies can sometimes be heard in teachers' lounges, school hallways, and graduate education classes -- especially when the topic of discussion is low-income students and their families.

A teacher friend once told me of a counselor at her school who, during a lunch-time discussion, expressed dismay at what she perceived as the limited experiences of some of her school's low-income Mexican-American students. "I can't believe these kids haven't been to Navy Pier," the woman said, referring to a downtown Chicago tourist attraction. "Their parents don't take them places. When I was little, my mom would pack up the car and take us to Grant Park." She added, "And we weren't rich, either. But she still took us places."

The unspoken subtext was pretty clear to my friend: Since the counselor's mom had taken her on excursions, that meant she was a caring parent. And because her students' parents didn't take them places (at least according to the counselor), they must not be. Again -- if a implies b, not a must imply not b.

Never mind that many parents at the school work low-wage jobs and may not own a car to pack for a day at the park. Besides, how much did the counselor really know about her kids' lives outside of school? How much of her comment was based on careful observation and listening, and how much on ill-formed assumptions?

Another area of school life where logical fallacies can paint poor parents as unconcerned or uncaring is their perceived involvement -- or lack of it -- in school activities. If we believe parents who participate at school in traditional ways -- showing up for open houses, volunteering to chaperone field trips -- do so because they value their child's education, then we may also believe that parents who don't participate in those ways simply don't care enough to do so. In fact, I've heard teachers voice this opinion, or something similar, a number of times.

But it's important to take a closer look. A parent with a salaried position who takes a half day off to attend his daughter's school play likely wouldn't be penalized financially, and might even be congratulated by colleagues for being an involved parent. A dad who works as an hourly-wage security guard would get docked pay, and possibly reprimanded or worse, for doing the same.

As a teacher of teachers, one of the assignments I sometimes give my students is a "literacy autobiography," in which they reflect on their own memories of learning to read and write. In a typical class, where most students are from middle-class backgrounds and many grew up in two-parent families, common themes often show up in their essays. Students often recall being read to by a parent before bed each night, having a wide selection of books in their homes, or practicing their writing or spelling with a family member (usually their mother) before entering school as a kindergartener.

Based on these memories, teachers in my classes usually conclude that their caregivers placed a high value on literacy and education. And in most cases they're probably right about that. But in their papers and their comments in class, it becomes clear that some also believe the inverse to be true: Parents who don't read to their kids nightly or have dozens of books in their home -- some of the parents of the kids they teach -- must not care much about their children learning to read and write.

When I hear this assumption surfacing, I try to engage my students in discussing how our own experiences of literacy act as lenses by which we may judge others. We also talk about other, perhaps less visible, ways that low-income parents might be assisting in the literacy development of their children (for much more on this, see Catherine Compton-Lilly's Re-Reading Families). But for some of the teachers in my classes, especially those who grew up in families with plenty of resources, it can still be hard to let go of a long-held belief: that parents who truly value education demonstrate it with certain actions and choices -- individual and societal circumstances be damned.

In an educational climate where the "no excuses" mantra is hailed by everyone from charter school operators to President Obama, such views may not be so surprising. But they are a troubling starting point for any teacher, and a recipe for misunderstanding when it comes to working respectfully with low-income students and families.

The good news is that many teachers who work with poor children and families choose a more productive approach. Instead of denying antecedents, they begin with far different assumptions: that every parent cares, that every parent wants good things for their child, that every parent values education -- even if they don't all show it in the same way.