Healthy brains +curiosity = learning

Rebecca Berlin Field
3 min readSep 12, 2023

We have a reading crisis in our district. I teach high school in a comprehensive school in our segregated city. My students come to class struggling to read. Obviously this is a complex issue, but we are not going to solve illiteracy by continuing to undervalue our students and families. Listening to the school board meeting’s discussion about our reading scores last night was frustrating. Our district has spent millions on new curriculum and supporting programs. They aren’t working. Our superintendent and several school board members blamed reading troubles on the lack of experiences that our students have to increase vocabulary. Our kids come from families who suffer because of poverty. Because they are poor, they do not often travel or go to museums, or gather information from unique experiences outside of their normality. Our leadership blames reading trouble on the deficits of students and families. I guess its easier to blame 1st graders than to take responsibility for failing our children.

At the same school board meeting, teachers from all across the district lined up during public comment to bring attention to the horrible conditions of our schools. Mold is growing on walls, desks, and books. Our HVAC systems are broken, unequipped to cool and heat our buildings. We have mice and rat feces scattered across shelves and tables and floors. In my classroom, the heat has been extreme today. My students are falling asleep. They cannot concentrate on learning. They are sweating, worried about how they smell, how they look, how uncomfortable they are. They don’t learn when they are miserable. Our school environments are unhealthy. Our kids have higher rates of asthma. They have bad allergies, migraines, anxiety, and depression. Its hard to read when you can’t breathe…

My students all qualify for free meals and they bring their breakfast to class. Today they were served honeybuns (31g Fat/ 33g sugar), apple jax cereal (13g sugar, 200 mg sodium per 1/3 serving), and chocolate milk (8g fat, 24g sugar). That’s not brain food. Most of the time my students skip lunch. They would rather be hungry than eat unidentified beans (their words). The food isn’t edible. Basic needs are not being met. Kids need protein so their brains are ready to learn.

Reading is hard if you don’t grow up with books surrounding you, but our students have little access to experiences IN SCHOOL. We have limited creative electives at the secondary level and many of our students are taken out of art, music, and theater to go to tutoring for core subjects. In surrounding districts, choices for elective experiences are plentiful. My school doesn’t even offer chorus or theater as a part of our school day schedule. Creative electives are integral for increasing cultural capital…and vocabulary. How do students collect vocabulary and experiences if our district has purposely limited learning time in social studies and science at the middle school level to focus on basic skills? Field trips and cultural experiences are few and far between. If we are critiquing our students’ vocabulary breadth, why are we adding to inequity?

To add to the negative narrative, essential experiences of our families are not being valued. Yes they have limited access to transportation to see new things and many do not have time sit down to eat dinner as a family to practice vocabulary. Could it be instead of focusing on deficiency, that the knowlege that our students do have is being ignored? Or even seen as behavior problems instead of assetts? Do our students need to visit a museum to understand what “history” means? Their history is vast and powerful. Are we examining the books and contexts that students are being given to work with? ARE THEY CHOOSING THEIR OWN BOOKS? Are Black and Brown children seeing themselves in their curriculum? Are they celebrating the skills that they already have when they come to school? Are our students falling in love with reading because their curiosity and creativity are being nurtured in class?

What would happen if Black educators wrote curriculum instead of White-centered companies who make money and hold on to their power by making sure Black and Brown kids can’t grow up to change our paradigms? What if we trusted teachers? What if we demanded school funding from the state instead of trying to teach to their tests in toxic environments caused by their neglect?

Y’all…stop arguing about how to raise reading scores when you are not willing to address the underlying atrocities that the public school system, the city of Richmond, and the state of Virginia, continue to uphold. Start thinking deeply about all of the systems that you keep in place to harm our kids. Do the work…question everything, research…READ.