Wednesday, April 23, 2008

City Kid

I finished reading City Kid. It was mostly an account of how Mary MacCracken, who wrote the book, went back to school to get a degree in order to continue working with troubled children in the city. The pointlessness and bureaucratic tyranny of her college experience was described in juxtaposition with the helplessness of the school system to deal directly with children at risk who didn’t fit in a certain category. Troublemaking kids and kids who were slipping quietly through the cracks in the school-day were often put on waiting lists and then nothing happened as a result. The program she was involved in was an attempt to cut through the delays and work directly as a sort of friend/therapist/counsellor with specific kids. The one she mostly worked with during the course of the book was Lucas Brauer, a seven year old who had been in trouble with the law many times for stealing and setting fires. She describes how she worked with him, trying to get to know his family circumstances, trying to deal with college life and her own personal life (her mother died during this time) while still maintaining a relationship with the boy.

It was interesting — he got retained in 2nd grade for another year shortly after he starting working with her, which was devastating to him emotionally since now his former peers looked down on him, his younger brother was in the same grade as he was, and his stepfather thought he was dumb and treated him accordingly. But his work with MacCracken helped him fight back up to his grade level. She would see him for about an hour three times a week — she made him a box which contained (1) a sheet where they had a star system for marking his progress in academic work and in keeping out of the principal’s office (2) a book with “language experience” stories — he would draw a picture and she would write down what he explained about the picture (3) a word box where she cut out words from old readers and he drew them out and tried to read them. He invented his own game show type play with these where he got points for number of words read correctly. She wrote that she realized she didn’t have to figure out how to teach him — if she paid attention, Luke himself would teach her how to teach him.

She also writes that she didn’t like behavioristic systems like charts with stars but that for this child, who was used to failure, it was important to have tangible successes that he could count and measure. For the same reason she learned to rely on his strengths while gently shoring up his weaknesses — his visual memory was way better than his auditory memory, so he had difficulties with phonics, for instance.

In some ways the book reminded me of Marva Collins’ Way — a positive story about how not giving up on a child, and being willing to develop a relationship of trust, can make up for some of the disadvantages of a precarious home life and an underfunded and institutional school setting.